On January 31, 2009, a conference took place at UC Irvine (UCI) titled, “Whither the Levant? The Crisis of the Nation State: Lebanon, Israel, Palestine.” Organized by the Levantine Cultural Center of Los Angeles and the Middle East Studies Student Initiative, the conference featured two documentaries about the 2006 war in southern Lebanon, three panel discussions, and a number of Middle East studies academics. In spite of the neutral sounding title, the conference was a one-sided exercise in bashing Israel and America.
The general theme was that Israel is an oppressor and deliberately murders innocent Palestinians, aided and abetted by an imperialistic America. California State University-Stanislaus political science professor As’ad Abu Khalil, for example, claimed that civilian casualties by Israel are “never accidental.” UCLA history professor Gabriel Piterberg made a macabre remark about Israelis “dancing on the blood of Palestinian children” and called for the prosecution of Israeli “war criminals.” David Theo Goldberg, director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, referred to Jews, and particularly Ashkenazi Jews, as racists. Nubar Hovsepian, associate professor of political science and international studies at Chapman University, described Israeli soldiers as “Israeli terrorist soldiers” and accused the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) of warning civilians to evacuate and then bombing the evacuation routes.
Self-described “independent scholar” Norman Finkelstein was by far the most obnoxious, living up to his reputation for arrogance and condescension. He droned on endlessly, going over his allotted time and attacking others with prepared quips designed to evoke laughter. But not everyone was amused. After hogging the microphone to the obvious annoyance of conference moderator and UCI history professor Mark LeVine, Finkelstein began a new topic only to be cut off abruptly and left to sit sullenly with his face in his hands.
Meanwhile, UCI sociology lecturer Chuck O’Connell seemed to have walked into the wrong conference. When it was his turn to speak, he launched into a rambling diatribe about labor unions, the minimum wage, racism, distribution of wealth in the U.S., nationalism, the U.S./Mexican border, and for good measure, one or two references to the Middle East. He concluded by stating that this wasn’t the talk he had intended to give, but it was the talk we got.
Seemingly oblivious to the ascendance of the Obama administration, panelists focused obsessively on George W. Bush, with O’Connell, LeVine, and Finkelstein all calling him an “idiot” and Finkelstein calling Dick Cheney a “thug and murderer.” When LeVine asked the audience if anyone disagreed with the latter assessment, I raised my hand and offered the name of Saddam Hussein as an alternative. I was ignored.
Later, the audience submitted written questions for the panelists and one of mine was selected. I asked, “Do you condemn statements and chants heard recently at anti-Israel rallies in Ft. Lauderdale and Los Angeles such as ‘Go back to the ovens,’ ‘You need a bigger oven,’ ‘Long live Hitler,’ ‘Go Hitler,’ and ‘Go Nazi Germany’? Secondly, don’t you think these statements discredit your cause?”
The question was given to Finkelstein, who responded, “First of all, it’s not my cause.” He disclaimed any knowledge of the statements, but said that he suspected they were “99% made up…a pretext or excuse to change the subject” and that the perpetrators might have been “pro-Israel provocateurs masquerading as Arabs.” He never condemned the statements and his dismissive and conspiratorial response caused the audience to erupt in applause.
There was nothing educational about this conference. Overwhelmingly one-sided against Israel, it was simply an exercise in indoctrination.
Not a single participant spoke in defense of Israel or even acknowledged its right to exist, and many of them demonstrated a visceral hatred for the Jewish state.
There wasn’t a lot of love expressed for America either, which was generally portrayed as a willing imperialistic accomplice in an Israeli campaign of death and destruction against the Palestinian people.
There was much talk of peace, but nothing was said about Israelis’ right to live in peace within their own borders. There was also discussion about the killing of innocents, yet rocket attacks and suicide bombings against Israeli civilians never entered the conversation.
None of the speakers expressed any support for a two-state solution. In broaching the possibility of a “one-state solution” in which Jews and Arabs would live together peacefully, no one mentioned the Hamas charter, which explicitly calls for the obliteration of Israel and of the Jewish people, as well as the imposition of an Islamic state.
No one spoke out against Hamas and Hezbollah or their oppression of fellow Muslims.
Most importantly, no one mentioned the 800-pound gorilla in the room: worldwide Islamic terrorism and jihad.
In its stated goal of emphasizing “pathways to diplomatic, non-violent solutions to the region’s problems,” the conference failed miserably. But then again, giving a platform to the most biased, politicized academics in the field of Middle East studies is hardly a recipe for success.