It was ironic, yet quite sad to hear that Norman Finkelstein was denied entry to Israel earlier this week and banned from visiting the country for ten years, after being accused by Israeli security officials of being a “security threat.”
Ironic because fifteen years ago I had what at the time seemed like the misfortune of having Finkelstein be the second reader for my Masters Thesis at New York University, whose topic was precisely the evolution of the discourse of security in Zionist thought and policy. I remember how proud I was when I turned in my first draft, and I remember even more strongly how disheartened I was when I received his comments—which were likely longer than the thesis itself, and completely rejected the basic premise of my arguments, and pointed to a vast literature on the history of the Zionist Labor and Revisionist movements that I had not read. It was not a pleasant experience, and I spent much of the summer reading instead of hanging out at Fire Island with friends, but there was no doubt that the final draft of the thesis was a far better exploration of the meaning of security in Zionism and Israeli political discourse than the first draft I turned in.
And not because it was “anti-Zionist” or “anti-Israel,” as it was neither. Rather, it was a far more comprehensively and accurately researched argument that better captured the historical grounding of the ideas I was studying.
The whole notion of Finkelstein being a “security threat” is utter nonsense, as his views on Zionism are positively mainstream and do not in any way threaten the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. He is as a matter of fact one of the few so-called “radical” scholars who is explicitly not anti-Zionist. Yes, he can be harshly critical of Israeli policies, and his willingness to elaborate at length on the minutae of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories and how they violate international law and norms no doubt annoys the Israeli government as much as it does the organized Jewish community leadership in the US (many of whom would no doubt be happy if he were refused entry back into the US on similar grounds, and had to move to Canada).
On the issue of Finkelstein's support for Hezbollah's right to use violence to resist the large scale Israeli invasion of the country in 2006, I do not agree with his reading of Hezbollah, but his argument that the Lebanese, like Palestinians, have the right under international law to resist foreign invasion and occupation is supported by the reading of international law by most legal scholars I have spoken to who are experts on this issue. See his argument at http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=11&ar=1489 for more on this controversial issue. Even if one disagrees with his reading, it hardly makes him a security threat to Israel, since by that reading the country should refuse entry to most every Egyptian, Jordanian, or other Arab citizen, or many Europeans for that matter.
But the reality is that Professor Finkelstein is on record endorsing a two-state solution, which is clearly not anti-Zionist. This puts him, I suppose, to the right of me--to take just one example--since I'm on record stating my belief (one, its worth mentioning, that mainstream Israeli scholars like Meron Benvenisti have argued for over a generation) that it's far too late for a two-state solution to be workable; and that at any rate, a binational option is more just for both peoples because it would allow each to realize a larger share of their national aspirations without infringing on the rights of the other than would two geographically separated territories.
So, what does that make me, an even bigger security threat to Israel than Finkelstein? Am I going to be unceremoniously turned away next time I come for an academic conference?--An act, by itself, which is against the notion of boycott that is so popular amongst many in the Left who nevertheless see nothing wrong with going to conferences in England (still occupying Northern Ireland, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan), China (remember Tibet?), Russia (Chechnya anyone?) or working in the home of global imperialism, the good ol' US of A.
And what about all my Israeli colleagues who support the binational idea and work tireless to end the occupation? Are they soon to be “administratively detained” for long periods, without regular access to lawyers and family member? Perhaps to suffer a bit of “moderate physical pressure” like Palestinian (including citizens of the state) to reeducate them away from their dangerous views? Many of them Jewish American immigrants who immigrated to help build the Israel of Judaism's highest ideals, rather than the state that has veered so far from the democratic principles espoused in its Declaration of Independence and Basic Law. Should they expect to wind up on a mountain top tent in southern Lebanon? Or perhaps just lose their jobs in academia, or face regular harassment from the police, as already has happened.
It would be laughable if it wasn't so Orwelian for the State of Israel, the most powerful military machine in the Middle East and beyond, to refuse entry to a scholar of international renown—one who, like Edward Said and Noam Chomsky (neither of whom as far as I know, were ever denied entry to Israel), has many admirers among Israeli academics for his scholarship. Indeed, Finkelstein's supposedly controversial work on the"Holocaust industry" was seconded by one of the most senior Holocaust scholars in Israel, while many Israeli colleagues expressed the wish to be able to hire him in Israel when he was shamefully denied tenure last year at DePaul University.
