A correspondent's meditations

April 22, 2010

In Letters To Finkelstein

Dear Dr. Finkelstein,

I came to New York yesterday to hear you speak at NYU. First I want to say thank you for your dedication commitment to clinging to the truth. Second, I made the trip from Baltimore, where I currently reside, because of some of the things that I heard you say in the various interviews and talks you’ve made that are circulating in the information cloud we call the internet. Although I am thoroughly impressed with your intellectual rigor and capacity, the statements that caught my attention mostly came from your personal life. Namely how you grew up in a “peculiar” household, where your mother was often hysterical about the injustices of the Vietnam War as a result of her re-lived trauma as a holocaust survivor . I heard you say in another interview that yours was a “peculiar and even maybe eccentric sensitivity to human suffering” that drove you to become active in politics and invest all of your being towards shedding light and truth on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In the documentary film about you, you spoke of how you had to overcome the purely emotional indignation you felt during the war in Lebanon in 1982 in order to clearly articulate your thoughts (after discovering Dr. Chomsky).

I took the day off from work at Johns Hopkins University to hear you talk last night, because I think you may be the first person that I’ve encountered who mirrors the challenges that have plagued my activism for many years. As a child of Oromo political refugees from Ethiopia living with the constant reminder of the ruthless violence that caused so many Oromos to flee Ethiopia, and as a human rights activist in a universally humanist manner, I can recall many frustrating conversations (which often involved intense and emotionally charged tears) with others- not necessarily opponents of my politics, but even those I worked with. I couldn’t understand why I was so affected by the suffering I’d learn of in my university classes and in the daily papers, that I’d feel so completely defeated while others could hear these things and not be so fundamentally shaken. I am writing this to you now because, by your example, I feel that I am not alone. I think I know the hyper-sensitivity you speak of very intimately, and am working very hard to conquer its paralyzing effects on my work and my overall outlook on what kinds of positive change are still possible in the world.

I hope I’m accurately understanding your story, but it seems to me that what makes you a unique scholar and activist is the chronology of your life events. Where most scholars in academe seem to be in pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake or for prestige and recognition, your scholarship seems to have been a means to an end. In short, as I told you last night as you signed a book for me, you are a dear inspiration to me and your example has proven to me that there is, in fact, an outlet for such strong and at times overwhelming reactions to human suffering. As a result, I have recommitted myself to the rigorous journey of critical investigation in my social justice work. For all of the condemnation you regularly receive from your critics, I hope you can accept my humble admiration for your courage.

– S