Norman Finkelstein, a former professor of political science at DePaul University gave a lecture earlier this month entitled "Israel and Palestine: Roots of Conflict, Prospects for Peace." In the bizarre talk, Finkelstein reduced the conflict to supposedly objective questions, of international legality and of historical fact, for which he naively claimed there was a simple answer. The title only emphasized what was conspicuously lacking in his discussion: an analysis of the interests of the two parties and how their dispute might be resolved.
Two examples reveal the weirdness of Finkelstein's approach. He began by presenting the ruling of the International Court of Justice on the issue of the security barrier the Israeli government is building in the West Bank. He argued that the 14-1 ruling against the barrier showed that "There is no controversy, no debate on this issue." (He would repeat this mantra at least four other times during the lecture before I stopped counting.) He seemed to think of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict as coming down to a question of particular legality of particular actions. Since the actions he considered via this legal test were all acts of the Israeli government, his view of the conflict boiled down to illegal, and therefore immoral, Israeli acts. Of course, presenting this argument does nothing to explain the source of the conflict or contribute to its resolution.
International courts are likely to make legal rulings concerning Israel because the Israeli government can quite directly be held responsible for its policies. But consider the case of Palestine. There would certainly be a 15-0 ruling against the legality of launching missiles at Israeli civilians, or using emergency vehicles to smuggle bombs into Israel; but what would be the point? In Palestine, power, and therefore responsibility, is more diffuse. Furthermore, groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad or the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade care little about international condemnation. Finkelstein's inability to differentiate between the legal and the moral, and between the realm of legal theory and the real world of international conflict, made his argument ludicrous.
Finkelstein similarly reduces the debate between the competing historical narratives to a single question, to which again he finds a simple answer. Had Israelis expelled Palestinians in the 1948 war, or had the Palestinians been advised to leave by Arab leaders, in preparation for the invasion of Arab armies? Finkelstein answers his question by citing the current academic consensus that Israelis did indeed expel Palestinians. What he ignores is the likelihood that in a war over territory, whichever side proved victorious was likely to expel its opponents. What did Finkelstein expect the Arabs armies would have done had they proved stronger? Indeed, those areas that did come under Arab control were 'ethnically cleansed' of Jews. Neither side was considering international law in what they saw as a fight for survival.
Finkelstein's distorted image of the topic may be partially explained by the fact that he does not appear to speak Arabic or Hebrew. In the entire talk he mentioned no original research he had conducted. For a person who claims to represent an embattled minority view, he has an unusual reliance on the weight of authority. Instead of presenting evidence of his own on any of the issues discussed above, he would quote out of context a sentence or two from experts in the field, such as Gideon Levy or Benny Morris. Even when quoting others, he would not report their evidence or their arguments, only their conclusions (and only when they fit his assumptions).
While I found Finkelstein's lecture to be weak on substance, most of the time I just found it silly. Take his pitiful attempt to suggest his own expertise. Three times in the lecture, he explained completely nontechnical terms, prefacing them with the phrase "for those of you not familiar with (insert word here) jargon." (He filled in the blank with different fields each time: diplomacy, international law, etc.) He also took five minutes to explain the plot of Rashomon, to make the clichéd point that historical events are remembered differently by various participants. His attempt at sophistication fell entirely flat.
The peak of absurdity, however, was when he presented an 'analogy' to the civilian deaths caused by Israelis during assassination operations against militants. Finkelstein compared them to the case of a woman in the audience (who had interrupted him a number of times) taking out a dagger and stabbing him in the heart (which she seemed inclined to do), and defending herself before a judge by saying she only wanted to test the dagger's sharpness. In addition to the strange implication of his own martyrdom, the analogy fails to account for the obvious points that a) the Israeli army may have a legitimate interest in killing terrorists trying to attack Israeli citizens, and b) that many militant groups intentionally place their headquarters in highly populated areas to deter Israeli strikes.
After over an hour of listening to Finkelstein's slow, effortful speech I was amused more than appalled. But then I recalled that this 'expertise' was validated by a doctorate from Princeton!
Seffy Muller '08 is a history major from Silver Spring, Md. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.