Blogs > HNN > Norman Finkelstein and the Future of Israeli Democracy

Jun 4, 2008 1:38 pm

Norman Finkelstein and the Future of Israeli Democracy

[Mr. LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the forthcoming books: Heavy Metal Islam: Rock Religion and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House/Three Rivers Press, July 8, 2008), and An Impossible Peace: Oslo and the Burdens of History (Zed Books, in press).]

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 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:

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.

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Randll Reese Besch - 7/22/2008

To me the strength of a nation is how it treats criticism and who it lets in.

I don't like democracies, it is the majority that rules over the minority. We still have it here concerning gay marriage or any number of things the minority want to do and the majority doesn't want to do. I say to them mind your business! Consenting adults should be able to do what they want without attack from those who don't wish to do it. Once you have a class hierarchy then egalitarianism is lost. Like we have here in the USA. If you have the money you can get health care, competent legal council and political position. Without you are free to die, go to prison and be subjegated to other's oppressive laws.

omar ibrahim baker - 6/1/2008

On a lesser level :
I sadly note that my post seems to have unbalanced your presumed
"composure" !

N. Friedman - 5/31/2008


The fact that I did not address every stupid point you made does not suggest my agreement with it. In fact, I contest most of what you say as being not only false but knowingly so. Why knowing? Because you have been saying the same nonsense repeatedly for years now. And, such falsities have been refuted with sources. Yet, you persist.

That, to me, is dishonest of you.

omar ibrahim baker - 5/31/2008

Mr. Friedman
****First and foremost I gladly note that you DO NOT dispute my assertion that:
"The will, the wish, the good, the humane intentions of good wishers and well wishers ARE a necessary but ARE NOT a sufficient condition for establishing a “democracy”.
Democracy can only evolve and flourish in that human community where ALL are believed to be EQUAL!"

That was the foundation block of my argument which inexorably leads to the conclusion :
"That, by the definition of both terms, preempts the possibility of ever having a DEMOCRACY in a RACIST nation/state which grants and withholds privileges and rights according to the race of the applicant and should automatically exclude Israel ."

***Secondly I also note that you do NOT dispute my contention that:
"(Witness for Jewish ness as a fundamentally blood/ethnic relation, among an extensive multitude of indicators :
-The fact that Orthodox Judaism, the numerically predominant (?) Jewish congregation still insists on a blood relationship as proof positive of a Jewish lineage and thus identity, "

****Nor, as importantly, do you dispute the fact that:
"Zionism, the founding doctrine of “Israel” was totally unequivocal about its designs and intentions from its early inception: to have a “Jewish State” according to Hertzel and for that state to be “AS Jewish as France is French” according to Haim Wiseman at Versailles."
that led to :
"Israel is a self declared RACIST nation/state with “Israeli” laws formulated, promulgated and applied with the clear intention of restricting certain rights/privileges to a certain “race.”"

****Also but tangentially; what is the real implied meaning behind your sentence?
“The problem with Koestler's thesis is that genetic testing does not confirm it. Hence, the theory cannot be true, since there is considerable similarity between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews..”

Is that NOT confirmation that:
had “genetic testing” confirmed it would have been a valid thesis?
Which indicates potential acceptance had it been “genetically” confirmed ??
And that by stating in the next sentence of the same paragraph :
“there is considerable similarity between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.”
You almost explicitly confirm that by “genetic testing “ “there is considerable similarity between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.”
And hence that you support the Jewish claim of a common
ethnic/racial/racist origin of both .
(That was my claim all along that Jews, or most Jews, believe in a common blood/ethnic/racial/racist bond that unites them.)

On a lesser level :
I sadly note that my post seems to have unbalanced your presumed
"composure" in a manner that allows you to claim:
-"His theory is that, very long ago - not recently -,… "
whereas my sentence was:
".....that most East European Jews converted to Judaism relatively recently " .
Usually you can tell the difference between "relatively recently" and "recently" which never the less , considering that you seem to deem it important by nervously pointing it out, in no way deconstructs my argument.

