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Intense Iran debate at the Oxford Union

Defending Israel and exposing Iranian crimes at European campuses isn't easy, but must be done

Twenty-five years ago when the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent me to Oxford I wondered why the University was important. There were countless American Universities that had no permanent Rabbi, many with Jewish student populations in the thousands. Oxford was lucky if it had 800. Did I have to cross the Atlantic to make an impact? The Rebbe, through his secretariat, told me that Oxford had influence, attracting students who would go on to make a difference.

And that’s what happened. We built the Oxford L’Chaim Society that would go on to attracts thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish students, many of whom have made a significant impact in politics, finance, media, and the arts. On 18 May we will honor, along with Sean Penn, Senator Cory Booker and Ambassador Ron Dermer of Israel who are just two of our former student presidents who have distinguished themselves in public life.

I don’t get the time to get back to Oxford these days as much I would like. But I was honored that the Oxford Union, the world’s leading debating society, invited me to be one of the principal speakers on their major debate on Iran, “This House Believes that Iran is a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” and accepted at once.

Many people advised me against it.

Oxford had changed a great deal since I returned to the United States in 1999 after spending 11 years as Rabbi at the University and head of the L’Chaim Society. Pro-Israel speakers were heckled to the point where they could not speak, as happened with Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub, one of Israel’s most distinguished diplomats, told me that a year ago at the University of Edinburgh he had received the same treatment, even though an army of perhaps 100 police had been deployed to protect him.

Did I really want to go into the lion’s den?

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Then there were the speakers, one of whom had served as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s interpreter. Another was notorious Israeli historian and Tel Aviv University academic Shlomo Sand who had written the best-seller The Invention of the Jewish People and How I Ceased to Be a Jew.

This guy was a trip. Some of his best lines include this one: “[Israel] raped a population. And not only a population – we destroyed this society, in constituting the Israeli state.” Then there is his opposition to a one state solution because “Israelis, being one of the most racist societies in the western world,” will never accept it.

An Israeli was going to debate on the side of the Iran against a Rabbi?

And finally, there were the Oxford students themselves who told me that the chances of our winning a debate against Iranian sympathizers at the Oxford Union was the same chance that I would be voted People Magazine’s sexiest man alive for the third year running (I had won the last two years).

In the end I decided damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. I’m going back to my the place where I had participated in and organized countless debates. The arguments against Iran were too important, the country way too dangerous. Win or lose, I would be heard in one of the world’s most influential speaking venues.


And what a thrilling ride it was. Though our side predictably lost the debate (by fifty votes rather than the presupposed hundreds), our arguments were much more forceful and impactful, as can be easily heard from the crowd’s reaction and applause. I put my heart and soul into it.

As the third and final speaker for our side I waited for the inevitable argument that Israel is an apartheid state and why aren’t we focusing on the crimes of the Zionist regime rather than Iran. That gave me my opening.

Comparing Israel to a regime that hangs gays in public, stones women falsely accused of adultery so their husbands can marry younger women, and which sent children to clear minefields in the Iraq war is a blood libel. Comparing Israel to a regime that funds Hezbollah and Hamas bombs against buses and nurseries can only be argued by someone who has lost their moral compass.

No, Israel is not the culprit in the battle with Iran. Rather, the Jew are the canary in the coal mine.

Seventy years ago Britain looked askance as Hitler imposed the Nuremberg racial laws and persecuted the Jews. But one man, Winston Churchill, saw that the Jews were just the beginning. How many hundreds of thousands of British men and women never came home because they failed to heed his call against Nazi barbarism.

Now we’re faced with a similar genocidal regime whose supreme leader, Ali Khameini, said just last November that Israeli Zionists are dogs who will be annihilated. We can overlook that kind of barbarity or we can rise to the occasion of denying them the weapons of mass destruction by which to impose their barbarism on the rest of the world.

And who has suffered Iran’s brutality the most so far? Not the Jews, but the Arabs. Assad has killed more than 100,000 Muslims and Arabs. Who funded it? Iran. Who was filmed by CBS news fighting alongside his murderers? The Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Who is providing tens of millions of dollars and arms to the man who gassed hundreds of Arab children? Iran.

Iran is an abomination to Islam, a desecration of all that Islam holds dear. Where are the Muslim students here at Oxford to protest a regime that has made their religion synonymous with murder? Where are the devout Muslim students at Oxford to protest a government that puts to death 700 Iranian Muslims a year, desecrating their bodies by hanging them from cranes? Where are the Muslim students at Oxford to condemn a regime that slaughtered fellow Muslims in the streets of Tehran in 2009 for protesting a stolen election?

If there is one thing I learned in my 11 years as Rabbi at Oxford, I summed up, it was that religion was dying at the world’s most famous University. The college cathedrals are empty. People are turned off faith. And why? Because they see that religious people are fakers. They’re violent. The Mullahs of Iran are more interested in building bombs to annihilate others than to live lives of moral excellence. They’re sick of hearing people of faith murder in the name of God rather than shouting at the top of their lungs, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “in the name of God stop.”

The crowd’s reaction was wildly enthusiastic, as can be heard on the video and I received sustained applause for which I was deeply grateful. It felt like a homecoming.

When it was over we went to the Gladstone Room for drinks and I was surrounded by students who wanted to continue to debate the issue. I was especially grateful to the many devout Muslim students who now respectfully approached me with their deep complaints about Israel but gave me the opportunity to respond.


I’m not so naïve as to believe that we won over all Israel’s critics or that they transferred their Middle East opprobrium away from an innocent Jewish state and on to a corrupt Iranian theocracy. But I also know that victory at European Universities today does not mean winning every argument but getting up, standing for your principles, being heard, and lending Jewish students pride.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He is the author of Judaism for Everyone and 30 other books, including his most recent, Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley.
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