No Holds Barred: The Oxford debates on Israel

I had heard all these things before. But never from some of the most highly educated people in Europe. And never with such ferocity and vehemence.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I’m on my way back to Oxford for another debate this week. It’s become a regular pilgrimage back to the university where I served as rabbi for 11 years and had, as presidents of our student society, among others Ambassador Ron Dermer and Senator Cory Booker. At the General Assembly in Washington, DC, last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about the two times that we hosted him at the university.
Last year I took my close friend Dennis Prager to the Union for a debate on Israel and Hamas. It was easily the most hard-fought debate on Israel I have ever participated in. It was ferocious, exhilarating, vicious, electrifying and disturbing. The video of the debate has gone viral.
When I first called Dennis, the celebrated radio host, to join me at the Oxford Union for their premier Middle East debate of the season, Dennis was at first reluctant to come. He has to broadcast his national show every day.
I told him it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to defend Israel at the world’s most prestigious debating society. Europe was turning against Israel. Oxford was the world’s most famous university, educating future world leaders. The scars to Israel’s reputation from the war in Gaza was still fresh. Now was the time. He agreed to come.
Dennis, like me, is a veteran of debates on Israel.
But I informed him that nothing could prepare him for the ferocity of the attacks on Israel that we were likely to endure.
Indeed, as the debate began before a capacity audience, Dennis seemed stunned at what was being said. Israel is an apartheid regime. Israel is slaughtering the Palestinians and is guilty of genocide. Israel is doing to the Palestinians exactly what the Nazis did to the Jews. What the Jews experienced in the Holocaust is exactly what the Palestinians are enduring at Israel’s hand. Israel in its six-decade history has had one goal: the theft of Palestinian land and the eradication of the Palestinian people.
America is like Islamic State (IS). IS beheads only a few prisoners, but America annihilates innocents in Pakistan each and every day with drone strikes. There is no real difference. Israel is guilty of war crimes. Israel’s security fence is an apartheid wall that is built mostly through the gardens and property of innocent Palestinians. Hamas does some bad things, but it’s all Israel’s fault. Hamas is a bona fide resistance movement to Israel’s occupation.
Terrorism directed at Israelis is an organic response to Israeli colonial rule.
Many of the arguments came from world-renowned Israeli academic Avi Shlaim, with whom I ironically always had a warm relationship in the 11 years I served as rabbi to the students at Oxford. The other arguments came from Kate Brooks, a highly intelligent female Oxford doctoral candidate, with whom I interacted warmly at the pre-debate dinner, and from Mishana Housseinioun a Berkeley-Oxford female professor. The rest of the attacks came from Oxford students in the floor debate segment of the program.
I had heard all these things before. But never from some of the most highly educated people in Europe. And never with such ferocity and vehemence.
Dennis and I fought back with equal ferocity. Hamas is a genocidal organization that proudly touts its charter calling on the annihilation of Jews utterly unconnected to any conflict. It seeks the murder of all Jews, including those sitting in the Oxford Union chamber. It aids and abets honor killings of Palestinian women, shoots gay Palestinians in the head on false charges of collaboration, machine-guns all Palestinian protesters who dare to defy its rule, violently punishes any form of criticism, engages in daily forms of deadly incitement against Jews, celebrates when Westerners, including in Britain, are blown up by bombs, ended any vestige of democratic rule once it was elected and builds its military installations under hospitals and nurseries so that the infirm and the vulnerable can serve as human shields to its cowardly terrorists.
Israel has tried since its creation to make peace with Arab states and has endangered its security with repeated territorial concessions that were met with nothing but terrorist attacks. Arabs in Israel live with greater freedoms and human rights than any Muslim country on earth.
There is no excuse for terrorism. Jews even under the horrors of Hitler didn’t turn to blowing up German children.
The justifications for terrorism that were being offered were an affront and an abomination to Islam which, just like Judaism, abides by the commandment not to murder.
The debate was electrifying and deeply felt on all sides.
Rather than being dispirited, the small but defiant pro-Israel lobby that sat behind Dennis and me threw a barrage of “points of information” at the Israeli-attacking academics.
When the debate was over the president of the Union invited all to drinks. I sat with my opponents. I discussed their trips to Israel. The wounds of the debate were raw but the Union tradition is one of courtesy and mutual respect, whatever the disagreements.
And rather than feel dispirited, I was energized and alive. We defiantly shared the truth of the noble and majestic democracy that is the Jewish state of Israel. We struck a blow for the Jewish state in an extraordinarily hostile environment.
My friend and arch-Israel critic Naomi Wolf was present at the debate, having just given a lecture attacking Israel for human rights abuses three hours before. All this was curious, given that Naomi had withdrawn from our planned debate on Israel in New York with the excuse that she was going to speak at Oxford. She never mentioned that we would be there on the exact same day.
As soon as the debate was over a group of students asked me for an immediate meeting, that night, to start up the Oxford L’Chaim Society once again to defend the honor of Israel.
And to be fair to the Union, we were not jeered, interrupted, or heckled. Amid the ferocious battle for Israel and the hundreds of students poised against us, we made our case with passion and each side respected the other’s right to speak. That’s why I love the Oxford Union, and why I did countless joint events with the Union when I was rabbi in Oxford.
I believe with all my heart that Israel can and will win arguments in the marketplace of ideas, and Alan Dershowitz just won an Oxford debate.
I look forward to the debate this week. Wish me luck and God’s blessing!
The author, “America’s rabbi,” is the international best-selling author of 30 books, winner of The London Times Preacher of the Year Competition, and recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary.
He will shortly publish The Israel Warrior’s Handbook.