- You make an issue of what Koestler had to say whereas my point was :
"The great brouhaha among Jews and Jewish organizations that met Arthur Koestler’s thesis...."
And NOT the thesis itself!

However you angry reaction is only to be expected but the heart of the matter is that, whether you agree or NOT,it is self evident truths that :

-"A state that came into being by DISFRANCHISING the indigenous population of the land , mainly through ethnic cleansing, and plans its future on the continued DISFRANCHISING of a major indigenous community ALL according to RACIAL/RACIST criteria, that clearly thus announces that NOT ALL those who reside in it ARE EQUAL can not presume to ever be a democracy."

AND that :

"..Israel IS unmistakably and plainly a declared RACIST nation/state and NOT a democratic state!"

N. Friedman - 5/31/2008


It is interesting to point out, however, the complete hypocrisy of your rant. So, Jews, according to you, note that Judaism passes down via a blood line. That, in your book, is troubling. That, however, is exactly like Islam - your religion. Hypocrisy!!!

While opposing supposed Israeli racism, you have nothing bad to say about the two most bigoted groups in the Middle East (i.e. Hezb'Allah and the HAMAS). Both groups support the idea of expelling Jews - which, by your theory, would make both groups racist. And, the HAMAS covenant proposes genocide, based on an interpretation of a well known, end-of-days Hadith.

And, frankly, democracy is the one thing that Palestinian Arabs have, whatever words they may express, shown little concrete interest in. In fact, the ruling clique, the HAMAS, when it did not gain total control of the PA government by legal means, staged a coup and even threw political enemies out of windows, in a manner that would make one see barbarians as being comparatively civilized.]

You also have Arthur Koestler's thesis wrong - which is par for the course for your rant. His theory is that, very long ago - not recently -, a people from north of the Caspian Sea - the Kazarians - converted to Judaism. After their empire was defeated - in around the 12th or 13th Century -, the survivors migrated west, largely into Hungary and intermixed with the already existing Jewish population. Hence, that population, on his thesis, has more mixing of groups to it than does the Sephardic Jewish population. He thought that evidence would eventually be found to show that such group makes up the majority - not all - of Ashkenazi Jews.

[Note: By the way, Omar, I think that you will find that Sephardic Jews make up majority of Israel's Jewish population - a fact which sort of makes your thesis seem pretty ridiculous. After all, no one seriously claims that the Sephardic Jews are a recent people or non-indigenous to Israel.]

The problem with Koestler's thesis is that genetic testing does not confirm it. Hence, the theory cannot be true, since there is considerable similarity between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. In fact, there is some similarity between Ashkenazi Jews and Arabs, including, interestingly and most particularly, Palestinian Arabs.

And, the fuss made by Jews is not that Koestler presented his theory - which is an interesting theory which had some evidence that seemingly supported it - but that Jew haters use that thesis as an argument and continue, like you do, to use an argument which, as I noted, has been shown, rather definitively, to be objectively untrue - as in the thesis has been shown to be an impossibility.

Now, your thesis would also be wrong even if Koestler were correct. In fact, Koestler does not claim, as you do, that Eastern European Jews are a recent people. What he claims is that they are a mixture of peoples including Jews from ancient Israel.

Moreover, he claims that Kazarians defeated the Muslim invaders in, if I recall correctly, the 8th Century. And, he also claims that the Kazarians had other contact with the Muslim empire, including with Andalusia, via diplomatic correspondence that has been preserved. Most particularly, there is correspondence between a Kagan (i.e. Kazarian King) and a Jewish grand vizier who served in Andalusia.

