Norman Finkelstein, a scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict most famous for a protracted conflict with Alan Dershowitz, spoke at NYU's Silver Center Thursday evening regarding Gaza at an event hosted by the Young Democratic Socialists of America, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace.
Gaza has been in the news recently due to shootings of Gazan protesters by the Israeli Defense Forces. It has also been under blockade by Israel for over a decade, resulting in severe resource shortages and resource withholdings, as well as a deteriorating political situation. Finkelstein described it repeatedly as an "open air prison" and a "concentration camp."
The Israel-Palestine conflict has taken on increased prominence on campus in recent weeks. Earlier this month, more than 50 student groups officially endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a global campaign pledging boycotts of Israeli goods and institutions. The groups' boycott includes goods manufactured in the occupied territories, academic institutions and conferences sponsored by Israel, and on-and-off-campus groups such as Realize Israel, Torch PAC and Birthright; they also have called on NYU to divest from companies and funds "complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestine."
This has not gone over well with pro-Israel groups; Realize Israel, who will host their annual "Rave in the Park" on Friday, said that the boycott of its group and Torch PAC is an "unprecedented attack on two All-University clubs on campus, both of which promote open dialogue regarding Israel without taking stances on its politics."
Finkelstein raised some eyebrows among the mainly pro-Palestine crowd by saying that he is not a supporter of BDS. Instead, he said that BDS has become a distraction from the more pressing matters in Gaza.
"There's a more urgent matter at hand," Finkelstein said, noting that on May 15, Gazans seems "pretty deadset" on breaching the wall separating Israel from Gaza. "I just don't think now is the time to get bogged down in, what I think at this particular moment, is a side issue, at this particular moment, of BDS."
Despite all of this, and despite Finkelstein's controversial place in American academia, his talk did not elicit organized protests from pro-Israel groups on campus.
Finkelstein spoke forcefully on the human rights violations in Gaza and the actions of the Israeli government that supposedly led to it. He outlined a brief history, touching upon the displacement of Palestinians in 1948 that led to a generational refugee crisis and the occupation by Israel in 1967. He referred to the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza in scare-quotes, saying that they never let go of control of what got in and out of Gaza. And since 2007, Israel has engaged in a land, sea, and air blockade of the Gaza strip in response to Hamas' election. This has led to severe shortages of food, an extremely poor-quality water supply, and limited daily electricity. He also noted Israel's numerous bombing campaigns of Gaza, most recently in 2014, where the Palestinian casualties and damages were vastly disproportionate to Israel's.
"The question arises: is Gaza even livable anymore," he asked. He cited UN reports saying "on its present trajectory, Gaza will be unlivable by 2020," and said that that may have been an optimistic number: thousands of Gazans have approached the border wall in recent weeks in protest of the "open-air prison" conditions; the Israeli army has shot hundreds, including children and journalists. He said that Israel and its supporters have launched a concerted effort to get images of this off the internet.
"If Israel doesn't like the pictures of dead children, then it should follow the advice tweeted by the UN rep," Finkelstein said. "And the advice he tweeted was: stop killing them."
Finkelstein was mostly soft-spoken, but at times became viscerally angry in his lecture. When asked by a student about the difference between "disproportionality" and "asymmetry," Finkelstein dismissed terminology used in legal documents and by the Israeli government as "legalese." He had earlier claimed that, according to his research, the rockets launched from Gaza in 2014 were nothing more than "enhanced fireworks" or "bottle rockets" if they could only destroy one house in Israel despite 5000 being launched; meanwhile, Israeli rockets destroyed 18,000 homes, according to Finkelstein.
"Israel has no right to a response," Finkelstein passionately exclaimed, saying that it had been poisoning children via the water supply.
"You have only one obligation," he continued, "and that's to open the gates to that prison, to open the gates of that concentration camp."