Sunday, October 28, 2007

An Oxford Whodunnit?

BESIDES its famous dreaming spires and reputation for lost causes, Oxford has been home to several donnish mystery writers and background scene of many a green-cover Penguin before Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse and Lewis stepped into its halls and streets.

The episode of the Vanished - or Banished - Professor has become a bit of a whoddunit, with clues and red herrings inserted to misguide us, even though we can guess the denouement.

Professor Norman Finkelstein, late of De Paul University in Illnois, was due to speak in a debate before the Oxford Union on the motion “This House believes that one state is the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.” Incidentally, if that is accurately reported, I wonder whether I am alone in missing the words "secular democratic" between "one" and "state"? Perhaps it's my age, making me nostalgic for the old slogans. I trust the disappearance of those two words had no significance (though in other political contexts, and different company, I would not be sure of that).

Anyway, the speakers for the motion were to be Avi Shlaim, Ghada Karmi and Ilan Pappe. Professor Finkelstein was due to speak against, since like me he apparently believes a two-state policy is necessary. With him the speakers for two states were to be Peter Tatchell and Northern Ireland Unionist politician David Trimble.

Only it did not happen. That is, there was a debate, but without any of the advertised speakers. The star of the show, stepping in after persuading the Oxford Union president Luke Tryl to drop Norman Finkelstein, was Peace Now -UK co-chair Paul Usiskin; at least that's what we were told by the Jerusalem Post and Paul Usiskin. We were surprised to think that he could have so much influence.

It seems he didn't, at least not on his own. According to letters cited by Norman Finkelstein, the move to bloc him came from Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who has made it his business to monitor anti-Zionist views on American campuses and headed the campaign which led to Professor Finkelstein losing his tenure at De Paul; the same Dershowitz who boasted that he could "bankrupt and devastate" the British academics' union UCU through the courts if it went ahead with a boycott policy against Israel.

This culprit sounds more plausible than Usiskin's claim, but the very idea has set Zionist lobbyists and apologists protesting that it's preposterous, it wasn't Dershowitz, it wasn't any of us at all, it was the other speakers who dropped out, and particularly Lord Trimble - prompting my fellow-blogger Mark Elf to ask "Was it the ex-Orangeman or the Jaffa Orangeman?"..

Reading their comments in letters and blogs I'd almost say they were singing from the same siddur, except that like in the kind of little shul where zeal exceeds decorum, they are not all on the same page.

On the other hand this letter seems straightforward enough:

Dear Dr Finkelstein,

...Many people expressed concern that the debate as it stood was imbalanced and people felt that as someone who had apparently expressed anti-zionist sentiments that you might not be appropriate for this debate. I tried to convince them otherwise but was accused of putting forward an imbalanced debate and various groups put pressure on me. I received numerous emails attacking the debate and Alan Dershowitz threatened to write an Oped attacking the Union. What is more he apparently attacked me personally in a televised lecture to Yale.
I hope that you understand my position, this is not ideal and I would be happy to welcome you as an individual speaker to the Union in a forthcoming term. I know that the President-Elect Emily Partington would be keen to host you in Hilary. I just did not want to see the debate compromised and given the Irving Griffin Controversy I couldn't fight a battle on all fronts.

Best wishes


It also fits what Finkelstein heard from Israeli soldier and film-maker Ronen Bercovich, that Tryl had told him Dershowitz was one of those who "demanded that Finkelstein should be removed from the debate".
See letters in Guardian :,,2200298,00.html

Here too is the report from the Jewish Chronicle:

Speakers snub Oxford debate in panel row
By Nathan Jeffay
A debate on Israel at the Oxford Union took place on Tuesday without any of the scheduled speakers, after a row over the make-up of the panel.

Three of the academic community’s most vocal critics of Israel — Israelis Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappe, and Palestinian writer Ghada Karmi — were due to propose the motion: “This House believes that one state is the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

But members of the Jewish community, including Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz and Peace Now UK co-chair Paul Usiskin, complained to the Union that it had given the anti-Israel side a “fourth voice” by having US political scientist Norman Finkelstein in the pro-Israel team, which also comprised Peter Tatchell and Northern Irish politician Lord Trimble.

Dr Finkelstein, who recently lost tenure at Chicago’s De Paul University in a row over his views on the Holocaust, is “an extreme left-wing opponent of Israel” and provided a “covert ally” for the anti-Israel side, claimed Mr Usiskin.

Union president Luke Tryll withdrew the invitation to Dr Finkelstein, conceding that, with his presence “the debate would not be fair”. He asked Mr Usiskin to stand in.