In any event, what Koestler really claims is that Kazarian Jews come from a different region of the world than do some other Jews. But, that is different from saying that Eastern European Jews are simply Kazarians. That thesis is not only wrong but it differs in detail from Koestler's thesis.

omar ibrahim baker - 5/30/2008

Or is it the Bot Abbot and Lou Castelo ?? assuredly either , both or all misspelled!
On the weight of evidence hitherto presented for years I tend to believe it is more of the latter than the former.
Who is who and is what is NOT hard to guess, I guess!

omar ibrahim baker - 5/30/2008

For people in the know to presume that Israel could ever be a “democracy”, like Professor Le Vine seems to believe, is to believe that Nazism or fascism in all its form, had it only wished, could ever be democratic .
That is the equivalent of believing that a goat could fly; had it only wished it and willed it!!
The will, the wish, the good, the humane intentions of good wishers and well wishers ARE a necessary but ARE NOT a sufficient condition for establishing a “democracy”.
Democracy can only evolve and flourish in that human community where ALL are believed to be EQUAL!

That , by the definition of both terms, preempts the possibility of ever having a DEMOCRACY in a RACIST nation/state which grants and withholds privileges and rights according to the race of the applicant and should automatically excludes Israel .

Israel is a self declared RACIST nation/state with “Israeli” laws formulated, promulgated and applied with the clear intention of restricting certain rights/privileges to a certain “race.”

In this context “race”, as a yard stick for positive and negative discrimination, has come to mean, beyond the original definition of the term as presumed and abused by Aryan Nazism, a certain “colour” as in the South of the USA not many decades back or as of South Africa, some years back or a certain ” religion “ as with Israel of today .

Not that the “racist” criterion employed by Israel namely religion: Judaism is solely a religious- devotional criterion but in that it still denotes to great numbers of Jews, possibly a majority ?, a strict blood/ethnic /racist lineage.

(Witness for Jewish ness as a fundamentally blood/ethnic relation, among an extensive multitude of indicators :
-The fact that Orthodox Judaism, the numerically predominant (?) Jewish congregation still insists on a blood relationship as proof positive of a Jewish lineage and thus identity,
-The great brouhaha among Jews and Jewish organizations that met Arthur Koestler’s thesis that most East European Jews converted to Judaism relatively recently in his famous book.
-The multitude of intensive and vigorous on going research and studies that seek to prove the common blood/racist lineage of Jews through DNA indicators )

Nor that Israel ever had the wish/will but was deflected by evolving events, as the herd is bound to claim.
Zionism, the founding doctrine of “Israel” was totally unequivocal about its designs and intentions from its early inception: to have a “Jewish State” according to Hertzel and for that state to be “AS Jewish as France is French” according to Haim Wiseman at Versailles.
From its very early days, in the 1948s, Israel implemented a policy which unequivocally considered the indigenous Arabs that fell under its domination UNEQUAL to the JEWS whether indigenous or newcomers
(Arab communities in “Israel” lived under martial law up to 1966; and a hugely disproportionate ratio of their lands were confiscated for diverse general “uses”).

Allowing Palestinian ARABS the “right to vote” was assumed to confirm Israel’s democratic leanings.
But that was, STILL IS, conditional on them being, and remaining , a minority in their homeland.
Hence Zionist/Israeli ethnic cleansing campaigns of Palestinian Arabs pre and post the establishment of the state and the unwavering adoption of a policy NO RIGHT of RETURN to ARABS and an unconditional right of return to JEWS ever since.

The issue is resurging now and the Finkelstein affair though indicative is minor!
Israel has coveted the lands it occupied in 1967, the West Bank and Gaza, and a general Israeli consensus exists for its eventual annexation BUT it has on it some 2.5-2.75 million Arabs that would unbalance Israeli Democracy if annexed outright!

So the Israeli way to safeguard its “democracy” is to annex, de facto then de jure, these lands only AFTER the Arabs living thereon are restricted to small “Bantustans” ( The Bush-USA /Israeli vision of a Palestinian state) which would disfranchise them and deny them the right to vote after the annexation of their land.

