On November 18, 2002, Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, the Program on Justice and Peace, and the Young Arab Leadership Alliance (YALA) co-sponsored a talk by Norman G. Finkelstein entitled "Prospects for Justice in Israel/Palestine." Finkelstein has come under heavy criticism for his little book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, in which he argues compellingly that Jewish suffering has been exploited by Israel for political purposes. He is also an esteemed historian and political scientist who supports a moderate two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israel conflict. Finkelstein's appearance at Georgetown University sparked a firestorm of outrage among the Georgetown Israel Alliance, who accused Finkelstein of "Holocaust denial." This accusation got picked up by the Georgetown Hoya, and then by lazy Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher, until Finkelstein threatened to sue unless the Post retracted (a retraction was printed in the Post on December 8).
All of the hullabaloo revolving around Finkelstein's talk at Georgetown University got me thinking about this war of ideas currently raging in this country on the subject of Israel and Palestine. The way I see it, this is not a war between the pro-Israeli perspective and the pro-Palestinian perspective. After all, one can easily be pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and opposed to the Israeli occupation. Instead, today's war of ideas is being fought amongst those who support and those who oppose Israel's 35-year-old occupation of Palestinian lives and land.
Since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, there has been a noticeable shift in the discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Throughout the Oslo years, the focus was on the "peace process"--and with a few exceptions, the only people questioning Oslo and talking seriously about the "occupation" were Palestinian acctivists and intellectuals. Now we understand that Oslo was a sham and the so-called "peace process" is officially dead. A growing contingent of American Jews representing such organizations as Not in My Name (Chicago), Jews against the Occupation (New York), Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel (Washington, DC) and A Jewish Voice for Peace (San Francisco), have come to see the conflict through the lens of occupation, and contend that peace and occupation don't exactly mix. Even President Bush has used the word "occupation" in his speeches. And this has the pro-occupation right running scared and name-calling.
Palestinians speaking against the Israeli occupation can easily be dismissed by the Martin Kramers and the Daniel Pipes' of this world as Muslim fanatics (even if they are Christian). Average Americans or Europeans speaking critically about the occupation can be denounced as garden-variety anti-Semites. American Jews speaking about the conflict from an anti-occupation perspective can be labeled as self-hating. Even someone like Norman Finkelstein, the son of two Holocaust survivors, can be maligned as a "Holocaust denier" and a "Holocaust revisionist" for speaking from an anti-occupation perspective. Finally, all people who denounce the Israeli occupation are accused of supporting terrorism. According to this twisted logic, if you oppose Israeli state terrorism, then you of course support other forms of terrorism.
Among the pro-occupation right, the focus is not on defending a morally and legally indefensible pro-occupation perspective, but on discrediting and silencing those who oppose the occupation. It's about whipping up deeply-rooted Jewish fears about anti-Semitism and American fears of Middle Eastern terrorism. In short, it's about creating a climate of hysteria instead of conducting rational, informed debate.
That explains why an organization like Campus Watch tries to turn professors who criticize Israel's policies into pariahs. It explains why the pro-occupation group the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) undertakes the disingenuous practice of mistranslating excerpts of anti-occupation articles published in Arabic press. These mistranslated excerpts, taken wholly out of context, are then picked up by the sensationalist American media and paraded as proof of the rabid anti-Semitism of the Arabs. It is noble to stand against anti-Jewish bigotry and bigotry of all kinds; however, the pro-occupation right goes much too far. Organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, fixated on the idea of tolerance toward Jews, are appallingly silent on Israel's intolerance of Palestinians and its refusal to allow them the same rights that the center advocates for Jews. Instead of taking a critical look at why anti-Israel sentiment is on the rise around the world, the Wiesenthal Center's focus is on banning books and silencing speech. Anti-Israel or anti-occupation sentiment is conflated with an endless irrational anti-Semitism that always existed and always will. In short, either you're with the occupation, or you're an anti-Semite and a terrorist sympathizer.
That's why Norman Finkelstein's book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering is so important. He takes the lesson of tolerance learned from the tragedy of the Holocaust and applies it to the Palestinian people. This is a dangerous idea, and that's why the pro-occupation right is doing everything it can to discredit him and any institution that hosts him as a speaker. The same fate is in store for any professor or public figure who dares to suggest that Israel's occupation might be illegal and immoral. The pro-occupation right is running scared, and those of us struggling to end the Israeli occupation in the hopes creating a better future for all peoples in the Middle East, should take heart.
Leah Harris is a member of the Executive Board of Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel in Washington, DC.