Every so often a group you thought was a political ally does something so bone-headed you half wonder who’s side they think they’re on. Peace Now UK is such a group. Their co-chair, one Paul Usiskin, got wind of an Oxford Union debate that was to feature Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappe supporting the proposition that a one-state solution was the only fair way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pappe and Shlaim had arranged for Norman Finkelstein and David Trimble (former Northern Ireland first minister), to argue the contrary position, that the two-state solution was the only proper way to resolve the conflict.
Usiskin began complaining to the Oxford Union that Finkelstein was an enemy of Israel and how could they allow him to represent a two-state position:
When Peace Now-UK co-chair Paul Usiskin saw Finkelstein’s name on the team opposing the motion, he expressed concern that “a far-left detractor of Israel” had been chosen to defend the existence of the Jewish state.
He told the Student Union they were “seeking sensation over substance” and were denying a proper and balanced debate.
Following talks with Oxford Union President Luke Tryll, the union decided to drop Finkelstein and invited Usiskin to participate along with Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow of the Middle East program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, who is also Israeli.
Shlaim and Pappe, who had first urged the Union to invite Finkelstein, rightfully withdrew their participation. Trimble, being a smart politician and not wanting his name blackened by such anti-Israel baiting, backed out as well.
Usiskin, who has bought Alan Dershowitz’ characterization of Finkelstein lock, stock and smoking barrel, somehow believes that Finkelstein was a Trojan Horse designed to allow the other side to win the debate:
“They clearly thought they had it sown up,” said Usiskin. “I believe they’re desperate for another arena in which to deligitimize [sic] Israel, after the failure to begin the academic boycott of Israel – in which all three were key. What they expected was a clear field for a one-state solution as the start of creating that new arena. Those of us who believe in Israel and support a two-state solution remained steadfast and denied them their victory.”
Avi Shlaim, for one, is a brilliant historian and chronicler of Zionist history. To claim that his goal is to “delegitimize” Israel shows the level of hysteria of Usiskin’s views on the subject. I would also demand proof that Shlaim and Finkelstein have been “key” to the campaign on behalf of an academic boycott. I have never even heard of Finkelstein uttering a word on the subject though it’s possible that he has. But even if he has (and I do not concede that point), calling him “key” to the campaign is ridiculous.
And to call Finkelstein “a detractor of Israel” falls into the trap set by pro-Israel groups everywhere who mistake criticism of Israeli POLICIES like the Occupation with denial of the validity of the State of Israel. There is a difference, a huge difference. The fact that Usiskin is so small-minded as to be unable to understand the difference highlights him as a petty, small-minded political apparatchik.
If you don’t think Usiskin went a bit over the top read this comment to the Magnes Zionist post on this matter in which a Peace Now UK member quotes a boastful e mail sent by Peace Now UK to its members:
A very hot update from Paul
Oxford Union -2 State Solution/Peace Now UK – Victory before debate begins
The Oxford Union, internationally acclaimed debating forum witnessed a victory in a contentious Middle East debate even before the debate was held…
What sort of ‘victory’ is it that Peace Now “won?” At best it is a hollow victory. They silenced Norman Finkelstein. They ran Pappe and Shlaim out of the debate. And in the process they made themselves and Peace Now look like bullies and rubes. The Oxford Union itself should come in for its share of opprobrium in this matter. Since when is a debating society afraid of hearing a serious scholar’s point of view in debate? Since when does the Union doubt the bona fides and sincerity of a distinguished academic like Finkelstein in his wish to argue on behalf of two states?
The above statements from Peace Now’s Usiskin smearing Finkelstein, Shlaim and Pappe, would be more expected from the mouths of pro-Israel ideologues like Daniel Pipes or David Horowitz. The fact that they’re coming from the mouth of a so-called progressive Zionist boggles the mind. One has to wonder not only what Usiskin was thinking when he made these comments, but what Peace Now UK was thinking in placing him in such a senior leadership position. Is this the type of reputation that the group wishes to be known for? Dragooning the Oxford Union into a campaign to silence Norman Finkelstein when he wishes to support the proposition that a two-state solution would be best to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
I for one would love to hear such a debate and hope that one will be organized with the original debating partners both in the UK and here in the States. We deserve to hear these individuals’ views uncensored and unimpeded.
Thanks to Magnes Zionist for alerting me to this travesty.