Norman Finkelstein assailed Israel’s human rights record and critics of former President Jimmy Carter during a lecture at Saint Louis University last week.
Finkelstein, an assistant professor of political science at DePaul University, spoke before an audience of about 130 people on Jan. 30 at SLU as the featured speaker during “Palestine Awareness Week,” held by student organization SLU Solidarity for Palestine. Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust survivors, is the author of the controversial book, The Holocaust Industry, which argues that America and Israel have exploited the Holocaust for political and monetary gain.
Finkelstein said many of his academic interests are topics that Carter covered in his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, and that he believes that the criticism of Carter and his book have focused on labeling him as an anti-Semite, rather than discussing the issues Carter raises.
“It’s a source of perplexity to me why what I have to say or what Jimmy Carter has to say should evoke such hostility and such anger by some people,” he said.
“I could understand if Carter had come forward or if I had said, ‘Israel has to be thrown into the sea.’ It’s pretty obvious why you would be indignant. But why is calling for a peaceful settlement in accordance with international law such a source of anger and indignation?”
Finkelstein said that the criticism of Carter is part of a larger pattern of Israeli and American Jewish groups using claims of anti-Semitism to discredit opponents of Israel’s government and policies.
“It’s impossible nowadays to wake up in the morning without coming across yet another story about how Jimmy Carter was an anti-Semite, a supporter of Nazis, a supporter of terrorism,” Finkelstein said. “It can’t simply be that Jimmy Carter went to the occupied territories and is appalled at the human rights situation there — appalled by, to quote Ha’aretz, ‘the apartheid regime’ there — and that Carter, looking at the documentary record, sees what anyone without blinders would see: that the only obstacle to resolving the conflict is Israel’s refusal to withdraw. You’re not allowed to say that. It’s got to be anti-Semitism,” Finkelstein said.
Finkelstein also attacked Israel’s human rights record, at one point referring to Israel as “four times the terrorist state” compared to the Palestinians.
Finkelstein said human rights organizations have reported that Israel has used excessive force, has fired indiscriminately into crowds, and has deliberately targeted civilians, which he said makes civilians killed by Israel the moral equivalent of civilians killed by Palestinian terrorism.
“No international demand has been put on Israel to cease its terrorism. The only demand has been put on the Palestinians, and that is pure hypocrisy,” Finkelstein said.
Finkelstein said the UN voting record and the 2004 International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion that found that Israel’s security barrier was illegal under international law showed a broad international consensus that to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict, Israel should withdraw to pre-June 1967 borders.
Although Finkelstein received a warm reception from the majority of the audience, several members of the audience found the lecture to be biased.
“He portrays the world from entirely one side. In Finkelstein’s world, there’s nothing good that’s ever been done by an Israeli or a Jew,” said Don Meissner, chair of the Anti-Defamation League’s Israel Task Force.
Meissner attended the Finkelstein lecture, as well as two other “Palestine Awareness Week” events, on Monday and Wednesday.
“[Finkelstein] creates this illusion that there are no threats to the Jews or to Israel, making the Jews somehow culpable for all of the strife in the Middle East,” he said.
Meissner said Finkelstein presented one-sided arguments, leaving out facts that would be favorable to Israel, or failing to acknowledge facts that are still being disputed.
“In his world, the 1948 War of Independence is cast as a war of aggression, and when he speaks of the 1967 war, no mention was made of the bellicose rhetoric from Arab nations that ‘Israel would be driven into the sea,'” he said.
“He is a master rhetorician and polemicist, but much of it simply made no sense,” Meissner said.
“This was not about supporting the Palestinians, it was about making you hate the Israelis,” Meissner said, about the week of events.
Rabbi Hershey Novack, director of Chabad on Campus, attended part of the lecture, and said he found it “extremely biased.”
“This was more out of context than usual,” he said. “He really painted Israel with a monolithic brush.”
Novack said he found gaps in Finkelstein’s arguments based on the 2004 International Court of Justice ruling, noting that Israel boycotted the ICJ hearings and that the jurisdiction of the ICJ has been disputed.
However, many audience members welcomed Finkelstein’s speech.
Mazan Badra, a Palestinian who has worked with members of Central Reform Congregation to create the Israel-Palestine dialogue group The Children of Abraham, said he believed Finkelstein’s speech carried an important message — that the international community could reach settlement to the conflict. “We need to continue to reach out and talk to the other side about these important issues,” he said.
Jewish community groups and campus organizations said that their tactic was to provide balanced campus opportunities, rather than provoking the speaker or protesting the events.
Batya Abramson-Goldstein, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, said she has been working with campus groups and community organizations to make sure campus organizations have all of the support they need.
Abramson-Goldstein met with leaders of campus Jewish organizations to discuss the events at SLU, and said they agreed that it would not be effective for people outside of the campus community to be “parachuted in” to the campus to debate the presenters.
“We think it’s vital that the campus — students, faculty and Jewish campus organizations — take the lead,” she said. The JCRC is planning to continue meeting with campus leaders and community organizations to promote “communication, coordination and collaboration” between the grroups, she said.
Novack, director of Chabad on Campus, said he spoke with SLU administrators, voicing his concerns about the week of events, and he said they were “incredibly supportive.” Novack sent an email to Jewish students at SLU, offering support for students troubled by the week’s events.
Novack said he believes in “indirect reaction” to such events, offering opportunities for positive awareness of Israel and Judaism. As an example, he said one of his goals for the next year will be increasing the number of SLU students who take birthright trips to Israel.
Carolyn Amacher, director of Hillel, said she and her organization work to facilitate leadership development, and to help students come up with their own ideas of programming that provides a balanced view of Judaism and Israeli culture and history. She said Hillel works with Muslim student groups to promote understanding and the presentation of balanced points of view.
“My tactic is to involve the students, and make sure they are empowered so that given the information and resources, they can make their own choices,” she said.
Amacher said that during the same week of the SLU events, Hillel was involved with a number of events at Washington University, including a talk by the group Combatants for Peace, an appearance of former IDF officer Amos Guiora and a sold-out concert on campus by a top Israeli group, the Idan Raichel Project, which 1,500 people attended.
“We don’t shy away from controversy,” Amacher said. “We just leave it up to students to continue the exchange of ideas.”