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Fair Play at Oxford

This month the same Oxford Student Union that, in 1933, famously passed a motion declaring ‘”this House will under no circumstances fight for its King and Country,” is being true to the legacy of its forebears. As British blog Harry’s Place reports, on October 23 the Union, in its annual Middle East debate, will put forth the following motion: “This House Believes that One State is the Only Solution to the Israel Palestine Conflict.”

There are no surprises in the Union’s choice of the three speakers seconding the motion. Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe, and Ghada Karmi have for many years been anti-Israel agitators whose writings had only a shallow pretense of academic impartiality. If debate is meant to be shrill rather than thoughtful, venomous rather than witty, the Union chose the perfect line-up.

Karmi, a medical doctor moonlighting as an academic, has the dubious record of having voiced some of the same opinions on Israel as those of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, before Ahmadinejad emerged from obscurity. In 2004, Karmi wrote that

The truth is that the West, which created Israel, cannot bear to see what it has done. In trying to solve the problem of Jewish persecution in Europe, which culminated in the Holocaust, Western powers helped to establish the Jewish state as a refuge for the Jews and their own consciences.

While Karmi clearly is not a Holocaust denier, she would nevertheless underwrite Ahmadinejad’s suggestion that Israel’s birth was the Western answer to guilt over the Holocaust. She would also support the idea that Israel should be relocated to Europe or Alaska.

Shlaim enjoys a celebrity status as an anti-Israel historian, who holds an Israeli passport and briefly lived in Israel during his youth. His take on Israel, as an interview with Haaretz two years ago reveals, is tinged with deep personal resentment. As Meron Rapoport, his interviewer, wrote, “since he was a child, Israel has looked to him like an ‘Ashkenazi trick’ of which he doesn’t feel a part. ‘I’m not certain even now that I know how that trick works.’”

In the past, Shlaim has made some tepid efforts not to burn his own credentials as a serious scholar by occasionally distancing himself from his more radical fellow-travelers of the post-Zionist Left. As late as January 2005, Shlaim defended Zionism before 1967. Still, at an Intelligence 2 debate in London, Shlaim sided with the motion that “Zionism today is the worst enemy of the Jews.” Ilan Pappe, for his part, is consistent in his hatred for the Jewish state—so much so that he has abandoned Haifa University for the more pastoral environs of Exeter University in the U.K., where, with his department colleague Ghada Karmi, he can pursue peacefully what academics of his kind do best: promote the boycott of Israeli universities.

For the three speakers seconding the motion on Israel, the Union got the most extreme voices one could imagine. And for the other side? As the blog Harry’s Place notes,

Surely the Oxford Union, that bastion of fair and open debate, will have chosen some unflinching supporters of Israel to balance this motley collection of bigots and fanatics? Of course not! If one side includes virulent enemies of Israel and supporters of terrorists and anti-Semites, then so must the other.

To be fair, not all three members of the other side are anti-Semites and supporters of terrorists. Sir David Trimble truly is sympathetic to Israel, and has never supported terrorists—in fact, he has spent a great deal of time pleading with his fellow Brits to halt communication with his country’s home-grown brand of thugs. But the selection of the other two speakers indicates that Trimble will be lonely that night. They are Norman Finkelstein (who, clearly, after his early retirement from academia must have time on his hands) and Peter Tatchell, a British gay activist who recently commented that, had the Jerusalem World Pride parade been sponsored by the “Israeli state,” he would have boycotted it. Thankfully, the evil Zionists had no hand in the organization, and so Tatchell felt that, for once, he could approve of something happening in the Jewish state.

This is how the “bastion of fair and open debate” and the “world’s most prestigious debating society” understands fair play. As in 1933, not Britain’s finest hour.



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