On January 25, 2011, anti-Israel activist Norman Finkelstein spoke in the student union at the University of Pennsylvania. The lecture—sponsored by the Penn Arab Student Society, Penn Race Dialogue Project, and Temple Students for Justice in Palestine—brought the former academic to campus despite DePaul University's 2007 decision to deny Finkelstein tenure because of his "inflammatory style and personal attacks" on his peers.
The event, which lasted over two hours, attracted an audience of about 200, composed both of members of the local community and Penn students, including a substantial contingent of Penn Israel Coalition members.
The lecture focused on three subjects: the 2006 Lebanon War, the 2008-2009 Gaza War, and the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident. The common thread tying these three events together, Finkelstein asserted, was the Israeli desire to "reestablish its deterrence capacity," in the aftermath of its unilateral withdrawal, or, as he termed it, "military defeat," from Southern Lebanon in May 2000. He claimed, without citing any sources or quoting any military officials, that the "Israelis were very upset by this "defeat" and were "determined to undo [it]."
In the first of many conspiratorial allegations against Israel, he declared that:
By 2001, the Israelis began preparing for the next round with the Hezbollah. They patiently waited for a pretext, an excuse, and they found it in the summer of 2006. And in July, Israel launched another assault on Lebanon.
Even if the Israeli military began creating plans in 2001 for a potential conflict with Hezbollah, it would not have indicated a desire for future aggression; indeed, militaries around the world maintain and regularly update battle plans in order to prepare themselves for hypothetical future adversaries. Furthermore, Finkelstein made only oblique reference to the event which touched off the Lebanon War of 2006: a cross-border raid by Hezbollah that left three Israeli soldiers dead, two injured, and two kidnapped.
Finkelstein made the unsubstantiated claim that, as a result of the mixed outcome of the 2006 Lebanon War, "Israel was determined to restore its deterrence capacity" in the region and "turned to Gaza," which, in typical inflammatory fashion, he called "its favorite shooting gallery."
In describing a November 4, 2008, Israeli attack on a weapon smuggling tunnel 250 meters into Gazan territory, Finkelsteinmade the absurd charge that Israel,
Waited patiently until election-day in the United States, November 4, when [it] knew the attention of the media and public would be riveted to the results of the historic presidential election.
In his analysis of the 2008-2009 Gaza War, Finkelstein alleged yet another Israeli conspiracy: a plan to invade Gaza "as early as March 2007" with only the lack of a "pretext" or "excuse" holding back a full-scale Israeli "assault." As he had for Hezbollah, Finkelstein painted the recognized terrorist group Hamas as the victim of an inevitable war born of untamable Israeli aggression. He described Hamas's firing of 8,700 rockets—aimed indiscriminately at Israeli civilians—between 2001 and 2009 as "mostly symbolic" acts of resistance.
Staying the course of an apologist, Finkelstein pronounced that:
It's easy enough to condemn the Hamas rocket and mortar attacks on Israel . . . but it seems to me if you want to condemn them, you still have an obligation to show what other options they had; if you don't show what other options they had, you're, in effect, saying that the people of Gaza had a legal and moral responsibility, an obligation, to lie still and die.
Finkelstein's double standard is glaring. Israeli counterstrikes to stop rocket attacks into its territory are acts of self-defense, not of aggression. Moreover, the Israeli military takes great pains to avoid civilian casualties in its strikes, even to the point of avoiding some targets cynically placed in civilian areas by Hamas. Yet he was more than ready to accept casualties among Israelis on the receiving end of those rocket attacks.
When discussing the Gaza flotilla incident in May 2010, Finkelstein asserted that the Israeli navy had many options short of the one they chose–boarding the ship:
They could have disabled the propeller on the flagship boat the Mavi Marmara; they could have disabled the rudder, the engine, and towed the boat to Ashdod, the Israeli boat; they could have blocked the vessel.
Yet he brought up no potential options for Hamas to have avoided a blockade in the first place, such as halting rocket fire and abiding by the 2008 Egypt-brokered cease fire with Israel.
In describing the finding of the Turkel Commission—Israel's government-commissioned committee that investigated the maritime incident—that certain "activists" on the ship prevented others from harming Israeli soldiers, Finkelstein remarked sarcastically:
That's perfectly reasonable. You know, on the boat there were some grandmas, 'Grannies for Peace' with their Birkenstock sandals, and they prevented the heavy, muscular, crazed 'Allah Akbar' sounding Turks . . . from killing the Israeli soldiers. That's perfectly reasonable.
During the question and answer session, an audience member pointed out the inconsistency between Israel's effort to avoid civilian casualties in the 2008-2009 Gaza war by dropping leaflets and other means, and Finkelstein's claim that Israel had the sole intention of harming civilians to restore its "deterrence capacity" in the Arab and Muslim world. Finkelstein retorted, "It's true Israel dropped lots of leaflets saying flee for your life. Not only that . . . according to Israel, they made 250,000 phone calls" imploring civilians to flee from upcoming attacks. If such Israeli claims were true, he continued, "[they] called every single home in Gaza because there are only 250,000 households in Gaza and it told them all to flee . . . except flee where?"
The contention that Gazans could not avoid Israeli bombardment by fleeing from areas where leaflets had been dropped or phone calls made warning of imminent attack ignores the fact that not all bombardments occurred at exactly the same time; to the contrary, the Gaza War lasted 22 days. Finkelstein simply ignored the passage of time.
For all of his assertions of war machinations fueled by untamed Israeli aggression, Finkelstein provided very little in the way of factual evidence. His lecture—which rested upon fallacious logic, glaring omissions of fact, dishonest double standards, and fabricated conspiracy theories—epitomized the type of fraudulent agitprop that precludes serious, factual discussion of the issues.
Penn could help advance a productive dialogue on the Arab-Israeli conflict if it stopped hosting speakers recognized for producing scholarship that, as DePaul University accurately put it, is "provocative more for inflammatory effect than to carefully critique or challenge accepted assumptions."