The New School's program, "The Jewish-American Relationship with Israel at the Crossroads," raised my suspicions for two reasons: the one-sided composition of its panel and its scheduling from 4 to 6 PM on a Saturday afternoon. Was this meant as a deliberate slap at pro-Israel and religious Jews, I wondered?
The announced panel featured the well-known bete noir of the American Jewish community, Norman Finkelstein, and the equally caustic critic of Israel, Noam Chomsky, who cancelled due to laryngitis. Finkelstein emerged as the moderate compared with Anna Baltzer, a 30-year old activist who has spent time in the West Bank documenting human rights abuses and is the author of "Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories." She is currently national organizer for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.
Adam Shatz, the moderator, seemed equally admiring of both panelists. He is a journalist who has reported from the Arab world for a number of publications and edited "Prophets Outcast: A Century of Dissident Jewish Writing about Zionism and Israel" (Nation Books). Together, they drew a large and enthusiastic crowd to a packed auditorium.
Finkelstein regards Israel as "a crazy state … abetted by American Jews." And he quoted an Israeli historian who regards all of Israel's wars, with the possible exception of 1948, as "wars of choice" rather than defensive.
Both panelists attacked the liberal "pro-Israel/pro-peace" J Street lobby. Baltzer characterized it as "racist" because of its opposition to the occupation on the grounds that it's not good for the Jews, while Finkelstein scornfully exaggerated J Street's admiration for the former Kadima party leader, Tzipi Livni. Both saw J Street's base as fertile ground for recruitment.
Where Finkelstein comes off as relatively moderate is in supporting a two-state solution, which he sees as the international consensus position, conforming with international law; he sees Israel as legitimate within its pre-June 1967 borders and whatever minor adjustments are agreed upon in negotiations with the Palestinians. He has previously attacked the official BDS campaign headed by Omar Barghouti for not disclosing what Finkelstein regards as its real aim to dismantle Israel; he sparred gently with Baltzer for being "agnostic" on one state versus two. In general, she insisted that Jews must take a back seat to the Palestinians, viewing any other stance as dictating to the oppressed and therefore being "racist."
I asked the New School's press office if its Vera List Center, the ostensible sponsor, had considered panelists who are involved in the Jewish community in ways other than anti-Israel activism, and why they'd schedule this on Shabbat. I mentioned Peter Beinart, a religious Jew, who literally wrote the book on the American-Jewish relationship with Israel recently, "The Crisis of Zionism." Neither he nor The Forward's editor-at-large JJ Goldberg, another authority on this topic, would have attended on Shabbat.
A New School press officer referred me to Fern Diaz, publicity manager for OR Books (Finkelstein's publisher), who responded to my concerns in an email:
"… [W]e planned this around the appearance of Mr. Chomsky, who only had this small window in his schedule for New York, and although we saw the conflict, we thought it was worth having the event for the importance of the discussion. We made sure that the conversation was recorded both by the venue and a few media outlets so that those who couldn't make it and were still interested could watch it at a later date. The talk, even now that Mr. Chomsky won't be able to make it due to illness, is still going to be recorded by CSPAN's BookTV and Democracy Now. We of course reached out to people involved in the Jewish community…"
But Ms. Diaz did not indicate if others were considered for the panel, nor was I able to ascertain in what ways these panelists are actually "involved in the Jewish community." Diaz continued:
"We (OR Books) organized the event as a way to showcase Norman Finkelstein's "Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance With Israel is Coming to an End", a book ten years in the making, and which while it received much less mainstream attention than Mr. Beinart's excellent book, "The Crisis of Zionism", makes many of the similar arguments. They both came out at the same time. As you probably know, though, Mr. Finkelstein's arguments are often taken with caution, and … weren't considered as complements to Beinart's in the recent analysis of this subject. Noam and Norman are longtime friends, and Noam was interested in spotlighting Norman's book. …"
I do not believe that Finkelstein's voice should be excluded from a New School forum. Nor do I think that Israel's behavior (which I myself see as problematic) should not be subject to public scrutiny and debate, but there should be at least some care given to a diversity of views. And one may legitimately ask the New School if its scholarly educational mission was best served by an event wholly designed by an outside publishing house for a promotional purpose.