By Jacob M. Victor
Jacob M. Victor ’09 attends Harvard College and is a Social Studies concentrator living in Leverett House.
When Mark Twain coined the famous phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” he was describing the human tendency to look down upon those closest to us. Unfortunately the opposite is also true: a constant exposure to familiar ideas often leads us to become more and more disdainful of the viewpoint furthest from our own
At Harvard, over the past year, this tendency has taken a dangerous new turn. While Harvard’s pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups all invited many interesting, thoughtful speakers throughout the year, these events were trumped by two speakers who were chosen because they presented the views familiar to each side in an unfamiliar form. Both these speakers were chosen because of their unusual identities, rather than the substance of their scholarship.
Last February, the Kennedy School of Government’s Palestine Awareness Committee invited to campus Norman Finkelstein, a pseudo-academic who prides himself on being the “son of Holocaust survivors” while attacking Israel’s “Nazi-like” behavior. A few months earlier, Harvard Students for Israel, the leading pro-Israel undergraduate group, invited Nonie Darwish, the daughter of a shahid (martyr) and founder of the supremely unsubtle organization, Arabs for Israel.
Both Finkelstein and Darwish spoke to packed auditoriums and their popularity reflects an unfortunate and dangerous trend in Harvard’s discourse on the Middle East. Even though the organizers of the events praised Finkelstein’s and Darwish’s “scholarship” or “struggle”, the fact of the matter remains that both speakers were popular because of their unique identities—the anti-Israel Jew and the pro-Israel Arab—rather than for the substance of their arguments. By exploiting this artificial controversy, both speakers bolstered preexisting beliefs and inhibited productive dialogue.
Long accused of academic dishonesty, conspiratorial political opinions, and borderline Holocaust denial, Finkelstein, who is an assistant professor at DePaul Unversity, is notorious for his controversial books and articles that accuse American and Israeli Jews of inflating and exploiting the Holocaust to defend Israel’s actions. By drawing ludicrous links between Israel and Nazi Germany, and openly supporting terrorist attacks by Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, Finkelstein’s lectures and books merely poison an already toxic conflict. He has been denounced by both the left and the right, including Israeli revisionist historian Benny Morris, who has accused Finkelstein of distorting his work on the rise of the Palestinian refugee crisis.
And yet, Finkelstein managed to draw standing-room-only crowds at Harvard, as well as at Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania in the past year. Of course, some people just love a good conspiracy theory, and Finkelstein certainly caters to anyone searching for simplistic causes and solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But his popularity mainly stems from his identity as a Jew who rejects the mainstream Jewish community’s support for Israel.
When Harvard’s Palestine Awareness Committee and other cosponsors created a flyer for Finkelstein’s February talk at the Kennedy School, the first few words of Finkelstein’s biographical sketch present him as “the son of Holocaust survivors.” Indeed, Finkelstein often prefaces his talks by mentioning that his mother survived the Majdanek concentration camp and that his father was a survivor of Auschwitz. He implies that this fact makes his controversial views more interesting or worth listening to. He has a point. If anyone other than a Jew spouted the hateful nonsense that Finkelstein champions, they would immediately be denounced as Holocaust deniers or anti-Semites. Finkelstein avoids this trap by exploiting his parents’ Holocaust survival. But in doing so, he himself engages in what he has callously and atrociously accused Israeli and American Jews of doing. Furthermore, his iconoclastic status as an anti-Israel, son-of-Holocaust-survivors allows him to seduce his audiences with his anti-Israel rhetoric, all the while making them feel more secure in their preexisting beliefs. If the son of Holocaust survivors can compare Israel to Nazi Germany, why can’t we?
Finkelstein is destructive and dishonest, but Darwish also plays into the kind of form-over-substance notoriety that Finkelstein has perfected. Darwish is an Egyptian woman whose father was one of the founders of the fedayeen, the Egyptian sponsored militia that sporadically attacked Israel’s southern border during the 1950s. Her father became a shahid, or martyr, when he was assassinated by the Israeli Defense Forces. Rather then swearing vengeance against Israel, however, Darwish moved to America in 1978 and became a strong critic of radical Islam.
While her life story is compelling, she proffered few substantive recommendations for moving towards peace or for understanding radical Islam during her speech at Harvard. Her general refrain seemed to be “look at me, I’m an Arab who supports Israel, isn’t that exciting?” She often mentioned her group, “Arabs for Israel,” but failed to elaborate on what the group actually does.
Furthermore, Darwish spoke to a crowd of mostly pro-Israel students and from the start it seemed disingenuous and intellectually complacent to host an Arab woman who was simply echoing the view that most people in the room already held. Though Darwish’s rhetoric never approaches Finkelstein’s level of vindictiveness, she did little to contribute to the debate. Perhaps she would be better suited to speak to other Arabs who are looking for a different viewpoint. But her speaking circuit consists mainly of synagogues, Jewish community centers, and campus Hillels. Her presentations seem to be an unfortunate way of preventing pro-Israel Jews from actively engaging with viewpoints different from their own.
True dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict necessitates an attempt at understanding the opposing side’s arguments and perspectives. People in the pro-Palestinian camp must realize that the vast majority of Jews support Israel’s right to exist and flourish as a Jewish democratic state and come nowhere near the absurd politics of Norman Finkelstein. People in the pro-Israel camp must also realize that for every member of “Arabs for Israel” there are probably 100,000 more people in the Arab world who are bitter and angry about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, or even its very existence.
Certainly, Jews have a right and responsibility to criticize Israeli actions, and Arabs have a right a responsibility to condemn terror and radical Islamism. However, a speaker must have more to present than their own unusual life story or iconoclastic political statements. For example, Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are two Muslim women who offer thoughtful, informed critiques of radical Islam that transcend the relative banality of Darwish’s speeches. And, as much as controversial as their views sometimes are, Meron Benvenisti, Gideon Levy, Benny Morris, Thomas Friedman and many other Jewish journalists and academics often make well thought-out cases against Israel’s policies.
But Finkelstein offers nothing substantive save his unusual identity; he sets out to entertain those who are already biased against Israel and allow them to take comfort that a Jew is willing to echo their extremist politics. Darwish acts as a mirror that allows pro-Israel Jews to reflect their preexisting viewpoints onto someone “from the other side.” These speakers did nothing to further dialogue at Harvard. Rather, they further entrenched the dangerous biases that have plagued Israeli-Arab dialogue for so long. It’s time for all groups at Harvard to issue a moratorium on bringing speakers like Finkelstein and Darwish to campus and to recognize that progress and peace can only be achieved by listening to different points of view. Familiarity may breed contempt but unfamiliarity can breed true substantive dialogue and, ultimately, change.