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Not One to Mince Words

Dr. Norman Finkelstein comes to IUPUI

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Not One to Mince Words

 

Dr. Norman Finkelstein, 61, is as known for his pugnacious lectures and TV appearances debating the Israel/Palestine conflict as for his controversial scholarship on the topic. He will be speaking at Indiana University - Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) on Friday, March 13, at 6:00 pm to the delight of some and to the disappointment of others including the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council (Indy JCRC).

Currently teaching in Sakarya University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies in Turkey, Finkelstein received his Ph.D. in political science from Princeton University. Finkelstein is not one to mince words. He has repeatedly called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who gave a speech before a joint session of U.S. Congress on March 3 — a maniac.

“I think it’s an accurate description,” he told NUVO. “He’s a lunatic, he’s a maniac... In the midst of everything that’s happening, that happened in the Middle East: let’s just start with the 2003 attack on Iraq and the rise of ISIS, the destruction of Syria, the millions of refugees that have been generated…Do we really need another war with Iran? Is that what the world needs? Can it be anyone other than a certifiable maniac that would after all of this death and destruction since 2003 would now be encouraging military confrontation with Iran?”

Per the Israeli government point of view, shared by Netanyahu, last summer's assault on Gaza originated as a response to Hamas rocket attacks and was about self-defense. But, according to Finkelstein, the statistics of the conflict tell another story.

"In the last Israeli operation in Gaza, about 2,200 Palestinians were killed of which approximately 1,500 were civilians," he told NUVO. "And approximately 540 were children. On the Israeli side, 72 israelis were killed of which five were civilians and one was a child. So the ratio of civilians killed was 300 Palestinians to one Israeli. The ratio of children killed was 540 children killed to one Israeli. That doesn’t sound to me like self defense. That sounds to me like the statistics of a massacre."

Coming on the heels of his most recent book, Method and Madness: the Hidden story of Israel’s Assaults on Gaza, one can safely assume that it will have at least as much to do with the Gaza conflict that commenced in July last summer as it does with Netanyahu who he doesn’t seem to like very much.

If you are trying to follow Finkelstein’s narrative, however, it’s necessary to consider the Israeli prime minister’s role in this conflict. Per Finkelstein, the conflict results from the Israeli political objective of denying political legitimacy to Hamas which Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization. It was the refusal of the European Union and the United States to condemn the formation of a unity government between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, according to Finkelstein, that got Netanyahu looking for an excuse to shake things up a bit.

It was last summer when “an apple fell into his lap,” as he told an audience at the University College of Dublin on February 21.This apple, as it were, was the abduction of three Israeli teenagers last June in the West Bank by Hamas-affiliated Palestinians. (This kidnapping, according to Finkelstein, was not ordered by Hamas leadership.)

“Operation Brother’s Keeper" was launched allegedly to find the kids even though it was known almost immediately that they had been killed,” Finkelstein told his University College of Dublin audience. “And they proceeded to kill a half dozen or more Palestinians, blow up Palestinian homes, all in the West Bank, ransacked businesses, and arrested 500 Palestinians, overwhelmingly Hamas members…. They wanted to keep provoking Hamas to a violent reaction so that Mr. Netanyahu could then throw up his hands and stare out at to the world and say, See, I told you, they are terrorists. You can’t negotiate with them.’ Initially Hamas resisted the provocations, but there are other factions in Gaza that didn’t resist the provocations.They started firing the homemade weapons and at some point the whole thing spiraled out of control and the third major assault began.”

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Son of Holocaust Survivors

Finkelstein’s parents were both Holocaust survivors, a fact that doesn’t do much to placate critics like retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz who accuse him of anti-Semitism. In 2000, Finkelstein published The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. This book received praise from preeminent Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg, but was also criticized by other academics. In The Holocaust Industry Finkelstein contends that the Holocaust was being used as an ideological weapon by pro-Israel supporters to deflect criticism of the Jewish state. In addition, he claims that Holocaust survivors were not as well served as lawyers in the large financial settlements reached with Germany and Switzerland on the Holocaust survivors’ behalf.

Enter Dershowitz

An equally notable book in Finkelstein’s career is entitled Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History which centers on his very public spat with Alan Dershowitz (and in which he characterizes the former O.J. Simpson defense team member as a history abuser par excellence). In the book, Finkelstein attempts to demonstrate that Dershowitz’s 2005 book The Case for Israel was plagiarized.

