Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Debating the Other

The Oxford Union, having disinvited Norman Finkelstein last term from a debate where he was ill suited, has invited him to another debate where he is equally ill suited.

Last term, Finkelstein was scheduled to argue against a One-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He was disinvited because Lord David Trimble, Nobel Peace Laureate for his work in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, pointed out that Finkelstein was a terrible choice. The average Israeli or non-Israeli Jew would view Finkelstein as an antisemite. In the New York Times Review of Books, historian Omer Bartov called Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry "a novel variation on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion." We could find better people to argue our side for us, thank you very much.

Now, the Union intends to debate "This House Believes That The State of Israel has a Right to Exist." Finkelstein is to argue that, yes, Israel has a right to exist. He is no better suited for this debate than for the last. Worse, there is no Lord Trimble to offer a better argument beside him. Instead is Ted Hondrich, perhaps significantly less infamous than Finkelstein, but not significantly more acceptable.

When the first debate happened, a friend of mine pointed out that debating unions and similar institutions often enough "only suggest fairness" as "an excuse.. to offer a bully pulpit to bigots." That is why I think david t's analogous debate, "proposed by Daniel Pipes and Ariel Sharon (on life support machine), and opposed by the ghosts of Baruch Goldstein and Rabbi Meir Kahane" on the right of a Palestinian state to exist, is a bit off. He asks in comments, "what do you reckon the chamber are of such a debate on Palestine, with a bunch of hostile loons on each side, taking place?" Something like that debate probably did happen at some point - with non-Arabs taking the Palestinians' side in an exchange about which Edward Said could have written Orientalism II. But, fortunately, I don't think such a debate would happen today without a fair representative of a significant Palestinian view. We're far more sensitive to the matters of what real balance is. We know the difference between Hannity and Colmes and Firing Line, between Fox News and the Oxford Debating Union.

This is one way in which antisemitism is notable and these days. I don't think it receives nearly the attention or concern it warrants (from people of all political persuasions) while all the old tropes of powerful Jews stride into a prominent spot in the discourse. Too many people will not give Jews the same very basic considerations they would give to any other minority group. Many of those people will ignorantly say that Jews are not oppressed. Excluding a minority group from the debate over its own oppression is itself oppression. Wasn't that Said's point?

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