Thursday, November 15, 2007
The collapse of a public debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a case-study of the vulnerability of open dialogue to closed minds
By Avi Shlaim
Contributed by Falastini
"Israel is often portrayed by its supporters as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. But these very same supporters, in their excessive zeal for their cause, sometimes end up by violating one of the most fundamental principles of democracy - the right to free speech. While accepting free speech as a universal value, all too often they try to restrict it when it comes to Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. The result is not to encourage but to stifle debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict......
My colleagues and I did not withdraw from the debate when we realised that we were going to lose, as our detractors told the media. Our démarche was intended as a protest against the shabby treatment of our academic colleague and the violation of the principle of free speech at the Oxford Union. Even at the eleventh hour we were still ready to rejoin the debate but only on condition that Norman G Finkelstein was re-invited. He was not re-invited, so we stayed away. The debaters on the night were the ubiquitous Paul Usiskin and five students. The motion was defeated by 191 votes to 60. Groucho Marx once said to his host: "I had a great evening but this was not it!" I feel somewhat the same way about this particular Oxford Union debate. "