Shit hit the fan
As motions go, the Union really pushed the boat out with its Israel debate – both with the motion and those chosen to debate it.
Arguing over whether Israel was a “rogue state” were six speakers, all of whom were provocative, needless to say.
But it was the last two who ignited the packed chamber – already discernibly divided between a bench-thumping pro-Palestine camp in the gallery and a gaggle of pro-Isrealis on the benches below.
Things got out of hand as the pro-Palestine heavyweight Norman Finkelstein delivered the proposition’s closing speech.
Aside from philosopher Noam Chomsky, he has been described as probably “the best known, and most provocative, American Jewish critic of Israel.”
Hurling the “insane” death statistics at the audience, he compared Israel’s style of warfare to a “science fiction movie.”
And, of a recent poll showing that except for North Korea the country Brits think most unfavourably of is Israel, he declared: “that’s unfavourable to North Korea.”
In an interview afterwards, he supported the recent boycott by Cambridge academics of Israel, calling it a “legitimate tactic, but not an effective one.”
Indeed, Finkelstein sees the international community as muted in its response to Israel, particularly Ban Ki-moon, “that comatose UN puppet.”
Interrupted at numerous points in his speech, he nonetheless received heavy applause from much of the charged audience.
It was in this context that Davis Lewin, the final speaker for the opposition, started his speech.
A member of the Henry Jackson Society—dubbed “a think-tank in the loosest sense of the word” by one member of the proposition—Lewin was clearly not intimidated by the support for Finkelstein.
He did not hold back in his defence of Israel. Far from it. In fact, he condemned the Union for holding the very debate.
Why not debate Iraq, Iran or Saudi Arabia? For Lewin, it’s because Cantabs only care about Israel—Cambridge is “obsessed with Israel.”
He noted how this was the second-time he’d been asked to discuss Israel at the Union and that he could have “just copy and pasted.” (The first-time he also slammed the motion as “shameful”.)
“All of you and all your tutors are obsessed with Israel”, he declared.
He then thanked the Union for inviting Finkelstein, saying “it’s nice to finally meet you . . . you pathetic non-academic.”
At this point, the pro-Palestinians in the gallery, along with many others, went “mental”, as one Pembroke fresher aptly put it.
Amy Gregg, the President, attempted to restore order, asking the audience to respect the speakers.
To this the members in the gallery shot back that they were just being “vigorous in our applause.”
Lewin did nothing to help the situation, declaring the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to be the “most moral army in the world.”
The rest of his speech was virtually inaudible, bar his closing words that speakers at debates like this do “their little bit to make Israel lose [the] war, make it pariah state.”
This was met with vigorous chanting of “Free, Free Palestine.”
Even after the debate had closed, with 51% holding the view that Israel was indeed a rogue state (19% disagreed and 30% abstained), tensions did not subside, spilling over into a short shouting match between Finkelstein and one strong pro-Israel supporter.
Finkelstein was appalled that a person around “a third of my age” attempted to lecture him on the Holocaust.
When asked whether he thought Cambridge was anti-Israel, as Lewin suggested, Finkelstein wouldn’t give a firm answer.
If the words of another member of the proposition, the journalist Ben White, are anything to go by, the atmosphere at the Union was hardly in favour.
He described the last ten minutes as dominated by “screaming, finger-jabbing, and insults directed at both speakers and Union members.”