Letters to the Harvard Record

November 22, 2005

In News

Issue date: 11/17/05 | Section: Opinion

Dear Editor,

Given the letters published in the last edition of the Record [11/10/2005], we feel compelled, yet again, to set the record straight regarding Justice for Palestine and its role at Harvard Law School. JFP has been the one organization on the HLS campus that has consistently brought speakers who provide unique and essential insights, usually grounded in international humanitarian and human rights law, regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. In October, for example, we hosted a lecture and discussion with Randa Siniora, the executive director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian human rights organization, al-Haq. Tomorrow, November 18th, we are hosting a lunch discussion with two members of the Palestinian Negotiation Support Unit, a group that advises the Palestinian Authority in its negotiations with Israel. Last year, we hosted events that shed light on the ICJ’s ruling regarding the illegality of Israel’s expropriation wall, the real story behind the breakdown of the Camp David talks, and the ongoing human rights catastrophe in Palestine.

It would not surprise us if the readers of the Record were unfamiliar with the other events that JFP hosts here at HLS. The uproar surrounding Professor Norman Finkelstein’s November 3rd talk was unique in light of the relatively small number of HLS students who usually attend Israel-Palestine related events.

No one speaker represents JFP. All speakers do, however, add to the dialogue that we are trying to foster on the HLS campus. For instance, Professor Finkelstein argued during his lecture that, despite the overwhelming international consensus that Israel’s human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories are dreadful, American politicians, academics, and journalists tend to ignore these issues. Allowing these human rights abuses to go unchallenged takes a devastating toll not just on the Palestinian people, but also on the prospects for a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict. This point could serve as the basis of a fruitful conversation, regardless of one’s position on Finkelstein’s rhetorical style.

JFP believes that truth and justice are critical values that HLS students should strive to uphold, both as individuals and in our future careers as lawyers. For that reason, we consistently anchor our discussion of Palestine in terms of international humanitarian and human rights law, the reality of life on the ground, and the need for a just resolution to the conflict. We sincerely hope that others will join us in our efforts not as partisans, but as partners.

Arsalan Suleman and Erin Thomas
Justice for Palestine


To the Editor,

I wanted to thank Justice for Palestine for hosting Norman Finkelstein at Harvard Law School and to comment on the controversy that his visit has generated.

Norman Finkelstein brings up some extremely important, and yet, quite rudimentary, points: Israel has an abhorrent human rights record, meticulously documented by mainstream international organizations. And yet, this very statement seems controversial in the U.S., unlike the vast majority of countries in the world. This points to the existence of a widespread effort to mystify the true nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in part by misusing the Holocaust to obscure historical facts about the Israeli occupation and to muddy the moral waters surrounding its human rights abuses and its trampling of international law.

Rather than attempting to criticize the substance of Finkelstein’s critique, pro-Zionist groups at Harvard have attempted to silence it through name calling, character assassination, and behind-the-doors lobbying.

I am reminded of my undergraduate days at Tehran University in Iran in the mid-1990s, where one of the main student groups often invited dissident intellectuals to give talks at the Faculty of Engineering. The lectures almost always drew some kind of reactionary hooliganism by self-styled pro-status quo “mainstream” groups (which were in fact more on the fringe than they realized). Unable to compete with the popularity of the reform faction through debate and argumentation, they resorted to campaigns to stifle free speech, by lobbying to prevent lectures from going ahead in the first place, by disrupting lectures as they were delivered (through tactics similar to those of the pro-Zionist groups at the Finkelstein lecture, though they also, on occasion, ripped off seat cushions and threw them at the speakers, something our colleagues have yet to learn), and by trying, through lobbying and letter-writing campaigns after the fact, to make sure that such disgrace as the voicing of a dissident perspective would not pollute the sanctity of the university again.

Let us hope that our community matures enough to be able to tolerate, and indeed to learn from, conflicting points of view on matters of vital national and international importance, and to relentlessly seek out the truth, even if that truth may contradict our dearly-held assumptions and biases.

