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|Written by Alroy Fonseca|
|Thursday, 28 February 2008 19:00|
Last month, the Graduate Students Association of the University of Ottawa hosted Norman Finkelstein, a well-known academic and activist specializing in the Israel-Palestine conflict, for a talk on campus. I attended the event, which was quite informative, and found that I couldn’t help but reflect on the profound effect Finkelstein has had on my thinking over the last few years.
I first met Finkelstein almost five years ago, when he gave a talk at the University of Waterloo in June 2003. I was then an undergraduate student-member of the campus-based Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) group, and had suggested to my fellow activists that we invite Finkelstein to give a talk.
I had, over the preceding months, slowly awakened to the reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict, after spending the previous two years foolishly subscribing to conventional accounts of the conflict’s many facets. I became interested in learning more about the Mid-East conflict during the summer of 2001, when I was living in Ottawa and working for Health Canada on a co-op term. I was bored at work and knew few people in town, and so spent my days perusing the shelves of local book stores for something interesting to read.
The previous September, the so-called Second Intifada, or ‘uprising’, had begun in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and a new vicious wave of violence ensued in the region over the following months, with hundreds of deaths. With all that madness occurring in the background, I was motivated to try and make sense of it all by informing myself a bit more on the subject. This was challenging, though. As I scanned the shelves of various bookstores, I couldn’t help but notice that there was an abundance of books on the Middle East conflict. I was rather lost in that sea of books, each purporting to offer a groundbreaking analysis of the topic, until I happened to stumble upon the Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Middle East Conflict by Mitchell Bard.
Without thinking twice, I decided to buy it, hoping that this guide would provide a good, easy to understand overview of the conflict’s main issues.Upon reading the guide, I learned, for example, that during the 1948 War (which established Israel as a state) Arab countries emitted radio broadcasts asking Palestinians to leave their homes in order to make room for the invading Arab armies, who would then ‘push the Jews into the Sea’. (This explanation was used to argue that Palestinians left their homes voluntarily and were not ethnically cleansed by the Jewish militias/Israeli military.)
Additionally, I learned that during the 1967 Six Day War, which marked the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, Israel was the merciless victim of aggression by neighbouring Arab states who, in the preceding months, ceaselessly terrorized the Jewish state until a pre-emptive Israeli attack became the only viable option. And, I also learned that throughout the decades-long occupation of Palestinian territory that followed that war, Israel has constantly tried to treat Palestinians as well as possible, and that the latter just won’t accept making peace with their suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism.
All of these claims made by Bard reflect the ‘standard’ history of the conflict, and they all lead one to view Israel as the primary victim, a position I also then adopted. It was not until more than a year and a half later that, as I continued reading up on the conflict, I happened to come across some articles and books by Finkelstein, which I thought I'd give a read. It was possible to tell, right away, that Finkelstein was taking a different point of view. His writings generally presented the claims I was familiar with (and accepted), and then went on to dispute them, most often quite effectively. For example, Finkelstein’s works show how the invading Arab armies never issued radio broadcasts asking Palestinians to leave their homes in 1948. He points out that not only is there grossly insufficient evidence to support this claim, but that extensive archived BBC and CIA radio monitoring records of Palestine in 1948 reveal no such broadcasts. With respect to the Six Day War, Finkelstein details how Israel regularly harassed and attacked its Arab neighbours in the hope of instigating a conflict, and even directly quotes Moshe Dayan, then Israel’s Defence Minister, as confirming this view. Moreover, in relation to the occupation, Finkelstein offers a painstaking analysis of reports by virtually every reputable human rights organization operating in the Occupied Territories to show that Israel continually (and severely) violates a variety of international laws in its treatment of Palestinians.
Finkelstein is not, primarily, a historian. Rather, he is, as the renowned Holocaust studies scholar Raul Hilberg once said, a “well-trained political scientist”. Finkelstein has an impressive ability to synthesize volumes of information by picking out key points of contention in the existing literature and then gracefully resolving them, while always providing references to allow the reader to verify his claims. Like Karl Marx, de omnibus dubitandum – ‘doubt everything’ – is one of Finkelstein’s favourite mottos. And so his works, as I discovered, are quite convincing, and can withstand the closest scrutiny. In effect, through his wide-ranging critique of the standard historical narrative, Finkelstein convinced me that Bard is quite the crude propagandist.
