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Watch Alan Dershowitz Debate a Prominent Human Rights Activist on BDS, and Win

At Oxford University, the Harvard law professor bested Britain’s Peter Tatchell by emphasizing the Israel boycott movement’s opposition to the Jewish state’s very existence

Yair Rosenberg
November 30, 2015

Earlier this month at the famed Oxford Union debating society, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz prevailed in a showdown with U.K. human rights activist Peter Tatchell over the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. The official motion was “Is the BDS movement against Israel wrong?” and after over an hour of debate, Dershowitz emerged victorious by a vote of 137-101. It was a surprising outcome given the general hostility towards the Jewish state on European university campuses. Just last July, Britain’s own National Union of Students voted to boycott Israel. But Dershowitz’s victory becomes more explicable when one examines the arguments put forward by him and his interlocutor.

At the outset, the law professor did not offer a defense of particular Israeli policies, and noted that he opposed some of them, including settlements. Rather, Dershowitz argued that the BDS movement’s opposition to the Jewish state’s existence and the two-state solution put it beyond the pale.

“The BDS movement is against the two-state solution,” he opened. “Listen to its founder Omar Barghouti talk about the two-state solution: ‘Good riddance. The two-state solution is finally dead. Someone has to issue the official death certificate… Definitely, most definitely, we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.’” (Indeed, BDS leaders routinely affirm their opposition to the Jewish state continuing in any borders.)

Dershowitz then called out the anti-Israel movement for holding Israel to a different standard than countries with similar or worse policies. “My major reason for opposing BDS is that BDS is directed only against Israel,” he said. “What about other countries that are enforcing military occupations with far less justification than Israel has had? Russia, Turkey, China, Indonesia, Armenia, Azerbaijan all continue to occupy territories that lawfully belong to their neighbors. Where is the boycott movement, the official BDS movement against these oppressors?”

The professor then marshaled an unlikely ally in this argument. “Let me quote a distinguished advocate of human rights: ‘I find it strange that some people condemn Israel while remaining silent about these other equally and more oppressive occupations. Many of Israel’s critics are also silent about neighboring Arab dictatorships. And where are the protests and calls for boycotts against the tyrannies of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Burma, etc.? Why the double standards?’ That advocate, of course, is Mr. Tatchell.”

Tatchell, unlike the vast majority of BDS activists, calls for boycotting countries other than Israel over their human rights abuses, and had been criticizing those who don’t. But, as Dershowitz noted, this stance put Tatchell at odds with the very movement he was purporting to defend. Likewise, Dershowitz added, Tatchell’s personal support for Israel’s right to exist was at cross-purposes with the BDS movement’s leaders and broader rank-and-file.

Tatchell’s response to these points effectively conceded them to Dershowitz, and thus forfeited the debate from the outset. “There is a diverse BDS movement,” he said at the start of his remarks. “Different people within it have different perspectives. But I want to defend the principle of BDS, not necessarily the views of particular leaders or officials within it.”

With these words, the distinguished human rights activist implicitly admitted that even he believed that the BDS movement–the subject of the debate’s motion–had leaders and members who aimed to eliminate Israel. And as many of even Israel’s staunchest critics consider that outcome utterly unacceptable, there was little chance for Tatchell once he conceded that many in BDS were pursuing it. His honest account of the aims of so many BDS activists assured his defeat.

Watch the full video of the debate below:

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.