Alireza Doostdar, PhD Candidate Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University


To the Editor,

Though it would perhaps be prudent to leave the Finkelstein matter be, I feel compelled to write a reply to the lengthy letters published by Messrs Roth, Masters, and Gray. (I shall, in this letter, leave largely unstated my criticism of The Record for allowing its editorial page to be hijacked a few weeks ago by one particular editor with a narrow agenda and a personal stake in minimizing the damage done to his academic patron.)

The letters published, representative of many of the prevalent anti-Finkelstein tirades one hears, are long on accusations and short on actual facts. One gathers from the letters that Finkelstein displays “irrational paranoia and boundless animosity towards Israel and Jews,” that his speeches may persuade some “to deny the existence of the Holocaust” (a little difficult to believe given that Finkelstein’s parents are both courageous survivors of the Nazi Holocaust), and that his views are “better suited for a beer hall in 1930s Europe.” Notice that the charge leveled at Finkelstein, that he is anti-Semitic because he criticizes Israel, isn’t supported by any facts. It stands only on the bogus (and somewhat circular) assumption that deep criticism of Israel’s founding and its atrocious current human rights record is itself anti-Semitic. Such serious accusations directed at Finkelstein are all the more puzzling when considered in light of what he said when he visited HLS.

Those who attended the event without prior knowledge of his writing must surely have found the content of Finkelstein’s speech more than a little anti-climactic. Rather than a rabid “Jew-baiter”, they found an academic with well-reasoned positions rooted not in conspiracy theories but, rather, in the findings of mainstream organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and B’Tselem. His arguments – when he could make them over the mindless screaming and heckling of those opposed – weren’t at all inflammatory or hateful.

Despite all the scare-mongering by his opponents, it was, in fact, refreshing to hear someone forcefully and rationally challenge the conventional wisdom about Israel’s founding (that the Palestinians were compelled to leave their lands because of Arab governments’ radio broadcasts and not due to any violent ethnic cleansing), about Israel’s current human rights record (that it is an ‘oasis of freedom in a sea of tyranny’), and about the rise of anti-Semitism on university campuses. Finkelstein argued that it is the staunchly pro-Israel groups and academics who wish to confuse and complicate the historical record about Israel’s creation, who willfully ignore the findings of mainstream human rights groups when writing about IDF policy, and who rely on lazy “being anti-Israel is anti-Semitic” arguments to deflect serious criticisms. He further argued – and what better evidence of this than all the efforts to shut down his talk at HLS and to prevent the publication of his latest book-that it is the pro-Palestinian, not Pro-Israeli, academics and students who are marginalized and threatened on university campuses. Finally, in response to the silly charge that his writings and speeches are not ‘constructive’ (as though sweeping facts under the rug is the only ‘constructive’ thing one can do) he argued that the best way to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation is to speak the truth and to call out those academics and pundits who do otherwise.

Norman Finkelstein’s speech at HLS was precisely what a student-group-organized speech should be: engaging, rational, and unorthodox. For organizing this event, the officers of Justice for Palestine ought to be applauded.

Kaveh Shahrooz, 3L

P.S. (a little off-topic – but important nonetheless in debunking untruthful accusations): Because it is not wholly relevant to the current debate at HLS, I will only mention, in passing, my surprise at reading Mr. Roth’s account of the presence of “local skinheads” at Finkelstein’s York University lecture. As a Canadian student who regularly follows the Canadian press, and who often reads The Excalibur, York University’s student newspaper, I am surprised that this is the first I have ever heard of the incident. Surely, the presence of skinheads on campus would have generated some news in the local, if not national, press! I am also surprised because when I attended one of Finkelstein’s talks at the University of Toronto, my own alma mater (located not too far from Mr. Roth’s), I saw many wearing keffiyahs, but no neo-Nazis. Should I simply chalk this up to the fact that Mr. Roth can’t distinguish between the two? Or that he can’t do so when it doesn’t serve his purposes?

Though there appears to be no evidence of such an incident at York University, it remains well-documented that Mr. Roth’s alma mater
has a rather shameful record of expelling peaceful Jewish pro-Palestinian activists; students who, much like Finkelstein, are
demonized by campus Zionist groups as ‘anti-Semitic’ and ‘self-hating’ because they have joined the anti-occupation struggle.
Curious how Mr. Roth neglected to mention that!