March 12, 2007

Prof: Middle East Controversy 'Contrived'

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“The vast amount of controversy swirling around Jimmy Carter’s book, and more broadly, around the Israel-Palestine conflict, is contrived, it’s fabricated, it’s conjured up,” argued Prof. Norman Finkelstein, a professor of political science at Depaul University in Chicago late last Thursday in Lewis Auditorium.

The topic of Finkelstein’s lecture was “The Media Lynching of Jimmy Carter,” an analysis of the reaction to the former president’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. However, the professor opined on myriad topics, including the International Court of Justice’s 2004 ruling on Israel’s security barrier, the legality of West Bank settlement communities and “The Holocaust Industry,” a phrase he coined in his 2003 book of the same title.

Finkelstein has authored several books, including The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah and is known for his staunch criticism of what he deems “Israeli imperialism” and the exploitation of “the holocaust card.”

For much of his lecture, Finkelstein refuted the notion that the conflict in the Middle East is complex or debatable, arguing that tension between Israelis and Palestinians is rooted in Israel’s refusal to abide by international law and in its maintenance of settlements in Palestinian land.

“If you look at the historical record, [you] look at the current record … in fact the Israel-Palestine conflict is remarkably uncontroversial,” he said.

The purpose of the “contrived controversy,” he posited, “is to sow confusion about what the documentary record actually shows.”

In fact, Finkelstein argued, “there is no controversy regarding [the] most fundamental questions, the final status questions … of the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

He did, however, acknowledge room for disagreement over the political feasibility of the Palestinian right of return to Israel.

To support his claims, Finkelstein pointed to publications from human rights groups including Amnesty International, B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch. When one looks at the numbers of casualties on each side of the conflict since the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada, he argued, any ambiguities dissolve. Finkelstein argued that while the controversy has been played out in “the never-never-land of American media,” the historical record is far more straightforward.

Finkelstein also took issue with the works of Israeli historian Benny Morris and Alan Dershowitz, a prominent civil libertarian, Harvard Law School professor and author of The Case for Israel. Finkelstein questioned the authors’ conclusions and accused Dershowitz of extensive plagiarism.

For a topic whose fundamental questions, according to Finkelstein, invite “no controversy,” audience reaction was anything but unified.

“I thought it was pretty good. Overall he is very methodical and systematic, and it is difficult to disagree or debate with any of the points he makes, given that he seems to have done his research,” said Shaan Rizvi ’07, a member of Student Advocates of Palestine and president of Muslim Educational and Cultural Organization at Cornell.

Justin Weitz ’07, president of Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee and a Sun colomnist, disagreed.

“Cornell is a place where we strive to examine a situation as complex as the modern Middle East with judiciousness, sensitivity and attention to nuance. Unfortunately, Professor Finkelstein offered none of these in his one-sided analysis of the conflict,” Weitz said.

“It is astonishing that Finkelstein, who sees the conflict as “uncontroversial,” could not explain the wave of suicide terrorism which has killed and maimed thousands of Israelis which many, understandably, find ‘controversial,’” he added.

“I thought it was very interesting. I read one of his books actually, so I sort of knew about him. I was just disappointed that a lot of people who would have opposed his views weren’t there,” said Mohamad Jardaneh ’09. “I went to see [Israeli Vice Premier and former Prime Minister] Shimon Peres’ talk, and I expect people who want to engage on debate on this topic to go to Norman Finkelstein’s. As far as the actual content, I agree with his argument, although I’m sure it could spark a lot of controversy.”