Controversial speaker inspires cheers, jeers
Norman Finkelstein brings his pro-Palestinian views to Chico
Norman Finkelstein’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict brought a broad mix of cheers and jeers Monday night (April 13) at Chico State’s Harlen Adams Theatre. Statements such as “What happened in Gaza was a massacre” and “Killing Arabs is a crowd-pleaser” really got the crowd going. That reaction, apparently, is what Finkelstein thrives on.
Finkelstein, the son of Jewish parents who lived through Nazi Germany, believes that Israel uses the Holocaust as a scapegoat mechanism. He says Israel doesn’t want peace; it wants to be feared by its neighbors. And what better way to create fear than to massacre them—the innocents along with the militants?
Finkelstein, who spoke calmly and eloquently in front of a standing-room-only house, presented studies by groups like Human Rights Watch. He shared statistics and stories of the fighting in Israel and the Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, from 1967 to the present. All of the incidents he recounted were acts by the Israeli government against the Arab world—against Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, even Egypt. If Israel was provoked, he argued, it was by the possibility of losing authority. By keeping up the attacks, Israel could maintain the status quo: fear.
Finkelstein’s views are far from mainstream. That’s part of why he was brought to Chico State to begin with—a promotion of free speech. Judging by the hooting-and-hollering reaction in the auditorium, his views were shared by many there, some of whom attended as part of a class requirement and many of Middle Eastern and/or Arab descent. Others, including religious-studies professor Andrew Flescher, who has traveled to Israel and Palestine, found Finkelstein’s viewpoints one-sided.
All of this—Finkelstein’s speech went from 7:30 to just before 10 p.m.—was spoken in front of a large projection screen with a map of the Middle East on it. Gaza and the West Bank were clearly labeled, but Israel was noticeably missing—bringing about a comment from the audience. Finkelstein maintained, however, that Israel does have a right to exist (although many in the Middle East disagree)—just not to occupy the Palestinian territories.
The event turned quickly from a speech about Israel and Palestine into a pissing contest between speaker and audience members—Finkelstein requested questions from “the dissenters” first. Note: Some of those audience members were professors, and they faced ridicule both by the speaker and afterward from other audience members.
The first comment from the audience came from an English professor: After mentioning the missing Israel on the map, he asked for Finkelstein to offer some insight into Palestinians’ lives, beyond religion. The question garnered a sneering response from Finkelstein—“That’s just a Nazi-like question.” Then he refused to answer.
The second questioner, Flescher, who asked about events omitted from Finkelstein’s speech—in particular disputes started by Hamas, not Israel—was referred to as a coward and told, “You’re making a fool out of yourself.”
The crowd cheered on.
This reaction is exactly what makes Finkelstein so controversial. His talk, which centered on relations between the Palestinians and Israelis since the 1960s, was markedly pro-Palestinian.
In his introduction, professor Mahan Mirza explained that Finkelstein’s planned speech at UC Davis scheduled for the following night had just been canceled—by the school. Finkelstein is used to that sort of welcome.
Student Amro Jayousi, a Palestinian, also offered a brief on-stage welcome. Jayousi, as part of Chico State’s chapters of the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Pi Sigma Alpha, played a major role in bringing Finkelstein to campus. Despite the controversy that follows him, many rallied behind the decision based on freedom of speech.
But Flescher, who had also supported bringing Finkelstein to campus, found the layout of the forum to be counter to the goal of opening up dialogue. If it had been up to him—and he’s organized dozens of events in the past two decades—he would have set a time limit on the speech and invited an equally educated counterpart to present the other side of the argument.
“There was no time to refute the facts,” he said afterward. “Why should we take your word for it?”