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Debating Israel with Norman Finkelstein at King’s College, London, was never going to be easy. He is a ferociously anti-Zionist Jew, a tough political street fighter forged in the ranks of American Maoism, and a hugely experienced and skilful debater who once gave Alan Dershowitz a hard time.
When I saw the students actually genuflect before Him, asking him to sign their copies of His books, telling Him of how much it meant to them to be “in your presence, Sir”, I knew it would be a long evening.
Things got worse. He announced he would not address the agreed topic – the viability of the two state solution – but would talk about how apologists for Israel (such as me) were peddling the “myth” of a new antisemitism in order to deflect criticism of a “lunatic” state.
What followed was dire. And a bit scary.
Finkelstein’s speech dripped with contempt for a “non-existent, pseudo and contrived antisemitism”. He invited the students to unearth a plot, a vicious fraud.
He did not mention the antisemitic murders in Toulouse, Paris, Brussels or Copenhagen. Instead, he told the audience that the opinion polls that have been reporting a rise in antisemitism were stupid. How so? Well, he said, agreement with statements about Jews do not indicate antisemitism if those statements are… true.
You see, he informed the students, Jews do think they are better than anyone else and Jews do bang on about the Holocaust too much to gain sympathy (“doesn’t every sane person think that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust?” he asked, mockingly, to laughter). And so on.
The taboos fell like nine pins. “Jews are tapped into the networks of power and privilege,” he said. “You marry a Jew, it opens doors,” because Jews are “the richest ethnic group in the United States”. Maybe there was some little stigma, sometimes, directed at some Jews, but so what? It’s not nice, but it is “socially inconsequential”. In fact – he actually said this, I have the tape – it is more socially consequential to be short, fat, bald or ugly than to be Jewish. “Look,” he said, “most people carry on in life, bearing these stigmas. It’s called life. Get used to it.”
How bad was it? So bad that, during the discussion period, the press officer from the Stop the War group stood up and objected: “Hold on, we do need to take antisemitism seriously!”
I had my say and pushed back hard. Many students, not all Jewish, shook my hand and expressed support for what I had said. But Finkelstein was given a standing ovation by half the 250-strong student audience. These are bad times.
Professor Alan Johnson is senior research fellow for Bicom. Read his speech responding to Finkelstein at www.thejc.com