Norman Finkelstein has a new book out, but few people outside of radically anti-Zionist circles seem really to care about this. The Holocaust Industry, a book whose thesis is based on a deliberate and even offensive (and, allegedly, Holocaust-revisionist) underestimation of the number of Holocaust survivors, has been translated into 16 languages and is still fantastically influential. In contrast, the “recent media” section on his publisher’s website for This Time We Went Too Far, Finkelstein’s recently-published book on Israel’s December 2008 invasion of Gaza, is pretty thin. It’s been teased in all the usual places—excerpts of the book were recently posted on CounterPunch and Mondoweiss. But the book’s publication is a small event, and given Finkelstein’s monomaniacal hatred of Israel and notorious penchant for incivility (he’s famous for wrongfully accusing Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz of plagiarism), it deserves to be.
Nevertheless, Finkelstein was at the United Nations’ headquarters on Wednesday plugging his book at a UN Correspondents Association event. And while the UN did not officially sponsor the talk, it is, on some level, bad enough that it even took place at the World Body’s headquarters. Widely discredited and still unemployed three years after losing his tenure battle at DePaul, Finkelstein was able to give a talk in the same room used for UN press briefings, with two UN flags standing in the background.
The chance to speak at the UN offered Finkelstein a shot at professional rehabilitation that he simply doesn’t deserve. In January 2008, Finkelstein appeared on a Lebanese news program and declared his solidarity with the Iranian-sponsored terrorist group Hezbollah. After a startled interviewer tried explaining to him that Hezbollah’s militancy represented an extreme position in Lebanese public life, Finkelstein launched into a characteristically crude tirade on the state of Middle Eastern affairs. He lauded Hezbollah for resisting foreign occupation before getting personal: “My parents went through World War II,” he said. “Now Stalin’s regime was not exactly a bed of roses … But who didn’t support the Soviet Union when they defeated the Nazis? ... If I’m going to honor the communists during World War II, even though I probably would not have done very well under their regimes, if I’m going to honor them, I’m going to honor the Hezbollah.”
After being denied tenure from DePaul, Finkelstein could conceivably have used his martyr’s status to secure some kind of creditable academic position. But, as Finkelstein made clear in his talk at the UNCA, he has little interest in being a respected academic again. During his over hour-long talk, Finkelstein did not cite a single first-hand interview with any of the participants in last year’s conflict. It seems he did not talk to a single Israeli soldier, while an excerpt from his book finds him admiring Hamas militants from afar, rather than, you know, interviewing them. Although, to be fair, Finkelstein claimed on Wednesday that “Hamas is not a military force.”
“[The Israelis] decided they were going to restore its deterrence capacity in Gaza. They had one big problem: they knew that Hamas had no fighting force,” Finkelstein said. And, because Hamas is not, in Finkelstein’s opinion, a military force, Israel’s real motivation in Gaza must have been the slaughter of as many civilians as possible. “They decided the way to destroy their capacity was to systematically and methodically go after the civilian infrastructure and the civilian population and thereby transmit the message to the Arab world: If you mess with us, we’re not going to have a war with you; we’re going to flatten you, like we flattened Gaza.”
The question of whether Finkelstein actually believes what he’s saying—that a terrorist organization that fired over 3,200 rockets and mortar shells (which he refers to as “firecrackers and Roman candles” in the above-linked chapter) on a civilian population over the course of a single year is not a military force—is less interesting than the question of how such a pathological mindset got a speaking invitation at the UN to begin with. The invite was apparently the idea of Nizar Abboud, a reporter for Al-Alam, an Arabic-language subsidiary of state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. “I suggested to invite him, and all the UNCA people agreed,” Abboud said. Which means that the organization representing the UN press corps apparently thought that borderline paranoia and outright slander of the Jewish state was something from which their colleagues could benefit.
The two UNCA members I spoke to supported the invitation. Matthew Lee, a blogger for Innercity Press, told me that the UNCA has never shied away from controversial invites, and recalled a UNCA event that nearly came to blows after a journalist called the visiting Nigerian foreign minister a “war criminal.” And UNCA president Giampaolo Piolidefended the invitation, explaining, “The book is talking about the Goldstone report on Gaza, which is a big issue here at the UN.”
Then again, the very legitimacy of the UN is a big issue at the UN. About a month ago, I reported on a side-event at the UN’s annual Commission on the Status of Women that was co-sponsored by the delegations of Iran and Syria and included a speech from a representative of an obscure “pro-family” advocacy group based in the U.S. Finkelstein is too pathetic to be dangerous, and the UNCA hardly confers prestige or legitimacy in the same way that a major conference does. But just as the UN became a refuge for theocrats and theocrat-coddling social conservatives during a conference on women’s rights, on Wednesday, the UN became a refuge for one of the most discredited and repugnant figures in academia. In both instances, the UN was temporarily hijacked by some of the most malignant social and political forces on earth. They are small acts of self-sabotage, but discouraging ones nonetheless.
Armin Rosen is a senior at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s undergraduate joint program. He’s also an intern at Inter Press Service’s UN bureau.