Norman Finkelstein: How His Book on Israel May Change Public Debate

Historians in the News

[Mr. Finkelstein is the author of the new book,Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.]

... Finkelstein debunks many favored pieties, and as a result, often faces high barriers to reaching a mass audience. As a Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors, Finkelstein has been battling the U.S. Zionist establishment for decades. Beyond Chutzpah is one of those rare books that has the potential to change the nature of the debate about the U.S.-Israel-Palestine conflict because of its willingness to go where others refuse to go with a “J’accuse” —even when leading to ostracism and perpetual underemployment. Finkelstein indicts much of the U.S. intellectual culture and the cultural institutions that obstruct an accurate rendering of the historical and diplomatic record of the conflict. I suspect Mario Cuomo and Henry Louis Gates Jr., who both praised The Case for Israel, will now be asked, “Did you really read the book or understand what’s at issue in this conflict?

It’s long been recognized, within the humanities, for example, that to speak of such entities as “truths” is to make one vulnerable to the charge of being a simpleton. After all, interpretative or discourse communities determine what is “truth” based on agreement — reality is a majority vote. Even when faced with the task of owning up to gruesome realities, the utter simplicity of some phenomena in the world continue to defy the academic intelligentsia, due to such academic mainstays as the “social construction of truth,” “postmodern geographies,” and “the radically perspectival and indeterminate nature of language.” The powerful don’t have to subscribe to these norms of “intellectual integrity” anyway, often blatantly flouting them and leaving members of the “common herd” aghast when, in the defiance of all evidence, Israel is hailed as the main proponent of Middle Eastern peace despite its ongoing removal of the Palestinians from what will soon be a greater Israel.

Finkelstein described “the Holocaust Industry,” in a book of that title, distinguishing between the holocaust (the historical event) and the Holocaust (the ideological creation nurtured by Israel’s apologists to immunize the Israeli government against critiques). In Beyond Chutzpah, Finkelstein alleges that there’s anti-Semitism, a age-old form of prejudice directed against Jews that any decent person would oppose, and then there’s “anti-Semitism”—an ideologically serviceable mystery religion which accrues considerable benefits for the Israeli government. Finkelstein claims that the new anti-Semitism ends up coddling Zionist Jews, particularly American Zionist Jews, protecting them from much-deserved scrutiny in their toadying for special dispensations as oppressed “chosen people,” while in fact comprising the most privileged ethnic group in the United States. As he writes:

"Legitimate questions can surely be posed regarding when and if Jews are acting as people who happen to be Jewish or acting 'as Jews,' and, on the latter occasions (which plainly do arise), regarding the actual breadth and limits of this 'Jewish power,' but these questions can only be answered empirically, not a priori with politically correct formulae. To foreclose inquiry on this topic as anti-Semitic , intentionally or not, to shield Jews from legitimate scrutiny of their uses and abuses of formidable power (83).

Finkelstein finds that Abraham Foxman, Phyllis Chesler, Gabriel Schoenfeld, Elie Wiesel, Alan Dershowitz, and a whole host of others, have been running a lucrative extortion racket with the sole aim of shielding Israel from scrutiny as it continues an all-out assault with the United States on international law. According to Chessler’s The New Anti-Semitism, it is anti-Semitic to associate all Jews with Israel [“Anyone who does not distinguish between Jews and the Jewish state is an anti-Semite”], but by Chessler’s lights it is also anti-Semitic not to do so [“American and Diaspora Jews” must understand that “Israel is hour heart and soul…we are family” (her emphasis)] (Beyond Chutzpah, 82). Finkelstein documented in The Holocaust Industry that figures such as Edgar Bronfman (heir to the Seagrams’ fortune), Israel Singer (one-time head of the World Jewish Congress), and Elie Wiesel (holocaust survivor, and in Finkelstein’s estimation, “resident clown of the Holocaust Industry”) conspired in conjunction with the Clinton administration to conduct a “shakedown operation” against European countries in the sacred name of Holocaust survivors. In fact, as Finkelstein documents, the billions of dollars the Holocaust industry extorted from Switzerland and Poland in the name of reclaiming Jewish assets seized during WWII went not to Holocaust survivors or their families, but instead to Jewish organizations such as the World Jewish Congress and the ADL, which are U.S. front operations for the Israeli government. Hence, the Holocaust Industry has not only robbed survivors blind but also engaged in a form of ruthless grave robbery for the glorification of that massive land-based U.S. aircraft carrier, Israel.

Whenever the Israeli government faces a public-relations disaster, as it did after the ’82 Lebanon War and the Sabra and Chatila massacre, or as it did during the First and Second Intifadas, a new alarm is sounded about virulent anti-Semitism on the rise. But the more fundamental question is: How was the anti-Semitism of the Nazis transferred to Palestinians of the occupied territories? This ideological sleight-of-hand represents one of the Holocaust Industry’s triumphs. Unfortunately, since the Six-Day War, the historical record has been dominated by propaganda highlighting Jewish suffering to the exclusion of the suffering of other ethnic groups. Here, however, Finkelstein lays the ground for a rational discussion about Israel. Finkelstein shows a clear correlation between moments when the anti-Semitism alarm is rung and the needs of Israel’s apologists who deploy agitprop against anyone seeking to present a clear understanding of what Chomsky calls the “international consensus”—a reference to the fact that the United States and Israel have blocked resolution of the conflict. In polite circles, this is called the “peace process,” an Orwellian term which occludes the techniques of domination and control through which the United States and Israel stop serious peace measures, i.e., a not out-of-the-ordinary display of the power of the doctrinal system and the racism of articulate Western elites. That, in fact, according to Finkelstein is what the new anti-Semitism is all about—a desperate ploy to bury Israeli and U.S. war crimes.

Once one understands that the founding of Israel had little to do with the Holocaust; that the vast majority of Holocaust survivors—who sought to come to the U.S. but were blocked from doing so by American Jewish Zionists—were forced to migrate to Israel, in Yosef Grodzinsky’s words as “good human material” (a translation of his book’s Hebrew title—chomer ‘enoshi tov); that to describe Palestinian hatred of occupiers of Palestinian land as an expression of “anti-Semitic sentiment,” because those occupiers are Jewish, is inexplicable; and that anti-Semitism is not an ageless parasite that infects non-Jews but is instead a context-specific form of ethnic discrimination that has arisen throughout history just as other forms of ethnic discrimination; then the typical Leon Uris Exodus history becomes quite untenable. To justify Israel’s “ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinian population from the West Bank and Gaza, Israel’s apologists have had to sustain an untenable ideological juggling act, keeping several balls in the air....

[Matthew Abraham is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where he teaches courses in Rhetoric and Writing. He was named the 2005 Rachel Corrie Courage in Teaching Award Winner by the progressive special interest groups of the Conference on College Composition and Communication.]

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Chris Osborne - 11/25/2005

But Professor Abraham, have the Palestinians shown any willingness to compromise on Right of Return? Unconditional Right of Return within Israel's pre-1967 frontiers would utterly destroy Israel as a nation-state; and has any nation-state consented to its own dissolution? Would the United States consent to its' own dissolution because it was founded in part upon the military defeat and slaughter of the indigenous inhabitants?