This coming Tuesday, Dr. Norman Finkelstein is visiting my campus. For those of you who do not know who Norman Finkelstein is, I recommend you go to Pirate Bay or some other torrent index, and then bittorrent the file of a 2009 documentary entitled American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein. I recommend you bittorrent the movie so that you do no have to pay a single penny to the producers (Baraka Productions) of this tendentious film. Even though the movie is clearly pro-Finkelstein, the neuroses of the man come through so clear that you can develop a reasonable idea of just what kind of an individual Finkelstein is.
Dr. Finkelstein (Ph.D., Princeton, 1988), makes his mentor Noam Chomsky seem reasonable and rational. Finkelstein is today an out-of-work self-styled "esteemed scholar and expert on the politics of the Holocaust" (so says the preposterous Media Advisory put out by my college on its web site) who is the endless invited guest of campus organizations out to criticize Israel in the most underhanded, despicable manner possible.
It is an old trope first developed by the Church and its Inquisitors: march out onto the pulpit a Jew (or former Jew) to lambaste the Jews for their sins. If a Jew is doing it, how can it be anti-Semitic? But I contend that when precisely a Jew performs as a paid monkey for people who are blinded by a perverse kind of Israel-hatred, it certainly is anti-Semitic.
In this case, on my campus, I've seen it once before: find a critic of Israel with marginal academic credentials (in this case it was a researcher from Harvard, one Sara Roy), but make sure that person is not only a Jew, but a child of Holocaust survivors, and then make sure to promote his or her Jewish/Holocaust ties, and then let 'er rip. This all goes to contribute to the single most anti-Semitic variation of Israel criticism (which I readily agree is mostly not anti-Semitic): the Jews, victims of the Nazi Holocaust, are now perpetrating through a Jewish state the very genocidal crimes that they were once the victims of. Perfidious, blind, hypocritical Jews! And look -- here is an idignant Jew, a child of this great crime, willing to call an Israeli spade a spade. Like I said, it has happened on my campus once before, and here we go again -- calculatedly finding a Jew (a survivor child, no less) to do the job that hundreds of non-Jews can easily do -- not just "criticize" Israel, but call her an "insane, lunatic" state -- and be (supposedly) completely protected from the accusation of crossing the line into anti-Semitism.
Now I very much would like to go hear Dr. Finkelstein (downgraded to irrelevancy from Hunter College, denied tenure at DePaul University, apparently fluent in neither Hebrew nor Arabic -- and yet touted as an expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict) this coming Tuesday. I've announced the lecture to my 40 students who take my course on the Arab-Israeli Conflict. I told them that some people shine light on the conflict, and other people simply generate heat. Finkelstein is these days exclusively the latter. He isn't a scholar -- he is a strident polemicist, an activist of a sort, a cause celebre to some.
Originally, the presentation by Dr. Finkelstein was scheduled by its organizers for Monday. I wrote to one of the student organizers that Monday is the 7th day of Passover, and I will not be on campus. One of my colleagues, who had nothing to do with the original invite but had talked to some of the student organizers, came to my office to discuss and apologize for the insensitivity of the scheduling conflict. I assured her it was no big deal -- very few students or faculty here at Trinity College observe these final days of Passover as days off. "Please don't change anything for my sake," I told her.
But this is the domain of politically correct higher education, and Finkelstein's Monday noon talk was switched to Tuesday. Unfortunately, this makes for an even more difficult obstacle for me and some of my colleagues. In the practice of Conservative and Orthodox Jews in the diaspora, the 8th day of Passover is also a day off, and it is made doubly sacrosanct because on the 8th day in synagogue occurs the recitation of the Yizkor memorial service to honor close departed family members. Now one learns from the documentary that Finkelstein is an atheist, so I am not at all surprised that the Yizkor service is not the way he honors his dead parents. (In the movie, he claims that he honors their memory by speaking out against the injustices perpetrated by Israel.) But I find it a bit strange that some student groups, in league with the International Studies Program (an academic program in which I teach a course, and which is led by a colleague who has publicly endorsed the academic boycott of Israeli scholars and higher education institutions), have managed to scrounge up this child of Holocaust survivors, this political activist posing as an academic expert, to launch into a well-constructed screed about Israel and the Gaza War of December 2008-January 2009 (and the Goldstone report too) on a day when some of us simply cannot come.
The truth is that there are many positions I think I share with Finkelstein. I have blogged in real time my opposition to both the 2006 war against Lebanon and the Gaza War of '08-'09, on not only strategic but also on moral grounds. I think the Goldstone report is a devastating critique of Israeli actions during that war. I have blogged my unequivocal opposition to the conduct of the Olmert and Netanyahu governments and their policies. I am absolutely opposed to the Israeli settlement project, and I believe that Israeli policies towards Palestinians and Israeli Arabs are and have been historically shameful.
What I do not do is go to Lebanon and praise Hezbollah as a legitimate resistance organization which should continue to pound Israel with missiles "to knock some sense into them." I do not use the characterization "Israeli Nazi" (though I have to acknowledge that there was at least one highly respected Israeli intellectual who used the term "Judeonazi" to refer to Israeli governmental policy towards the Palestinians.) I will not give a quote to a Turkish paper, then pasted on The Tehran Times , claiming that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. Maybe if I were a political activist with a failed academic career and nothing left but my penchant for being my own worst enemy (or as the Trinity College media advisory puts it, an "independent scholar") I would do these things. Maybe not.
What I can do is this: I am sick and tired of participating in an academic program that is led by a signatory to an international academic boycott of Israeli academics, and which sponsors such drivel. I have two thesis advisees this semester that I have agreed to supervise through the International Studies Program. When I successfully get them through their graduation, I will sever all ties with this troubled academic unit.