Oxford dis-Union

At LSE the student union’s weekly general meeting debated a motion to boycott Israel, while the increasingly ridiculous Oxford Union graciously accepted Israel’s right to exist despite the best attempts of all the external speakers. Last term’s Israel debate collapsed entirely after the President disinvited Norman Finkelstein claiming his invitation to defend Israel was an innocent mistake.

This term brought a new President but the same tired old excuses; the only difference being that after last term’s disgraceful invitations to Nick Griffin and David Irving no-one takes the Oxford Union seriously, not even the invited guests. Last weeks debate descended into predictable farce as Ted Honderich crossed from proposing Israel’s right to exist to opposing it during his opponent’s speech in an act of embarrassing pantomime. Norman Finkelstein stayed ‘loyal’ to his seat but not his side of the debate as he culminated his week long tour of the UK by voting against himself.

While the modus operandi of the Oxford Union continues to be publicity and sensationalism rather then intellectual debate no-one will take it seriously as a political voice. Of more concern are the events at the London School of Economics on the same day which saw an attempt to pass through a condemnation of Israel as an apartheid state and call for divestment from it.

The motion was released only 48 hours before the debate, giving its opponents little time to mobilise. The reaction from the student body however was incredible; it was defeated thanks not only to Jewish and Israeli students but also those ‘neutrals’ who had simply had enough of their union being used to attack Israel rather then represent students.

At LSE the ‘hidden agenda’ became clear to the wider student body. The motion was defeated not because anyone in the room argued that Israel is perfect but because students simply did not buy that Israel was an apartheid state or that it was racist; they didn’t buy the notion of continued ethnic cleansing and utterly rejected the disgusting comparisons with Nazi Germany. That wasn’t all though; the motion (all three pages of it) made no mention of the words peace, tolerance, coexistence or dialogue, a fact not lost on those neutral in the room.

The real success was not only the defeat of the motion but the distribution of over 500 flyers to students showing the sides of Israel its detractors are determined to hide. British universities continue to be seen as a key driving force behind anti-Israel propaganda but student bodies are now realising the damaging effect this tag has not only on their reputation but more importantly on the welfare of many of their students.

As Jewish students we have always refused to have our identity defined by those who seek to attack it, only we have the right to define our identity. So despite the events of this past week (and previous examples across the country) we continue to engage in a plethora of cultural, religious, political, educational and social activities on campus and we will continue to fight for the right to do that free from the intimidation and harassment that is still all to prevalent on our campuses.

Yair Zivan is Campaigns Director of the Union of Jewish Students

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Oxford Union is no place for Irving

I spoke out against the invitation at the Union’s Middle East debate on 23 October and soon after I placed a petition on the Prime Minister’s website. The strength of opposition to the invitation can be seen from the popularity of the petition: In less than three weeks nearly 1400 signed, making it one of the fastest growing petitions ever. We now await Gordon Brown’s response.

We have been accused of opposing free speech, but that is a gross misrepresentation. David Irving is a Holocaust Denier and Nick Griffin is the Chairman of the BNP which incites race hatred. Let’s take each in turn. In German and Austria, Holocaust denial is a crime. Because the UK’s history is very different, it would be a mistake to make denial illegal. But that does not mean that Irving should have a platform at the Union – which remains one of the most sought after debating societies in the world. Since his release from an Austrian prison nearly a year ago, Irving’s public appearances have been rare and confined to fringe events – a bizarre World War Two re-enactment in a field in Kent, for example. That is where a deliberately fraudulent academic – whose purpose was to rehabilitate the Nazis – belongs – not at Oxford, a place of careful scholarship. For Irving to speak at the Union is insulting to the ethos of the University and to those who strive to uphold it. It also sets a dreadful precedent. There is no doubt that Irving would try to use his appearance to give respectability to his obscene cause and to gain other platforms. Similarly for the BNP, for which Griffin has strived to gain respectability, particularly in the fertile climate of growing opposition to Islamism. Racists have no place in an institution which prizes scholarship, regardless of the race of the scholar.

Furthermore, the pair are entirely the wrong speakers at a forum on ‘Free Speech’. What the ‘free speech’ advocates at the Union miss is that the right cannot exist without legal and other constraints. Presumably one purpose of such a forum is to explore how those constraints might change over time and space. But using the analogy of a football game, the appropriate people to do this are the referees, not the players. That points to speakers such as Trevor Phillips or Chris Smith (the Chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority) – not Irving or Griffin.

Indeed the law surrounds the right of free speech with constraints. The Human Rights Act (1988) says that it is conditional on security and public safety and the rights of others. Wherever racist speakers have a platform, the incidence of racist attacks tends to rise. The trophy of the invitation to these two has been held aloft on Far Right websites which have also published the names of the Presidents of the JSoc. How can it now be responsible – or indeed legal – for the University Proctors not to step in?

Finally if these invitations stand, the Union would be wide open to the charge of inconsistency. Just a month ago, Norman Finkelstein – who has tried to devalue the Holocaust – was disinvited from the Middle East debate. So much for ‘free speech’ at the Oxford Union.

Jonathan Hoffman is the founder of Dayenu

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