Editor’s note: Since its initial publication, this piece has been edited to better reflect the context and content of the panel as a whole.
Guest speaker and political scientist Norman Finkelstein GS ’87 addressed Jacob Katz ’23, a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), saying he should “feel shame” for his role as a “concentration camp guard,” in the Q&A portion of a panel discussion on Thursday, Oct. 10, called “Fighting for Justice: From Gaza to Ferguson.” Katz is the grandson, and Finkelstein the son, of Holocaust survivors.
According to the panel’s flyer, this event on “Black and Palestinian Solidarity” was organized by the student group Princeton Committee on Palestine, and co-sponsored by the African American Studies Department, Alliance for Jewish Progressives, Near Eastern Studies Department, Princeton Young Democratic Socialists, and the USG Projects Board.
The panel was moderated by Joshua Guild, associate professor of history and African American studies, and included three panelists: Finkelstein, an independent scholar and author of “Gaza: An Inquest into its Martyrdom” and “The Holocaust Industry”; Lawrence Hamm ’78, chairman of People’s Organization for Progress, who is known for his time leading the South African apartheid divestment sit-in as an undergraduate at the University; and Edith Garwood, the country specialist for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Amnesty International.
The purpose of the talk, according to Leopoldo Solis ’21, one of the panel organizers, was to “explore the solidarity between black Americans and Palestinians — not only historical solidarity but also solidarity in the present day.”
During the talk, Finkelstein expressed an anti-Semitic trope, saying, “They [the Israelis] are biped bloodhounds drinking the blood of one million [Palestinian] children.”
Finkelstein later asserted that Gaza is a concentration camp, saying that any refugees’ attempts to leave result in death, regardless of age or ability.
“They just want to breathe and to live,” Finkelstein said repeatedly.
Edith Garwood spoke extensively about the ways in which Israel has violated international law with the occupation of Gaza and compared the method by which Israel oppresses Palestinians to “money-laundering.”
“There’s about 65 laws on the books that both directly and indirectly discriminate. Israel has for decades been very careful to not explicitly say things on the book so you don’t see the discrimination,“ Garwood said. “It’s kind of how money-laundering works, where you take dirty money but you invest it in something legit, and you move it around so much so that the trail gets cold and it’s hard to follow. I will say that they launder discrimination.”
In addition, Garwood further criticized Israel’s actively prioritizing those of Jewish nationality over all non-Jewish people.
“The Nation-state law privileges the Jewish nationality over all non-Jewish people in the state,“ Garwood said. “It codified what had been happening for decades in practice, but now in writing. A lot of people argued against the nation state bill, not because they believed in equality but because didn’t want to put something so explicit on paper.”
Garwood defined Jewish nationality as holding true for “anybody who has a Jewish mother or has converted to Judaism,” adding, “Law of Return means any Jewish person can apply.”
“It’s not like the United States, where you have citizenships. There’s a second layer to that - nationality … Jewish or non-Jewish,“ Garwood said. “A lot of stuff grows out of that one distinction.”
Garwood at first expressed “solidarity with both Israelis and Palestinians.” However, after Finkelstein condemned “[standing in] solidarity with Israelis” by quoting Frederick Douglass’s desire to “shoot [white slave-owners during the Civil War] dead,” Garwood modified her remarks, arguing that she simply supports “everyone’s human rights.”
Lawrence Hamm discussed the history of Black and Palestinian solidarity, going back to the Civil Rights Era.
“African Americans have a long history of solidarity for other struggles, both internationally and nationally,” Hamm said, referencing the writings of Frederick Douglass, who supported the Irish struggle for independence in the 19th century.
“Malcolm X did have contact with Palestinians, and in fact was hosted by Palestinians when he went on a Hajj,” Hamm went on. “He expressed support. In this regard, Malcolm X was somewhat ahead of Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr]. Dr. King was a very thoughtful leader of the civil rights movement, and he was a strategist and a tactician.” Hamm explained how Dr. King purposefully withheld support for the movement against the Vietnam War as a political deal with then-President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Hamm’s comments on Israel were limited, but near the end of the panel, Hamm asserted, “Criticism of Israel’s actions is not anti-Semitism,” garnering likely the largest applause of the event.
