Debating, not "Jew-Baiting": Setting the Record Straight

November 4, 2005

In News

By Erin Thomas and Arsalan Suleman

The Record has published an editorial urging Justice for Palestine to disinvite Professor Norman Finkelstein, arguing that his work violates “a consistent standard of decency and tolerance across racial and ethnic lines.” Much to the contrary, Professor Finkelstein’s latest book, Beyond Chutzpah, has been received as an important study posing a crucial question: Why do demonstrably flawed apologetics for a country with a human rights record as poor as Israel’s often receive such widespread acclaim in American public life? In answering this question, Finkelstein meticulously catalogues various distortions, fabrications, and other instances of scholarly malfeasance in one such widely acclaimed work, Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel.

Beyond Chutzpah is widely praised, exhaustively researched, and hotly controversial. It has provoked vociferous criticism – much of which, unfortunately, does not engage his work’s arguments but instead misrepresents them. The Record’s October 20th editorial was reflective of this trend: aiming to demolish the man rather than the work, it was as long on innuendo and invective as it was short on substantive criticism. It claimed that “Jews, according to Finkelstein, only care about the Holocaust for the sake of ‘power and profit’ and ‘Jewish aggrandizement;'” and that Finkelstein will attack anyone who thinks “the Holocaust ought be remembered.” These are very serious mischaracterizations of his work. In the interest of clarifying and reaffirming JFP’s decision to host Finkelstein at Harvard Law School, we cannot let them pass.

Finkelstein’s own parents were survivors of the Warsaw ghetto and the concentration camps, and he has written movingly on the subject in the forthcoming Haunted House and elsewhere. He has never challenged, revised, denied, or downplayed what he describes in The Holocaust Industry as the “staggering dimensions of Hitler’s Final Solution.” In that same book he writes, “the noblest gesture for those who perished is to preserve their memory, learn from their suffering and let them, finally, rest in peace.” (Finkelstein, Norman. The Holocaust Industry. Verso (London: 2003): p.150). Finkelstein has never minimized or dismissed Jewish suffering; on the contrary, he has objected to what he sees as its exploitation. He argues compellingly that the horror of the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism more generally, have been systematically parlayed into a justification for Israel’s human rights record and its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. For his temerity in arguing these points, Finkelstein has been the target of a sustained and merciless campaign of character assassination.

In light of this, the atmosphere of innuendo and insinuation that permeates The Record’s editorial is troubling. Primed by the distorted portrait of Finkelstein that emerges from the piece, readers might be led to think that Finkelstein actually believes in an “International Hebrew Conspiracy to Control the Media,” as the editorial’s inflammatory phrasing would have it. Perhaps The Record was aiming here for archness and irony. But anti-Semitism is a serious matter, not a joke, and readers have a right to know that this “IHCCM” is a figment of the editorial writer’s imagination – not Finkelstein’s. Had The Record contacted JFP before running the October 20th piece, we would have informed them that on October 14th JFP had invited Alan Dershowitz to debate Finkelstein on the merits of his arguments, and that Dershowitz did not reply.

The Record has taken the easy route by avoiding critical engagement and facts in favor of ad hominem attacks. As part of an academic community, JFP invited Professor Finkelstein to encourage our fellow HLS students to consider the arguments and determinations of his study themselves, and indeed to weigh them against those of Professor Dershowitz. When we invited Professor Finkelstein to present his case (and Professor Dershowitz to debate it), we did so in this spirit of a serious exchange – while fully anticipating, however, the type of attack The Record makes. The Record’s editorial, tellingly, betrays no awareness that, even at the manuscript stage, Professor Finkelstein’s book was subjected to an unusually high standard of scrutiny by its publisher, University of California Press. This included not only standard academic peer review but extensive fact checking and legal review as well. (University of California Press media release:

Finkelstein is more than capable of defending himself against The Record’s misrepresentation of his personal character and scholarly work. We imagine, indeed, that both he and Professor Dershowitz would be more than capable of fully articulating their own views on these matters. Therefore, JFP stands by its decision to invite Professor Finkelstein, just as it stands by its decision to invite Professor Dershowitz. All that remains is to urge that our fellow HLS students attend the November 3rd event with open minds. There are no mysteries here – only disputes over facts, many of which can be easily checked by anyone using Google or Lexis. What The Record calls “Jew-baiting,” ordinary people would call “debating.”

Erin Thomas and Arsalan Suleman

Co-Chairs, Justice for Palestine