Now, some of you may laugh at me for relying on an Idiot’s Guide to learn about a serious topic like the Middle East conflict. The book, after all, was written by a guy who works for the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, an advocacy group that promotes a tighter alliance between the US and Israel. Surely, I should have picked up a serious book if I wanted to learn something useful. Truth be told, however, as I familiarized myself more with the Israel-Palestine conflict’s literature over the coming years, I discovered that the basic arguments presented in the Idiot’s Guide reflect the basic arguments advanced in a whole slew of mainstream historical accounts of the conflict. For example, relatively recent books such as Six Days of War by Michael B. Oren, The Case for Israel by Alan Dershowitz, and Right to Exist by Yaacov Lozowick, all present Bard’s version of history. Moreover, the Idiot’s Guide account also resonates with the general position held by key media pundits and the many major newspaper editorial boards in the US and Canada.To use academic jargon, Bard’s account was one particular representation of the hegemonic discourse, especially in North America, on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
After coming to the realization that Finkelstein was right, and that the likes of Bard, Dershowitz, Oren, and Lozowick, were wrong (and, I would argue, quite likely conscious of their misrepresentations of the historical record), I was, to put it mildly, pissed. I could not believe that the historical record could have been twisted so flagrantly in order create a narrative that would suit the interests of Israel (and its lone ally of real substance, the US), while denying the experience and human dignity of the Palestinians.
I couldn’t believe, as well, that I had been so thoroughly and deliberately misinformed about the Mid-East by apparent academics, commentators, and even journalists. And I was further annoyed that this deliberate campaign of misinformation continued in promoting the image of Palestinians as the “terrorists” who are preventing progress on the so-called internationally-backed “peace process” – a term Orwell would have found amusing.
I was now determined to take action and wanted to help proliferate the more accurate, alternative narrative being presented by writers such as Finkelstein. It was, then, during the winter of 2003 that I contacted Finkelstein and asked him if he’d be willing to come to Waterloo to give a talk on the conflict as part of Palestine Week – a series of cultural exhibitions on the Palestinians – scheduled to take place between June 5 and 10 of that year, to mark the beginning of yet another (the 37th) year of Israeli occupation. Helping organize Finkelstein’s talk taught me innumerable lessons about the importance of speaking up on issues of human suffering, and the challenges one can face when doing so runs against the interests of those in power. Most importantly, though, the event signaled my awakening as an activist, a disposition I hope never to lose.
As I write this article, Israel’s Housing Minister, Ze’ev Boim, is announcing plans to build 1,100 new apartment units in East Jerusalem, territory unambiguously recognized under international law as belonging to the Palestinians. Not that one should be surprised, of course. This has been the sort of policy Israel has pursued in the Occupied Territories for decades. But, it is nonetheless worthwhile to note that despite the regular occurrence of such announcements by Israel, the mainstream media always seem to give the impression that peace is about to be achieved. Consider the circus of media attention directed at the Annapolis “peace” conference hosted by George W. Bush last November. While acknowledging widespread low-expectations on outcomes, an article appearing on BBC’s news site included, remarkably, the following line: “…there are grounds for optimism, says our correspondent: the Americans are behind the talks, there is no plan B and the consequences of failure would be bloody.” Hmmm…peace might finally be achieved because Dubya is behind the talks. What can I say? What can anyone with half a brain say about this kind of inane reporting?
What is encouraging, or at least should be encouraging to anyone who cares about human rights in the Mid-East, is that a growing number of Jews in the US and Canada are starting to oppose Israel’s repressive policies towards the Palestinians. This is of critical significance, of course, because the US is Israel’s biggest ally, providing it with billions of dollars in military and economic aid every year. Without the financial, military, and political support of the US, Israel would be truly isolated. It is also of critical importance because, as anyone who has criticized Israel publicly knows, those who defend Israel often have no compunction about throwing around the anti-Semitism charge to deflect attention away from serious issues.
In Canada, meanwhile, Jewish groups such as Not In Our Name (NION) have been very active in making their opposition to Israel’s abuses in the Occupied Territories known. Recently, members of the group’s Ottawa chapter have challenged Israel’s Ambassador, Alan Baker, at his public speaking engagements. They have also mounted regular demonstrations in front of the main downtown Chapters store to protest against Chief Executive Officer Heather Reisman’s creation of the Heseg Foundation , which financially compensates non-Israeli Jews who come to Israel to fight in its military. Another national group, calling itself the Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians, has been trying to become a member of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) in order to reduce the latter’s unquestioning support for Israeli government policy. The group has so far been unsuccessful in joining the CJC, but the genie is now out of the bottle.
