BURLINGTON - Norman Finkelstein contends that the crucial dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are relatively simple, with few, if any, historical facts worthy of scholarly debate. In recent years, he claims, the charge of anti-Semitism is often used to deflect criticism of Israel's human rights abuses. And, he adds, the Holocaust, though a colossally horrific event of the 20th century, doesn't deserve the rarefied moral status Western historians have assigned it.
Such statements would be considered highly incendiary coming from anyone in the academic world - let alone a Jewish professor of political science and the son of Holocaust survivors. But this weekend, Finkelstein, who teaches at DePaul University in Chicago, brings his controversial message to the University of Vermont. He's expected to receive a vociferous reception, from supporters and opponents alike.
Finkelstein, 52, is the author of five books on Israel, Palestine, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. His upcoming lecture is based on his most recent book, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. In it, Finkelstein asserts that, were it not for Israel's strategic importance to the United States and the political influence exerted by American Jews, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians could easily be resolved legally and diplomatically. Finkelstein also argues that the Jewish State is held to a different moral standard internationally, which has enabled it to avoid the economic and military sanctions that have been imposed on other countries with similar human rights records. Finally, he contends that anyone who criticizes Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is automatically condemned as anti-Semitic, a move he describes as akin to playing "the Jewish race card."
Finkelstein's talk is being sponsored by several on- and off-campus groups, including PeaceVermont, Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine-Israel, and the Will Miller Social Justice Lecture Series. It has outraged some local Jews and supporters of Israel.
Rabbi James Glazier of Temple Sinai in South Burlington says he doesn't know Finkelstein personally, nor has he read his books. However, based on research on Finkelstein and response to his talks on other campuses, he's "saddened" that such an inflammatory speaker would be invited to UVM, especially in a forum that doesn't allow for the airing of countervailing views.
"One of his claims is that the Jewish community uses the Holocaust to beat people over the head," Glazier says. "But then he uses the expression, 'Israel, the Fourth Reich.' Now, who's using the Holocaust there? Does he mean that Israel has become the new Nazis?"
Glazier is particularly incensed at the timing of Finkelstein's talk, which falls on the night before Yom Kippur, the holiest and most solemn day in the Jewish year.
"I'm offended at having to go out during the Holy Week, the holiest time of our year, to be in this kind of discourse," Glazier adds. "If anything, we should be preparing ourselves for the day of atonement. This is very agitating."
Rabbi Joshua Chasan of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington says that while he disagrees with many of Finkelstein's "provocative" views, "A university campus is a place for free speech. I was planning on going."
"My concern about the UVM campus, independent of Norman Finkelstein, is that the tenor of political discussion be civil and open and that all views have an opportunity to be expressed," Chasan says.
One of the event's organizers, Helen Scott, an associate professor of English who sits on the board of the Will Miller Lecture Series, charges that some in UVM's administration - she couldn't say who - have "questioned the legitimacy" of Finkelstein's lecture. She says they have put up bureaucratic barriers, such as requiring the sponsoring groups to sign a contract for the lecture hall and to provide proof of insurance in the event there's violence or property damage. Scott says she was told by UVM Police Chief Gary Margolis that he is "expecting trouble."
"It's completely illustrative of Dr. Finkelstein's main argument," says Scott. "It suggests that if you choose to bring a speaker who's critical of Israel, you will expect to face all these obstacles, you will get veiled threats, and you will be expected to jump through a number of hoops. The effect is really chilling on academic freedom."
Margolis says he's checked with other universities around the country that have hosted Finkelstein, and will provide adequate security to ensure the safety of the speaker and everyone else who attends the event.
UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera challenges the assertion that anyone's academic freedom is being curtailed.
"There's been absolutely no effort whatsoever to prevent this speaker from coming to campus," Corredera says. "Our involvement has been to make sure that all appropriate resources are in place to ensure a safe event."
Corredera adds that UVM is following standard protocols and is treating this event like any other speaking engagement.
"That's what we are as a university, a marketplace of ideas. We are very committed to the concepts of free speech and expression," Corredera says. He points out that similar procedures were required for other controversial speakers on campus, including animal-rights activist and ethicist Peter Singer and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.