Welcoming Toxic Talk to Campus

I am an emeritus professor of history at California State University, Chico (CSUC). I’m rather fond of the school, but it shares a serious problem with many campuses—it can’t resist giving a forum to left-wing ideologues.

In recent years, our campus has hosted the once lionized (but now disgraced) Guatemalan biographer Rigoberta Menchu and the comically overrated filmmaking propagandist Michael Moore. And a few months ago, CSUC welcomed Norman Finkelstein, a notorious dogmatist and venomous opponent of Israel.

The world is full of serious scholars with conservative or libertarian views, but faculties rarely invite them. University leaders seem unconcerned about how this political imbalance and academic homogeneity warps student learning.

Norman Finkelstein—a 55-year-old Jewish American, son of Holocaust survivors and Princeton Ph.D. in political science—is in demand as a campus speaker, thanks to his unflattering depictions of the state and people of Israel and his contempt for Holocaust studies. Terminated from every university that has employed him, most recently DePaul, Finkelstein now travels the land as an “independent scholar.” (Some suspect he may be partially subsidized by one or more Arab League governments.)

In April Finkelstein spoke at CSUC, at the well-paid invitation of several student groups and supported by the university’s political science department and the Middle Eastern studies program. They invited Finkelstein to Chico because they considered him a “controversial lightning rod for debate” who would provide an “alternative viewpoint” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that had somehow been omitted from classrooms.

Prior to his appearance, several faculty members criticized the CSUC Associated Students for allocating $2000 for the visit and requested the opportunity to rebut Finkelstein. This infuriated the pro-Finkelstein supporters, who demanded to hear only Finkelstein’s perspective, vehemently rejecting such “censorship” from what one CSUC professor called “Zionist bullies.”

Was Finkelstein the demagogue his critics claim? I attended his talk to find out.

Preceding the speech, the audience of 600 viewed “American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein,” a four-minute film comprised of snippets of Finkelstein debating Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. No explanation for the clip was offered.
Finkelstein was welcomed by event organizer Amro Jayousi, a Palestinian undergraduate and president of the local Palestine Solidarity Committee and CSUC’s chapter of Pi Sigma Phi, the political science honors society. Jayousi praised “our distinguished guest” as “a most esteemed professor.”

Then, for 90 chronologically disconnected and incendiary minutes, Finkelstein blamed Israel and the United States for the conflicts, suffering, and tension in the Middle East over the past 60 years. Among his accusations: “Israel is a country consumed with revenge whose people love killing Arabs”; New York Time columnist Thomas Friedman “is a straightforward Nazi”; “Gaza is an Israeli shooting gallery”; and “the basic facts [as Finkelstein presented them] are not subject to serious dispute.”

For example, Finkelstein proclaimed as fact that Hamas never used women and children, hospitals, schools, or religious shrines to shield their own soldiers, militia, or weaponry. He also insisted that neither Hamas nor Hezbollah ever launched rocket attacks into Israel until after being provoked.

Afterwards, Finkelstein solicited questions from audience members who disagreed with his remarks. Seated far apart in the audience, CSUC religious studies professor Andrew Flescher and I stood up simultaneously. Chosen first, I noted that the large map of the Middle East (to which he frequently referred) omitted Israel. Was that exclusion an oversight or deliberate? Shuffling and guffawing ensued. Finkelstein feigned surprise, shrugged, and insisted it wasn’t his map.

Next I asked him, “Aside from the fact that nearly all Palestinians speak Arabic and the overwhelming majority of Palestinians are Muslims, what would you identify as the three most important positive cultural characteristics about the Palestinian people that non-Palestinian people should know about?”

Finkelstein dismissed my question as so nasty that he would not lower himself to answer such a “Nazi-like” inquiry. This response evoked considerable laughter and loud applause. He proceeded vaguely about human rights and Palestinian self-determination, dodging my question—a rudimentary inquiry that historians, anthropologists, and psychologists often address about an ethnic or national group they study. Finkelstein failed to answer either because he had no reply or because he knew that a truthful response might undermine his sweeping assertions about Palestinian victimhood.

Finkelstein then asked to hear from Professor Flescher, and a fiery exchange ensued. Before the microphone was yanked away from him, Flescher disputed Finkelstein’s claim that some secret collusion between President Lyndon Johnson and Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban conspired to launch the 1967 war, adding simply that additional explanations for the conflict exist. He asked Finkelstein to explain that if his conspiracy was the cause, why had Nasser amassed 100,000 troops on the Egypt-Israel border, promising that blood would be “running through the streets of Tel Aviv”?

Flescher also challenged Finkelstein’s notorious comment that Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel (a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp) was “the resident clown of the Holocaust circus.” As he attempted to speak, Flescher was constantly interrupted or or shouted down by audience members or directly insulted by Finkelstein.

In its coverage of the event, even the liberal weekly newspaper Chico News and Review criticized Finkelstein’s behavior towards the two dissenters and his abusive style of dialogue.

It took just two faculty members to rankle Finkelstein. His views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are conventional left-wing staples seasoned with diatribes that masquerade as analysis, a slant with which readers of The Nation, the New York Review of Books, and Human Rights Watch reports (which he cited repeatedly) would be familiar.

Fanning the flames of discord enables Finkelstein to launch crude political attacks on the state of Israel, demonize its citizens as bloodthirsty murderers—and garner lucrative speaking engagements from naïve undergraduates.

Those who admire his so-called “alternative” views reveal their ignorance of the serious literature on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Finkelstein relishes the contempt he belligerently brings upon himself, probably another reason why he’s had trouble holding a teaching job.

When the American Association for University Professors (AAUP) was formed in 1915, its founding charter mandated that when dealing with controversial subjects, professors must “set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators” and “not provide students with ready-made conclusions but…train them to think for themselves.” Such fundamental principles are alien to Norman Finkelstein who, in my opinion, lacks the temperament, ethos and objectivity to be a classroom instructor.

Universities should be places of vigorous debate, but its leaders should be discerning about the individuals they invite to speak on campus. Established scholars who make reasoned arguments should be welcome, especially if their views are deemed “non-mainstream.” But people known to be ideological zealots should find platforms elsewhere. Universities should find models to be emulated who offer reasoned debate to their students; that means saying “no” to harangues from speakers like Norman Finkelstein.