A Union debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict almost collapsed on Tuesday after President Luke Tryl retracted an invitation to controversial writer Norman Finklestein, alleging that he was pressured into withdrawing it.
A panel of prestigious academics and politicians was due to debate the motion, “This House believes that one state is the only solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict,” but the withdrawal of Finklestein’s invitation prompted every other celebrity speaker to also pull out.
Finkelstein, a former historian at DePaul University in the United States, claims that he was no longer welcome at the event after Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz wrote to Tryl, objecting to his forthcoming appearance.
Finkelstein and Dershowitz have been sworn enemies since 2005 when Finkelstein published Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Misuse of History, which was strongly critical of Dershowitz’s 2003 book The case for Israel.      
Tryl originally claimed that he retracted Finkelstein’s invitation due to an anti-Israel bias among the speakers, but in a private email to Finkelstein he said, “Many people expressed concern that the debate as it stood was imbalanced…I tried to convince them otherwise but was accused of putting forward an imbalanced debate and various groups put pressure on me.
“I received numerous emails attacking the debate and Alan Dershowitz threatened to write an OpEd attacking the Union. What is more he apparently attacked me personally in a televised lecture to Yale,” Tryl claimed.
Professor Dershowitz said, “What was the Oxford Union thinking?  Why would it select five debaters – on both sides of a debate about the one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict – who were virulently anti-Israel, along with one who is kind of neutral?
“They asked me to be part of the two-state solution team, but when I saw the line-up and the topic, I smelled a rat and declined. So then they asked Norman Finkelstein to replace me on the pro-Israel side.”
Dr Finkelstein responded, saying that in his opinion, “Professor Dershowitz has sought to banish me from public life because I exposed him as a hoaxer. It seems that his successful campaign to deny me tenure in the US did not satiate him. Now he is hounding me in the UK. It is regrettable that the Oxford Union capitulated to his bullying tactics.”
Tryl said, “I think it’s a shame that both of them sought to use the Union and this debate as a vehicle to further their own disputes. Both men are welcome to come to the Union and debate head-to-head, and I hope that they’ll do this in front of our members rather than tit-for-tat behind-the-scenes manoeuvring in the press.”
In protest at the retraction, both Green Party human rights activist and Peter Tatchell and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lord Trimble pulled out.
Tatchell said, “I know of nothing that [Finkelstein] has said to justify his invitation being withdrawn. The attempt to ban him goes against the principles of free speech that the Oxford Union claims to defend.”
He added, “I was astonished that the Oxford Union was prepared to host Nick Griffin and David Irving in the name of free speech but not Norman Finkelstein.”
Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe and Ghada Karmi, who are all academics, opposed the removal of Finkelstein on the grounds that his views were being suppressed.
Luke Tryl rejected accusations that he acted against the interests of free speech. “Dr Finkelstein was not dropped because of his views or because of any attempt to censor him,” he said. “The issue was that with Pappe, Karmi and Shlaim on one side and Finkelstein on the other the debate was imbalanced and had too much of an anti-Israeli bent.
“I took representation from various groups within the University, who felt uncomfortable with the debate being imbalanced. We suggested therefore that Dr Finkelstein might not be best suited to this debate.”
Paul Usiskin from the organisation Peace Now UK, who spoke at the replacement student debate, supported Tryl’s decision. Asked why he thought Finkelstein had been removed, he said, “He is on record as an opponent of Israel, of denying the right of Israel to exist.”
He added, “[The other speakers] clearly thought they would have a clear field for victory. They were faced with Lord Trimble, who does not have a very good track record on the issue, and Peter Tatchell who has, and they clearly thought they had it sewn up.
“I believe they’re desperate for another arena in which to delegitimise 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.”
The events come in the wake of international controversy surrounding Luke Tryl’s decision to invite historian David Irving and British National Party leader Nick Griffin to take part in a free speech forum. Last week, East Oxford MP Andrew Smith wrote a letter to Tryl urging him to retract his invitation to Irving and Griffin, and Dennis MacShane MP pulled out of a debate scheduled for next month.