Many irked listeners repeatedly disrupted the lecture, creating a tense atmosphere. Several people heckled, shouted rebuttals, and held florescent posters protesting Finkelstein's stated views. One disturbance even forced him to stop speaking temporarily.
Finkelstein said that he hopes to enlighten college students with his interpretation of the current situation in the Middle East.
"[I'm trying to] pierce through all the misinformation, disinformation, and mystification surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Finkelstein said, adding that people could then make their own judgments.
Specifically, Finkelstein said that the entire conflict is much simpler than it is portrayed to be by the media.
"So much controversy exists over a conflict that is not very complicated at all," he said. Although world leaders have grappled with the issue for years, Finkelstein insists that the conflict is "pretty straightforward."
His latest book is entitled "Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History" and argues that Israel avoids taking blame by dismissing accusations made against them—however legitimate—as anti-semitic.
A large portion of the book also directly refutes the arguments made in Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz's book "The Case for Israel." In his speech, Finkelstein called the book "a flat out fraud from beginning to end."
Finkelstein suggested that the work grossly distorts the facts and is heavily plagiarized from other sources.
Unleashing a new accusation, he also claimed that Dershowitz recently flew to Israel to advise their government on how to suppress the free speech of Israeli pilots. The pilots, he said, would not engage in targeted killings.
But Dershowitz, who did not attend the lecture, contacted The Crimson to state that there is no truth to the claim and to refute the statement.
"I'd give $1,000 to [U.S.-designated terrorist group] Hezbollah, Finkelstein's favorite organization, if he can prove that the story is true," he declared.
Finkelstein said that objections to his ideas generally do not bother him.
"A cat call here or there, I don't mind," he said.
But his experience at Harvard was an exception, he said. He said he encountered "an element of rudeness and grossness" not sustained on any other campus.
The Justice for Palestine organization invited Finkelstein to come to Harvard as part of his recent academic tour. One member introduced Finkelstein as someone who "says things that some people think should never be said at all."
"Our intention was to spark conversation," wrote Justice for Palestine Co-Chair Erin E. Thomas '07, who moderated the event, in an e-mail. "We understand that many people disagree with what Finkelstein says. Not every member of Justice for Palestine, myself included, agrees with all of Finkelstein's points."
Yet Amy M. Zelcer '07, president of Harvard Students for Israel, said she did not think Finkelstein's talk fostered helpful dialogue.
"Up until today, Harvard has had a remarkable record for constructive dialogue with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Justice for Palestine crossed a line this afternoon by providing a forum for Norman Finkelstein to trumpet his racist views," she wrote in an e-mail. "This kind of extremism does not contribute to dialogue on campus, but rather overshadows the legitimate and concerted efforts of moderate peace-seekers to find common ground."
Finkelstein has visited schools such Yale, the University of Virginia, and Berkeley in the last two months.
HLS Dean of Students Ellen M. Cosgrove said controversy need not be avoided in such events.
"Controversial events can make people uncomfortable," Cosgrove said, "but we support the speaker's right to speak and the dissenter's rights to voice their dissents in a way that doesn't substantially interfere with the event."