An article in the Oxford University student newspaper, Cherwell

by Katherine Hall and Sangwon Yoon

    The Oxford Union became the focus of international attention once again last Thursday after a controversial guest speaker decided to change sides mid-way through a debate on Israel.

    Professor Ted Honderich, asked to propose the motion “This House believes that the state of Israel has a right to exist”, crossed over to the Opposition bench muttering, “I can’t do this any more.” The incident followed controversy concerning the speakers invited, with allegations that both Honderich, Professor of Philosophy at UCL, and fellow member of the Proposition Norman Finkelstein had previously spoken out against the state of Israel.

    Professor Honderich defended his actions and criticised the Oxford Union, saying, “The debate was on a motion that obviously was vague and ambiguous- and thus had both that obvious shortcoming and also the recommendation of allowing speakers to address all the main issues. In effect the supporters of the motion could speak either for the right to exist of the original state of Israel in roughly its 1948 extent and nature, what can be called the Zionist state, or for the post-1967 state of Israel, the neo-Zionist state. The same comments apply to the opponents of the motion. They could be against the Zionist state, or the Neo- Zionist state, or leave the matter unclear.”

    He added, “I was saddened by the want of clarity of the debate, and in particular, by the want of clarity by the initial undergraduate speaker [Jessica Prince] on our side. In fact I eventually got very annoyed by her rush of mere debater’s stuff and her endless attempts to interrupt. She could be taken as supporting the neo-Zionist state of Israel...Being annoyed to be identified with that barbarism, and inane comments on its behalf, I crossed the Floor.”

    However Prince rebuked these comments, saying, “I’m sorry that Professor Honderich was not sufficiently informed of the format or purpose of Thursday night debates at the Oxford Union. As the first Proposition speaker it was my duty in the debate, regardless of my own personal beliefs, to make a strong case for the state of Israel, and that is what I attempted to do. I apologize if this offended or confused him.”

    She added, “Both myself and the first Opposition speaker (Lewis Turner) offered questions to the other side; it was our duty to do so, and I thought it made the debate more dynamic. Upon further reflection of his own views, perhaps Professor Honderich should not have chosen to speak in Proposition in the first place, and instead given a speech from Opposition benches.”

    Further criticism of the format of the debate came from a number of students and organisations. Phil Rosenberg, a Wadham finalist in Hebrew and Judaic studies, attended the debate wearing the Palestinian and Israeli flags. He said, “To have two people who are against the state of Israel proposing the motion is ridiculous. Those who thought that the debate was ‘skewed’ and protested were proved entirely correct: Honderich visibly changed sides in the middle whilst Finkelstein voted against his own, deliberately lacklustre argument.”

    Jewish Society President Gabriel Martindale also expressed anger, saying, “On a personal level I think that the choice of motion was a disgrace, the choice of speakers was silly and immature and I would like to say this is not what I would expect of an institution such as the Oxford Union but, frankly, it’s exactly what I’ve come to expect.”

    Some national organisations were also scathing with Gavin Gross, Director of Public Affairs for the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, describing the whole thing as a “farce”. He said, “A serious debate consists of two panels of speakers with opposing viewpoints. In this case, all four speakers were united in their extreme criticism of Israel. Norman Finkelstein expressed support for Hizbollah during its war against Israel. Asking him to debate in favour of Israel is like selecting Nelson Mandela to support a motion passing South African apartheid.”

    Jon Benjamin, Chief Executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, commented, “The Oxford Union has shown quite clearly that it is more interested in sensationalism than constructive debate...This ridiculous spectacle, where those arguing both for and against a Proposition are all of the same view and in the event were so interchangeable that they swapped sides in the debate, demonstrates how low this once venerable institution has stooped.”

    Finkelstein voted against the motion he had proposed at the end of the debate. When asked to confirm whether his personal views were the opposite of what he argued during the debate, Finkelstein said, “Your personal views are irrelevant when discussing such a topic... My personal views are beside the point. The goal must be to find a common set of principles that can be applied to both sides.”
Oxford Union President, Emily Partington, was unavailable to comment.

Honderich's speech
Note on the debate
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