Last Tuesday Oct. 12, Norman Finkelstein, a political scientist who specializes in the Israel-Palestine conflict, gave a lecture, "U.S. Involvement in the Israeli Occupation," on the Tempe campus at ASU.
It was sponsored by ASU Coalition for Human Rights and Students for Justice in Palestine.
Rhetorically speaking, it was quite an impressive achievement. He misrepresented facts to trivialize important counterpoints to his argument and simplified broad and complex ideas in order to emphasize his own opinions. This was not an academic and objective lecture. This was a politically skewed speech. And most people ate it up.
First off, Finkelstein would repeat and emphasize certain terminology — words and phrases that paint a negative picture of Israel.
He reiterated his definition of Israel's "deterrence capacity" as the Arab world's "fear" of Israel. This simplified description makes Israel sound like a fear-mongering country, whose motives for attacking Lebanon and Gaza were simply arbitrary.
This view fails to give an accurate and objective account of reality. Deterrence is an important legal term, defining the ability for governments to deter people from committing crimes on a domestic level, and — even more critical on a national, political level — deterring enemy nations from attacking them.
This is the main justification for authority of a legal system that punishes criminal activity: if you will potentially be executed for committing murder, you are less likely to do it.
For the same reasons, countries must establish that there will be consequences for other countries harming or attacking them. The United States invaded Afghanistan after 9/11 as a statement that terrorist attacks are not to be tolerated here.
Do you think that if a cartel in Mexico was lobbing rockets and mortars into Phoenix, our government would say "OK, well I guess Mexico has an international right to do that?"
No — we would blow Nogales to pieces.
For Israel, surrounded by hostile countries, deterrence capacity is imperative; it is the only thing that allows Israel to exist.
By dismissing this idea of deterrence capacity, Finkelstein is only giving a limited and biased point of view of the situation.
Finkelstein also trivializes Hamas' agency in the Gaza Strip. This was a particularly interesting position to take because I've never met anyone on either side of the issue who fails to acknowledge the fact that Hamas is, quite simply, a terrorist organization.
He briefly and sarcastically acknowledged the fact that international human rights organizations like Amnesty International unanimously condemn Hamas in the "sternest terms." Then he downplayed the accuracy of these claims by suggesting that when Gaza lobs bombs into Israel, it is only because it has no other choice.
Strangely, he refused to apply this same forgiving logic to Israel's actions, failing to acknowledge their hazardous position in the Middle East.
Dr. Finkelstein's books and ideas have been highly controversial, highlighted best by his denial of tenure from DePaul University in June 2007. He has become a figurehead for the Arab and Muslim communities around the world, while alienating much of the Israeli and international Jewish communities. In May 2008, he was denied entry to Israel and banned from entering for 10 years.
If the speech he gave last Tuesday was an accurate reflection of his usual rhetoric, then I understand why he is so polarizing. It is not what he says, so much as how and why he says it that upsets people. It's not so much that he condemns Israel's actions, as it is that he fails to make it a fair fight.
As an academic and authoritative voice on the Israel-Palestine conflict, as someone who has a lot of influence around the world — on, say, ASU students — does Finkelstein have a responsibility to present his argument in a fair and objective way? Should we expect our academic leaders to be held to a higher standard than, say, a newspaper columnist or a politician?
In his process of being condescending and dismissing complicated issues, not a single word was uttered in defense of Israel nor was justification given for balancing his perspective. It doesn't take a doctorate in Political Science to understand that these are complex issues that require a balanced perspective.
It appears that he invests much of his objectivity by implying it as self-evident in his Jewish background as the son of two Holocaust survivors.
He may not actively say, "Look, I'm a Jew and also anti-Zionist, I must have a good reason to be." But to the casual observer, the implication is there. And neither he nor the people who control his public image fail to emphasis this fact — actually, they reiterate it as frequently as possible.
As the author of "The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering," it strikes me as insanely ironic that his rhetorical ethos is so heavily dependent on so thoroughly exploiting his ethnic roots.
Because I am a person who aspires to be open-minded and appreciate views opposite to my own, I respect Dr. Finkelstein's appearance at ASU — in fact, I eagerly watched his lecture multiple times on the Students for Justice in Palestine website.
But I was quite disappointed by his rhetorical choices and imbalanced views. I just hope that SJP and ASU students will be able to see through his misleading rhetoric and take what he had to say with a grain of salt — or maybe several of them.
Contact Danny at firstname.lastname@example.org