Norman Finkelstein’s talk at UM-D on Wednesday was instructive and revealing—though not, I’m sure, in the way he intended.
The event began with him speaking for about an hour and 20 minutes, mostly on the December 2008 invasion and massacre in Gaza. He recounted the usual facts about that tragic event, facts that were probably well known to nearly everyone in the lecture hall. He spent about 20 minutes on the Mavi Marmara incident of last May, and another 10 on recent events. His talk concluded with no new news, no controversial statements—only the usual condemnation of Israeli atrocities that any decent person would find appalling.
Then came time for questions. I was the first. I said: “Norm, during your talk you offered neither discussion nor criticism of the Zionist project. This suggests that you find Zionism either irrelevant or unimportant to the question of Palestine. So I have a three-part question for you: (1) What is your definition of Zionism? (2) What percent of Jewish Americans are Zionists? and (3) Are you a Zionist?”
For the next 15 minutes, literally, the audience was treated to a rambling, incoherent response that failed to even address, let alone answer, any of the three questions. This gist of his answer, as far as I can tell, consisted of a dismissal of the term “Zionism” as irrelevant to modern-day society. Labeling people is counter-productive, he seemed to say. We don’t want to upset anyone, he implied. Finkelstein ended his reply by stating explicitly, regarding the question of his own Zionism, “I refuse to answer that.” (This non-answer drew applause from a few members of the audience, including Nabeel Abraham of HFCC.)
Moderator Tarek Beydoun then interjected a follow-up question, to the effect that, the first question was indeed relevant, and why won’t you answer it? Finkelstein then launched into yet another (!) 15-minute sprawling non-answer, ending with the suggestion that we all need to “adjust and accommodate” ourselves to the reality of the situation—whatever that means.
It got no better after that. Of the few remaining questions, we heard that Norm cares only about the occupation and the civilian killings, and that the rights of Israeli Arabs are of little concern; that “nobody” really believes in equality of all people; and that it is simply not reasonable to allow all Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland (“maybe they should just choose not to return”).
Most people left the hall knowing scarcely more than when they went in. We don’t need someone to tell us the obvious. We need an examination of the ideological basis for the present situation. We need to expose the power of the Israel Lobby in media and government. And we need a concrete strategy to restore justice and true democracy to the Middle East.
Perhaps I am too hard on Norm. Everyone has their limits, and his happen to include only the most obvious and blatant Israeli crimes. This is fine, as far as it goes. But let’s not fool ourselves. Let’s not portray the man as some noble critic of the Zionist state. In fact he is no critic of Zionism at all; he won’t even discuss the matter.
At best, Finkelstein has a very shallow threshold for criticism. At worst, he is a closet apologist for Zionism. If American Zionists wanted to create a “safe” critic of the Jewish state, one who would point to only the most obvious flaws while covering up the root causes, they could do little better than Norm Finkelstein.
David Skrbina, PhD, is a professor of philosophy at UM-Dearborn.