A state that came into being by DISFRANCHISING the indigenous population of the land , mainly through ethnic cleansing, and plans its future on the continued DISFRANCHISING of a major indigenous community ALL according to RACIAL/RACIST criteria, that clearly thus announces that NOT ALL those who reside in it ARE EQUAL can not presume to ever be a democracy.
IT is unmistakably and plainly a declared RACIST nation/state and NOT a democratic state!
(However to sooth the delicate nerves of some perhaps the proper appellation would be a RACIST/DEMOCRACY.)

art eckstein - 5/29/2008

NF, you're right that we shouldn't get off topic into the 1940s and the 1950s, but as long as Professor Levin has raised this issue:

1. We now know that the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) knowingly cooperated with the intelligence agency of a foreign govt, the USSR, to plant about 300 spies (all of them secret CPUSA members) in the U.S. govt.

2. Among these spies and secret Communists was George Koval, who Vladimir Putin just gave "Hero of the Russian Republic" status to in a great tv ceremony (Nov. 2007), for his part in stealing atomic secrets in 1944-1946. Koval was well-known to the U.S. intelligence agencies, but his success was so embarrassing that it was kept from the U.S. public. But his success--and his secret CPUSA membership--naturally raised the question of how many other Kovals there were. Raised it for the intelligence agencies--though the U.S. public was in the dark. Anyone who has written about the "persecution" of left-wing scientists without knowing about the Koval is now shown to have been working from ignorance.

3. And of course we now know that the USSR govt was giving the CPUSA $2 million a year in cash to work with. That is, the Party was a paid agent of a foreign govt (after 1946 an enemy govt), which knowingly placed hundreds of spies in the U.S. govt to gain information to help that foreign government.

These are facts.

N. Friedman - 5/29/2008

Professor LeVine,

Your topic, now, is the 1950's and the red scare. What does that have to do with the here and now.

Perhaps - and I hate to say this to someone as well versed as you - you are creating essentialist categories. Surely, it is not fair to claim or hint that events that occurred fifty years ago portray the essential character of the US.

My view is that the persecution of people on the left - and not just communists, to the set the record straight - was a bad thing. On the other hand, the Soviet Union was, by any rational standards, among the most horrid regimes ever to gain a footing on Earth. So, there was a reasonable basis for rational people to worry about those who might want to bring that particular dystopia to the US - although hounding people sympathetic to a regime that was not well reported on (due to its policy of secrecy) was still not a good thing. A better policy would have been to shine a light onto the horrid Soviet regime.

art eckstein - 5/29/2008

Sorry, Professor Levine--I don't wish to be so snide. The serious point is that this issue is always a matter of proportionality.

Bitter attacks on societies that really are quite free, indeed very free, when coupled with a failure to see that proportionally they really ARE that way, leads in my view to a distorted expression of the general problem of human rights on the planet. In the specific case of Israel, the background to your post is the constant drumbeat of attacks on "human rights violations" in a free and democratic society, Israel, coming from some of the vilest and most repressive regimes on earth. I urge you not to sign on to that campaign. Go after Egypt, or Iran, instead.

art eckstein - 5/29/2008

Next he'll be bringing up the Hollywood Ten.

art eckstein - 5/29/2008

Dear Professor Levine,

1. It seems to me that you go a long way around essentially to repeat what I said: Marcuse was upset that U.S.society was allegedly "structured" so that the Left did not have a large voice, so "tolerance" of all points of view was a sham, so he therefore advocated (campus) govt privileging of the Left (and dis-privileging the Right) so that the "correct" point could prevail.

Your sentence that runs: Perspectives that challenged the dominant political narrative were "systematically excluded from the public sphere to a large degree" strikes me as a self-contradictory statement, a manner of having it both ways so that any example brought forward to disconfirm the condemnatory adverb "systematically" is covered by the phrase "to a large degree."

And as a factual matter, of course, the early 60s, when Marcuse was writing, already saw MLK giving nationally-televised speeches, or Morley Safer showing the torching of Vietnamese villages etc, etc. But I guess that's covered by "to a large degree".

