I would like to respond to a letter from the Director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies Michael Hudson in THE HOYA ("Finkelstein Speech Contributes to Debate," Nov. 22, 2005, A2). As chair of the Program for Jewish Civilization Executive Committee, I believe it will be useful to clarify a number of key points. Prof. Yossi Shain, who directs the Program for Jewish Civilization has been out of the country and can speak later to previous personal exchanges with CCAS and Prof. Hudson.
I have no wish to deconstruct the words and writings of Norman Finkelstein. Those who want to do so can read for themselves the hyperbole, ad hominem denunciations and polemical references in which Holocaust and Nazi imagery are connected to Jewish leaders and Israel. It will suffice here to quote from a thoughtful letter on behalf of the Board of the Jewish Law Students Association, published in GU Law Weekly's Nov. 22-28 issue. They note, for example, Finkelstein's previous references to Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel as a "resident clown" who "unerringly articulates" Holocaust "dogma," and is responsible for creating a "meaningless version of the Nazi Holocaust." (Note that Georgetown has twice honored Wiesel in recent years and rightly aspires to create an honorary chair in his name). And they point out that Finkelstein's current book, "Beyond Chutzpah," purports to be about the misuse of anti-Semitism in current discourse, specifically in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but is little more than a diatribe against Abraham Foxman — who is a Holocaust survivor — and the Anti-Defamation League. Finkelstein refers to Foxman as a "Grand Wizard" — words commonly used to denote a Ku Klux Klan leader. Elsewhere in "Beyond Chutzpah," Finkelstein claims that Jewish leaders such as Foxman and Edgar Bronfman "resemble stereotypes straight out of Der Sturmer," a Nazi newspaper.
Unfortunately, the Finkelstein event did not occur in a vacuum, but as the latest in a series of issues that have arisen over the years concerning CCAS sponsorship and programming. Indeed, in March 2003, Provost James J. O'Donnell chaired a meeting at which such concerns were expressed. The provost asked that all parties seek in the future to find ways of respectful collaboration. Yet the fact that CCAS could co-sponsor a campus appearance by Finkelstein for the second time in three years is, alas, indicative of an underlying problem.
An especially troubling aspect of this controversy is that the leadership of CCAS could view Finkelstein's work as serious and scholarly. This in itself speaks volumes about the center. And, the fact that the book was published by University of California Press — a once respectable university press — is further testimony to the sorry state of Middle East studies in today's academia.(Indeed, according to press reports, the publisher had to delete passages in the book prior to publication because of concern about possible legal issues concerning the author's references to the distinguished Harvard legal authority and author Alan Dershowitz).
It is revealing to compare events. In the space of five days, PJC hosted an address by His Eminence Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who spoke to a large interfaith audience in Copley Formal Lounge, where he delivered an inspiring address about brotherhood between Catholics and Jews and widened the talk to encompass understanding among Jews, Christians and Muslims. By contrast, just a few days later CCAS co-sponsored Finkelstein. The contrast speaks for itself, in particular about which GU program conducts itself in a way consistent with the best traditions of Georgetown University and of scholarly discourse.
Finally, Prof. Hudson's letter seems to suggest that PJC is trying to censor what can be said on campus. That is not the issue. The student group, Students for Justice in Palestine, was and is free to bring in speakers as they choose, and — for that matter — so is CCAS. But when the leaders of the Arab Studies Center invite someone of Finkelstein's sort, it reveals something lamentable about such judgments and how they define their academic mission. Instead, the heart of the matter is whether by co-sponsoring a speaker whose writing and speaking are deeply offensive to many, if not most, Jews and to those who wish to seriously and thoughtfully address the issues of our time, cooperation with CCAS itself is possible. The Center is free to co-sponsor whomever it wishes. But by the same token, the PJC is free to decide whether it wants to be associated in any way with such a center and thereby to convey the appearance of sincere cooperation when the CCAS's own activities constitute a lamentable obstacle to such collaboration. It is a subject our executive committee will be addressing when it meets in the coming days.
Robert Lieber is a professor of government and international affairs and is chair of the Executive Committee of the Program for Jewish Civilization.