To the editor:
How sad that Mr. Nelson Obus of Princeton let loose with a rant devoid of rationality and concluded by referring to Princeton’s Labyrinth Books store as “An Island of Prejudice” (centraljersey.com, May 24). Obus asserts that because Labyrinth held a May 17 event with author Dr. Norman Finkelstein about his new book, “Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom,” that it “should be soundly condemned for sponsoring this charade of objective discourse on a sensitive subject.”
I was the initiating organizer of the event. It was originally cleared to be held on the campus of my institution, Princeton Theological Seminary, intersecting as it did with subjects of my teaching. The event was unanimously approved by the faculty of the Princeton Seminary’s Religion and Society Committee of which I am a member.
I welcome Princeton Seminary’s continuing cultivation of ever-deepening collaborations with Jewish communities and scholars, and its being ever more vigilant about past and present anti-Semitism. But this does not lessen our solidarities with today’s Muslim communities in the U.S. or abroad. Nor does it lessen our working with those of all religions, cultures and other traditions of spirit and conscience.
Dr. Finkelstein’s book, “Gaza,” published in 2018 by the respected University of California Press bears endorsements from reputable scholars worldwide. Law and Diplomacy professor Alfred de Zayas hails it as “a scholarly manual for every politician and every person concerned with human rights.”
Leiden University’s Emeritus Professor of Public International Law calls “Gaza” “the most authoritative account” of Israel’s invasions of Gaza.
University of Chicago Distinguished Service Professor John Mearsheimer writes of Finkelstein that “no scholar has done more to shed light on Israel’s ruthless treatment of the Palestinians.”
Harvard University’s Sara Roy, renowned expert on Gaza’s economy and from Harvard’s Center on Middle Eastern Studies terms the book “an indispensable resource for scholars, jurists, policy makers and diplomats a like. A landmark.”
Reviews of the book occur at various sources online (New York Journal of Books, Publishers Weekly). At amazon.com, “Gaza” is currently ranked the best sales in Middle East Studies and No. 2 in both Human Rights and Europe studies. A bookstore would be foolish and prejudiced not to allow a book with its acclaimed author to have its special event.
Moreover, the book is complex enough to warrant its own examination. Debates with Finkelstein have been held before and no doubt will be held again. Authors with views contesting Finkelstein’s may try to rival his meticulous detail in their own books and be featured at other future book events. So be it.
The May 17 event with Dr. Finkelstein was a unifying one in our community. Christian faculty at Princeton Seminary came together with Jewish Voice for Peace and the Princeton Middle East Society. With these co-sponsors, I invited Labyrinth Books to be our venue. While the evening was once or twice disrupted by people like Mr. Orbus, it drew more than 220 people who mainly listened attentively and asked important questions. Owners of the bookstore offered exemplary guidance, encouraging everyone present to be respectful of one another’s varying viewpoints.
The program was not designed to correspond with the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Instead, with Finkelstein’s book to the fore on May 17, we were more appropriately concerned with the May 14 killings in Gaza by Israeli military of more than 61 non-violent protestors and its maiming of more than 2,500 others.
Finkelstein’s book helped place the recent one-day killing in the context of decades of Israeli lethal assaults on Gaza. Recall, for example, Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014. Independent studies of that 2014 operation place “the number of residents of Gaza killed in the 50-day armed conflict at over 2,100, of whom at least 70 percent were civilians, including over 500 children. More than 11,000 were wounded and more than 100,000 made homeless.” On the Israeli side, only “73 Israelis were killed: 67 soldiers and 6 civilians, including one child and one migrant worker. 469 soldiers and 255 civilians were wounded” (Gaza 2014: Findings of an Independent Medical Fact-Finding Team).
And need it be said again? Moral critiques of Israeli government policies and its military are not as such anti-Semitic. This is a point well established by Jewish thinkers themselves, as in On Anti-Semitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, and another by Judith Butler Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism.
It was more than appropriate for Labyrinth Books to offer a place for the community to come together around so carefully researched a book and in relation to so egregious a killing as that perpetrated by the Israeli military that same week. When members of diverse religious groups and Princeton citizens gathered that night at Labyrinth Books we created a moment of hope for the kind of real peace that begins by taking a hard and disciplined look at a scene of injustice.
Mark Lewis Taylor
Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture
Princeton Theological Seminary Theology/Religion & Society