COLUMBIA — A controversial author and critic of the state of Israel called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the “least controversial” in the world today, arguing that any obstacles to a resolution come from factual distortions of Israel’s policy record.
Norman Finkelstein, a former professor at Depaul University, spoke to about 120 people Monday night at the Old MU Alumni Center. He was invited to speak by the Peace Studies Program at MU and was co-sponsored by the Center for Religion and the Professions and Boone Tikkun, a Jewish interfaith group that works toward peace in the Middle East. In his books, Finkelstein criticizes Jewish organizations for exploiting the Holocaust in order to fend off criticism of Israel.
Finkelstein said Monday that Israel is not held to the same moral standards as Palestine and called this disparity an “exercise in hypocrisy.” In his comparison of the two governments’ human rights records, he noted a 4.5 to 1 ratio of Palestinian fatalities to Israeli fatalities.
Finkelstein also called for academic freedom in his lecture. He chastised the MU administration, who he said reprimanded Kathy Andresen, a faculty member who invited him to speak.
His invitation caused a mixed response from some Jewish organizations.
Members of the staff of the Jewish student magazine, Chai Times, protested the event by handing out fliers discrediting his scholarly record.
“Really our goal here is to have an alternative viewpoint,” said Jason Goldstein, production manager for the publication.
The group had sought advice from Harvard law professor and Finkelstein opponent, Alan Dershowitz, on protest methods.
The Hillel Foundation at MU chose to “not recognize or react” to the speaking engagement but did not bind its members’ individual decisions, said Kerry Hollander, executive director of the foundation.
The Jewish Student Organization wrote letters to Chancellor Brady Deaton and Peace Studies Program Director John Galliher expressing their “extreme disappointment” in Finkelstein’s invitation. The letter criticized his scholarship as “controversial, one-sided opinions regarding the Holocaust and Israel” and questioned the department’s decision to not provide alternative views.
But others who attended the lecture said they appreciated Finkelstein’s point of view.
Ken Levy of Columbia said, “I think Finkelstein is an articulate spokesman for resolving the conflict.”
He said he attended the lecture because of his interest in justice for the Palestinian people. Levy videotaped the event and said he planned on posting the recording on Google Video because he sees Finkelstein as an important voice that needs to be heard.
Dick Hanson, a retired Columbia resident, said he attended the lecture because he wanted to learn more about Finkelstein’s positions. He said that the controversial nature of Finkelstein’s research should be expected because of his field of study.
“Not too many speeches having to deal with war and peace will ever be noncontroversial, especially in the Middle East,” he said.
However, Jordan Smarr, a senior at MU, said he didn’t see anything controversial about Finkelstein’s comments.
“I wasn’t really surprised by anything he said,” Smarr said. “It was pretty straightforward.”