January 9, 2009

Panelists probe Gaza conflict at Mandel Hall forum

[img id="77116" align="alignleft"] In a panel discussion entitled “Crisis in Gaza: The U.S., Israel, and Palestine,” professor John Mearsheimer, former DePaul professor Norman Finkelstein, and writer Ali Abunimah spoke on the conflict in the Middle East and issued stark criticisms of Israel.

The event, hosted by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, UChicago Muslim Student Association, the Arab American Action Network, and other student groups, was intended to “provide a context” and “explore the wider issues” behind the conflict, according to student organizer and first-year Ali Al-Arian.

The three speakers were often united in their criticisms, including that of the Israeli policy of banning journalists from entering Gaza to President-elect Barack Obama’s silence on the issue.

“It is craven of him,” Mearsheimer said.

Abunimah saw Israel as responsible for the violence that began on December 27 after a ceasefire broke down between Israel and Hamas.

“It was not Hamas that breached the ceasefire,” he said, citing that Israeli forces have launched “over 100 tons of bombs” in response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

Mearsheimer agreed. “The first major violation of the ceasefire was when Israel launched an attack on a tunnel inside of Gaza,” he said. “Hamas retaliated the next day, and the war started on December 27. But remember, when the war started, zero Israelis had died.”

In an interview, two student leaders from Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI) expressed concern over what they called a “one-sided” and “anti-Semitic” discussion fraught with “faulty scholarship.”

“It was pretty inflammatory,” said CFI vice president and third-year Beruria Steinmetz-Silver.

“Our issue is that even though we have the Kalven Report, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies has taken a stance that’s very anti-Semitic and one-sided,” CFI president and third-year Hila Mehr said, referencing the University policy not to take sides in a political debate.

Each of the talk’s panelists was given 20 minutes of speaking time followed by questions from the audience. Mearsheimer began his speech by acknowledging the firestorm his work has created. He attracted controversy last year for his book, co-written with a Harvard scholar, The Israel Lobby, which contended that U.S. policy in the region was unevenly tipped in favor of Israel.

“Although what I’m saying is considered controversial in the United States, it is not, in fact, very controversial if you look at the Israeli media. What is so stunning is that what’s said in the Israeli media is so different from what’s said in American press,” he said. “Most of the talk in our media says Israel is interested in ending the rocket and mortar fire from Gaza…but basically, the overriding goal is to beat the Palestinians into submission.”

Finkelstein is also well-known for his criticism of Israel. He was involved in a highly public controversy regarding his failed bid for tenure at DePaul after accusations of anti-Semitism by Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard professor.

The panelists concluded by considering potential solutions.

Mearsheimer and Finkelstein agreed that Israel was the roadblock to peace. “The bottom line is, what’s going on has little to do with rockets and mortars…. Everyone knows what the solution is,” Mearsheimer said. “As [Israeli prime minister] Ehud Olmert said, if Israel continues on the present trajectory, it will end up as an apartheid state. That is not good. For Israel’s sake, you should want to settle this conflict.”

Abunimah, however, disagreed with the feasibility of a two-state solution, saying that it was merely an “illusion” created by “what I call peace-process industry.” For Abunimah, the ineffectiveness of international organizations was just one frustration among many over the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Finkelstein’s final lament was the usual caliber of debate on the issue.

“I’ve been involved with this for a long time, and it’s rare that I listen with such attentiveness to the other speakers on the panel,” Finkelstein said. “Unfortunately most of what panelists say is rhetorical and devoid of intellectual or scholarly substance.”