Israel imposes a 10-year ban on American critic of Israeli policies

The denial of entrance to Norman Finkelstein is part of a broader trend of suppressing free debate when it comes to Israel.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below – Update II – Update III – Update IV)

On Friday, Israeli security forces, Shin Bet, detained Norman Finkelstein when he tried to enter Israel, kept him in an airport holding cell for 24 hours, ordered him deported from the country, and then imposed a 10-year ban on his entry. Finkelstein, the son of a Holocaust survivor, is a Jewish-American author and academic who has frequently criticized the Israeli Government and provoked extreme animosity among right-wing factions in the U.S. He had flown to Israel 15 times previously without incident and was never charged with, let alone convicted of, any crime.

This morning, I interviewed Finkelstein regarding this episode and related issues (the audio for which is here). I also interviewed Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, whose animosity towards Finkelstein is intense and long-standing. Dershowitz, to his credit (and, given the below-described events, somewhat ironically) was quite critical of Israel’s exclusion of Finkelstein. The full interview with Dershowitz can be heard here.

This morning, the Israeli daily newspaper, Haaretz, published an Editorial emphatically criticizing the government’s exclusion of Finkelstein, rejecting the notion that Finkelstein posed any remote security threat and noting: “Considering his unusual and extremely critical views, one cannot avoid the suspicion that refusing to allow him to enter Israel was a punishment rather than a precaution.” Haaretz further highlighted the danger of allowing the Government to suppress viewpoints it dislikes:

[T]he right of Israeli citizens to hear unusual views is one that should be fought for. It is not for the government to decide which views should be heard here and which ones should not.

The decision to ban Finkelstein hurts us more than it hurts him.

Beyond the obvious significance of the story itself (one which has been written about extensively in the foreign press, including Europe, but which is missing almost completely from the American media), this episode is part of a very disturbing trend whereby advocates of right-wing Israeli policies try to suppress viewpoints that deviate from their orthodoxies.

Finkelstein — a Ph.D from Princeton and the author of numerous books — was himself the subject of an extraordinary (and ultimately successful) campaign (with the enthusiastic leadership of “free speech advocate” Dershowitz, people like Marty Peretz and other neocons who dislike his views) to have him denied tenure by DePaul University, where he had taught for seven years. He was denied tenure even though the Political Science Department (by a 9-3 vote) and the Personnel Committee (unanimously) recommended him for tenure.

As The Chicago Tribune reported: “The American Association of University Professors had previously complained to the university that Finkelstein’s summary discharge violated standards of academic freedom.” Since then, no other university has been willing to risk the controversy that would be inevitably provoked if it hired Finkelstein, who has therefore been unemployed since leaving DePaul.

That campaign against Finkelstein was similar to the (also successful) one spearheaded by various American neoconservatives to block Yale University from extending a tenure position to University of Michigan Professor (and critic of Israeli policies) Juan Cole — who stood accused (falsely) of harboring a “deep and abiding hatred of Israel”; that “if it were up to Mr. Cole, the country wouldn’t exist at all”; and being “best known for disparaging the participation of prominent American Jews in government.” Despite being approved for tenure by the Yale departments he was to join, Professor Cole’s appointment was rejected by a Yale appointments committee in the wake of the neoconservative campaign against him. As Inside Higher Ed reported at the time, in an article entitled “Blackballed at Yale”:

[NYU Professor of Middle East Studies Zachary] Lockman said that Cole is “one of the preeminent historians of the modern Middle East and he’s been attacked on political grounds — because he’s critical of the Bush administration and Israel.” Given Cole’s reputation and the departmental backing for his appointment, Lockman said of the decision to reject Cole: “Universities seem to be willing to kowtow to pressure from outside interest groups” . . . .

“These vicious attacks on my character and my views were riddled with with wild inaccuracies,” [Cole] said, adding that the criticism was “motivated by a desire to punish me for daring to stand up for Palestinian rights, criticize Israeli policy, criticize Bush administration policies and, in general being a liberal Democrat.”

Over the past several years, the U.S. has itself refused entry to those espousing views on Israel disagreeable to neocons. In 2004, Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Muslim scholar from Switzerland who was to teach a course at the University of Notre Dame, was granted an entrance visa only to have it revoked by Homeland Security based on vague accusations that he posed a security threat. As The Guardian‘s Richard Silverstein noted, the visa revocation occurred after Ramadan was continuously attacked by neocons like Daniel Pipes with “false claims about Ramadan’s sympathy for terrorism.” Independent of Israel-related issues, there are numerous other cases of journalists, authors and others being refused entrance to the U.S. on the most dubious grounds that simply do not exist anywhere else in the free world.

