Jewish organizations react to controversial speaker

Friday, February 29, 2008 | 4:50 p.m. CST; updated 7:35 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 9, 2008
Norman Finkelstein

COLUMBIA — A controversial speaker who has accused some Jewish organizations of using the Holocaust to fend off critics of Israel has been invited to speak at MU on Monday, causing mixed reactions from some religious groups.

Norman Finkelstein, a former assistant professor at DePaul University in Chicago and the son of two Holocaust survivors, has been invited by the Peace Studies Program to give a free lecture titled “A Farewell to Israel” at MU’s Old Alumni Center.

If you go

What: “A Farewell to Israel” lecture by Norman Finkelstein When: 7 p.m. Monday Where: Old Alumni Center, 1105 Carrie Francke Drive, MU Web site:

Finkelstein is a supporter of the Palestinian cause and is the author of “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering” and “Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.”

On his Web site, he says that the Jewish community has used guilt over the Holocaust and strategic reporting of anti-Semitism to deflect criticism of Israel.

John Galliher, director of peace studies at MU, said he invited Finkelstein to speak after hearing about his ousting from DePaul University. His dismissal was motivated by a lawsuit filed by Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard University professor.

“It just struck me as really obscene that one person at another university would get involved ... It’s just unthinkable,” Galliher said.

As reporting in The New York Times, the rift between Finkelstein and Dershowitz is over Finkelstein’s attacks in “Beyond Chutzpah” on Dershowitz’s book “The Case for Israel.” DePaul University canceled the final course Finkelstein was to teach in August after denying his tenure in June.

Galliher said he believes that most people find Finkelstein to be controversial because, for the most part, the press and politicians do not deal fairly with his perspective on the Palestinian people.

“We need to be fair-minded,” he said. ”Sometimes Israel makes mistakes; sometimes the United States makes mistakes.”

Boone Tikkun, a Jewish interfaith group that works toward peace and justice in the Middle East, chose to co-sponsor the event after an invitation from the Peace Studies Program. The interfaith group based its decision on the strength of Finkelstein’s scholarship, said member Stefani Engelstein, a professor in the Department of German and Russian Studies..

Engelstein said many factors were taken into consideration when deciding whether to sponsor the event, including “whether his work is solid scholarship and whether it fosters debate on a topic that needs very badly to be discussed.”

Some Jewish organizations in Columbia haven’t reacted as favorably to Finkelstein’s invitation.

Chai Times, a Jewish student magazine, will stage a silent protest of Finkelstein’s speaking engagement, said Jason Goldstein, Chai Times’ production manager and an MU journalism student.

Prior to the event, the publication’s staff will hand out literature discrediting his scholastic record and ideas.

Goldstein said that members of the Chai Times staff have written letters to the MU chancellor’s office questioning the decision to bring Finkelstein to speak but did not contact the Peace Studies Program.

Goldstein said that if Finkelstein is being brought in to speak under the auspices of academic freedom, then he should be held to those standards.

“Chai Times came to the conclusion that if we are going to have someone who is Jewish come and talk like this, then we need to get another message out there,” he said.

Representatives of the publication contacted Dershowitz to discuss methods of protest, Goldstein said.

Chai Times’ response contrasts positions taken by other Jewish organizations in Columbia.

Hillel, an MU student Jewish foundation, is encouraging its members to ignore the forum to keep from contributing to Finkelstein’s audience and, in effect, validating his claims, said Kerry Hollander, executive director of the foundation.

The decision “to not recognize or react” is part of the organization’s national recommendation, Hollander said.

Hillel has also contacted other campus facilities where Finkelstein has spoken in the past for advice on how to respond.

Hollander was quick to point out that the group’s decision is not meant to bind its members’ individual activities.

“None of us would interfere with anyone’s freedom to expression or speech,” she said.

The Missourian contacted the Jewish Student Organization, which has no official position on the event but has drafted letters to both Galliher and Chancellor Brady Deaton voicing disappointment in the decision to invite Finkelstein.

Engelstein said Boone Tikkun would never invite to campus or sponsor anyone who is prejudiced or anti-Semitic.

She noted that while everyone has the right to protest against positions they don’t agree with, often people who criticize Israel are quickly condemned and not listened to, which hurts free and informed discussion of the policy decisions.

Engelstein said Boone Tikkun supported Finkelstein’s invitation because it facilitates this type of discussion.

“Debate on policy issues is a good thing,” she said. “There is nothing harmful in listening to a perspective that you may not share.”

Engelstein said that without policy debate, people will never learn.

Galliher recommends that those troubled by Finkelstein’s visit listen to his lecture and suggest future speakers.

“If you listen to someone, you’ll be more likely to see them as a mere human being, not a villain,” Galliher said.


Editor’s note: Missourian reporter Chad Day is a student in John Galliher’s class and did not interview him for this report.

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