Upon seeing Finkelstein again last month, I think his most valuable skill is his ability to present a convincing argument that there is, today, little dispute over the conflict’s key issues amongst historians and, perhaps most importantly, in international law. Finkelstein reviews, for example, the 2004 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Israel’s separation wall. While most attention focused on the ICJ’s position that the wall is illegal under international law, Finkelstein points out that, in reaching its decision, the World Court also drew important judgments on a number of key issues often said to be very controversial. For instance, the ICJ found that Jewish settlements in the West Bank were illegal and must be dismantled; that East Jerusalem is the lawful capital of the Palestinians and must be relinquished by Israel; and that the West Bank and Gaza, both acquired during the 1967 War, are inadmissible as Israeli territory and must also be returned.Importantly, Finkelstein notes that on all these points, the 15 Justices of the Court were unanimous, in sharp contrast to their past rulings.
Finkelstein also reminds his audiences that every year, the United Nations General Assembly votes on a resolution entitled Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine, which calls for a two state solution and affirms Israel’s right to security and peace. And every year virtually the whole world, including the Arab states, vote in favour of the resolution, with only Israel, the US, and a handful of Pacific micro island-states (who perhaps want to have a brief moment under the sun) voting against. In 2002, the vote was 160 to 4 (Israel, US, Federated States of Micronesia, and Marshall Islands). Last year, the outcome was 161 to 7 (adding Australia, Nauru, and Palau).
Lastly, and of great importance, Finkelstein is effective in showing why the so-called ‘pro-Israel’ movement – made up of students, professors, advocates, public commentators and so on – are not in fact pro-Israel at all. The radical positions they advocate in opposition to basic principles of international law and in favour of militarism only condemns the Middle East to endless war that may well lead to Israel’s violent destruction.
Reasonable people can easily see the injustices perpetrated against the Palestinians. It’s not a question of being on the Left – though it’s clear the Left has overwhelmingly been on the side of international law in the history of this conflict – but rather just a question of being provided with a (dare I say) truthful account of the conflict’s history. This is why the Israel Lobby is in frenzy. The old narrative is quickly being replaced by a new, more humane and more accurate one. And, even worse for the Lobby, this new narrative is being promulgated by a growing number of Jews, making it hard for the anti-Semitism charge to stick.
As a related aside, last month, in a rather vulgar show of disrespect for the elementary principle of free speech, the McMaster University administration reportedly banned student clubs from using the words “Israeli Apartheid” in their on-campus activities. Numerous organizations have expressed their outrage at this decision, and rightly so, but I am inclined to think that the decision is more of a desperate and pathetic attempt at eliminating criticism of Israel, than a sign that Israel advocacy is doing well. They are on the defensive.
The flagrant disregard for honesty exhibited by writers like Bard, Oren, Dershowitz, and Lozowick, amongst many others, and exposed by the works of Norman Finkelstein, sent me on a broad path questioning my basic understanding about the way international and domestic politics work. If I could have been initially so misguided on Israel-Palestine, what else might I be completely ill-informed about? Yes, de omnibus dubitandum.
For his unwavering commitment to preserving the historical record against the distortions of Israel’s propagandists, Finkelstein has paid a substantial price. Despite having published five books – most recently with the University of California Press, a most respectable publisher – and receiving unanimous support from the Liberal Arts and Science College personnel committee, he was recently denied tenure at Chicago’s DePaul University, where he had been teaching since 2001. (Additionally, Mehrene Larudee, an international studies professor who was also up for tenure and had been a vocal supporter of Finkelstein, was also denied tenure.) In reaction, there was uproar amongst students, academics, and others, across the world, and a number of grassroots campaigns were launched in Chicago to force the university to reverse its decision. Unfortunately, DePaul University’s administration chose the coward’s route, and refused to reconsider.
Finkelstein’s life in academia is pretty much over, but his integrity as a human being has never been higher. Just before his death in August 2007, Hilberg, the dean of Holocaust studies, affirmed that Finkelstein’s “place in the whole history of writing history is assured, and that those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he [Finkelstein] will be among those who will have triumphed, albeit … at great cost.” Indeed, what Finkelstein taught me was to read widely, very widely, be conscious of the interests being served by particular narratives, and, no doubt most importantly, try to show a little backbone once in a while by standing up for what’s right.