Controversy Over Finkelstein

     The Gandhian Forum’s hosting of Norman Finkelstein’s talk on "What Gandhi Says on Nonviolence, Resistance, and Courage" elicited some controversy on campus. A small group of faculty wrote a memo (hereafter, "the Memo") to the President of William Paterson University and the co-sponsors of the event (though not to the Gandhian Forum itself), asking them to withdraw their co-sponsorship. (None of them did.) And then a group of faculty from the Psychology Department, led by some of the signers of the Memo, circulated a leaflet (hereafter "the Leaflet") at Finkelstein’s talk denouncing Finkelstein and denouncing as well the Gandhian Forum for inviting him.

     The Leaflet charged that Finkelstein’s scholarship "does not meet even minimal academic standards. In essence, it amounts to little more than hate speech." The Gandhian Forum strongly rejects this charge.

     The charge was rejected as well by the Political Science Department faculty Personnel Committee at DePaul University that recommended him for tenure and by the editors and the faculty editorial advisory board of the University of California Press, which published one of his books.

     The Leaflet cited two extremely critical assessments of Finkelstein's work. It did not cite, however, or even acknowledge the very positive assessments of his work by other well-respected scholars. The late Prof. Raul Hilberg, considered by many to be the dean of Holocaust studies and author of the three-volume The Destruction of the European Jews, has stated that "Finkelstein's place in the whole history of writing history is assured." Prof. Avi Shlaim of Oxford University, an award-winning British-Israeli historian and expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict, has commented favorably on several of Finkelstein's books (Re: Finkelstein's, Beyond Chutzpah: "On display are all the sterling qualities for which Finkelstein has become famous: erudition, originality, spark, meticulous attention to detail, intellectual integrity, courage, and formidable forensic skills."1 Re: Finkelstein's Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict: "The book makes a major contribution to the study of the Arab-Israeli conflict and deserves to be widely read…."2). The New York Times Book Review selected Finkelstein's co-authored book A Nation on Trial as a "notable book" for 1998. Praise by many others can be cited. Clearly there are contending views of Finkelstein’s work. And given that he has addressed some of the most contentious issues of the day and taken on influential scholars, it is not surprising that the contending views on his work are passionate. But to suggest that he should not have been invited to speak at William Paterson University because his work is "little more than hate speech" seems like an attempt to use the serious charge of hate speech to exclude differing political views.

     The Leaflet stated:

"Dr. Finkelstein’s interpretation of Gandhi paints him in terms very different from Gandhi’s public image. In fact, we suspect some supporters of Gandhi would deem it defamatory to the great man. As you will likely hear in his talk, Finkelstein interprets Gandhi’s approach as consistent with the deeds of violent terrorists. Here’s a relevant video:"

It seems an odd complaint at an academic institution to charge that a speaker's interpretation of a thinker or historical figure might be different from his or her public image. But in any event, Gandhi's conventionally accepted ideas have always presented a challenge for advocates of peace and justice: Is the commitment to nonviolence absolute? Was nonviolence the right response, for example, to Hitler? We at the Gandhian Forum welcome this conversation. The Leaflet claimed to tell us what we would "likely hear" in Finkelstein’s talk, but we preferred not to take the Leaflet's word for it and instead hear for ourselves. The "relevant video" cited in the Leaflet supposedly showing that Finkelstein used Gandhi to support "violent terrorists," shows nothing of the sort (as one can see for oneself). Nowhere in that video is there a defense of violent terrorism. On the contrary, in that video Finkelstein calls for settling the Israel-Palestine conflict nonviolently.

     The Leaflet asked "Of all the people on this planet who could have been selected as a speaker for this forum, one wonders why this individual was chosen." The answer is not so mysterious: of all the people on this planet very few have just written a book on Gandhi’s political thought.

