Going through the motions

By Geoffrey Alderman, January 24, 2011

Those of us who attended the boycott debate held at the London School of Economics last week were privileged to learn some valuable lessons about the boycott issue itself, the motives of those - including some Jews - who identify themselves as boycott sponsors, and the manner in which their arguments may be comprehensively confounded.

We were also given a demonstration of how, on an emotive issue, a civilised academic dialogue can nonetheless be conducted.

The student Israel and Palestine societies at LSE had come together to promote a debate on the motion that: "This house believes in an academic boycott of Israel."

Both societies are to be congratulated on this initiative. The event was expertly chaired by Dr Kevin Featherstone, LSE's distinguished professor of contemporary Greek studies who, as the master of ceremonies, displayed in abundance all the qualities necessary for robust, impartial, effective chairmanship. He kept everyone punctiliously to time, he would brook no interruptions or heckling of speakers and he was careful to choose as participants "from the floor" audience members of widely differing views. This was chairmanship at its very best.

Proposing the motion was Dr John Chalcraft, who teaches in LSE's department of government. Dr Chalcraft (whose CV is available at the LSE website) read history at Cambridge, began but apparently did not complete a doctorate at Oxford but then, at New York University, gained a doctorate "with distinction" in Modern Middle Eastern History.

Professor Hochhauser had not only researched his subject, but had also researched his opponent

I am familiar neither with Dr Chalcraft nor with his work (which appears to centre on the fate of Syrian migrant workers in Lebanon) but I am perfectly prepared to believe that he is a rising star in his field. The fact of the matter was that during last week's debate he came across as an ill-prepared, anti-Zionist ideologue seemingly incapable of rising above sweeping polemic - and as a hypocrite into the bargain.

Opposing Dr Chalcraft was someone with - so far as I can discover - no formal qualifications whatever in the field of Middle-Eastern studies (though he does boast an Oxford doctorate). Dr Daniel Hochhauser is professor of medical oncology at University College London and an internationally renowned authority on the treatment of gastro-intestinal cancer.

I understand that last Thursday's (January 13) LSE debate will shortly become available as an LSE podcast. That being the case I urge all of you to access this video and watch in action an academic - Professor Hochhauser - who was the complete master of his brief.

Not only did he expertly demolish the pseudo dogmas and woolly thinking advanced by Dr Chalcraft - for instance, why demand a boycott of Israeli universities over their refusal to condemn Israeli policy towards "Palestine" but not British or American universities over Iraq or Afghanistan? And not only did he defend with consummate eloquence the concept of free and unimpeded dialogue which is, and must be, at the heart of academic discourse.

He pulled an ace from his pack. He revealed to a genuinely astonished audience that, while - from the podium - Dr Chalcraft urged an end to all contact with Israeli universities, he was in fact a member of the management group of LSE's recently established Middle East Centre, whose mission is "to develop research and teaching on the societies… of the region, which includes… Israel" and indeed to "strengthen relations between LSE and Middle East universities."

How could Dr Chalcraft preach boycott while being a senior member of an academic centre seemingly dedicated to its exact opposite?

In other words, Professor Hochhauser had thoroughly researched not just his subject but also his opponent (there's a lesson for us all here), and had exposed Dr Chalcraft to the ridicule he so richly deserved. Professor Hochhauser got the audience on his side - as was evident from the laughter and applause that greeted this exposé. It was an advantage he never lost.

As you watch the podcast, you'll become aware of the stark intellectual poverty of the boycotters. Dr Chalcraft from the podium and his supporters from the audience freely admitted to the desperation that is their driving force.

Everything else has failed, Dr Chalcraft told us. But failed in what? To demoralise the Jewish state? To undermine its security? To bring about its demise? We were never told. But we all knew.

At the end of the evening, the chair asked for a show of hands. Though no count was taken it was clear that the motion had been overwhelmingly defeated. It was an unforgettable and, in fact, deeply moving experience.

Last updated: 4:01pm, January 27 2011