Speaker set in the midst of campus tension, rises to occasion with thoughtful perspectives of hope

    When DePaul University political science professor Norman Finkelstein approached the podium in Price Center Ballroom on Nov. 25, he looked around the room and laughed a little nervously. “”There’s an ominous quiet here which seems unwarranted,”” he said.

    It was quite hushed, despite the size of the crowd. But the uneasy silence in the room was understandable: Finkelstein was about to give a lecture titled “”Palestine and Israel: Roots of Conflict, Prospects for Peace.””

    The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a history of activism around it and has always been one of the few issues that can shake the UCSD community from its usual indifference to politics. In February 2001, the Muslim Student Association-sponsored “”Anti-Zionism Week”” turned the campus on its head, sparking enlightening debate and divisive bitterness between UCSD’s respective supporters of Israelis and Palestinians. Last year, a series of lectures on both sides of the issue was attended and protested by dissenters, and flyers for both MSA and the Union of Jewish Students were defaced or torn down.

    Finkelstein walked into a powder keg, and might have been the spark to ignite it. He has authored several controversial books about the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and some label him anti-Semitic.

    In the weeks before his lecture here, the San Diego Israel Alliance circulated an e-mail on UCSD listservs, reading “”Mr. Finkelstein’s visit is of great concern to members of [SDIA] as well as the UCSD Jewish community at large … We remain concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism on the UCSD campus as well as worldwide, and for this reason, we felt it necessary to alert campus organizations of Mr. Finkelstein’s visit and how it may affect Jewish students, as well as others.””

    To the credit of everyone attending, the fireworks were kept to a minimum. Finkelstein’s speech, while charged, was far from violent polemic, and those in the audience who disagreed with him were respectful and asked cordial questions during the question-and-answer period after the lecture. But what of this charge that Finkelstein, a Jew himself, is anti-Semitic? It certainly found no support in his presentation.

    Those who call Finkelstein anti-Semitic often ground their stance in his book “”The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering.”” There, he argues that prominent Jews have inflated and exploited the Holocaust for monetary and political gain. His critics say he is simply promoting the age-old Jewish conspiracy theory, which imagines the fictional Zionist Council of Elders plotting for world domination. “”The Holocaust Industry”” has been favorably received by extreme right-wing anti-Semites, but also by leading Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg. A work garners approval from bigots doesn’t make its author bigoted.

    But the meat of the criticism of Finkelstein comes from his stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He deplores Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, likening it to American conquest of the West and the Native Americans, and to apartheid South Africa. These comparisons are disturbing ‹ they’re intended to be ‹ and don’t win him any Zionist friends. Some of those Zionists go as far as to call Finkelstein’s stance against Israel anti-Semitic.

    For those to whom Zionism is an essential component of Judaism, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are one and the same. Zionists often quote Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote, “”When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews ‹ make no mistake about it.”” This ignores the many Jews who are themselves anti-Zionist, from American liberals like Finkelstein to ultra-orthodox Israeli Jews who believe only God can establish a Jewish kingdom on earth.

    Further, the respective definitions of “”Zionism”” and “”anti-Zionism”” are up for grabs. Is Zionism the belief in the principle of the existence of a Jewish homeland in historical Palestine? Is it unconditional support for the state of Israel as it currently exists? And can “”anti-Zionist”” be applied to anyone that criticizes Israel’s policies, or is it reserved only for those who call for the destruction of the state itself?

    Finkelstein’s position amid all this is unclear. His untempered criticism of the creation of the state of Israel suggests he would rather it never have come into existence, but when pressed to offer a solution to the current conflict, he argues for a two-state settlement the likes of which has been offered up again and again since the 1940s. Nowhere does Finkelstein suggest the destruction of Israel.

    Neither is he an apologist for the Palestinians. He frequently calls the Palestinian leadership corrupt and inept. While he may minimize Palestinian violence against Israelis, making little mention in his lecture of their part in keeping the cycle of violence moving, he is no defender of suicide bombings.

    When one audience member asked him if suicide bombings weren’t mislabeled “”terrorism”” because the Palestinians have no other means by which to resist, Finkelstein rejected this old justification. “”It’s wrong,”” he said plainly. “”Everyone knows it’s wrong. You know it’s wrong.””

    Rather than trying to excuse the morally inexcusable, Finkelstein depicts Israel as even more morally bankrupt, inflicting more civilian casualties than the Palestinians and being accused of human rights violations by Amnesty International.

    “”Anti-Zionist”” is an appropriate label for Finkelstein, but anti-Semitic is not. When he decries the actions of the early Zionist leadership and the current Israeli government, he does so on political bases, not religious ones.

    And as much as Zionists attempt to paint Zionism as an integral part of Judaism, Judaism is not theirs to define; it is a world religion with stunning and beautiful variety within it, not subject to one group’s limitations and caveats.

    This is what’s behind much of contemporary anti-Semitism, Finkelstein argued. Arab antagonism toward Israel is not based on anti-Semitism, he said, but rather that Arab anti-Semitism is an outgrowth of Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians and the conflation of two separate identities. “”Is it any surprise that if all the Jews one meets are Zionists, that one begins to confuse Zionism with Judaism?”” he asked.

    The way to reduce world and Arab anti-Semitism, according to Finkelstein, was to embrace the variety of opinion within the Jewish community with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to separate the political from the religious.

    That makes good sense, and could lessen the alarmingly widespread hatred of Jews present in the world today. It could lead to better relations between the Israeli and Palestinian camps, and perhaps an eventual peaceful solution to one of the 20th century’s most compelling conflicts.

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