After weeks of controversy, false starts, and wavering club support, The Holocaust Industry author Professor Norman Finkelstein spoke before a crowd of over 100 in the Rappaporte Treasure Hall Tuesday. His three-hour lecture discussed Israel's human rights record, alleged exaggeration of the Holocaust to exonerate Israeli policies, as well as touching upon his long-time feud with Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.
"Dissent is tied to justice, justice tied to dignity," said Harvard Professor Sarah Roy, who introduced Finkelstein. "Today, there is a war against dissent… our right to oppose has been stigmatized and devalued." She also claimed that Finkelstein cut through "the artificial web of complexity" surrounding the Middle East Conflict.
"I'm being cast as a martyr these last few weeks," said Finkelstein of his recent battles at DePaul to earn tenure. "Two thousand years ago, another Jew tried that with mixed results." Describing former President Jimmy Carter's controversial book Palestine Peace, Not Apartheid, Finkelstein said that "the actual content of the book… was remarkably uncontroversial… one might even call it tepid." Instead, Finkelstein said, "what's most striking is how uncontroversial this is, yet there is so much controversy when you bring it into a public forum."
He added that the complexity of the Middle East conflict "is contrived, is fabricated, is conjured up." Stating the World Court's 2004 14-1 decision for Israel to return to its 1967 borders, Finkelstein said "it's illegal to obtain territory through war… ‘disputed territories?' Not so, says the World Court… it's illegal under international law."
Because of this, Finkelstein said, Carter's book was far from controversial: "He is merely rendering the opinion of the highest international court in the world, the World Court." He claimed that while other decisions were several thousand pages, the decision regarding Israel was less than 100 pages "because it was so uncontroversial."
Finkelstein also touched upon Israel's security wall: "If Israel is building the wall to incorporate the settlements, then the wall is clearly illegal under international law."
Also, he claimed that according to historian Benny Morris' research, "what happened in 1948 was an ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians from the disputed territories, citing one author's claim that "the ethnic cleansing was anchored in the Zionist philosophy of transfer..." Indeed, Finkelstein said, "according to Morris, the biggest mistake they made was they didn't expel every single last Palestinian in 1947, because then this would never have happened today."
Finkelstein also heavily criticized Israel's human rights record, saying that "Israeli terrorism is four times as legal," and "for not wanting to kill Palestinian children, Israel [is] pretty good at it."
He did say, however, that it was "a no-brainer" for Palestinians to cease suicide bombings and terrorist attacks on Israel: "It's illegal, and Hamas is duty-bound under international law to renounce terrorism." However, he said, "one of the cornerstones of international law is reciprocity—what's good for the goose is good for the gander."
Finkelstein told the audience that "everyone in this room knows the solution… the two-state solution. Every year they vote on it, and every year, the votes are the same… the main obstacle for progress is for Israel… to remove from occupied territories" and "recognize a Palestinian state…with East Jerusalem as its capital." He cited Ha'aretz, which claimed that Israel "we enthusiastically chose to become a colonialist society."
Finkelstein also stated "the second fake controversy is playing ‘the Holocaust card'…if you can claim that Jews have suffered uniquely, you do not have to hold them to a universal standard." He said "every time Israel comes under international pressure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem diplomatically…there is a new claim of a ‘new' anti-Semitism."
While the event ran smoothly, the evening did not go without a response. Before the event, a group of approximately 20 students staged a demonstration in front of the library, protesting Finkelstein's visit. "We want history, not his story!" shouted the students.
"We are thrilled Finkelstein is here, he can say anything he wants," said demonstrator Sara Hammerschlag '10. "We can also say anything we want…we're expressing our right to disagree with him." She added "we're not here to dispute the facts, though many of them are incorrect—we're here to dispute the conclusions he comes to from these facts."
During the lecture itself, there was also some degree of tension, both from Finkelstein and his audience. Finkelstein claimed that Professor Schulamit Reinharz (SOC)'s call to boycott his book on Amazon.com was "a very progressive, modern version of book-burning," and that University President Jehuda Reinharz "didn't want a serious debate about Carter's book," deciding to "turn [Carter's January speech] into a circus."
When Finkelstein said "when you want a circus, send in the clowns—enter Alan Dershowitz," however, one student interrupted his speech, shouting "at least he has tenure!" Seva Brodsky, an off-campus audience member, asked Finkelstein during the question-and-answer section of the event, "do you hate your parents? Do you habitually rape your niece?"
Audience responses regarding Finkelstein's speech were mixed. Finkelstein, regarding some of the more hostile questions, himself said "the questions say more about the bankruptcy of the cause they're supporting than it says about me. On factual issues, they don't really have an answer." Despite the occasional outbursts from his audience, Finkelstein added that "people were absolutely respectful" during his speech.
"He gave good facts, but he was very one-sided," said Eli Katzen '10. "He doesn't acknowledge the problem with the Palestinian Authority. He's being a detriment to a solution…only by acknowledging problems on both sides can we find a solution that works."
Brodsky later said that "the whole thing was a fraud… a string of lies. Finkelstein is sanctimonious… [and] self-righteous."
While "I thought some of the questions were rather vulgar," said Kevin Conway '09, who was the chief organizer for the event, said "I thought it went rather well."
Union President Alison Schwartzbaum '08 said that "most of the hostility came from people who are not students… questions with the most hostility were coming from outside the Brandeis community. The Brandeis questions were the most academic."
Dustin Smith '08 said Finkelstein was "very clear and concise… not nearly as inflammatory as the Brandeis Community would lead you to believe." He added that it was "very refreshing to see him speak at Brandeis… we have people like Pipes with little no resistance. It's nice to see an alternative."
ZaHaV co-president Ariella Newberger '09 commented on the group's demonstration prior to Finkelstein's speech. "We called it a rally to promote intellectual integrity," she said, "Finkelstein's arguments are based in facts [but] they really are fiction." Newberger continued, for a person who wants to be heard, Finkelstein "is very unwilling to hear others." As for the effect the event might have on the school community, she said, "I really hope on campus that we have more dialogue. I feel like clubs are trying to trump each other. The swing population is who I worry about." Newberger said, "the Connect and Reflect event after Jimmy Carter made me feel optimistic. I hope this will be a step forward."
Editor's Note: Alison Channon, Deputy News Editor contributed to this piece.