Friday, January 26, 2007

Fink the fink?

The blogosphere seems to be sweating out the "anti-Semitism" meme these days. Of course there is much hubbub about Carter and Dershowitz at Brandeis, but Yglesias also set off a landmine with his defense of Wesley Clark against charges of anti-Semitism.

(This is a really fascinating debate. Yglesias' article in The American Prospect is here. Jon Chait of The New Republic responds on TNR's Plank blog. And Yglesias parries! And Chait thrusts! Yglesias, seemingly in for a true pissing match, keeps it up. Somewhere along the line, TNR editor Marty Peretz's racism comes up, which is always apt I suppose, and Atrios, Glenn Greenwald, and Spencer Ackerman chime in. [Yes, this is what I do all day.])

So, before this zeitgeist dies out, I'd like to report my own encounter with this sensitive topic. I attended a lecture by controversial scholar Norman Finkelstein last night. Finkelstein was invited to Stanford by Students Confronting Apartheid in Israel, the Coalition for Justice in the Middle East, and Stanford's Speakers Bureau. Even before I heard Finkelstein speak I was disappointed about the selection. My first experience with CJME was a talk given by Rami Khouri, editor of the Beirut Daily Star. It was a very impressive event and I signed up for the e-newsletter. Their inviting Finkelstein, however, was a bit like the conservatives at Wash U bringing in Ann Coulter. It seemed needlessly provocative and a poor way to start any sort of debate on the issue. Thankfully, Finkelstein did not come off as blatantly rude and bullying as Coulter did (and as everyone knew she would), but I still had very serious problems with the event.

Finkelstein's talk was devoted to debunking/demystifying certain aspects of the Israel-Palestine debate. This portion of the talk was largely unsophisticated and didn't tell me anything I didn't already know--various UN resolutions, voting records, soundbytes from Benny Morris and Alan Dershowitz, and the ruling by the International Criminal Court on the security wall. Needless to say if you know anything about Finkelstein, he took a very critical stance against Israeli policy. But as he pointed out himself, he didn't say anything more than what this 12.26.06 Haaretz editorial said:
Everyone in the Sharon government talked about the "demographic problem" to convince people of the justness of the pullout. Now the Palestinians have been forgotten and demographics have been forgotten - all because the data can't be used for political ends. But the apartheid regime in the territories remains intact; millions of Palestinians are living without rights, freedom of movement or a livelihood, under the yoke of ongoing Israeli occupation, and in the future they will turn the Jews into a minority between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

The unfinished separation fence has become a monument to the shortsightedness of the Israeli policy to neither swallow nor regurgitate. The fence was meant to serve the unilateral withdrawal, but it has become clear that more outposts will be erected wherever the fence has not been completed, now that the Justice Ministry has suggested "laundering" the existing illegal outposts. When we want to withdraw, we will have to contend with more settlers.
Of course, if you look at the comments section for this op-ed, many readers did not agree with its statements, but this is all more or less blah-di-blah for me. I know that this debate and this language exists within Israel. Which is why, as I said, I found Finkelstein's talk unsophisticated and uninformative.

This is where things get weird. I can't say for sure how many people there disagreed with Finkelstein from the outset and how many didn't (it was that kind of polarized audience), but only a few people were audibly jeering while he spoke. The rest seemed more or less on the same page. And--this is the only way to put it--when people started feeling more comfortable they started to laugh. Quite a bit. They laughed and cheered when Finkelstein compared Morris and Dershowitz to Nazis. They laughed when he accused Israelis of claiming unique status for the Holocaust, but then decrying various leaders as the "new Hitler." (Somehow, laughter never struck me as being an appropriate response, ever, when discussing the Holocaust, or any other instance of genocide.) They laughed when he said that despite claims of growing anti-Semitism, Princeton's Jewish enrollment rate was close to 40%. (As if there was some necessary correlation between high Jewish enrollment and low levels of anti-Semitism.) And they laughed when he said that Yale had just created a center for the study of anti-Semitism, and again when he joked that Jewish students could now make a triple major of Jewish studies, Holocaust studies, and anti-Semitic studies. (As if these are illegitimate areas of study, and as if Finkelstein or anyone else in the room would laugh at an Edward Said School of Orientalist Studies.) In all of these cases the mood was one of very heavy irony, but it was ugly.

My question is: Why the comedy routine? Mr. Khouri of the Daily Star had no need and probably no desire for joking: He had just come from a war that was deadly serious. I assume that Jimmy Carter doesn't lace his speaking dates with one-liners. The joking displayed immaturity, smoldering resentment, and mockery. It was pretty shameful, and also just a plain shame, because the event didn't have to be that way at all. I came away thinking Finkelstein was more or less a joke as a scholar and little more than a provocateur in his rhetorical style. And of course, there was nothing afterwards in the paper or on the internet other than "You're an apologist for terror!" "You're an apologist for occupation!" Smell the progress!


Blogger Scantron said...

If you want to get a feel for Finkelstein's arguing style, read this debate between him and former Israeli Labor Party foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami on Democracy Now:

Finkelstein basically said everything he said in this interview.

11:37 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

I've read some Finkelstein on Counter -punch (dead give away) and I tend to agree with What you're Saying

7:42 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

Interesting stuff. I had heard of Finkelstein but have never read anything from him. Consider me persuaded by your account.

Ironically, I listened to a speech last night as well on Israeli (on the iPod, of course...) by Gershom Gorenberg, author of "Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlments," via the Carnegie Council's Podcast. It was one of those speeches that breathes an Yglesian sense of hope that Jews (and as you point out, perhaps almost exclusively Israeli Jews) can approach Israeli history and policy objectively. The transcript can be read here:

11:07 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

objectively? Robot are you forgetting RK Balot's life lessons so Soon?

9:42 PM  

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