September 6, 2005
By STEPHEN T. WATSON | News Staff Reporter
It has been 16 months since Norman Finkelstein spoke about the
Israel-Palestinian conflict at the University at Buffalo, but the
wounds left after his visit have yet to heal.
The controversial speaker – who is critical of Israeli government
policy toward Palestinians – prompted sharp exchanges among some UB
faculty in the days before and after his appearance.
His visit also sparked formal complaints to the university
administration from three local and national Jewish groups.
“The anti-Israel rhetoric and programming was growing on campus,”
said Rabbi Benjamin Arnold, former rabbi at Temple Sinai in Amherst
and former president of the Buffalo Board of Rabbis, one of the
groups. “There wasn’t a balanced voice coming from the campus. It
was not only not balanced, but it was completely one-sided.”
UB administrators defend the rights of professors to teach the
courses they wish and to invite qualified speakers.
But the issue continues to simmer as a new school year begins.
Faculty here say they fear a chilling of academic freedom.
“I see this as part of a coordinated, national campaign to silence
opposition to Israeli policies regarding the Palestine issue and
occupation,” said Bruce Jackson, a State University of New York
distinguished professor of English at UB who has come under
Faculty and Jewish members of the community say this dispute first
arose at UB in spring 2004.
James Holstun, a UB English professor, invited Finkelstein and is at
the center of the Jewish groups’ complaints.
Holstun is a member of two groups – the Western New York Peace
Center and the UB Graduate Group in Marxist Studies – that sponsored
Finkelstein’s UB appearance.
The night of his speech, Finkelstein got into a confrontation with a
student protester and with Ernest Sternberg, a UB planning
professor, outside Allen Hall. Sternberg said Finkelstein insulted
Some of those who heard him speak were deeply offended by his
remarks. Several said he argued that Jews exploit the tragedy of the
Holocaust to make money or to justify the oppression of
“It was literally nauseating,” said Ellen Goldstein, marketing and
community relations director for the Jewish Federation of Greater
Most of those who complained weren’t seeking to block Finkelstein
from speaking at UB. But several said his comments amounted to hate
speech and don’t merit a public airing.
Holstun and Jackson, who also sponsored the lecture, are
“I think part of our job as university professors is to look at
various sides of complex questions, not just the politically
approved side,” Jackson said.
The complaints filed with the university go beyond the Finkelstein
lecture to include broader concerns about anti-Israeli bias on
The Buffalo Board of Rabbis and the local chapter of the American
Jewish Committee wrote letters last October to UB Provost Satish K.
The rabbis said students, faculty and alumni “approached us with a
mixture of frustration, fear, anger and disgust.”
The Oct. 21 letter from StandWithUs, a pro-Israeli advocacy group
based in Los Angeles, names Holstun, Jackson and Liana Vardi, who
taught a world civilization course that addressed the topic of
“Too often, professors exploit their positions and use their
classrooms as bully pulpits for their political views, transforming
education into indoctrination,” StandWithUs wrote.
Holstun said he taught the course on Palestinian literature because
he believes it is beautiful and because students have responded well
to the topic.
The groups disagreed.
“(Holstun) is professing anti-Israeli stuff, saying that Israel
isn’t legitimate,” said Daniel R. Lenard, a member of the American
Jewish Committee chapter. “This course has no place in an English
In Vardi’s case, the groups attacked her for giving short shrift to
the Holocaust in her world civilization course and for showing a
film in which a Palestinian accuses Israel of committing genocide in
the occupied territories.
She said she considered not showing the film, but she ultimately
didn’t want to censor it.
“I felt it was up to the students for them to be able to judge,”
She said she is surprised to be the target of this criticism because
she is Israeli by birth and Jewish and she absolutely supports the
right of Israel to exist.
“I find it deeply offensive. I don’t understand it,” Vardi said.
Jackson, who was attacked for articles he has written that
StandWithUs and others considered to be anti-Israeli, also is
The UB administration has supported its faculty.
Referring to Finkelstein, Tripathi on Nov. 3 wrote: “As a public
university, the administration cannot bar speakers from campus based
upon their content, even if we strongly disagree with the message.”
UB officials said students are free to file a grievance if they have
been mistreated, but so far the school has received no complaints of
Elinor Weiss’s article, “UB speakers giving false impressions of Israel” (The Buffalo News, 9/12/2005) is quite incredible and is at odds with facts.
Israel is a country that has been occupying Palestinian territories for many years in complete violation of international laws. Its human rights record and routine use of torture and cruel violence has been consistently documented and condemned by international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Apologists for occupation and human rights violation are uncomfortable when someone confronts them with the truth. Small wonder Ms. Weiss is for preventing Professor Finkelstein from speaking on campus.
Professor Finkelstein is a distinguished scholar and author of five books. His research on Israeli-Palestinian conflict, historical analysis of the Nazi Holocaust, and U.S. political issues are widely recognized as ground-breaking. Both of his parents were survivors of the Nazi concentration camps and the Nazi ghettos. This has guided his moral sense and intellectual responsibility.
Supports of occupation and human rights violation stoop to distortions and lies to stifle critics. However, Ms. Weiss sly attempt to befoul the good name of Professor Finkelstein is not going to work. More and more people are realizing that Israel’s security lies in ending the occupation and allowing the Palestinian people to exercise their human rights and their right to national self-determination.