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Israel is losing the debate – in more ways than one

Last night, I participated in a debate at the Cambridge Union on ‘This House Believes Israel is a Rogue State.’ Speaking alongside Ghada Karmi and Norman Finkelstein for the proposition, the motion was carried by 51 percent to 19 percent – with a 7 percent swing from the pre-debate vote.

The debating chamber was packed, and the atmosphere charged. At the end of the debate, cries of ‘Free, Free Palestine’ rang out. But my main takeaway from the proceedings was the sheer weakness of the opposition’s arguments – a microcosm of pro-Israel propaganda that simply no longer works.

In my opening speech, I pointed out that the issue was not about whether Israel is ‘perfect’, or makes ‘mistakes’. To concede that Israel is ‘not perfect’, as I suggested the opposition may do, is in fact no concession at all, and misses the point. The issue is whether Israel violates international law and human rights, and whether it does so systematically.

I also stressed that the debate was not about the record of other countries or actors, in the region or elsewhere. It was not about Iran or Syria, Hamas or ISIS, North Korea or Russia. The Cambridge debating chamber hosts debates about dozens of topics of international interest but last night, the subject was Israeli policy, and the question was plain – is Israel a rogue state?

Yet in the speech directly following mine, Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, opened up for the opposition by stating exactly what I had predicted just minutes before: ‘Israel is not perfect.’ Such is the reliance of Israel’s apologists on predictable talking points.

Similarly, Wineman – like the other two opposition speakers – indulged in the familiar tactic of citing abuses by other states (Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, etc.). The rest of his talk was a regurgitation of tired talking points about the Israeli army’s morality and so forth.

Joining Wineman in opposing the motion were Hannah Weisfeld, head of liberal Zionist advocacy group Yachad, and Davis Lewin, deputy director of the Henry Jackson Society.

Weisfeld’s approach was to immediately state she had no intention of defending the occupation or settlements. The bulk of her speech was an attempt to demonstrate that Israel could not be a rogue state because it has parliamentary democracy, an independent judiciary, a free press, and that critics of the government are not arrested.

She did not clarify if this wonderful list also applies to the millions of Palestinians living for half a century under a military regime.

Extraordinarily, Weisfeld claimed that her argument was further confirmed by her ability to visit Israel freely as a critic of the occupation. Meanwhile opposite her, was a speaker excluded from her homeland because she is Palestinian, and an American Jew denied entry for his political activities.

Wineman’s old school hasbara and Weisfeld’s new school ‘nuance’ were followed by an extraordinary contribution from Davis Lewin. His performance was 10 minutes of screaming, finger-jabbing, and insults directed at both speakers and Union members.

Lewin’s speech was a combination of Twitter troll and YouTube commenter – and sheds light on the nature of the Henry Jackson Society, a think-tank in the loosest sense of the word.

Together, Wineman, Weisfeld, and Lewin represent the variety of Israeli propaganda strategy in all its limited predictability: historical fantasies, faux-liberal concern, and offensive smears.

Presented with the arguments, the University of Cambridge students voted with their feet, and found Israel to be a rogue state by an overwhelming majority.

Ethnic cleansing, colonisation, war crimes; behind these repeated Israeli policy decisions is a disregard for and defiance of a global order shaped by international law and treaties. It is an attitude that stretches from the founding of Israel through to its politicians and leaders of today.

In 1955, Israel’s first prime minister Ben-Gurion stated that: “Our future does not depend on what the nations [the international community] say, but what the Jews do.” Jump forward to 2007, and Tzipi Livni – former minister and so-called ‘moderate’ – revealed: “I am a lawyer…But I am against law – international law in particular. Law in general.”

Israel commits grave, systematic violations of international law; expands beyond its borders; and seriously abuses the human rights of Palestinians terrorised by settlers acting with impunity. The evidence is irrefutable – and the theatrics of apartheid apologists can no longer hide it.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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