DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein addressed Columbians in Roone Arledge Auditorium Wednesday night on what he deemed a "contrived and fabricated controversy" surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hundreds of students, professors, administrators, and non-affiliates poured into the auditorium to hear the controversial author's speech, titled "Israel and Palestine: Misuse of Anti-Semitism, Abuse of History." The event was sponsored by a coalition of student groups led by the Muslim Students Association.
Finkelstein criticized Israel's human rights record and concluded that "regardless of intent, Israel is in effect guilty of state terrorism," exacting applause from sections of the auditorium. Finkelstein further alleged that the "only difference between Israel terrorism and Hamas terrorism is that Israeli terrorism is three times as lethal."
The speech marked a period of rising tensions on campus, which has become manifest through the proliferation of fliers and the publication of conflicting student opinions in Spectator.
According to MSA president emeritus and event coordinator Sakib Khan, SEAS '07, the group wanted "to create honest open dialogue on the Israel-Palestine issue," especially in the wake of last year's controversy concerning the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department.
Allegations of anti-Israel intimidation of students in the MEALAC department emerged in October 2004, leading to the creation of an ad hoc committee to investigate the claims and months of mounted tensions and taboos surrounding discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus.
While discussing tactics employed by fabricators of controversy—such as discouraging comparison of Israel's treatment of Palestinians with South African apartheid—Finkelstein criticized University President Lee C. Bollinger's statements in response to a 2002 faculty petition calling for the University's divestment from firms dealings with the Israeli military.
"As president of Columbia ... I want to state clearly that I will not lend any support to this proposal. The petition alleges human rights abuses and compares Israel to South Africa at the time of apartheid, an analogy I believe is both grotesque and offensive," Bollinger wrote.
In response to Bollinger's remarks, Finkelstein declared, "I think it's a sorry truth when the president of... [Columbia] subordinates the pursuit of truth to the pursuit of fundraising."
Additionally, Finkelstein labeled Bollinger's denunciation of the apartheid analogy "intellectual terrorism."
Finkelstein also voiced his belief that claims about a "new anti-Semitism" are little more than attempts to silence criticism of Israel.
He also criticized the scholarship of his academic rival Havard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, alleging that Dershowitz plagiarized large portions of his book The Case for Israel from Joan Peters' 1984 work From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine. Earlier in the evening, Finkelstein alleged that as a Princeton graduate student writing his doctoral thesis, he had thoroughly examined Peters' footnotes and discovered she forged statistics to support her conclusions.
Audience reaction to the address was mixed. Loudly cheered in some parts of the crowd, Finkelstein was met only by silence and shaking heads in other sections. Members of student groups such as LionPac and Pro-Israel Progressives wore signs into the auditorium reading, "Norman Finkelstein, your hate is not welcome on our campus." Students also held up denunciatory signs periodically throughout the speech, despite repeated written warnings in the days before the event that signs would not be allowed.
Finkelstein is best known for his writings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what he alleges is the exploitation of the Holocaust by certain European groups. In 2000, he published The Holocaust Industry, in which he refers to efforts by Jewish elites to obtain financial reparations for the Holocaust in Europe as an "outright extortion racket." Finkelstein is the son of two Holocaust survivors.