Dr Finkelstein said that the union had “shamefully capitulated” to the “bullying tactics” of Prof Dershowitz who, he claimed, is “determined to hound me out of public life”. Mr Tatchell then pulled out over the Finkelstein issue, saying: “I don’t agree with Norman on some things but I know of nothing he has said to justify his invitation being withdrawn.

“The attempt to ban him goes against the principles of free speech that the Oxford Union claims to defend.”

Lord Trimble also withdrew, due to “diary pressure”.

Dr Shlaim, who was due to speak against Dr Finkelstein, wrote to Mr Tryll saying: “Disinviting a speaker raises questions about the Oxford Union’s commitment to free speech. Unless the invitation to Norman Finkelstein is renewed, I will not take part.”

Note incidentally that whereas the debate was about solutions to the Palestine-Israel conflict, for the Jewish Chronicle's reporter it was between "pro-Israel" and "anti-Israel" sides. That's more honest than the pretence by Dershowitz, Usiskin and Co. that Finkelstein was not really going to make the case for two states. Had he been allowed to make that case, as someone who supports the Palestinians cause, it would have been strengthened. But here we can see a crack in their Orwellian facade. For "two states" in their code, read one state -Israel, with the Palestinians confined to reservations.

Finkelstein doesn't support two states, they protest; and we are supposed to be satisfied with their version, rather than hearing what the man has to say for himself. But who was responsible for stopping Professor Finkelstein? According to the JC, Trimble cited "diary pressure" as the reason he could not attend. Hardly a spirited protest against the invitation to Finkelstein. As for the other invited speakers, rather than withdrawing because Finkelstein was coming, as one of the dissimulators claimed, they withdrew after hearing that Finkelstein was barred.

Maybe Lord Trimble will come in to rescue the Zionists, or maybe he will protest against being used by them, but so far he has wisely stuck to that busy diary. Peter Tatchell, on the other hand, has spoken out honourably, both on this episode and related issues, and he deserves credit, and quoting:

I was also due to speak in the Oxford Union debate on Israel-Palestine but withdrew because of the dis-invitation of my fellow guest speaker, the US Jewish academic, Norman Finkelstein.

I was astonished that the Oxford Union is prepared to host Nick Griffin and David Irving in an upcoming debate - in the name of free speech - but not Norman Finkelstein.

I was not the only one to feel this way. All three main speakers in support of the motion had already withdrawn from the debate in protest at Norman's exclusion. Without Norman and the three distinguished proponents of the motion, the debate could not proceed with any credibility or legitimacy.

Norman Finkelstein is critical of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. I concur with some of his criticisms. I don't agree with Norman on certain things. But I know of nothing that he has said to justify his invitation being withdrawn by the Oxford Union. The ban on Norman Finkelstein goes against the principles of free speech that the Oxford Union claims to defend.

We were due to debate the following motion last Tuesday, 23 October 2007:

"This House believes that one state is the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict."

While I agree that one state based on peace, justice, equality and security for all Jews and Arabs would be the ideal solution, I do not agree that it is the only solution - nor do most Palestinians, who now support a two-state solution.

The priority is to establish some form of independent Palestinian state - however imperfect - as soon as possible. A two-state solution is more likely than a one-state solution.

On a positive note: The Oxford Union has sought to make amends by agreeing to host a further debate on Israel-Palestine early next year, where Norman Finkelstein and pro-Israel advocate, Alan Dershowitz, will be invited to speak.

Regarding the Oxford Union's up-coming free speech debate:

The decision to invite Nick Griffin and David Irving is a big mistake. Those who peddle hatred and historical distortions should not be rewarded by being feted by acclaimed institutions. I don't believe the defence of free speech requires the Oxford Union to proactively offer these hate-mongers a prestigious platform to secure respectability for their odious views.

I say this as a human rights campaigner, and as the Green Party's candidate for Oxford East.

I sometimes think Peter Tatchell gets his perspectives wrong. Not this time. He has got things absolutely right and spot-on.

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At 2:52 AM, Anonymous David Harley said...

I recently read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, by an academic in Israel who has similarly suffered from a bombardment of attacks by American pro-Israel activists.

He made the point that the Finkelstein affair, in which the administration over-ruled the faculty decision because of external pressure, could not have happened in Israel. In Israel as elsewhere, faculty governance is taken seriously.

In the United States, where the senior administrators are often not academics at all but are hired because of their fundraising abilities, the faculty are treated as commodities.

The stars are hired in for large sums, and the rest have to be well-behaved if they want to get tenure or promotion, because there is rarely a transparent process with clear criteria involved.

In US universities, there is often no faculty governance at all. There is usually no unionization allowed. Remuneration and research leave are negotiated individually.

The donors who maintain the endowment may be more interested in the success of the football team for most of the time, but a strong campaign on a hot-button topic can wreak havoc if the free speech of students or faculty offends the wealthy alumni.


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