The day before the long-standing human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell is due at Wadham for our interview – as well as a talk on the unfinished battle for LGBT rights after 11 years of Labour – he writes to say that he will be attending the demonstration against former Israeli President Shimon Peres’s talk at the Sheldonian.
It seems pertinent, therefore, to begin my questions by asking what Tatchell’s views on the invitation are.
“Peres is welcome to come to Oxford to support a peace settlement based on Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories,” he says, before asserting: “recent history, though, shows he is keen to support Israeli domination of the Palestinians.”
So speakers are only welcome at Oxford if they share the same political opinions? I ask him if for his thoughts on an email from the organisers of the demonstration, which described the Israeli policy towards Palestinians as “ethnic cleansing.”
“I’m not sure I would go as far as that, but it’s certainly ethnic suppression,” he replies. “The state of Israel was founded on the dispossession of Palestinian land.”
When I offer the hawkish view that many Israelis and Palestinians are in fact descended from similar Semitic tribes around the Middle East, all of whom share some claim to land in the area, he nods: “a similar ethnic group, yes, but the Palestinians are dispossessed – because they are Palestinians.”
Tatchell emphasises the importance of those in the “Occupied Territories” having the opportunity to assert their democratic right, and choose the government that rules them.
I ask him how he would feel about the democratic election of a hard-line Islamic government in a newly independent Palestine – something that seems ever more likely as Hamas continues to dominate the formerly pre-eminent Fatah. Surely this would only serve to cement the oppression felt by women, those from the LGBT community and other marginalised groups?
“It’s up to the Palestinians to elect a government of their choice. If they elect an administration that violates human rights, there should be an international solidarity campaign to support the many Palestinians who defend the human rights of woman, gays, non-believers and others,” says Tatchell.
“The era when the West dictates to the rest of the world is over; our job is to simply support Palestinian civil society groups.”
When pressed about the effect of returning Israel to its pre-1967 borders, however, Tatchell admits that “as part of the settlement, [he] would favour a human rights charter that would protect those threatened under a fundamentalist government.”
“Surely that’s a form of Western dictation about the way others should conduct themselves, albeit slightly more restricted in its scope,” I suggest.
But Tatchell’s argument is that human rights cross borders. Speaking passionately about the need for West to shift its focus in the Middle East, he argues that our “priority [should be] to support the new Palestinian state by funding a massive programme of new housing, schools, hospitals, sports facilities and roads.”
His faith in human rights is no more evident than in the words that follow this. “Economic development will undercut support for the men of violence and enable the Palestinian people to secure their national aspirations without resorting to conflict.”
And how about engendering a culture of respect for the human rights that Tatchell regards as universal? His belief is, that given the right support, the pressure groups within Palestinian society that are fighting for the rights of the groups we discussed will win the day.
Ultimately, I can’t help but think that this presumption is just another form of the long Western tradition of exporting our cultural values abroad, and believing that all those who seek development in economic terms will seek to emulate our own behaviour when they achieve their financial goals.
As a person with a degree of pessimism about domestic Palestinian politics, however, it a pleasure to talk to someone with so much faith in the universality of human ideals. I hope Tatchell is right. But I remain to be convinced.