Norman Finkelstein has now come and gone from Chico, but his lecture has had an ambivalent and divisive impact. On the positive side, the event was well-attended and gave a hearing to an unorthodox perspective. The event was incredibly unsuccessful, however, if its goal was to create constructive discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Finkelstein's presentation was an analysis of Israeli motives for the recent 22-day military campaign within the Gaza Strip. He began by emphasizing the importance of using words carefully. The Israeli assault on Gaza, according to Finkelstein, was not a war, but a "massacre." Finkelstein then argued that Israel had two motives for this "massacre": 1) to enhance its "deterrence capacity" following its 2006 defeat in Lebanon and 2) to undermine growing Palestinian moderation, especially the willingness of Hamas to join a peace initiative.
These points were defended with demonstrative references to the sources of the "facts" in his account and with a gun slingers' challenge for anyone to find a single factual error. The "facts are straightforward" and "experts [or nations] agree" were typical Finkelstein statements. Seemingly not to disappoint those familiar with his tactics, Finkelstein also threw in several ad hominem arguments. He mocked New York Times columnist Tom Friedman for his thesis that the world is flat and then added that what is really flat is Friedman's head. Later, during questioning, he called an emeritus professor a Nazi and another professor a "fool" and a "coward."
Together, all of this was meant to establish an airtight indictment against Israel. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Finkelstein demanded, has a simple cause (that is, Israel) and simple and widely agreed upon solutions: Israel should return to its 1967 boundaries and provide a full right of return with reparations to the Palestinians evicted from their land. In return, Arabs will renounce their belligerency toward Israel.
Finkelstein's ad hominem arguments can be dismissed. They are outside the bounds of civil discourse and speak fundamentally to Finkelstein's immaturity. Unwinding the web of illogic on which his exploration of Israeli motives for the invasion of Gaza is a more demanding task, but begins by challenging the terms that Finkelstein provided. Can I find factual errors in Finkelstein's lecture? Given a transcript, time, and inclination, I am confident that I could. One is suggested below. The real problem, however, is not what Finkelstein said, but what he didn't.
To give two examples, Finkelstein gave an account of the six day war of 1967 that said nothing about the implications of Gamal Abdel Nasser's decision to blockade the Straits of Tiran and to amass troops on Israel's border. It was interesting to learn from Professor Finkelstein that Nasser enforced Egypt's blockade of Israeli ships for only two days, but even more interesting not to hear that such a blockade is an act of war. Second, Professor Finkelstein said nothing about the surprise attacks of Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur – the Jewish day of atonement – in 1973.
If much of his case relied on selective and skewed histories, Finkelstein's judgments about the motives of the Israelis rested on the slimmest of evidence. Unfortunately, politicians rarely have singular or even coherent motives for conducting wars. Different Israeli leaders doubtlessly thought the invasion necessary for different reasons and some doubtlessly opposed it. It seems likely that Israel invaded Gaza to prevent further rocket fire and to enhance its deterrence capability and to literally eliminate Hamas (a motive, remarkably enough, that Finkelstein left unexplored).
Although typically confrontational, Finkelstein's charge that Israel was motivated by a desire to radicalize Hamas will not be taken seriously. Hamas has yet to renounce its stated goal of the elimination of Israel. Its position and actions establish it as neither peaceful nor moderate.
Finkelstein's presentation is dangerous because it matters "how" we argue. It matters that we do not reduce ourselves to ad hominem arguments. It matters that we do not accuse our opponents of the basest motives. It matters that we consider multiple perspectives as we construct histories from which we intend to draw moral conclusions. All of this matters because these are conditions of meaningful discourse and we want to avoid creating our own history of ill will.
Most important, when we begin meaningful conversation, I am confident that we will come to the conclusion that Finkelstein is flat wrong about at least this. Progress in this conflict will not come on the basis of facts about which there is no disagreement or moral judgments that everyone accepts. It will have to begin with the acknowledgements that both sides have perpetrated and endured unspeakable pain and that who struck first, like who was has the best historic claim to what land, is often irresolvable. Mostly, peace will require sacrifice and forgiveness.
I didn't hear those "facts" at Finkelstein's lecture. Did you?Professor Alan Gibson
Department of Political Science