     Sponsoring or co-sponsoring an event does not imply agreement with a speaker. Rather it indicates that the sponsors believe that the William Paterson community would be educated, engaged, and challenged by hearing the speaker. Gandhi’s views on nonviolence are not well understood—scholars puzzle over what he meant—and to have someone speak who has just written a book that attempts to offer one reading of Gandhi’s work seems clearly relevant to our mission and like just the sort of thing WPU students, faculty, and staff could benefit from. Universities are the fora where new ideas are presented and scrutinized. Finkelstein’s presentation at WPU was in fact, as we had hoped, informative and engaging, as can be seen by checking the video of the event.

     In their attempt to discredit Finkelstein, both the Leaflet and the Memo charged that Finkelstein "included" an "obscene" cartoon with a critique he wrote of Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz and Finkelstein are bitter enemies and their exchanges have often been vituperative. Despite much insulting language by both Finkelstein and Dershowitz, however, the charge in the Memo and Leaflet that Finkelstein "included" the cartoon with his article is wholly unsubstantiated. The offensive cartoon did indeed appear as an accompaniment to an article by Finkelstein, but not to the version published on the website for which he wrote the piece, nor to the version on his own website, but to a version of his article that was re-posted by others on another website. The question of course is not whether the cartoon appeared on some website along with Finkelstein's article, but whether Finkelstein bore any responsibility for the cartoon. The Personnel Committee of the DePaul Political Science Department looked into this charge:

"In investigating the matter, the Committee discovered that Finkelstein reported never having heard of the website in question publishing the article and cartoon, did not authorize use of his article, and did not commission the accompanying editorial cartoon. He said that it is not unusual for articles he has written to be reposted on other web sites without his knowledge or consent, and that he first learned of its use only recently and after the fact.

"Finkelstein’s article itself (without illustration) was published two months previously in Counterpunch, an online political journal in its August 12-13, 2006 edition (; it is a lengthy exploration of international law and matters of preventive/pre-emptive war as argued by Dershowitz."3

     Now of course this is not definitive proof that Finkelstein did not conspire with the cartoonist; it's hard to prove a negative. But in making such an inflammatory charge, clearly the burden of proof is on the accuser. Neither the Memo nor the Leaflet give the slightest substantiation for their claim that Finkelstein was responsible for the cartoon or promoted it in any way. For the Gandhian Forum to have refused to invite a speaker because of such unsubstantiated charges would have been discreditable. To spread such unsubstantiated charges as was done in the Memo and the Leaflet is even more problematic.

     Those who disagree with a speaker’s position on any political question of course have every right to protest and express those disagreements, but it is distressing that they would try to dismiss the views they don’t like as hate speech and obscenity, instead of actually debating the differences.

     When an individual is invited to speak on campus, the sponsors are not thereby endorsing all of the speaker’s views, especially not on topics unrelated to the subject of the talk. Thus we have no need to attempt to defend Finkelstein’s positions—and still less, his every off-the-cuff comment made in the course of long interviews. But we will discuss two examples to show how political and intellectual disagreements are disguised as something other than that.

     The Memo and Leaflet quote Finkelstein as showing "solidarity with Hezbollah as the US and Israel target it for liquidation." The Leaflet notes the anti-Semitism of Hezbollah and asks whether Finkelstein's support for the group is consistent with the Gandhian Forum's message. But saying during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war that Hezbollah should be defended from being targeted for liquidation does not imply that one shares Hezbollah's fundamentalist and anti-Semitic views. For example, the United States government and many people around the world supported the Soviet Union when it was subjected to attack by Germany in 1941. That did not mean that they therefore agreed with Stalin's gulag. Rather, many who took this view were saying that even rotten victims should not be subject to unjustified attack. Now of course the Memo writers and Leaflet signers might argue that the attack on Hezbollah was not unjustified. Obviously Finkelstein disagrees with this. There is a difference of opinion here. But this doesn’t make Finkelstein a purveyor of "hate speech," and in no event does this indicate that Finkelstein endorses the anti-Semitism of Hezbollah, or that the Gandhian Forum by having Finkelstein speak on Gandhi is indirectly promoting anti-Semitism.