If Finkelstein’s case is in fact valid, then Dershowitz had the misfortune of plagiarizing the book on which Finkelstein wrote his doctoral thesis at Princeton: Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine. Peters’ book contends that Palestine was largely unpopulated before Jewish immigration began in the late nineteenth century and therefore, really, there is no such thing as a Palestinian. They immigrated later, according to Peters’ book, to reap economic benefits, after Jewish ingenuity had transformed Palestine into the land of milk and honey, so to speak. In his thesis, Finkelstein set out to prove that the book was “a threadbare hoax” as he termed it in his book Image and Reality in the Palestinian Conflict.

Alan Dershowitz was, shall we say, not amused by Finkelstein’s charges against his (Dershowitz's) book, which (at least) rehashes many of the same arguments made in From Time Immemorial. In 2007, at the time of their public dispute Finkelstein, an assistant professor at DePaul University since 2001, was up for tenure. Dershowitz mounted a campaign to deny him tenure and tenure was denied. However, the university denied that outside attention influenced the decision.

But Finkelstein believes that something larger was at work besides reaction against his accusations of academic fraud against Dershowitz.

“It was because I was becoming quite effective in my public speaking,” he told NUVO. “I was bringing out large crowds. I had a full grasp of facts. I was able to counter the attacks of many of the repeat defenders of Israel’s policies. And it was precisely because I was so effective and so reasonable that Israel’s supporters, Alan Dershowitz among them, mounted a campaign to deny me tenure.”

The Flames of Extremism

Neither Finkelstein’s rhetorical flourishes nor his scholarship are universally appreciated by Indy’s Jewish community. And Finkelstein’s lecture at IUPUI comes less than six weeks after a lecture by another controversial scholar highly critical of Israel, Ilan Pappé. In the wake of the lecture, the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council released a statement that called Pappe a “discredited scholar,” but didn’t state who he was discredited by.

“Talks like the one occurring at IUPUI this evening will likely incite hatred of the State of Israel and its supporters,” the January 31 statement reads, “Thereby fuelling the flames of extremism and creating an anti-Semitic climate on campus that may become hostile to Jewish students.”

When asked if there had been a recent uptick on any of the IU or IUPUI-affiliated campuses of anti-Semitic incidents, Indy JCRC Executive Director Lindsey Mintz recounted no specific incidents but talked of “an increased sense of tension between students who want to verbally or visually show their support for the state of Israel and students who don’t.” She also talked of increasing tension between students and professors: “When a student wants to raise a certain question or say a certain thing, but knows that their professor has allied with the BDS [Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions] movement, for example.”

Mintz has concerns about speakers like Pappé and Finkelstein oversimplifying the Israeli/Palestinian into easily digestible soundbites. Another vociferous critic of Israel, Noam Chomsky, will be speaking this summer as well at an event sponsored by Christians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East - the same group that hosted Pappé and Finkelstein - and its affiliates.

"If you have three successive speakers who argue that the problems in the Middle East are connected back to the state of Israel, then a student hearing that simple black and white message over and over again would conclude that the problem would go away if the state of Israel also went away and this is not only not true but incredibly dangerous," said Mintz, who describes Indy JCRC as the organization that people in the Jewish community call when there are any outbreaks of anti-Semitism.

(For his part, Finkelstein characterizes his relations with the Jewish community to NUVO as a good one. "I feel that, in my opinion, judging from my own interactions, I have good, amicable if not necessarily consensus conversations with young American Jews, Israelis; I can carry on a conversation, we can disagree," he said. "I would say that 95 percent of the time, maybe even 99 percent of the time it remains civil. Sometimes there’s disagreements, sometimes I can persuade. And sometimes I can’t.")

It remains to be seen whether people on opposite sides of this issue—or advocacy groups like Indy JCRC and scholars like Finkelstein—can even agree on what the pertinent facts are in relation to, for example, the situation in Gaza. While Finkelstein characterized the Gaza invasion to NUVO as “a massacre” and Ilan Pappé characterizes it “incremental genocide,” Indy JCRC—while it deplores the loss of life on both sides—characterizes it as Israel exercising the right to defend itself.

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“This current conflict is not about disputed territories or kidnappings or the failed peace process,” reads the Indy JCRC statement regarding Operation Protective Edge which was released on July 18, 2014. “This is about the only democracy in the Middle East defending itself against unrepentant and relentless terrorists. Hamas is an internationally recognized terror organization whose charter calls for the destruction of the state of Israel.”

While Indy JCRC hasn’t released a statement on Finkelstein, the group has the same concerns about him that it had about Pappé because of their similar points of view according to Mintz.

