Editor’s note: Watch the video of Finkelstein’s talk (10.20.2005) and compare to the article below.
Imagine sitting in a room with respected Yale professors, listening to a Yale-invited speaker humiliate fellow students and deride American Jewry’s “level of mental hysteria” about Holocaust denial. You needn’t stretch your powers of imagination too far; such a scene unfolded last Thursday night in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, where Norman Finkelstein expounded on “Israel and Palestine: Misusing Anti-Semitism, Abusing History.”
Finkelstein, an assistant professor at DePaul University, presents himself as an expert on Middle Eastern affairs and world Jewry.
But let’s examine the facts. Norman Finkelstein was fired from New York University and Hunter College after the publication of “The Holocaust Industry,” which The New York Times called a “novel variation” on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a century-old anti-Semitic forgery. In the same review, Finkelstein was called “juvenile, arrogant and stupid.” However, Finkelstein isn’t totally bereft of admirers. In fact, the neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier Ingrid Rimland has said that reading his book made her “feel like a kid in a candy store.”
His lack of academic credentials was borne out in his speech at Yale last week. Again and again, Finkelstein resorted to ad hominem attacks and outlandish claims to combat those who dared challenge his views. He called renowned author and human rights crusader Elie Wiesel a “Nobel laureate for who-knows-what” and referred repeatedly to the nefarious “Jewish lobby” manipulating U.S. foreign policy. When a student asked how Finkelstein would respond to a quote posted on his own Web site, Finkelstein angrily proclaimed the student an “imbecile” for asking such a “stupid question.”
In a neat bit of willful ignorance, Finkelstein declared the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a “simple one.” He claimed that it is unanimously accepted that Israel has perpetrated ethnic cleansing and uniquely egregious human rights violations since its birth in 1948. He urged us not to ignore the instinctive revulsion we all feel when faced with Israel’s demolition of Palestinian houses. Curiously, Finkelstein did not mention the revulsion some of us feel when faced with the news of innocent children blown to pieces on their way to school or carefree cafe-goers murdered while sipping espressos. In fact, he never mentioned the words “terrorists” or “militants” at all, an omission that allowed him to ignore the cause-and-effect relationship between Palestinian suicide bombings and the defensive actions Israel is forced to undertake in response.
Finkelstein also belittled current threats to Jews worldwide, stating that the widely accepted phenomenon of “the new anti-Semitism” is a construct invented by Jewish organizations. When a student confronted Finkelstein with unassailable evidence of the alarming rise in French anti-Semitic hate crimes, Finkelstein simply shouted her down. Evidently, crime statistics are not rigorous enough for him. No, for Finkelstein, only blatant falsehoods and crude innuendo will suffice.
But all this pales in comparison to Finkelstein’s morally repugnant comments about the Holocaust. He treated his audience to a barrage of shocking and hurtful claims and implied that hundreds of thousands of Jews are misrepresenting themselves as Holocaust victims. Such statements make liars of our grandparents and render their suffering a mere figment of the imagination. But maybe we should give Finkelstein the benefit of the doubt. After all, he does have sound reasoning: As his mother put it, “If all those who say they are survivors are telling the truth, then who did Hitler kill?”
Finkelstein’s recurring theme was exploitation. He accused American Jewish organizations of exploiting the Holocaust for monetary gain and political influence, and alleged that Israel uses the Holocaust to deflect criticism. But the ultimate irony is that it is Finkelstein who is the one doing the exploiting. Thursday night, Finkelstein never failed to remind us that he is Jewish and the son of Holocaust survivors, in an effort to inoculate himself against any charges of anti-Semitism and racism. Finkelstein has made a career out of the Holocaust; he counts on his controversial claims to garner publicity and speaking engagements.
If this were merely a matter of one man’s irrational views, we would agree to disagree. Finkelstein has a constitutional right to speak, no matter how bizarre and offensive we find his opinions. At the heart of this matter are the people who subsidized, sponsored and publicized Finkelstein’s speech. Who provided him with a soapbox from which to propound his racist views? The Yale Center for International and Area Studies’ Council on Middle East Studies, along with the New Haven group The Struggle and the Arab Students’ Association.
It is deeply disturbing that the YCIAS would choose to affiliate itself with a group as extreme as The Struggle. Last week, when we logged on to the YCIAS Web site to find more information about Finkelstein’s visit, we were directed to TheStruggle.org, where we had the opportunity to glean valuable insights about the motives behind the war in Iraq: “anti-Arab racism” and “Israel’s desire to dominate its Middle East neighbors.” The views this group espouses seem patently laughable, and any speakers such a group would sponsor are suspect. And yet, somehow, we found ourselves sitting alongside respected, tenured members of the Yale faculty, including current and past department chairs, listening to this man command a Yale-subsidized bully pulpit. The experience was discomfiting, to say the least.
Would a Yale department sponsor a speaker who criticized the African-American community for “exploiting” slavery and segregation? Would the YCIAS sponsor an event in which Bosnian Muslims were condemned for using the genocide in Yugoslavia for monetary gain?
The answer is clear. But the YCIAS apparently felt compelled to affiliate itself with an irresponsible demagogue and a fringe group. Student tuition funded this event, and YCIAS must be held accountable.
Rachel Bayefsky-Anand ’09, Ari Evans ’09 and Rena Traube ’09 are members of the Yale Friends of Israel.
