Prominent scholar on Israeli-Palestinian issues and former professor at DePaul University Norman Finkelstein spoke on the issues of Israel’s human rights record and occupation of the West Bank, and urged audience members to judge for themselves whether his arguments held merit, at the Student Center on Wednesday, May 7.
Sponsored by the Muslim Student Union as part of its weeklong event, “Never Again? The Palestinian Holocaust,” Finkelstein laid out his argument that much of the controversy surrounding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is not controversial at all, but rather, it is perpetuated in order to hide a widespread global consensus among governments and human rights organizations that Israel has no legal claim to the West Bank.
“The vast preponderance of controversy surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is contrived.” Finkelstein said. “It’s fabricated, it’s artificial. And the purpose of this fabricated controversy is to deflect attention from, and sow confusion about, the documentary record.”
Finkelstein also criticized the media’s treatment of the conflict for having a double standard in how it reports.
“When you read the media on the human rights record, no one seems to know what’s going on. … Whenever some Palestinians are killed, whenever their homes are bombed, you have a reporter … interview the Israelis, ask them what happened, and the Israelis being the Israelis, say they were targeting terrorists. And then they ask the Palestinians, who say they were civilians. And at that point we’re all supposed to throw our hands in the air in despair. Who knows who’s telling the truth? Well, nowhere else in the world is that standard used. Whenever there’s a killing or atrocity, a journalist does not interview the alleged perpetrator, and a journalist does not interview the alleged victim. The journalist goes to the reputable human rights organization and asks what happened—a human rights organization, which has a reputation for honesty, integrity and accuracy.”
Following his speech, Finkelstein began a Q-and-A session by asking for dissenters to speak first, but there was a prolonged silence in which no one volunteered. However, audience members did eventually volunteer.
One student asked why he should trust Finkelstein as an academic, and brought up the fact that Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, in a speech at UCI in fall 2007, dismissed Finkelstein as having no credibility and claimed that Finkelstein was involved in the creation of an obscene comic of Dershowitz.
“You shouldn’t trust me,” Finkelstein answered. “You should doubt everything, you should on your own go and check the facts, and see whether or not what I say bears up against the facts. One of the things I’ve noticed … [is that] at the end of every talk I ask for dissenters first, and I notice there are no dissenters. And that, for some reason tells me [that] maybe it’s not my facts that are being disputed. That seems to me a reasonable inference.”
Finkelstein went on to address Dershowitz’s allegations.
“I find it perplexing that Dershowitz, who made a career in the ’70s by defending pornographers … he in most recent months defended Eliot Spitzer on the grounds that prostitutes do not suffer and make a good wage—and he knows something about prostitution. … So I find it perplexing given his own record that he should suddenly be indignant and shocked at a bawdy cartoon that I a) never drew, b) never appeared on my Web site, c) never had anything to do with me.”
The ballroom, with a capacity of 632, was filled with students as well as elderly Irvine community members, and several lines during Finkelstein’s address brought applause from the audience. Others were more skeptical, and toward the end of the Q-and-A, speakers who openly disagreed with him engaged in somewhat heated arguments.
One of the more heated moments came toward the end of the Q-and-A, when one student asked if Finkelstein had attended a Holocaust-denial conference in Iran.
“No,” Finkelstein replied. “That’s a question like, ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ You know full well I didn’t attend the conference. The only reason you asked it is to plant the idea in the audience’s mind; it’s a filthy question to ask me. I’m sorry, young man, you know full well that my late parents were in the Nazi Holocaust. … To ask that question of me is filthy and I’m gonna say it straight it to your face.”
Ami Kurzweil, a second-year international studies and biological sciences double-major, gave his thoughts afterward.
“[Finkelstein] was a little skewed. … He does what I learned in Humanities Core: take tidbits and quotes and facts from other things and express them in the way that you want to interpret. He does the same thing, everybody on the other side does the same thing … so the speech was OK and gave me the other side, which is always good to know, but I think there were many skewed arguments that weren’t well-put.”
Muslim Student Union spokesperson Nida Chowdhry, a third-year film and media studies and English double-major, was pleased with the event’s outcome.
“The purpose [of the event] was to raise awareness and educate our campus community and the community at large about this issue. I think he was very well-received, the audience was very respectful, there was nobody causing a riot and the people who did disagree or had questions were able to come up and ask those questions,” Chowdhry said.