Imagine sitting in a room with respected Yale professors, listening to a Yale-invited speaker humiliate fellow students and deride American Jewry's "level of mental hysteria" about Holocaust denial. You needn't stretch your powers of imagination too far; such a scene unfolded last Thursday night in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, where Norman Finkelstein expounded on "Israel and Palestine: Misusing Anti-Semitism, Abusing History."
Finkelstein, an assistant professor at DePaul University, presents himself as an expert on Middle Eastern affairs and world Jewry.
But let's examine the facts. Norman Finkelstein was fired from New York University and Hunter College after the publication of "The Holocaust Industry," which The New York Times called a "novel variation" on the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a century-old anti-Semitic forgery. In the same review, Finkelstein was called "juvenile, arrogant and stupid." However, Finkelstein isn't totally bereft of admirers. In fact, the neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier Ingrid Rimland has said that reading his book made her "feel like a kid in a candy store."
His lack of academic credentials was borne out in his speech at Yale last week. Again and again, Finkelstein resorted to ad hominem attacks and outlandish claims to combat those who dared challenge his views. He called renowned author and human rights crusader Elie Wiesel a "Nobel laureate for who-knows-what" and referred repeatedly to the nefarious "Jewish lobby" manipulating U.S. foreign policy. When a student asked how Finkelstein would respond to a quote posted on his own Web site, Finkelstein angrily proclaimed the student an "imbecile" for asking such a "stupid question."
In a neat bit of willful ignorance, Finkelstein declared the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a "simple one." He claimed that it is unanimously accepted that Israel has perpetrated ethnic cleansing and uniquely egregious human rights violations since its birth in 1948. He urged us not to ignore the instinctive revulsion we all feel when faced with Israel's demolition of Palestinian houses. Curiously, Finkelstein did not mention the revulsion some of us feel when faced with the news of innocent children blown to pieces on their way to school or carefree cafe-goers murdered while sipping espressos. In fact, he never mentioned the words "terrorists" or "militants" at all, an omission that allowed him to ignore the cause-and-effect relationship between Palestinian suicide bombings and the defensive actions Israel is forced to undertake in response.
Finkelstein also belittled current threats to Jews worldwide, stating that the widely accepted phenomenon of "the new anti-Semitism" is a construct invented by Jewish organizations. When a student confronted Finkelstein with unassailable evidence of the alarming rise in French anti-Semitic hate crimes, Finkelstein simply shouted her down. Evidently, crime statistics are not rigorous enough for him. No, for Finkelstein, only blatant falsehoods and crude innuendo will suffice.
But all this pales in comparison to Finkelstein's morally repugnant comments about the Holocaust. He treated his audience to a barrage of shocking and hurtful claims and implied that hundreds of thousands of Jews are misrepresenting themselves as Holocaust victims. Such statements make liars of our grandparents and render their suffering a mere figment of the imagination. But maybe we should give Finkelstein the benefit of the doubt. After all, he does have sound reasoning: As his mother put it, "If all those who say they are survivors are telling the truth, then who did Hitler kill?"
Finkelstein's recurring theme was exploitation. He accused American Jewish organizations of exploiting the Holocaust for monetary gain and political influence, and alleged that Israel uses the Holocaust to deflect criticism. But the ultimate irony is that it is Finkelstein who is the one doing the exploiting. Thursday night, Finkelstein never failed to remind us that he is Jewish and the son of Holocaust survivors, in an effort to inoculate himself against any charges of anti-Semitism and racism. Finkelstein has made a career out of the Holocaust; he counts on his controversial claims to garner publicity and speaking engagements.
If this were merely a matter of one man's irrational views, we would agree to disagree. Finkelstein has a constitutional right to speak, no matter how bizarre and offensive we find his opinions. At the heart of this matter are the people who subsidized, sponsored and publicized Finkelstein's speech. Who provided him with a soapbox from which to propound his racist views? The Yale Center for International and Area Studies' Council on Middle East Studies, along with the New Haven group The Struggle and the Arab Students' Association.
It is deeply disturbing that the YCIAS would choose to affiliate itself with a group as extreme as The Struggle. Last week, when we logged on to the YCIAS Web site to find more information about Finkelstein's visit, we were directed to TheStruggle.org, where we had the opportunity to glean valuable insights about the motives behind the war in Iraq: "anti-Arab racism" and "Israel's desire to dominate its Middle East neighbors." The views this group espouses seem patently laughable, and any speakers such a group would sponsor are suspect. And yet, somehow, we found ourselves sitting alongside respected, tenured members of the Yale faculty, including current and past department chairs, listening to this man command a Yale-subsidized bully pulpit. The experience was discomfiting, to say the least.
Would a Yale department sponsor a speaker who criticized the African-American community for "exploiting" slavery and segregation? Would the YCIAS sponsor an event in which Bosnian Muslims were condemned for using the genocide in Yugoslavia for monetary gain?
The answer is clear. But the YCIAS apparently felt compelled to affiliate itself with an irresponsible demagogue and a fringe group. Student tuition funded this event, and YCIAS must be held accountable.
Rachel Bayefsky-Anand '09, Ari Evans '09 and Rena Traube '09 are members of the Yale Friends of Israel.