In fact, the problem of right-wing attacks on free speech when it comes to Israel is — as Finkelstein himself in my interview with him noted — far worse in the U.S. than it is in Israel. As the Haaretz Editorial reflects, Israel is a pluralistic society that tolerates a much broader range of debate over Israeli actions than is permissible in the U.S. Indeed, just yesterday, Marty Peretz lamented that Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are lecturing this month at Hebrew University in Jerusalem on “The Israel Lobby.” While suggestions of negotiations with Hamas is a taboo topic for American politicians, a majority of Israelis support that option. Views that are routinely castigated by neocons in the U.S. as “anti-Israeli” and even “anti-Semitic” are freely expressed in Israel, by Israelis, with regularity.

Still, Israel’s 10-year exclusion of Finkelstein is disturbing and warrants real criticism. As Finkelstein noted in my interview with him, he was not intending to stay in Israel, but rather, to visit friends in the Occupied Territory. Thus, the issue extends beyond Israel’s attempt to bar those with dissenting views from entering that country to Israel’s attempt to deny Palestinians the ability to meet with those who are critical of Israel’s occupation. Right-wing, Israel-centric factions in the U.S. have conclusively demonstrated that they oppose free debate and don’t believe in free expression. It can’t be good for Israel — and, either way, it’s certainly not justifiable — for Israel to follow in their pernicious footsteps.

UPDATE: The interview with Finkelstein can be heard here. It’s roughly 20 minutes. The interview with Dershowitz (roughly 6 minutes) can be heard here.

UPDATE II: The Jerusalem Post reports that Finkelstein’s exclusion was, in fact, based on the government’s dislike of his political views:

American political scientist and fierce critic of Israel, Prof. Norman Finkelstein, was denied entry to Israel and deported from the country early Saturday morning. Officials said that the decision to deport Finkelstein was connected to his anti-Zionist opinions and fierce public criticism of Israel around the world. . . .

Prof. Alan Dershowitz of Harvard was active in campaigning against Finkelstein. His most recent book, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, is largely an attack on Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel. In his book, Finkelstein argues that Israel uses the outcry over perceived anti-Semitism as a weapon to stifle criticism.

It’s unclear what “anti-Zionist” in that context is supposed to mean, since Finkelstein has long advocated for a two-state solution based on Israel’s 1967 borders — the position that can, more or less, be described as an international consensus — but what matters here is the acknowledgment that the exclusion was viewpoint-based. Some in comments had baselessly speculated that the exclusion was due to Finkelstein’s having met with Hezbollah officials — a fact which even the extremely anti-Hezbollah Dershowitz (as well as the Haaretz Editorial) agreed would not be a basis for exclusion, but clearly, not even Israeli government officials are invoking that pretext.

UPDATE III: Philip Weiss points to this article in The Telegraph, in which former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski complained that “the slur of anti-Semitism was too readily used” against critics of the Israeli government and its right-wing supporters in the U.S.:

Mr. Brzezinski has been accused of being “anti-Israel” by some Jewish academics, writers and bloggers after criticising Israel for excessive use of force and unwillingness to compromise. . . .

Mr Brzezinski said “it’s not unique to the Jewish community — but there is a McCarthyite tendency among some people in the Jewish community”, referring to the Republican senator who led the anti-Communist witch hunt in the 1950s.

“They operate not by arguing but by slandering, vilifying, demonising. They very promptly wheel out anti-Semitism. There is an element of paranoia in this inclination to view any serious attempt at a compromised peace as somehow directed against Israel.”

These sorts of debate-suppressive tactics — aside from being inherently wrong — never advance the cause on behalf of which they’re invoked. Coincidentally, Brzezinksi has a superb Op-Ed in today’s Washington Post, co-authored with the equally superb retired Gen. William Odom, on creating a sensible American policy towards Iran.

UPDATE IV: One of the points which the Haaretz Editorial made in opposing the exclusion of Finkelstein is that right-wing Jewish-American extremists who, unlike Finkelstein, do pose a real security threat, are regularly allowed entry into Israel: “the decision is all the more surprising when one recalls the ease with which right-wing activists from the Meir Kahane camp — the kind whose activities pose a security threat that no longer requires further proof — are able to enter the country.”

At Open Left, Paul Rosenberg examines an analogous inequity: while even the mildest critics of Israel on the Left are routinely demonized by neocons as “anti-Israeli” or “anti-Semitic,” truly extreme hatemongers on the Right — such as John Hagee — are not only tolerated but embraced. Thus, Joe Lieberman, who previously compared Hagee to “Moses” in the midst of bathing Hagee with lavish praise, still refuses to repudiate Hagee or cancel his scheduled appearance at a Hagee event even in the wake of Hagee’s comments that Hitler and the Holocaust were “God’s will” to drive Jews back to Israel. Few things are more destructive than those like Lieberman who transparently exploit “anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitism” accusations to silence debate and for their own political gain.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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