Finkelstein declined to condemn Hezbollah and Hamas, two internationally recognized terrorist organizations, stating, “I will not condemn any of them if they’re fighting for their basic rights,” when asked a direct question after the panel by an undergraduate student who preferred to remain unnamed.
Finkelstein has faced charges of anti-Semitism throughout his career, and was denied tenure at DePaul University in 2007 before agreeing to resign, in part for “accusing Jews of exploiting the Holocaust for monetary gain,” among other statements. He has shown support for Hezbollah, a political party and militant group that the United States designated a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. He has also said “Israel has come out of the boils of hell,” is “a satanic state,” and compared its actions to those of “Genghis Khan,” an analogy he reiterated during the talk.
In response to some of these criticisms, Solis wrote in an email statement to The Daily Princetonian prior to the panel, “When evaluating the claims and the purported evidence backing them, we have found that either his comments have been a) taken out of context, thus altering their original meaning or b) are purported without any evidence or basis (such as the claim of anti-Semitism by the Anti-Defamation League, which falsely equates criticism of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism).”
After the talk, Solis stated that, “Unfortunately, some of Norman Finkelstein’s behavior derailed the conversation and distracted from our main goal. We do not condone how these words changed the conversation to a less-productive space.”
As the audience was clearing out, Katz asked repeatedly to be allowed to ask a question, and after some time received permission. He explained that he is a first-year student who recently served in the IDF, including serving for five months in Gaza. He said that in his firsthand experience, he did witness violence from the Palestinian side, contrary to Finkelstein’s claim that Palestinian peace efforts are entirely nonviolent.
In response, Finkelstein said, “You have to deal with the fact that you come here and you announce that you were on the border. You are a concentration camp guard. That’s a hard thing for a Jew to have to swallow. But that is [a] fact.”
“No shame,” Finkelstein went on. “Most concentration camps guards don't go around now broadcasting that fact. There should be a lot of shame at what you are doing.”
After the panel, in an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Katz said, “It’s almost unbelievable that that was really said. You don’t even know where to start responding to something so outrageous.”
Katz went on to say that Finkelstein’s repetition of the phrase “shoot them dead” was “extremely inappropriate” and also “hate speech.”
“I don’t care that he’s Jewish. He’s anti-Semitic,” Katz added. “That’s just a fact.”
“I would definitely expect some sort of statement [from the University] that would condemn Finkelstein’s statements,” Katz said. “I think that would [be] extremely understandable and expected. I think it’s called for.”
“The belief of violence against innocent civilians as a valid form of political protest is completely deplorable,” Clem Brown ’21 said prior to the panel. “Because of that, I feel unsafe as a Jew on campus knowing that people harbor that view in light of basically a synagogue shooting somewhere in the world every week. I’m disappointed that the University would bring in a speaker [who] advocates for this kind of violence, and I think that hate speech shouldn’t be tolerated from the right or the left.”
Some students objected to the panel’s comparison of the struggles in Palestine and Ferguson, MO.
“I find it disturbing for Jews or for Israel to be placed in comparison with white supremacists, particularly because Jews are so often victims of white supremacist violence,” said Esther Levy ’22.
Rafi Lehmann ’20, one of the presidents of the Alliance of Jewish Progressives, wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’ prior to the event, “We are cosponsoring the event and are really excited. We’ve been trying to organize an event like this — talking about the intersection of the black liberation struggle in the U.S. and the Palestinian liberation struggle — for a long time, so we are very excited to hear what panelists have to say.”
“One thing I might want to add is for us, cosponsorship doesn’t mean that we agree with everything the panelists say or have said, but it means that we think this is an important conversation for our campus to be having,” Lehmann added.
The panel was scheduled to include a Q&A session with student-submitted questions, as well as live questions from the audience, but the event ran over, and the audience only asked two questions during the official period.
The panel was held in McCosh 46 at 5 p.m.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Campus Conversations, Carl A. Fields Center, and Diversity and Dialogue were co-sponsors of the panel. The article has been updated to reflect that they were not. The ‘Prince’ regrets this error.