Harvard Law School on Finkelstein lecture

November 3, 2005

In News

By Ohia Amadi

This past Thursday, Nov. 3, Langdell North was the site of an equal parts tense and spirited program entitled Israel and Palestine: Misusing anti-Semitism, Abusing History. The talk, sponsored by Justice for Palestine (JFP), brought the well-known and oft controversial Professor Norman Finkelstein to speak on his latest book Beyond Chutzpah, which he describes as a response to The Case for Israel, by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.

As might be expected from a program which was the subject of serious debate in this very paper (among other sources) even before it took place, this was not a standard brown bag lecture by any stretch of the imagination. Two Harvard Police officers were posted at the rear exits and the Dean of Students office handed out copies of the HLS Student Organizations Protest and Dissent Guidelines. After brief cautionary remarks by Dean of Students, Ellen Cosgrove and an opening statement and introduction by JFP co-chair Erin Thomas, Professor Finkelstein addressed the standing
room only crowd.

Prof. Finkelstein began by addressing two recent issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the July 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice and the Israeli disengagement from Gaza. The former was mentioned in order to show that international consensus is against Israel’s building of a protective wall within the occupied territories and further to bolster his greater contention that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is not a controversial issue as popularly perceived. On the latter issue, Prof. Finkelstein was of the opinion that Israeli occupation would not be at an end as long as Israel controlled the borders. He went on to liken the control of ingress/egress to restrictive practices in South Africa under apartheid.

Given his conclusions about the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations Finkelstein then asked how one reconciles the alleged pro-Israel sentiment in the United States with mainstream research.

Before diving into the heart of his talk Finkelstein took a moment to reflect on the time he has spent studying the Israel/Palestine situation beginning with the publication of Joan Peters book From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine in 1984 which he characterized as alternatively wholly false and premised on a “hoax.” This claim elicited what was arguably the first of a number of heated dissenting interjections from the audience. He went on to conclude that after 20 years of reflection there was not much complication with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He contended that despite differing opinions on other issues most knowledgeable people would concede that some form of ethnic cleansing of the Arab population took place in the 1948 war and that subsequently there has been a “wide swathe” of agreement regarding the state of Israel’s human rights record.

Having taken the position that Israeli-Palestinian relations were not controversial, Finkelstein attributed the existence of a “fake controversy” to three major factors: 1) The argument that Israel’s current situation is unique and thus allows practices that might otherwise be seen as unethical; 2) The use of arguments that he referred to as the new anti-Semitism to deflect debate from Israeli policy; and 3) What he called the “dissemination of sheer fraud and nonsense.”

This proved to be a segue into a conflict that many people, even those not directly invested in Israeli-Palestinian debate, are familiar with, namely Finkelstein’s allegation that Dershowitz plagiarized from Joan Peters’ book, From Time Immemorial. Once again Langdell North was the scene of a minor uproar. Though Dershowitz was not there to personally to dispute the claim (his numerous responses and defenses to the initial allegation are posted on his website) free copies of his latest book A Case for Peace were distributed at the entrance to the lecture hall.

The program closed with a highly anticipated Q&A session in which among other things Finkelstein was asked how his scholarship promoted the dialogue towards peace by a former Israeli soldier who served in the West Bank. He essentially answered that the truth was the first step in any such dialogue. If that is the case, it is to the credit of the HLS community that despite such a divisive issue the program proceeded as smoothly as it did.