2. I know a lot about Israeli university culture myself, and I believe I am more correct than you are in terms of the freedom to criticize and indeed savagely criticize israel. Let me just run by you names like Yoav Peled, or Neve Gordon or Orna Ben-Naftali. I could name a lot more.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 5/29/2008

well, in fact the US was very repressive to those suspected of being communists, wasn't it? remember the 'red scare'? the black lists? the attacks on labor activists? you're very much underestimating/understating the level of attacks on those who offer strident criticisms of the US government in the last century.

as for marcuse's goal in the essay and his agenda, i don't agree with much of it and i did not suggest i did. but, as with much of marx's writings, i find his analysis--as opposed to his ideas for the best solutions--to be very relevant.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 5/29/2008

your summary of marcuse's essay simplifies his argument, which in my mind builds on adorno and horkheimer's work on the culture industry of the previous decades, which also developed out of their time in the US. it was not that tolerance gave a loud voice to people whom marcuse disagreed with, it was that it was that in fact the system was structured so that alternative and critical perspectives that challenged the dominant political narrative were systematically excluded from the public sphere to a large degree, making the idea of tolerance a sham, but one which the left/progressives enabled by "tolerating" their own marginalization and not fighting back by being intolerant of the repressive tolerance of the state-media system. the parallels with today are striking, but not surprising. I do not agree with the idea of stifling free speech, even for fascists, but i believe his analysis is very much on the mark.

again, you say "and yet you focus on israel," which assumes i don't focus on repression in arab societies, which is nonsense, but this was an article about israel. moreover, while israel certainly has a vibrant political culture, you vastly overestimate the freedom of speech in israeli universities, which is far more fragile than you assume, based on my own work there and numerous conversations with israeli academics.

N. Friedman - 5/29/2008

The word "moot" should read "mute".

N. Friedman - 5/29/2008

Professor LeVine,

I certainly do not take the view that criticism of the US is wrong. But, that does not make every criticism correct or in any way valuable. And, the line of argument taken by Marcuse is, in my book, a dead end. His analysis does not get to what is or is not wrong with the US. Rather, his is a BS argument directed toward advancing a political agenda, evidently one you find attractive.

I raised the issue of repression in the USSR because, whatever might be said about the US, it was not repressive, at least towards its non-African American population, in any way akin to real oppressive states like the USSR. Rather, the US is an imperfect state that does better than most other states on Earth by most, but not all, reasonable measures.

I also agree with Professor Eckstein's point that you are harsh in your criticism of comparatively tolerant states while you are all but moot about the more repressive states. Somehow, I doubt that you would volunteer to become a citizen of a place like Egypt, giving up the comfortable life of a professor in the allegedly repressive US, where criticism allegedly cannot be heard - except, of course, that it is heard and heard rather loudly; it is just taken for what it is.

art eckstein - 5/29/2008

Dr. Professor Levine,

1. I'm glad that you can state "with the utmost confidence" that Finkelstein (or Ramadan) have no ties to violent groups. But that's what Timothy Garton Ash stated about Ramadan's gentle, pious uncle. I suggest that you not be so certain in your certainties here.

2. My understanding of Marcuse's "repressive tolerance" essay was that campus (and society) tolerance for all points of view privileged (in the early 1960s, when he wrote this essay) the well-financed conservatives, and that therefore tolerance was ipso facto was repressive of the correct ideas of the Left (which was less well-financed). In other words, tolerance was repressive because it gave a loud voice to those with whom Marcuse disagreed. As I remember, Marcuse's idea in that essay, in the end, was to advocate the legislation of the privileging for the left's speech on campuses. In other words, as it became by 1969, "No free speech for Fascists!"
Is that not the case?

If so, I'm surprised you would bring up "repressive tolerance" in relation to Israel, as if Israel is guilty of "repressive tolerance". Yet Israel has many many harsh critics of israeli society both in its universities and in its media. And this is as opposed to its neighbors, who have no critics of their own society, except those in prison. And yet you focus on israel. Strange, for someone who cares about human rights...