Israel claims to be a democracy, and formally it is, as all citizens have the right to vote. But democratic countries do not stifle dissent. They do not refuse entry to scholars who criticize them on grounds of “security” unless, as I argued in my thesis all those years ago, the very notion of security is so highly politicized that it ultimately has very little to do with protecting the lives of its citizens and everything to do with preserving a certain political ideology that violates many of the principal tenets of human rights and dignity to which the state is sworn, through its most basic documents, to adhere.
Writing this, I can't help realizing that I'm describing a situation that exists as much in the US today as in Israel. As a member of the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association, I can write from experience that today many foreign scholars have been refused entry to the US because of their political views while for every highly politicized denial of tenure such as Finkelstein's, innumerable actions of censorship occur to less well known scholars, particularly those who work under contract and don't have any of the rights and protections of the tenure system.
More specific to Israel, scholars who espouse strong views against the occupation, or Zionism more broadly, have long faced harassment from their universities. This is particularly true of Palestinian professors, who find it almost impossible to get tenure if their writings in any way touch on issues related to the position of the Palestinian minority in the country (a good friend of mine, a law professor, recently left a major Israeli university because the administration continuously upped the ante for his tenure requirements even though he had published in leading journals several times the minimum number of articles necessary by the university's regulations to receive tenure. I have heard numerous other stories like this).
Others, Israeli Jews, complain of having to fight for tenure or for any sort of recognition and support from their universities, not because of their scholarship, not even because of their political views, but merely because they work on the Middle East but refuse to do so within the security-driven scholarly paradigm that has long dominated Middle Eastern and Islamic studies in Israel, where scholars have often lent their expertise in Arabic and Muslim/Arab cultures to the security services. Other have suffered retribution merely for supporting students and lecturers in the constant struggle for more funds for education and research and for freedom of research.
This political problem is tied to the economic troubles facing the Israeli university system. I regular hear complaints from Israeli colleagues that the Israeli university system is becoming increasingly privatized and corporatized—like its American counterpart—in a manner which is slowly starving traditional humanistic and social science fields for funds. In so doing, it's making it much harder for universities to fulfill one of their core mission in Israeli society, and any democracy for that matter: to imbue the principle of citizenship, public civility, and the search and respect for scientific truth and, to the extent possible, objective scholarship, in the next generation of citizens.
This is clearly a problem in the United States, but if our intellectual and political culture becomes increasingly course and unsophisticated, we can still survive as a nation (maybe). Israel, as its leaders routinely remind the world, is a very small country in a sea of autocracy and violence. Having a free and healthy public sphere, one where all sides of the most urgent political questions, can be heard and debated, is not just crucial to the health of Israeli democracy, it's crucial to the survival of Israel as the Jewish yet democratic state it claims to be.
There is little doubt that Professor Finkelstein would have offered a similarly detailed analysis of the political, intellectual and free speech implications of his banning from Israel to the soldiers and officials who refused him entry if they would have listened. But most likely they wouldn't have been very interested in his views. Indeed, that was the whole point of banning Finkelstein—so that Israelis do not have to hear a piercing critique of so many of their founding myths from one of their own, a Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors who is intimately familiar with the country's history, and who eviscerates Israel's justifications for its policies not with the aim of “destroying” Israel or threatening its security, but rather to enable the establishing the political and moral foundations for precisely the two-state solution that the government and security services say is Israel's only option for avoiding an Apartheid era South Africa future (as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself has warned).
If that is indeed the goal of the Israeli government, it would be wise to start listening to rather than silencing voices like Finkelstein, however much they might disagree with his analyses, before it's too late.
UPDATE:The issue of academic freedom in Israel/Palestine today is not just limited to Israel not letting critics into the country. It is also not letting Palestinians out of the country to study, as a story just posted on the NY Times website explains: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/30/world/middleeast/30gaza.html?hp.
Specifically, Israel will not allow students in Gaza to leave the Strip to accept Fulbright Awards to study in the US. Our own government, which gives Israel more than $3 billion in aid every year, apparently doesn't have the juice to convince the Israeli government to allow it to let a few dozen Palestinian students to leave to study here, despite the fact that Israel's actions are clear violations of international law, which prevents occupying powers from obstructing education in occupied territory (see Jonathan Thompson Horowitz,"The Right to Education in Occupied Territories," Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law (2004), 7: 233-277). Of course, for over a generation the occupation authorities have prevented students in the West Bank from traveling only a few miles to get to Birzeit University, so this is nothing new, but its illegal and immoral nonetheless, and the US government should show a bit of spine and force the issue.