At the center of the brouhaha is Norman G. Finkelstein, associate professor of political science at Chicago's DePaul University. Finkelstein — the child of Holocaust survivors — essentially argues that the State of Israel was created through "ethnic cleansing" of the land's Arab population, and that Israeli policies are, by and large, responsible for the perpetuation of the conflict.
In books such as The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, Finkelstein has also argued that Israel too often invokes the memory of the Shoah to justify unjust policies.
"If you look at the historical record, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is remarkably uncontroversial," said Finkelstein, who spoke on March 20 on Penn's campus for more than two hours in front of a packed auditorium, with a number of students standing or even sitting in the aisles.
Finkelstein argued at Penn that Israel clearly and repeatedly has violated international law by undermining Palestinian rights, building settlements and constructing its security barrier.
"Israel has no title to any of the West Bank or Gaza," he insisted, adding that by forming a unity government with the Fatah Party, Hamas had met the conditions of the international community, and should thus be entitled to receive aid, despite the fact that Hamas has not recognized Israel.
"No Israeli government has recognized a Palestinian state in the whole of the occupied territories with East Jerusalem as its capital," he said.
Prior to Finkelstein's appearance at Penn, it appeared that the critic wouldn't create the same kind of stir that he's had on other campuses, most recently at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. He was invited to Penn by a group known as Students for Justice in Palestine; the talk was part of Penn's "Palestine Awareness Week." (He was also slated to speak March 28 as part of the student-organized "Justice Week" and "Palestine Day" at Bryn Mawr College.)
According to Alexis Orenstein, a Jewish member of the group, sponsorship from the political-science department and the Middle East Center was sought in the hopes of raising the event's profile. She said those departments also put up several hundred dollars to cover the cost of the event.
She hoped students would "agree with or disagree with his findings based on a presentation of the evidence, not speculation of his motives."
There wasn't much of a public reaction until a March 14 campus appearance by Alan Dershowitz, the famous lawyer and staunch defender of Israel, who's had a long-running public feud with Finkelstein. During a talk about global terrorism, Dershowitz said that Finkelstein shouldn't have received university sponsorship and urged the students to try to do something about it.
"Some of those extending the invitations are unaware of Finkelstein's willing collaboration with neo-Nazis, Holocaust-deniers and anti-Semites," wrote Dershowitz in a March 19 opinion piece in the student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian.
Dershowitz argued that a university should "articulate objective criteria and qualifications" to determine who should received sponsorship.
On March 18, a last-minute measure came before Penn's student government body that called for the two Penn entities to withdraw sponsorship, and for the university to set up criteria for sponsoring speakers. The measure fell several votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to bring it to a full debate.
"When a speaker is so extreme and falls beyond such boundaries, he or she should not be receiving money or sponsorship from the university," said 20-year-old Max Schapiro, chair of the Penn Israel Coalition.
Avery Goldstein, chair of the political-science department, defended its sponsorship in a March 21 guest column in the Daily Pennsylvanian.
"Regardless of what one thinks about the persuasiveness of Finkelstein's published work, it is viewed by others as serious and worthy of discussion," he wrote.
The Daily Pennsylvanian's student-run editorial board backed Goldstein. Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, sent a letter to the editor that argued that sponsoring Finkelstein's talk "does not represent one of Penn's finer moments."
Making Their Voices Heard
Just before the lecture, roughly a dozen students associated with Hillel and the Israel coalition stood outside Steitler Hall, the lecture's venue, handing out flyers that contained quotes questioning Finkelstein's credibility. A similarly sized group from Jewish Voices for Peace — an official co-sponsor of the event — also distributed material that argued the campus should hear a speaker who "strays from the well-worn path of Zionist Orthodoxy."
About 20 minutes into the talk, a group of pro-Israel students left and headed several buildings away for a program sponsored by the Penn Israel Coalition and delivered by the Egyptian-born Nonie Darwish, a critic of the Arab world's hatred of Israel. That event drew a much smaller crowd.
At Bryn Mawr — where Finkelstein did not receive college sponsorship — a group of students approached several deans to try to get the talk canceled. They were unsuccessful, according to Tara Malone, co-president of BrynPAC– Bryn Mawr-Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The college released a statement that said "unless a speaker's appearance poses some sort of safety or security risk, Bryn Mawr College's student groups are free to host any speaker they like."
Finkelstein's scheduled appearance came several days after a March 25 Philadelphia Regional Israel Conference at Bryn Mawr.
March 26 also began a series of events tied to the annual "Israel Week" at Penn.