Silencing Finkelstein is the easy way out
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
It is understandable that listening to Norman Finkelstein can be difficult for those raised in Zionist households, just as it was difficult for us to listen to him speak of the failures of the Palestinian resistance movement and its leaders over dinner earlier that evening. We are raised with ideologies that we feel define us, and it is often shattering to discover the falsehoods, exaggerations or even failures inherent in those ideologies. A belief in the correlation between the horrors of the Holocaust and the moral righteousness of the state of Israel is one such ideology — and it is one that needs to be reevaluated.
Finkelstein’s talk to a group of Yale students and faculty last week was held in that spirit. Finkelstein is a professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago and the author of “Nation on Trial,” “The Holocaust Industry” and, most recently, “Beyond Chutzpah,” a point-by-point refutation of both the methods and the substance of Alan Dershowitz’s book “The Case for Israel.” Finkelstein’s critics, at Yale and across the country, have linked him with several unsavory figures in an attempt to discredit him through association. But even a cursory reading of his work shows just how contrived these claims are: Finkelstein does not deny that the Holocaust happened, he does not deny that its victims and survivors deserve compensation, and he does not deny the existence of anti-Semitism.
What Norman Finkelstein’s books do say, and what he said at Yale last week, is that we must be weary of ideologies of uniqueness, for they inevitably lead to ideologies of unique moral dispensation or immunity. It is not appropriate, he said, to respond to widespread and well-founded accusations that Israel tortures Palestinian prisoners or confiscates Palestinian land by pointing to the Holocaust. Tragedy should not abet tragedy.
The trials and tribulations that a people withstand are never unique. By calling our tragedies unique, we reduce them to intellectually hollow doctrines used to, in Finkelstein’s words, “extenuate moral standards.” If Israel’s suffering was unique, then its government shouldn’t be bound by normal ethical, legal and international political standards. If the way we remember the Holocaust cannot be debated, then we can never discuss the ends to which some people have used its memory.
The 1948 Nakba put the Holocaust at the center of the Palestinians’ own national history and tragedy. Limitations on what about the Holocaust or its memory is acceptable to discuss prevent Palestinians from constructing a complete narrative of their own plight — a narrative that is crucial to their claim for justice. Mystifying the Holocaust for Americans denies them the right to judge that claim, or their own country’s support for Israel.
Far from being anti-Semitic or a Holocaust denier, Finkelstein joins many other non-Zionist Jews in speaking of a universal ethics, and he highlights the essence of Jewish heritage, based largely in a respect for justice and peace.
In hosting him, Yale affirms its mission to foster debate. No topic, however uncomfortable, should be off-limits for discussion. And in this case, the injunction to discuss, debate and debunk is particularly strong. As Finkelstein said, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is responsible for the displacement and deaths of thousands of people — and it continues to broil to this day. Any chance at solving it must begin with an open discussion. Misrepresenting Finkelstein’s comments and claiming that it is inappropriate for him to speak at our University is precisely the kind of attitude that stifles this much-needed discussion.
Paige Austin ’06, Rasha Khoury MED ’08 and Diala Shamas ’06 are members of the Arab Students’ Assocation.
Editorial misrepresented the Middle East Crisis Committee
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
To the Editor:
I won’t answer the specific charges the three “Friends of Israel” made against professor Norman Finkelstein (“Finkelstein and the YCIAS: Misusing Yale, abusing students,” 10/24). I want to address comments made about the organization I chair towards which they were so derisive. First, for some reason the young scholars couldn’t figure out the name of our organization, the Middle East Crisis Committee, even though it was mentioned prominently on all the event literature. MECC was founded in 1982 in New Haven. TheStruggle.org is merely the Web site we created a few years ago.
MECC is a human rights organization first formed to protest a bloody Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In its 23-year history MECC has protested abuses as varied as the Syrian-Lebanese 1986 war against Palestinian refugees, U.S. support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, the genocidal sanctions against Iraq, terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and the current invasion and occupation of Iraq. In 2004 we received an award from the American Friends Service Committee, which itself is a former Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
It is true that we are sharply critical of Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians, but this is hardly an extremist position. As Finkelstein noted in his talk, Israeli practices are routinely condemned by the U.N. General Assembly in overwhelming votes, including virtually all European countries. In its blind support for a government that is taking more and more Palestinian land and walling in Palestinians into ever more divided communities, that defies a dozen U.N. Security Council resolutions, and that bars Palestinian citizens of Israel from land ownership on 90 percent of Israeli land, it is the Yale Friends of Israel and not MECC that is staking out an extremist position.
The three Friends criticized MECC for saying that the Iraq war was motivated by “anti-Arab racism” and “Israel’s desire to dominate its Arab neighbors”. This is a distortion. In our leaflet “Israel and War”, available online, we said that there were several key causes for the war, principally greed for oil and U.S. dependence on weapons sales. We also listed “anti-Arab racism.” We stand by it. In the media and in films there are constant slurs of Arabs that are not tolerated for any other ethnic group. That racism certainly has a role in provoking attacks on Arab countries.
Professor Finkelstein is a brilliant scholar and a representative of a growing segment of American Jews who detest the chauvinists and militarists who at this moment predominate in Israel. Yale students were lucky to have a chance to hear him.
Stanley Heller ’69
Oct. 24, 2005
The writer is chairperson of the Middle East Crisis Committee.