Last night’s debate at the Cambridge Union saw 51% of students endorse the motion that Israel is a ‘rogue state’, with 19% opposed.
This represented a 7% swing for the ayes, for which most of the credit must go to the opponent’s final speaker, whose bid for internet stardom (he actually ended his torrent of abuse with the words, “Thank you YouTube!” – to my knowledge, the Union does not upload most of its debates to YouTube) utterly wrecked his own side’s chances.
The case for the proposition was put by Ben White, Ghada Karmi and Norman Finkelstein.
On the other side were Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews; and Hannah Weisfeld of Yachad. Yachad, a liberal Zionist group that occupies much the same spot on the UK’s pro-Israel spectrum as J Street does in the US, was accepted with considerable resistance onto the Board of Deputies last year, and it was interesting to see Hannah try to demonstrate before Wineman – who is reportedly sympathetic to the group – Yachad’s usefulness in defending Israel to liberal audiences.
The debate boiled down to definitions. Ben defined ‘rogue state’ as a systematic violator of international law, and Norman elaborated by detailing some of Israel’s more heinous crimes. Hannah defined ‘rogue state’ as, essentially, North Korea – a state characterised internally by extreme repression, summary executions of dissidents, no independent judiciary, no suffrage, no autonomous press.
Hannah could plausibly argue that Israel within its borders is no North Korea, because it isn’t, but the audience was persuaded of the greater relevance of the fact that it is a systematic violator of the law with respect to Lebanon and the Palestinians under its thumb.
Two quick remarks regarding solidarity movement strategy.
1. Ben White chose to focus his critique of Israel on the settlements and to frame it in the language of international law. As I hope to show in a forthcoming article, the two grievances against Israel which have the most resonance among a broad public are the settlements and Israel’s violence in Gaza. These are Israel’s weakest points, and it is smart, as Ben and Norman did, to concentrate our fire upon them.
2. Ghada Karmi’s contribution was less successful. She argued that the Palestinian refugees’ right of return is the paramount issue, and effectively agreed with the opposition that the problem is not Israel’s occupation but its existence, period. Aside from playing into the other side’s argument, this left Ghada vulnerable to the accusation of hypocrisy, duly levelled by Hannah Weisfeld, for selective appeal to international law. She also relied heavily on the persuasive power of her personal authority – the authority of her experience as a Palestinian refugee – rather than marshalled evidence. My impression of the audience response was that this did not convince.