Finkelstein and Pappé differ, however, on an important point: Finkelstein is a proponent of a two-state solution that would revert Israel to its 1967 borders while Pappé’s proposed one state solution, if implemented, would likely dissolve the Jewish state. The two-state solution is a proposition endorsed by the United States, the UN, and much of the international community. Finkelstein has advocated for a two state solution before on AlJazeera English's Head-to-Head program, perhaps not the most receptive audience. But his is a voice that is more likely to be listened to in the Arab world — because of or despite his occasionally inflammatory rhetoric — than, say, Netanyahu's.

In addition to what Indy JCRC sees as a strong anti-Israel bias in these recent invited speakers, and wanting more balance in the selection of speakers brought in to address the Middle East Conflict, Indy JCRC also questions the processes that brought Pappé and Finkelstein to IUPUI. Mintz is more concerned with the choice of venue, she told NUVO, than the political viewpoints of these speakers.

Process is important, communication is important," Mintz told NUVO. "At IU Bloomington the Palestinian ambassador came to speak, he was invited by the school. He was part of a series and we understood that there was a process in place. Processes can always be improved but there was a process in place and that several invitations were issued under this idea that there would be a series of talks presenting different viewpoints."

This is a process that Mintz thinks is not happening on the IUPUI campus.

"I think it would benefit IUPUI if they made clear that the views expressed by these speakers do not represent the views of the university," Mintz said. “These speakers... they’ve been invited by one group and groups associated with IUPUI are saying well that sounds great, we’d like to cosponsor it too,” she said. “We’re not sure who’s driving here and that’s a concern as a supporter of IUPUI.”

While Mintz was talking about Pappé’s speaking engagement at IUPUI rather than Finkelstein’s, different flyers for the Finkelstein lecture list different cosponsors. The Finkelstein flyer handed out at the January 31 Pappé lecture lists only Christians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East and Indiana Palestine Solidarity Network as cosponsors and doesn’t even list IUPUI as a venue. The subsequent flyer listed 10 more organizations and IUPUI faculty departments including the IUPUI Department of Sociology and Jewish Voices for Peace: Indiana and lists the IUPUI Lecture Hall as a venue.

Yet IUPUI has seen supporters of Israel being given opportunities to speak at the school: Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer spoke at an invitation only IUPUI event in March of last year.

Film, Food, and the Future

One fairly recent planned event at IUPUI involving Israel and Palestine didn’t come to fruition at all due to outside pressure. This public event was entitled Film, Food, and the Future was supposed to happen in the summer of 2012. It was supposed to feature two Palestinian students from the Gaza Strip sharing their research on women’s rights and social media as an instrument for change. During this event it was understood that a film by Gaza University faculty on the underground tunnel economy in Gaza would also be shown.

"The reaction of some members of the local Jewish community to an event flyer was swift, as the advertising was perceived to be misrepresenting the tunnels primary function, which they deemed to be military-based," according to a paper published by Adjunct professor of Anthropology Ian McIntosh, Director of International Partnerships at IUPUI, and political scientist Jamil Alfaleet of Gaza University.

That focus on civilian infrastructure was too much for some IUPUI alumni, who threatened to cancel their financial support for the alumni association unless major changes were made to the event, according to the paper, entitled The Classroom as Peace Incubator: A US-Gaza Case Study, published in Peace and Conflict Studies, which detailed the virtual university program between Gaza University and IUPUI that the Palestinian students had participated. The planned event was supposed to be a culmination, and celebration, of activity that had taken place in this virtual classroom but, instead, it was cancelled.

So IUPUI, not unlike DePaul University, has been a stage where dramas indirectly involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have played out.

A Positive Role

For her part, Indy JCRC's Mintz sees herself playing a positive role in dialogue between divergent voices on the Israel/Palestine question. Mintz is also board chair of the locally-based Center for Interfaith Cooperation where she says constructive dialogue is taking place.

“For the past four months, we’ve had a board conversation on Israel and Palestine,” she told NUVO. “And it was difficult, oftentimes scary but incredibly feeding. And that conversation was not talking points. It was not about materials to distribute. It was not about whose book was the latest out. We had very clear rules on how the conversation would unfold and this was 20 people sitting in a room, sharing their hopes, and their fears for the future… Those words help me not hear the word occupation in the way I did six months ago and help a member of the Muslim or the Palestinian community not hear a reference to anti-Semitism as a blanket knee-jerk excuse.”

Writer Arts, Faith & Equity

Having lived and worked in Indy on and off since 1977, and currently living in Carmel, I've seen the city change a great deal. I love covering the arts in all its forms, and the places where the arts and broader cultural issues intersect.