Oxford Union stages 'farcical' debate

Norman Finkelstein to face off with Arab who denies Jews are a nation.

oxford u 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
oxford u 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Oxford University's debating society is being accused of childishness and sensationalism by Jewish groups after inviting participants with alleged anti-Israel backgrounds to support a motion questioning Israel's right to exist in a debate on Thursday. The title of Thursday's Middle East debate is "This House believes that the State of Israel has a right to exist." But questions are being asked as to the likely tone of discussion and vote, since not only the opposers of the motion, but also the proposers, are considered detractors of Israel. "All Oxford students with sense should stay away from this farce," said a Zionist Federation official. Proposing the motion are Norman Finkelstein, formally of De Paul University in Chicago, and Ted Honderich, professor of philosophy at University College London. Finkelstein's books include The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering and Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. On his Web site, he hosts Brazilian cartoonist Latuff, whose work won second prize in Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial art competition in December 2006. Finkelstein is speaking at a number of campuses in the UK this week. His "UK tour," entitled "Palestine's occupation: Roots of conflict and prospects for peace," is organized by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, which support a "one-state" solution, and supported by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and Action on Palestine. At a rally in New York opposing the 2006 Lebanon war, Finkelstein said: "Every victory for Hizbullah over Israel is... a victory for liberty and a victory for freedom..." For his part, Honderich, in his book After the Terror, published in 2003, wrote: "All of us should take part in all forms of boycott against retail stores and other businesses dealing with neo-Zionist Israel, divestment, civil disobedience, non-cooperation, not voting, picketing, ostracism, naming, symbolic public acts, strikes and whatever else is rational against neo-Zionism." In his 2006 book Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7, Honderich defends Zionism, defined as the creation of Israel in its original borders, but also states that Palestinians have had a moral right to their liberation - to "terrorism within historic Palestine" against what he calls the "ethnic cleansing of Neo-Zionism," the expansion of Israel beyond its original borders. "Oxford Union has embarrassed itself and its institution once again soon after the invitations [it issued] to David Irving and the leader of the far-right British National Party [Nick Griffin]," said Gavin Gross, director of Public Affairs at the Zionist Federation. "Norman Finkelstein issued public expressions of support for Hizbullah during its war against Israel and Ted Honderich has written in support of boycotting and divesting from Israel, yet these are the two speakers chosen to debate in Israel's defense! All Oxford students with sense should stay away from this farce." "The Oxford Union has shown quite clearly that it is more interested in sensationalism than constructive debate," Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said. "This event stands alongside recent invitations to far-right hardliners, Holocaust deniers and a conspiracy theorist whose bizarre writings place him off the scale of rational thought. This ridiculous spectacle, where those arguing both for and against a proposition are all of the same view, demonstrates how low this once venerable institution has stooped." Opposing the motion in the Oxford debate is Palestinian scholar and activist Ghada Karmi, who believes that Jews do not constitute a nation and they lack "biological, racial or national characteristics." Joining Karmi is Israeli academic Ilan Pappe, currently at Exeter University in the UK. Last February, Pappe declared his warm friendship with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and suggested that Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah "should be put on the committee to decide the future of Israel." Emily Partington, president of Oxford University Union told The Jerusalem Post: "The motion was decided upon as it is a current topic of discussion, and people who might not have extensive knowledge about the State of Israel may well question the existence of a state which appears to differ so greatly from others. Much of the interest in the motion derives from the debate about what constitutes Israel, and what Israel does. All of the participants in the debate will be arguing from their own independent perspectives, rather than representing anything or anyone else."