I had heard much about Norman Finkelstein before he spoke on campus last week, but I wasn't sure what to expect. I had heard that he was an anti-Semite, a Holocaust revisionist and even a Holocaust denier. Jewish-student groups on campus were angered that he was invited to UMass.
After hearing him speak, I am still unsure if he can be properly labeled as a Holocaust revisionist because he spoke so little on the subject. His only references to the Holocaust were in the context of suggesting that the state of Israel uses the Holocaust and the broader theme of anti-Semitism as a shield to block all criticism. According to Finkelstein, Israel always invokes memories of the Holocaust whenever it comes under attack.
On one hand, Finkelstein's moderate tone made him sound a lot more reasonable than I had expected. On the other hand, plenty of charlatans have mastered the art of sounding reasonable while at the same time spewing garbage. Noam Chomsky comes to mind.
Finkelstein spent most of his time criticizing Israel's human rights record. He sees Israel as the oppressor of Palestinians, and he rejects the invocation of the Holocaust or anti-Semitism as justification for that oppression.
I certainly hate to see ethnic groups exploiting past sufferings for present-day gain. I loathe race pimps and grievance mongers like Clyde Bellecourt, Elaine Brown and Jesse Jackson. I detest their air of infallibility, their presumption of entitlement and their ability to tar all opponents as bigots. I hate the way that every grievance monger tries to outdo every other grievance monger, trying to prove that his group's sufferings are the greatest in the history of the world and therefore justifying the most compensation.
Ethnic oppression is not unique to any particular time or place. Yes, Germans oppressed Jews. European, American and Canadian whites oppressed the native tribes of the Americas. The English oppressed the Irish, and the Turks oppressed Armenians. At different times in history, Protestants have oppressed Catholics, and vice versa. Seventy years ago, the Japanese oppressed China, and today China oppresses Tibet. History is one long tale of the strong beating up on the weak.
While Finkelstein fell short of saying that anti-Semitism does not exist, he certainly seemed to marginalize it, as if it plays no role in the long-standing conflict in Israel. At one point, he compared the settlement of Israel by Jews to the settlement of North America by Europeans. He explained that no reasonable person would ever accuse American Indians of "anti-Europeanism" simply because they resisted the conquering of their lands, and no reasonable person should conclude that Palestinians are motivated by anti-Semitism either.
I will grant Finkelstein this: not every person who has ever criticized Israel has done so because he has a burning hate for Jews in his heart. But I would wager that nearly all dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semites hate Israel. Not all critics of Israel are anti-Semites, but nearly all anti-Semites are critical of Israel. Anti-Semitism is not just some kind of Zionist invention.
One particularly rabid anti-Semite is Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah. He gained a lot of attention this summer when his terrorist organization waged war against Israel. Nasrallah once admitted to Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper, "If [the Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them world wide." Nasrallah is the type of person who wakes up every morning dreaming up new ways to kill Jews. If he's not an anti-Semite, I don't know who is.
If you need another example, consider David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke is an all-around bigot, but seems to reserve a special hate in his heart for Jews. His Web site features a video of Duke in Syria, where he repudiated American support for Israel. "I come from the peace-loving people of America, to your great peace-loving president of Syria," he said to a crowd of flag-waving Syrians. The crowd reacted by chanting "With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for Dr. Bashar." The former Grand Wizard explained, "It is only the Zionists who want war rather than peace," and finished by leading the crowd in chanting "No war for Israel." Duke's official Web site titles this video, "Dr. David Duke improves American Image in the Entire Arab World."
Other anti-Semites who have nothing positive to say about Israel include Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam and Jean Marie Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, France's far-right political party. For further documentation of anti-Semitism directed at Israel, I would suggest watching "Blaming the Jews: Hate in Islamic Culture" or Wayne Kopping's "Obsession."
I find it more than a little curious that Finkelstein downplayed the very real ethnic bigotry at play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel's human rights record is not beyond criticism, and no amount of abuse that Jews may have suffered in the past justifies further abuse in the future. Nonetheless, Israel has real enemies who hate it simply because it is the land of the Jews.