It is understandable that listening to Norman Finkelstein can be difficult for those raised in Zionist households, just as it was difficult for us to listen to him speak of the failures of the Palestinian resistance movement and its leaders over dinner earlier that evening. We are raised with ideologies that we feel define us, and it is often shattering to discover the falsehoods, exaggerations or even failures inherent in those ideologies. A belief in the correlation between the horrors of the Holocaust and the moral righteousness of the state of Israel is one such ideology — and it is one that needs to be reevaluated.
Finkelstein’s talk to a group of Yale students and faculty last week was held in that spirit. Finkelstein is a professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago and the author of “Nation on Trial,” “The Holocaust Industry” and, most recently, “Beyond Chutzpah,” a point-by-point refutation of both the methods and the substance of Alan Dershowitz’s book “The Case for Israel.” Finkelstein’s critics, at Yale and across the country, have linked him with several unsavory figures in an attempt to discredit him through association. But even a cursory reading of his work shows just how contrived these claims are: Finkelstein does not deny that the Holocaust happened, he does not deny that its victims and survivors deserve compensation, and he does not deny the existence of anti-Semitism.
What Norman Finkelstein’s books do say, and what he said at Yale last week, is that we must be weary of ideologies of uniqueness, for they inevitably lead to ideologies of unique moral dispensation or immunity. It is not appropriate, he said, to respond to widespread and well-founded accusations that Israel tortures Palestinian prisoners or confiscates Palestinian land by pointing to the Holocaust. Tragedy should not abet tragedy.
The trials and tribulations that a people withstand are never unique. By calling our tragedies unique, we reduce them to intellectually hollow doctrines used to, in Finkelstein’s words, “extenuate moral standards.” If Israel’s suffering was unique, then its government shouldn’t be bound by normal ethical, legal and international political standards. If the way we remember the Holocaust cannot be debated, then we can never discuss the ends to which some people have used its memory.
The 1948 Nakba put the Holocaust at the center of the Palestinians’ own national history and tragedy. Limitations on what about the Holocaust or its memory is acceptable to discuss prevent Palestinians from constructing a complete narrative of their own plight — a narrative that is crucial to their claim for justice. Mystifying the Holocaust for Americans denies them the right to judge that claim, or their own country’s support for Israel.
Far from being anti-Semitic or a Holocaust denier, Finkelstein joins many other non-Zionist Jews in speaking of a universal ethics, and he highlights the essence of Jewish heritage, based largely in a respect for justice and peace.
In hosting him, Yale affirms its mission to foster debate. No topic, however uncomfortable, should be off-limits for discussion. And in this case, the injunction to discuss, debate and debunk is particularly strong. As Finkelstein said, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is responsible for the displacement and deaths of thousands of people — and it continues to broil to this day. Any chance at solving it must begin with an open discussion. Misrepresenting Finkelstein’s comments and claiming that it is inappropriate for him to speak at our University is precisely the kind of attitude that stifles this much-needed discussion.
Paige Austin ’06, Rasha Khoury MED ’08 and Diala Shamas ’06 are members of the Arab Students’ Assocation.