by Tim Hornyak
The image of Palestinian family life in the West Bank that sticks most in Norman Finkelstein's mind is a pile of dirty dishes. Following a large dinner at a Palestinian home near Kiryat Arba last June, Finkelstein's host was faced with three stacks of dishes and an acute shortage of water.
"She had to figure out a way to wash all those dishes with half a cup of water," said Finkelstein recently in a lecture sponsored by the Concordia Centre for Palestinian Human Rights (CCPHR). "It was such a pitiful sight."
With no running water of its own, the Palestinian family had to buy water from the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, which receives six times more water than the people of Hebron, according to Finkelstein. The story was one of several that Finkelstein used to dramatize the Palestinian situation in his talk.
A professor of political science at Hunter College and New York University and an outspoken critic of Zionism and Israel's treatment of Palestinians, Finkelstein has incurred the wrath of Jewish organizations such as the World Jewish Congress and the Canadian Jewish Congress, which have described him as "someone who is loathed and despised by the Jewish community."
Contrasting the suffering of present-day Palestinians with the suffering of Jews during World War Two, Finkelstein will readily point out that his parents survived the Warsaw ghetto and the Maidenek and Auschwitz concentration camps.
"I would be the last one on God's Earth to minimize the suffering of the Jews who passed through the concentration camps or World War Two in general. But there is a very elementary moral question: However much suffering you may have endured, can that justify expelling a people from their homeland?" asked Finkelstein. "That is not just playing to the chorus. I don't see an answer to that. Even the worst suffering cannot justify moving a people."
Although Finkelstein spoke to a packed auditorium in the Henry F. Hall Building, his presence was not welcomed by some academics and students.
"We're disappointed in the school for allowing someone to come and speak and spread obvious hatred toward our group," said Geremy Miller, president of Concordia's Hillel Jewish Students Association. "It's even against the Student Code of Rights. That's our main concern, not only for us, but we're trying to stop all hate on campus."
Miller also alluded to Finkelstein's now famous critique of Harvard scholar Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's 1996 book Hitler's Willing Executioners. Goldhagen argued that the Holocaust sprang not from a few Nazi madmen, but a deep-rooted German anti-Semitism. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn, chief historian for Canada's war-crimes unit, in their 1998 book A Nation On Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth, attacked Goldhagen's work for its sloppy scholarship and "gross misrepresentations" of historical facts.
"That concerns us as Jewish students, to have someone coming in and preaching, saying what happened to us, and all the books about it and all the study that's been going on is intellectually bankrupt and has no foundation," Miller said in an interview. "It's an attack on the Jewish students at Concordia."
About 100 students danced and chanted Jewish songs on the second floor of the Hall Building following the lecture. Three Concordia security officers were on hand, but there were no altercations between the Hillel students and lecture attendees.
"Finkelstein is the last person to be an extremist," said CCPHR president Basil Keilani in an interview. "He's not a violent or aggressive person, and he's out there exercising his freedom of expression, not denigrating anyone -- criticizing the state of Israel as well as the Palestinian Authority." To Finkelstein's critics, Keilani says: "Okay, disagree with the guy, but attend the lecture, then make up your mind."
One historian who disagrees with Finkelstein is Frederick Krantz, director of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research and a professor in Concordia's Department of History. Though Krantz didn't attend the lecture, he is familiar with Finkelstein's work.
"A clock that doesn't run is right twice a day, too," said Krantz. "The issue here isn't to whitewash Israel. It's a human society that's emerged in a very complex time and place. Israelis have made mistakes. That doesn't turn them into illegitimate monsters. Finkelstein's critiques are self-serving, highly distorted and highly ideological. He's anti-Israel, he's anti-Zionist, and then he will present the Holocaust and studies of the Holocaust as little more than a kind of Zionist plot. To take this poppycock seriously is ridiculous and unfortunate."
Finkelstein has also been accused of opposing the Middle East peace process, and agreements such as the Oslo Peace Accord and the Wye River Memorandum. He counters that basic human rights issues are of greater importance now.
"If we could only achieve having Israel apply the ordinary standards of justice, that itself is an accomplishment," Finkelstein said. "We don't have to aim so high, because aiming so high, I think, you begin to lose contact with reality. Why not aim at ending torture? Why not aim at ending house demolition?
"My mother was asked: 'What's the main lesson you learned
from your whole experience during the war, in the Warsaw ghetto,
Maidanek concentration camp and in the German slave labour
camps?' And she replied: 'The lesson I learned,' she said, 'is
that in this world, there are two kinds of people, good people
and bad people. That's it.'"