Norman Finkelstein knows his audience, as he revealed Monday night in his lecture at the American University in Cairo. His comments on Israel's sense of rationality dripped with sarcasm. He got laughs when he joked that the number of cockroaches in his New York apartment pales in comparison to the number of footnotes found in Israel's official report investigating its assault on the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla, or when he described Israeli perception of the flotilla's passengers as "CIJ"s, or "Crazy Islamic Jihadists." He rallied the students' sense of pride in the Egyptian revolution. He stirred their emotions by claiming that Israel has always operated under the assumption that "Arabs don't know how to fight" and even more pointed insults. Finkelstein won his audience over so convincingly that when he made an Arabs-can't-read joke, the auditorium erupted into laughter.
Despite the joviality of exchanges between Finkelstein and his student audience, the reality that their views meshed wholeheartedly may eventually have serious implications in the regional policy arena.
In terms of content, Finkelstein delineated three key developments that have shaped the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent years: the Gaza War of 2008-2009, Israel's assault on the Gaza-bound Freedom Flotilla in 2010, and the Egyptian revolution. Finkelstein's comments on the Gaza offensive ranged from the motives of the attack (which were to restore Israel's deterrent power and Arabs' fear of it), the term Gaza "war" as a misnomer because an all-out assault on a significantly weaker military power cannot be described as such, and Israeli human rights abuses. He used familiar language in discussing the event, describing Israel as a "lunatic" state that used "insane" force in Gaza according to the testimonies of some IDF soldiers, and, intentionally committed acts of military "hooliganism," to quote then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
In reference to the flotilla of humanitarian aid that came under Israeli firepower in 2010, Finkelstein's logic was as follows: the blockade of Gaza is illegal because it is a form of intentional collective punishment of the Palestinian people that has caused a humanitarian crisis in the area. Thus, the use of force against civilians in order to defend an already-illegal blockade was certainly illegal itself under international law. Finkelstein mocked Israeli claims that weapons and dangerous jihadists were on board of the Mavi Marmara. According to Israel's official line, he teased, IDF soldiers faced dozens of Islamic "Mr. T's" on the ship against whom they fired in self-defense. Luckily, Israelis escaped unharmed by these thugs thanks to the help of peaceful "granny" activists.
Finally, Finkelstein got to the question that most concerned his audience: why is Israel afraid of recent events in Egypt? Egypt's first civilian government is unlikely to attack Israel or rescind on its 1979 peace treaty with the country, he explained. Instead, Israel is sweating simply because Egypt has become a force to reckon with rather than a pawn to be played. The biggest threat to Israel, he said, is that Egyptians will enter the modern world, continue to reclaim their dignity, and demand a central role in the region.
Perhaps the most revealing element of the speech was that Finkelstein, simply put, was preaching to the choir. Before he even took the podium, he was heralded by the audience as a champion of their views on the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Even his more outrageous statements about Israel were met with blind enthusiasm. Students logged onto Twitter lavished him with praise as a funny, charismatic, and morally upstanding academic. Needless to say, the question and answer session following his lecture served as an opportunity for all in the room to reaffirm his or her own opinions vis-à-vis Finkelstein
The fact that Finkelstein's sarcastic diatribes were exactly what AUC students wanted to hear is telling in terms of public opinion. And Egyptian public opinion, if the country is to achieve representative democracy, will acquire great importance in shaping Egypt's foreign policy agenda. In the short term, Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces is firmly in control of Egypt's mediator role in the conflict. Perhaps for the sake of stability, the SCAF is doing a balancing act by warming to Hamas and undermining Israel's blockade of Gaza, while simultaneously suppressing any real public ejection of Israel.
Yet today's generation of youth who proved central to the success of the Egyptian uprising is the one that will shape Egypt's longer-term foreign policy. And despite the fact that they are the generation with the least direct contact with Israel, as the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars were before their time, they have witnessed enough humiliation of fellow Arabs at the hands of Israeli military force to form an uncompromising outlook. Unless tempered by a softened Israeli approach towards regional politics, "Finkelsteinism," if you will, may remain at the center of Egyptian popular opinion- and thus, its future foreign policy.