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By Scott Kennedy
FOR THREE DECADES the Resource Center for Nonviolence (RCNV) has brought an extraordinary range of speakers on Middle East issues to Santa Cruz, ranging from the chief justice of the Israeli High Court to the founder of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza. We've hosted an Israeli whose son was killed by a Palestinian sniper and a Palestinian whose 10-year-old daughter was killed by an Israeli border policeman as she walked home from school. Until 2005, RCNV had not invited Norman Finkelstein to speak. Frankly, I found his style unnecessarily abrasive. His focus on the Holocaust was off-putting to many people, especially Jewish Americans. And his choice of language sometimes seemed intended more to alarm than to illumine.
Then came 9/11. The September 2001 terrorist attacks brought heightened fear and reaction in our country. Anti-Arab racist sentiment mushroomed. Politicians cynically exploited people's genuine fear to ramp up U.S. military belligerence abroad and to stifle dissent at home. The very day of 9/11, while expressing outrage at the mass murder of civilians, RCNV also suggested the United States examine the factors contributing toward growing U.S. international isolation. Those asking questions about why our nation might be singled out for attack were accused of favoring terrorism—as though someone researching causes of cancer were promoting the disease. Then came Norman Finkelstein, son of two Holocaust survivors, Ph.D. from Princeton, professor at DePaul University, Chicago, and author of a half-dozen books, including The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering and Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.
In 2005, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz led a campaign to stop publication of Finkelstein's latest book, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. Dershowitz lobbied University of California Press and appealed to the governor to prevent its publication. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger was sharp enough to observe that the governor has neither the power nor the moral authority to tell UC Press what to publish. Beyond Chutzpah was published in 2005. Dershowitz and his allies succeeded, nevertheless, in getting major bookstores to cancel or refuse to schedule public book events.
Shocked by this sordid campaign, I immediately invited Finkelstein to Santa Cruz to speak on Beyond Chutzpah. For too long the free exchange of ideas on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been constrained in the United States. In light of the post-9/11 hysteria, Finkelstein's clarion call for a free exchange of ideas and robust debate took on more relevance.
The RCNV came under relentless pressure to cancel Finkelstein's visit. Most objections amounted to ad hominem attacks. I breathed a sigh of relief when Finkelstein gave a clear, well-reasoned and good-humored talk at the Vets Hall in March 2006. Many came away shaking their heads and wondering what all the fuss had been about.
Norman Finkelstein is coming back to Santa Cruz on May 12. Since his last visit, the public debate about American support for Israeli policies has erupted across the country. He will speak about his new book, This Time We Went Too Far: Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion, at 7pm at the United Methodist Church, 250 California St., and at 8pm at the Kresge Town Hall/UCSC. It is more important than ever to support those who continue to speak truth to power in support of both Palestinian and Israeli human and national rights.
Scott Kennedy coordinates the Middle East Program of the RCNV.
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