Finkelstein Distorts Facts to Fit Agenda

Posted: 5/2/2007 9:05:00 AM
Author: Benjamin Berg
Source: This article was orginally published in The Justice of May 1, 2007.

Finkelstein Distorts Facts to Fit Agenda
by Benjamin Berg
The Justice (Brandeis Univ.)
May 1, 2007

Norman Finkelstein's willful distortions of fact and inability to present a cogent academic argument were an insult to Brandeis and the academic standard to which its students should hold themselves. Furthermore, his belittling of both University President Jehuda Reinharz and Prof. Shulamit Reinharz (SOC) was out of line. He did not further intellectual discourse, but presented a biased opinion based on misinterpretations. Finkelstein's agenda, as it always is, was to discredit the historical legitimacy for the State of Israel and to attempt to prove that Israel is a despotic regime.

I am appalled that Brandeis, an esteemed academic center, would allow Finkelstein to speak on its premises. This grants him and his un-academic viewpoints, approaches and arguments an air of academic legitimacy. Those students who were somehow convinced by Finkelstein's show should inquire further into his assertions. For the sake of continued academic discourse, it is critical to distinguish valid criticism of Israel and its policies from anti-Israel attacks that border on outright anti-Semitism.

The crux of Finkelstein's argument is that while the actual documents regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are uncontroversial, Israelis have stirred up a whirlwind of controversy precisely in order to submerge this point. Yet, incredulously, Finkelstein's only method of demonstrating the veracity of such a point is to cite scholars who concur with his understanding of the narrative as proof that the record is unequivocal and uncontroversial.

Two specific issues which Finkelstein claims to be uncontroversial are the origin of Palestinian refugees and the legality (or illegality) of the Israeli settlements. As if to prove his point on the first issue, Finkelstein chooses to quote Benny Morris's description of the flight of Arab's during the 1948 War as "ethnic cleansing." By choosing to quote a preeminent scholar on the Middle East, Finkelstein ostensibly tries to further his claim of an unambiguous record. Yet, the alternative side-which Finkelstein claims not to exist-not only shows that there are differing narratives, but also that the record, in fact, seems not to support Finkelstein's. Ephraim Karsh, the chair of Mediterranean Studies at King's College in London, for example, explains that the evidence validate the claim that Arab flight from Haifa began even well before the UN's partition resolution, and that an ad-hoc body, the Arab Emergency Committee, did its best to get the Arabs out of Haifa, usually through scare tactics.

Moreover, even many Palestinians recognize that the refugee issue is merely an excuse to continue to exploit Israel. Rami Abdel Rahim, a 26-year-old Palestinian, for instance, told an Israeli newspaper that "[the Arab and Palestinian leadership] know and know that we will not be able to return to Israel or Palestinian territories. They are just using this issue to get more compromise."

The second issue that Finkelstein presented as black-and-white dealt with the Israeli settlements. By quoting UN Resolution 242 Finkelstein argued that the Israeli settlements have no legal basis in international law. But he ignored the second clause of 242, which asserts that the Arab states must recognize Israel and restrict all threats or acts of violence towards Israel. Yes, Israel should withdraw from territories-which it has done unilaterally without seeing a decrease in the amount of violence directed at them towards the Palestinians-but the Arab states must likewise adhere to their end of the bargain and acknowledge the sovereignty of Israel. Palestinians have consistently failed to do so.

Furthermore, there is proof that, while Israel has adhered to 242 in exchange for peace, the Palestinians have not: Israel withdrew from Sinai and signed a peace treaty with Jordan. Israel wants peace. Even Benny Morris, whom Finkelstein loves to quote when it serves his interest but conveniently ignores on other issues, explains that Arafat specifically rejected former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's generous peace offer and instead turned to terrorism as a political tool.

Finally, Finkelstein continuously referred to the ruling of the International Court of Justice that Israel must relinquish its right to land acquired through war. Being the judiciary body of the United Nations, he argued that the world is required to adhere to its rulings. Yet, this is a body of the same international organization that condemned Zionism as racism and turned the World Conference on Racism in Durban in 2001 into an anti-Zionist stage. To adhere blindly to such a ruling, then, without taking into consideration the body making such decisions, would not be an intellectually honest route to take.

In inviting speakers to campus, Brandeis should require a minimum level of academic honesty. Lacking this, the speaker should be prepared to debate opinions with one holding a differing viewpoint. Finkelstein failed on both accounts. In the future, it is my hope that such standards will be met.

The writer is a member of the class of 2008.