Israel does not have a right to defend itself against protesters in Gaza who pose an imminent threat, said anti-Israel activist Norman Finkelstein when he spoke at the University of Toronto Mississauga on March 6.
"Israel cannot claim a right to use any force in Gaza, whether it be moderate or excessive, whether it be proportionate or disproportionate, whether protesters are unarmed or if the protesters are armed. Whether protesters don't or do pose an imminent threat to life," he said around 20 minutes into his talk, arguing that current debates on the subject ignore what international law actually says.
Finkelstein was invited to speak by the Association of Palestinian Students for Make Hummus Not Walls Week. Around 250 people attended the talk, according to Robert Walker, the executive director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, who characterized the audience as seemingly "very supportive."
Walker said that arguing against Israel's right to defend itself shows that Finkelstein wasn't speaking in good faith.
"There are legitimate criticisms to be made of Israel, but to apply a bizarre and illogical claim against Israel that is applied to no other country in the world is not a claim that comes from someone who is asking an honest question. It's not a claim that comes from someone who is legitimately trying to create peace or betterment or mutual understanding. It's a claim being made by someone who seeks only to demonize Israel," he said.
"As such, the response to that, of course, is that Israel has the right and responsibility to advocate and protect its citizens, and anybody who would deny Israel that fundamental right is dehumanizing every individual in the country of Israel. And thus, there's not much of a basis for discussion with somebody who seeks to destroy a country."
Finkelstein has a history of making inflammatory statements regarding the situation in the Middle East, including expressing support for Hezbollah, a terrorist organization that is banned in Canada. Hasbara Fellowships alerted the University of Toronto prior to the talk and started a petition asking the school to repudiate Finkelstein's past comments, especially those in support of Hezbollah, and also to speak out against Israel Apartheid Week.
"We argue that Finkelstein's past comments are worthy of condemnation because they do not build bridges or mend fences. In our opinion, they do not further any process of mutual understanding and are divisive statements that we see as having shades of anti-Semitism," reads the petition, which had close to 1,000 signatures as of this writing.
In its response to the petition, the university did not directly address Finkelstein's past statements, instead commenting on controversial speakers in general.
"The University of Toronto vigorously defends the fundamental principles of open dialogue and tolerance within its community," said Amrita Daniere – U of T Mississauga's vice-principal, academic and dean – in her response. "This principle does not guarantee that all speech on campus is protected from the laws of Ontario and Canada. It is the responsibility of event organizers to ensure that the provisions of the Ontario Human Rights Code, the Criminal Code and all relevant university policies are honoured."
Daniere added that the school has a high threshold for intervening in a planned event and will only do so if it believes there is an "unmanageable security risk," or "good reason to believe that unlawful activity will occur."
But Walker said that Hasbara Fellowships never asked for the university to cancel the talk, only to distance itself from Finkelstein's views.
"I think the university has fundamentally misunderstood, or misrepresented, the concerns. The university has framed this as an issue of free expression, which it is not," said Walker.
Walker said Finkelstein has the right to express his views on Israel, even though they are "bonkers" and Hasbara Fellowships opposes "them wholeheartedly."
Although Hasbara Fellowships never called for the university to cancel Finkelstein's talk, there were some people who did. In a press release issued March 5, Toronto Coun. James Pasternak asked the school to cancel the talk and to condemn BDS movements on campus. (On Feb. 27, the U of T's Graduate Students' Union voted to support the ratification of a BDS committee.)
"While freedom of expression is a crucial Canadian value, targeting a group through demonization has no place at the University of Toronto. It is greatly concerning to see those espousing unfounded and ignorant attacks on the State of Israel finding a home at one of Canada's most prestigious places of learning," said Pasternak in his statement.
The statement also mentioned that Finkelstein is well-known for his book, The Holocaust Industry, which argues that Jewish people exploit the Holocaust for financial and political gain.
The Association of Palestinian Students at University of Toronto Mississauga did not respond to The CJN's request for comment by press time.