N. Friedman - 5/29/2008


I agree with your latest post. I am not one to call someone a moderate who is not a moderate. I merely meant to say that Ash may have a motive to take a appeasing political stance.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 5/29/2008

really? it seems to me that in many ways it fits quite well. i don't find any reference to "the man" in the article. perhaps you can show me where that is? i also find his argument quite compelling when you look at how the government and corporate/mainstream media work together to constrain real debate in ways that shape public opinion in very concrete ways to support or at least acquiesce to their goals. if you have a better description for this process, i'm happy to hear it.

and why is it that once we bring up what is wrong with this country the next question is always "do you have any family who have grown up in a really oppressive state?" well, as it so happens, most of my family, or rather those that survived the second world war, were from russia and experienced enough oppression, and i have spent enough time in oppressive states to know what that experience is like. if our definition of democracy is not being as bad as the USSR, then america has sunk low indeed.

as for finkelstein, i can say with the utmost confidence that he has "no ties" to violent groups, and neither does tariq ramadan. and what does tariq ramadan's uncle have to do with anything? i thought being guilty by family association went out of style in the biblical period.

finally, serge, i really don't have time to deal with people who have nothing better to do than lob out ad hominem attacks such as i'm a 'hypocrite and a liar'. particularly since nothing i have written can be said to suggest either. where have i lied? where am i a hypocrite? what i can safely say is that either you were not taught any manners or civility as a child or you have chosen to ignore these principles for reasons that are not my concern. but i can say that i will not respond to any more of your comments if you don't have the ability to be civil.

art eckstein - 5/29/2008

N, perhaps you are correct about Ash's motives. But the main point is that no matter what Ash's motives (naive, or cynical), he dreadfully misled his readers. Ash asserted that Tariq Ramadan's uncle was merely a pious, gentle and inoffensive Muslim moderate, and depicted him in loving (and I do mean that word) detail-- when the reality was that this man had supported and applauded the flying of planes filled with civilians into the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Ash either didn't know this about Tariq Ramadan's uncle (which would make Ash both naive and careless), or he did know it but suppressed this uncomfortable but crucial piece of informaton (in which case Ash was cynical and dishonest). In either case, though, he misled his readers, and dreadfully.

Thus readers HERE have a right to by dubious about certain assertions about "moderation" that are made.

N. Friedman - 5/29/2008


Are you so sure that the ideology spouted is naive? Maybe. I might suggest, however, that you read Walter Laqueur's book, The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent. Laqueur thinks that Europe has no choice but to appease Islamists because Europe's Rubicō has already been crossed due to a whole host of horrendously poor public policy choices and general demographic collapse coupled with changes in the relative make-up among ethnic groups, all eventually leading toward a diminished Europe mired in turmoil and division.

With that in mind, perhaps Ash knows perfectly well about Ramadan and al-Banna, et al. Perhaps Ash is being just as cunning and deceitful as, for example, Caroline Fourrest and Paul Berman accuse Ramadan of being.

America faces different issues than Europe does. So, Ash may sound naive when listened to from the United States because he is responding to problems we do not, at this point, yet face.

art eckstein - 5/29/2008

An example of the complexity of the ideological politics involved here, and the kind of problems which naive Western academics can get into here, is that the prominent Timothy Garton Ash publicly touted Tariq Ramadan's uncle as an example of a pious, gentle Islamic moderate, despite the uncle's ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Then it turned out that the uncle--no matter what a nice guy he appeared to the naive Ash-- supported the flying of planes filled with civilians into the Trade Towers on 9/11.

N. Friedman - 5/29/2008


You write: "finkelstein has absolutely no ties to any violent groups."

You ought to have said that, to your knowledge, he has no ties to any violent groups.

As for Ramadan, we also do not know quite why he was denied entry to the US. However, we do know that the US is a democracy, most especially when compared to what calls itself democracy elsewhere in the world.

