Joan Peters’s legacy assessed by one of her fiercest critics, Norman FinkelsteinHistorians in the News
tags: Joan Peters, Norman Finkelstein
Joan Peters, the author of the book From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict over Palestine, died on January 5th, at 78. As David Samel wrote following her death,”The bizarre chapter of Joan Peters’s contribution to the Middle East debate does not end with her death. Her arguments, both those she adopted from others and those she formulated herself, still constitute a huge portion of the go-to hasbara repertoire.” I interviewed Norman Finkelstein and asked him to reflect on her work and legacy, as he played a central role in debunking much of her work as described in his book Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.
Adam Horowitz: Could you start by saying a bit about how From Time Immemorial was received?
Norman Finkelstein: First of all the important primary factor is the context. Israel in 1982 took its first major public relations hit since the 1967 war. It was a public relations disaster for Israel. One of the reasons being I think, as Robert Fisk pointed out in Pity the Nation he said unlike all other Arab states Lebanon did not control the press and so mainstream reporters were able at that time to roam freely throughout Lebanon. Mainstream reporters, I should say who had credibility, were able to roam freely through Lebanon during the Israeli attack, and what they were reporting was quiet horrifying. It’s forgotten now but even against the Israeli attacks in recent years on Lebanon, on Gaza, they all pale in comparison to what Israel did in Lebanon in 1982. The usual figures are between sixteen and twenty thousand Lebanese and Palestinians, overwhelmingly civilians, were killed during the Israeli attack. All the Lebanese killed in 2006 plus the three massacres in Gaza that doesn’t even come to half of the figure that happened in Lebanon.
So now you had credible reportage of what Israel was doing and it was a major public relations setback for Israel. You could say the first layer of Jewish support for Israel, the first layer, peeled away and that was the layer of what you would call the Old Left, mainly those were identified with the Soviet Union and therefore identified with Israel because the Soviets supported the creation of the state of Israel in ’48 and also because a lot of the signature institutions of Israel in that era were of a socialist leftist orientation, most famously the kibbutzim.
And so before 1982 the pro-Soviet, pro-Communist Old Left even those who were disaffected from the Soviet Union which still fell within the umbrella of the Old Left, they were still pretty much pro-Israel, there were just really a tiny handful of exceptions. The best known being of course Professor Chomsky. There was also Maxime Robinson in France, but in general the support was totally for Israel, overwhelmingly for Israel.
And so the first layer of support was peeled off, peeled away, but overall Israel took a public relations hit. There were the usual characters, and the usual liars, people like Martin Peretz who went on the Israeli army tour of Lebanon and famously said at the time that everything you have read in the newspapers and heard in the media about what happened in Lebanon just didn’t happen, it didn’t happen.
As Professor Chomsky replied in The Fateful Triangle, his account of the Lebanon war within the broader context, that’s just a very unusual claim. You don’t usually make the claim that the other side has just made everything up whole cloth. You usually said they left out context, or they were selective, but to say that it didn’t happen, as in 16 to 20 thousand people weren’t killed, that’s an unusual claim. And of course it was an absurd claim, it did happen. And so the basic purpose of From Time Immemorial was to re-establish Israel’s image in the West....
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