Norman Finkelstein, a former political science professor whose ferocious criticism of Israel has caused him to be denied academic tenure, banned from Israel, and accused of shaming Holocaust survivors as profiteers in their own misfortune, is the scheduled speaker Tuesday night at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
He is being hosted by the school's Association of Palestinian Students.
The sold-out lecture about Gaza is one of the first high-profile tests of Ontario Premier Doug Ford's new rule about campus free speech, in force as of January, that universities must enforce freedom of expression on campus to "a minimum standard prescribed by government."
Even before Finkelstein arrives, there is controversy swirling ahead of this author of books with such provocative titles as "The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering," "Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History," and "A Farewell to Israel."
Tyler Evans-Tokaryk, director of the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre at UTM, said he asked for the centre's name to be removed from promotional material for the lecture.
The centre provides some funding for the Association of Palestinian Students at UTM, and many other clubs, as part of its effort to promote academic skill development. But it did not support or endorse this particular event, and refused permission to use its name.
Organizers of the lecture did not respond to messages through the event website and to their email address hosted by the school's student union. The club's executive is listed on the student union website as June and Jane Doe.
The poster describes Finkelstein as "a political scientist who specializes in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Holocaust."
In 2008, he was deported and banned from Israel for 10 years after being interrogated about his contact with Hezbollah, an Iranian-funded Lebanese militia that Canada considers a terrorist group.
His expressions of solidarity for Hezbollah during the 2006 war in Lebanon were a key factor when Chicago's DePaul University denied him tenure in 2007. He had compared the group to the Second World War resistance against Nazis, and in a video clip from a protest that was made notorious by Fox News personality Sean Hannity, he declared "We are all Hezbollah." He would later say he did so deliberately, not on the spur of the moment.
There was a bitter public feud with Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz over his book "The Case for Israel," and although the school denied outside pressure played a role in its consideration of tenure, Finkelstein did not get it, and later resigned. The following year he was still looking for academic work, but as the Chronicle of Higher Education put it, "no one in academe will give him another job — not even as an adjunct."
Jewish groups were critical. Finkelstein has "shamefully spent his academic career minimizing the impact of the Holocaust, calling those who have sought restitution 'cheats' and 'greedy,'" said Judy Zelikovitz of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. His invitation to speak is "shocking and deeply disturbing," she said.
Ran Ukashi, national director of B'nai Brith Canada's League for Human Rights, said it opposes "speakers who use their platforms to engage in falsehoods, half-truths, and hateful views."
"There's a war against the Jewish people, essentially. It's been raging on university campuses for 18 years (since the origin of Israeli Apartheid Week, usually held in February or March). This is another spike," said Avi Benlolo, CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies. "He is part of that problem on university campuses."
Finkelstein also spoke at UTM in January 2009, about the war in Gaza that was then in its final week.
He was introduced with a mention of his then forthcoming book, "A Farewell to Israel." It could not be immediately determined whether it was ever published.
He began by addressing what he described as speculation that the motive of the Gaza war was the upcoming election in Israel, in February 2009, which would bring Benjamin Netanyahu to power.
"From the beginning I was rather skeptical of that explanation. It's true that there is, you know, it is a factor, the jockeying for votes, in a Sparta-like society consumed by revenge, the thirst for blood, and where killing Arabs is a sure crowd-pleaser. There's no doubt that that factor played its part in the motive behind the war, the massacre," he said.
But, Finkelstein noted, Israel has previously gone to war when there was not an upcoming election.
"I think that's an important observation," he said. "What we're seeing now is really the aftermath of the 2006 war in Lebanon, which has very little to do with the issue of elections."
This talk is likely to update and reflect upon that lecture.