A controversial critic of Israel took the stage at Princeton University on Nov. 5, rolling out a litany of charges against the Jewish state and condemning it as an occupier, a human-rights abuser, a land grabber, and a killer of children.
For two long hours, author/political scientist Norman Finkelstein slowly and deliberately fed his anti-Israel thesis to a crowd of close to 200 at the university's Friend Center — the overwhelming majority of them members and supporters of the Princeton Middle East Society, the independent off-campus group that had invited him there.
Campus groups cosponsoring Finkelstein's appearance included the Department and Program in Near Eastern Studies; the Kathryn W. and Shelby Cullom Davis '30 International Center; and the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia.
Organizers acknowledged that they had invited Finkelstein, in part, because of the controversy surrounding his recent clash with his former employer, DePaul University in Chicago.
"He's in the news right now because of the DePaul situation and the issue of academic freedom," Jane Adas of New Brunswick, president of the Princeton Middle East Society, said in an interview before Finkelstein's presentation.
At DePaul, Finkelstein was an assistant professor of political science from 2001 to 2007. In June, DePaul denied him tenure, canceled his single course, and placed him on academic leave. In September, he reached a settlement with the university and resigned from his position there.
At the time, dean Chuck Suchar of DePaul issued a memorandum in support of denying Finkelstein tenure. Suchar stated that the substance and tone of Finkelstein's scholarship was inconsistent with the university's values, and referred to what he called Finkelstein's "personal and reputation-demeaning attacks" on such writers as Alan Dershowitz, Benny Morris, Elie Wiesel, and Jerzy Kosinski (see sidebar).
Suchar was referring, in part to Finkelstein's 2006 book, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, in which he attacked Dershowitz's pro-Israel book, The Case for Israel. Dershowitz reportedly attempted, but failed, to prevent the publication of Beyond Chutzpah. Dershowitz is also said to have lobbied DePaul University to deny Finkelstein tenure.
'The only obstacle'
On hand at the Friend Center to introduce Finkelstein was Stanley Katz, professor in public and international affairs at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
"I was asked to introduce him, and I'm happy to do that," Katz said in an interview the day before the program. "I'm just happy to facilitate any speaker a recognized group on campus wants to bring.
"I don't take that as an endorsement," he added. "He's obviously very controversial. But I think he represents something important, and I'm very interested to hear what he has to say. I think he deserves a hearing."
In his formal remarks, Finkelstein presented the Middle East conflict as an uncomplicated situation in which the sole victims are the Palestinians and the sole perpetrators are the Israelis.
"The thesis of this evening will be that most of the controversy surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is contrived, fabricated, and designed to divert attention from the actual record on the conflict and to sow confusion," Finkelstein told his audience.
Peering through that uncomplicated lens, he then gave his view of the so-called final-status questions in the conflict: Israel must fully and unilaterally withdraw to the June 1967 borders, giving up the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip to the Palestinians. All Israeli settlements are illegal, he said; Israel must abandon them all. Israel must also give up eastern Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
While the majority of Israelis say they support major territorial compromise with the Palestinians, Finkelstein suggested that the only obstacle to such a compromise is not Israel's fears for its own security, but its intransigence.
"The one and only obstacle to the resolution of the conflict," he said, "is Israel's refusal to fully withdraw."
Often smiling as he made his points, Finkelstein equated Israel with the Palestinian group Hamas, quoting statistics about how many civilians have been killed on each side of the conflict.
"The only difference between Hamas terrorism and Israeli terrorism is that Israeli terrorism is more than four times as lethal as Hamas terrorism," he said, "and no demand has been put on Israel to denounce terrorism."
Finkelstein charged that Israel perpetrated the "ethnic cleansing" of the Palestinians during the War of Independence in 1948.
He endorsed former President Jimmy Carter's use of the term "apartheid" to describe Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
He laughed at the claim of a "new anti-Semitism" in the world, calling it a ploy to transform "the perpetrator Israel and its apologists into the victim, focusing on the alleged suffering of the Israelis rather than the real suffering of the Palestinians."
He denounced Israel for its alleged "playing of the Hitler card" and for using "the Holocaust industry" to claim a special status in history. "The special suffering of the Jews meant that they couldn't be held to ordinary standards," said Finkelstein, who is the son of Holocaust survivors and the author of a 2003 book, The Holocaust Industry, that expanded on the thesis.
Finally, Finkelstein charged that the world has been subjected to a systematic scheme of fraud and disinformation on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "What's very striking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he said, "is the extent to which sheer nonsense, sheer fraud, and sheer ridiculousness is validated in the mainstream media."
As he ended his speech, Finkelstein called upon his supporters to have heart. "With a little bit of courage, hard work, and the powerful weapons of truth and justice — if we learn how to wield them," he said, "I'm confident we can win."
With that, dozens of people in the audience leapt to their feet and rewarded Finkelstein with a 40-second standing ovation.
But Katz, for one, was not so pleased.
"It was a peculiar performance — but you knew before you got there what he was going to say," Katz said in a phone interview the morning after the program.
"I had very mixed feelings, to be perfectly honest," he said. "I'm sometimes critical of Israeli policy, but I don't think it helps to criticize in the way he does. He has a way of putting things in the most extreme way he can possibly put them. His is a world of black and white, while the world I live in is almost entirely gray. It was a presentation totally without nuance, and I didn't find it very convincing.
"For those of us who want to remain objective," Katz said, "it was an extremely frustrating presentation."