Oxford Univ. debate: 'Pro-Israel lobby has stifled Western debate'

The event marked the first time the Doha Debates - a forum for free speech in the Arab world - have held an event outside Qatar.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
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A debate at Oxford University this week concluded that Israel's supporters are "stifling Western debate," with two-thirds of the student audience at the event agreeing. The event, held at the Oxford Union, which is independent from the university, marked the first time the Doha Debates - a forum for free speech in the Arab world - have held an event outside Qatar. Award-winning broadcaster Tim Sebastian, former presenter of the BBC's HARDtalk program, hosted the event. The wording of the motion up for debate - "This house believes the pro-Israeli lobby has successfully stifled Western debate about Israel's actions" - led to a discussion on the role of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States and accusations that it has suppressed criticism of Israel. Norman Finkelstein, controversial academic and ardent critic of Israeli policies, argued in favour of the motion, claiming that the pro-Israel lobby sows confusion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "They claim that the conflict is so complicated that it would require rocket science to penetrate its mysteries," he said. Finkelstein maintained that the American people were "ignorant of solutions" to the conflict that have been available for 30 years due to the "misinformation, disinformation, and sheer fraud which masquerades as scholarship that is validated by mainstream media. Journalist and writer Andrew Cockburn supported Finkelstein's view, claiming there were "red lines" in discussing Israel that no politician or journalist in the US would dare cross for fear of being demonized or driven out of public life. Dr. Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel and director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, argued against the motion, saying the event in Oxford was proof that lively debate on the subject existed. Indyk said controversy over a recent book on the conflict by former US president Jimmy Carter was further evidence that criticism of Israel was not being stifled. Indyk was joined by British journalist and broadcaster David Aaronovitch, who dismissed accusations of conspiracy against the pro-Israel lobby, insisting that Americans naturally identified with Israel - a country surrounded by autocracies - because of their belief in democracy. "It wasn't the Israeli lobby that made Egypt, Jordan, or Syria dictatorships," he said. "If debate is stifled, it isn't coming from the pro-Israeli lobby, as some Danish cartoonists found out to their cost," Aaronovitch added. The debate will be broadcast worldwide on BBC World on Saturday, May 5 and Sunday, May 6. The Doha Debates have achieved international repute as a Qatar-based public forum in which the hottest issues in the Arab and Islamic worlds are debated. Past debates have included whether Hizbullah had a right to fight a war on Lebanon's behalf; whether Iran poses the greatest threat to security in the region; whether oil has been more of a curse than a blessing for the Middle East; whether Palestinians should give up their right to return and whether only a new dictator could end the violence in Iraq. The Oxford Union maintained that it holds no political views and is a "forum for debate and the discussion of controversial issues." It said it believes first and foremost in freedom of speech.