You also cite to Marcuse. The oppression you refer to is oppression by means of definition directed toward, as Noam Chomsky might put it were he to shine the light on such writing, manufacturing dissent.

Further commenting on Marcuse, do you have any family who has any actual experience growing up in a truly repressive state? I do. My wife is from the USSR. My suggestion is that if you do not have intimate association with someone from such a place, you should spend the time. Frankly, real oppression stares you in the face and does not let go. You do not have to analyze anything to know about it.

Serge Lelouche - 5/29/2008

LeVine wrote:
". . .what i call, following marcuse, the repressive tolerance at the heart of most western societies, none more so than the US. that Israeli and American practices are so similar here is telling of how colonialism corrupts societies"

It was nice that when the Lord made Mark LeVine a hypocrite and a liar, he also made him a fool. Thus he reveals his intellectual model--Herbert Marcuse, whose notion of "repressive tolerance" was probably one of the biggest jokes of the 1960s. For those who've forgotten, or never knew, this is the notion that the so-called "freedom" in western capitalist societies is no different, really, than so-called "repression" in the Soviet Union (or, for Marcuse, Nazi Germany). They just want you to THINK you're free, but really you're like totally controlled by the MAN! Heavy!
And, also, appallingly wrong.

art eckstein - 5/29/2008

1. Finkelstein was denied by the Dean, after winning the support of the Dept and the College Committee. The President supported the Dean. He wasn't approved all the way up.

2. Finkelstein posted obscene and/or anti-semitic cartoons connected with his columns or his personal website while he did not have tenure. One of these cartoons depicted Alan Dershowitz masturbating to orgasm over dead bodies of Lebanese. Another cartoon (by the same "artist") depicted the head of Human Rights Watch receiving bags of money from an ugly, fat Jewish banker, and this ugly cartoon was the second image that came up when you entered this person's name in google-image.

Any untenured assistant professor who did something this can expect trouble at tenure time!

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 5/29/2008

well, i think not granting entry to ramadan was a disaster, and indicative of many of the problems of US foreign policy, which is based not at all on listening or learning from the peoples of the regions in which we are engaged despite our rhetoric of democracy and supporting open societies, but rather is based purely on securing the strategic advantages and goals of america's economic elite.

the fact that democracies ban people all the time does not make this practice okay, rather it reveals what i call, following marcuse, the repressive tolerance at the heart of most western societies, none more so than the US. that Israeli and American practices are so similar here is telling of how colonialism corrupts societies whether the colonial impulse is on a global or merely local scale.

finkelstein has absolutely no ties to any violent groups. of that i am sure. and the israeli government made no attempt to link him to any in any substantive way. but israel has a long history of deporting peace activists--jews as well as arabs/muslims, including palestinians working for peace such as mubarak awad, who are in fact a far greater threat to the project of greater israel than the terrorists, whose actions have always served to reinforce rather than challenge the settlement process.

Mark A. LeVine (UC Irvine History Professor) - 5/29/2008

well, he took a settlement at the last minute to avoid a law suit on his part, but he was denied by the President of DePaul if i'm not mistaken after having been approved at all the levels up to that. thanks!

N. Friedman - 5/28/2008


It seems to me that you are making a mountain out of a molehill. Recall that the US does not grant entry for Tariq Ramadan. Ramadan is surely a more important figure than Norman Finkelstein. Does the US's refusal to Ramadan call US democracy into question? I think not.

The fact is that Israel remains, as it always has been, in a state of war. Such is most unfortunate but it is the reality. And, if the Israelis have a problem with Norman Finkelstein, keeping him out is their prerogative. Perhaps, he has ties to violent groups hostile to Israel which are more intimate and/or significant than you realize. Has that possibility not occurred to you?

Alan H. Singer - 5/28/2008

Great post. Finkelstein however, was not denied tenure at Purdue. The shame belongs to Depaul.