     Finkelstein has written critically of the way memory of the Holocaust has been used for political and economic gain. His work has been highly controversial, eliciting strongly negative as well as strongly positive reviews by respected scholars. The Memo stated:

"While some may debate whether Finkelstein is himself a holocaust-denier and an antisemite, there is little question that many such haters have celebrated his work."

The first part of this sentence is a shameful attempt at smear by innuendo. It is especially disgraceful given that Finkelstein's parents survived the Warsaw ghetto and Hitler's camps and all his other relatives were killed by the Nazis. That he believes the memory of his family and other Holocaust victims has been exploited for political reasons hardly makes him a Holocaust denier. The second part of the quoted sentence, however, is a smear as well. Bigots will always celebrate anything critical of groups they don’t like. This doesn’t mean that one should never write anything critical of those groups or that doing so associates the writer with the views of bigots.

     The Arab-Israeli conflict and Holocaust memory: these are highly charged subjects, and Finkelstein has criticized some of the most prominent advocates of views opposed to his own. The Gandhian Forum as an organization takes no position on these issues. It is not, however, going to reject as a speaker on Gandhi, a scholar whose positions on these other issues are alleged without evidence to lack "even minimal academic standards," to constitute "little more than hate speech," to be "irresponsible," or to "descend to the obscene."

     The Gandhian Forum, whose executive board is drawn from across the university, is proud of its record of bringing speakers to William Paterson who have been able to engage the campus community in exploring questions of peace and justice. Since its founding in the fall of 2008, the Gandhian Forum has sponsored the following speakers:

  • Prof. Aftab Seth (ex-Ambassador of India to Japan, Vietnam, and Greece) and Madelyn Hoffman, Director, New Jersey Peace Action, speaking on "Why and How to Wage Peace and Justice"

  • Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, speaking on "Memos to Obama: Prospects for Peace and Justice"

  • Ted Glick, Co-Founder, Climate Crisis Coalition and National Coordinator of US Climate Emergency Council, and Prof. Manu Bhagavan, author of ""A New Hope: India, the United Nations and the Making of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," speaking on "Practicing Satyagraha in a Violent World: Conversations on Peace and Justice"

  • Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction), speaking on "Empire of Illusion"

  • Jo Comerford, Executive Director of the National Priorities Project, speaking on "New Jersey Out of Balance: The Impact of Federal Spending in an Economic Crisis"

  • Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, speaking on "Prospects for Peace in Palestine"

  • 9-11: Ten Years Later: A day of films and discussions reflecting on 9-11 and war and peace, featuring "A Soldier's Peace," "Beyond Retribution," and "Soldiers of Peace"

  • Doug Henwood, author of Wall Street: How it Works and for Whom and After the New Economy; The Binge and the Hangover That Won't Go Away, speaking on "Inequality and the Roots of the Economic Crisis"

  • Norman Finkelstein, speaking on the subject of his new book, What Gandhi Says about Nonviolence, Resistance, and Courage

     The Gandhian Forum has also sponsored student peace and justice writing contests. Additional information about our speakers and programs can be found on our website.We hope to sponsor many additional speakers and programs in the years to come, furthering campus and community engagement with issues of peace and justice.



  1. Avi Shlaim, Confidential Peer Review of Beyond Chutzpah for the University of California Press, 9 February 2005, printed in Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Winter 2006), p. 88. back

  2. Back cover of Norman G. Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, 2nd edition (London: Verso, 1995, 2003). back

  3. The quotation comes from the appendix to the report. The bulk of the report was an investigation of charges of research and scholarly misconduct by Finkelstein put forward by Dershowitz and others. The report concluded: "we did not find evidence of academic or research misconduct that would substantiate those charges…." back