As a Jewish student who is looking forward to Norman Finkelstein's speech on campus tonight, titled "Israel & Palestine: Misuse of Anti-Semitism, Abuse of History," I am disappointed there's been such misinformed debate about his visit. Maryum Saifee and Athar Abdul-Quader explained Monday on this page ("In Defense of Professor Finkelstein," March 6) that inaccurate accusations hurled at Finkelstein only stifle productive dialogue. Since many of the charges levied against him seemed to be based on emotional appeals and not on facts, I decided to talk to professor Finkelstein myself to clarify his argument in his new book Beyond Chutzpah.
I asked Finkelstein to talk about the misuses of anti-Semitism in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He explained, "If you look at the historical record on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the past, if you look at the human rights record, the present, or if you look at the diplomatic record, the future, on how to resolve the conflict-if you look at those three records, it's quite striking how broad is the consensus and how uncontroversial the record is. ... In fact, it's hard to think of another, as it were, trouble spot in the world where the record is so unambiguous and so straightforward."
"An obvious question arises-namely, how do you account for so much controversy, which, once you enter the public arena, swirls around the conflict that, if you look at the actual documentary record, is not controversial at all. And that's the question I pose in the introduction to my book. And the answer I suggest is that most of the controversy surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict is fabricated, contrived. And the purpose of that fabrication and contrivance is to divert attention from the actual factual record and to sow confusion about the real record."
"Let's look at the issue of the New Anti-Semitism. That's been a term that's been bandied about since roughly 2000, and there are two things to say about that New Anti-Semitism. Number one, it's not new. Every time Israel faces a public relations debacle or comes under pressure from the international community to resolve the conflict, it orchestrates this extravaganza called 'The New Anti-Semitism.' It's very easy to demonstrate. Any Columbia student, all that he or she has to do, is go to Butler Library and look for a book that came out in 1974 by the same organization that's orchestrating the hysteria now, namely the Anti-Defamation League, and they'll find a book called The New Anti-Semitism. And they'll find similar publications being putting periodically by the ADL and kindred organizations. There's nothing new about the New Anti-Semitism. That hysteria is whipped up periodically in the U.S. The problem is that people have short memories. They forget."
"Number two, it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. There's no evidence whatsoever of a New Anti-Semitism in the United States or in Europe. ... The purpose of the New Anti-Semitism is basically twofold: number one, and most obviously, it's to turn the perpetrators and their apologists ... into the victims. So instead of focusing attention on the cruel occupation, our attention is supposed to be focused on the suffering of those who are perpetrating the occupation: the victims of this alleged New Anti-Semitism. And the second purpose is to discredit any criticism of Israel as being motivated by anti-Semitism. The claim of the New Anti-Semitism is that, whereas in the past it was aimed at Jews individually, it's now being directed at the collective Jew-Israel. And therefore, anyone who criticizes Israel is guilty of anti-Semitism. So the purpose is to exploit the very real suffering that Jews endured in the past in order to discredit any of Israel's critics as being, in fact, motivated by anti-Semitism, and to discredit any criticism of Israel as being anti-Semitic. That's its purpose; there's no basis for the claim in reality."
I also asked Finkelstein what he would like to see discussed in a productive conversation about Israel-Palestine.
"I think the right answer is to steer away from slogan, steer away from ideological obfuscations, steer away from hot-button issues, and stick to the facts. In my opinion, what we now ought to be discussing has nothing to do with your position on Zionism. I don't care if you're a Zionist or not a Zionist, that's not the issue. The issue is fairly straightforward. It's as uncomplicated as an issue can be. Where do you stand on international law? Where do you stand on human rights law?"
"This is what the record shows: Israel has no right to any of the territory it occupied in the June 1967 war. The settlements Israel has built in the occupied territories are illegal under international law. Under international law, Israel has to fully withdraw. Israel's human rights record in the occupied territories is an abomination. Each statement I just uttered to you is completely uncontroversial. Every mainstream source, bar none, every one, will validate each of the statements I just made to you. And then the question to be put to a rational, sane human being is, 'Where do you stand on that?' 'Do you support the violations or do you oppose them?' 'Do you support international law or do you oppose it?' And everything else is beside the point."
I, too, hope that Columbia students can discuss the issues at hand rather than avoiding them through false accusations. Given that the General Assembly of the United Nations has voted time after time in overwhelming support of Palestinian self-determination and withdrawal of all Israeli settlements from the territories occupied in 1967, my stance is that Israel should abide by international consensus and international law. Finkelstein is doing a service by cutting away the obfuscating layers and making clear what constitutes the real issues in this debate.
Nell Geiser is a Columbia College senior majoring in anthropology and comparative ethnic studies. Active Subject runs alternate Wednesdays.