Leading Dutch newspaper praises Beyond Chutzpah.

February 27, 2006

In News

Editor’s note: more book reviews here.

NRC Handelsblad| February 24, 2006

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Fighting the anti-anti-Semite

Norman Finkelstein attacks those with double moral standards concerning Israel

American Norman Finkelstein is still angry with people who try to fight anti-Semitism by saying that Jews can never do anything wrong.

Norman Finkelstein: Beyond Chutzpah.
On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.
Verso. 332 pages € 32.00

Bas Blokker

Norman Finkelstein is back. The man who in 1998 wrote a Nation on Trial, a razor-sharp polemic against Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and his Hitler’s Willing Executioners and became notorious through his attack on the ‘Holocaust Industry’ in the year 2000, is now focusing his sights on several prominent American defenders of Israel and on Israel’s Palestinian politics.

Beyond Chutzpah is not a book to read just ‘on its own’. Finkelstein discusses in great detail old works of the Anti-Defamation League and recent work published by renowned criminal lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz (The Case for Israel, 2003).

These are books that in the Netherlands elicited basically no reaction, were difficult to come by and have virtually been ignored. And yet Finkelstein’s book is interesting in a time when the Western world has surrendered its old, deeply rooted position in respect to Israel – an unconditionally positive one – without replacing it with a new one.

With his firm argumentation and conclusions that are difficult to refute on the relationship between Israel and Palestine, Finkelstein (Professor of Political Sciences at the small DePaul University in Chicago) offers at the very least interesting points for debate.

Beyond Chutzpah (which could be translated as: more than an effrontery) is first and foremost a polemic. In two of the book’s three parts Finkelstein focuses on the works of other authors. In part one, The Not-So-New New Anti-Semitism, he walks all over lobbyists for anti-racist organizations who do indeed entertain disconcerting double moral standards and paranoid ideas with respect to Israel. Like Ron Rosenbaum who in Those Who Forget the Past claims that it was not the Zionist Jews who selected Palestine as their homeland but the Europeans who wanted to get rid of the Jews and deliberately gave them an ‘untenable slice of desert in a sea of hostile people’. Rosenbaum also claims that the Europeans purposely made Israel too small for Jews and Palestinians together, so that they could not avoid hating each other.

In this part, Finkelstein returns to the key assertion of his book entitled The Holocaust Industry, namely that the more Israel needs international support the more the world is bombarded with the tragedy of the annihilation of the Jews. In Beyond Chutzpah he writes: “Each campaign against the ‘new anti-Semitism’ coincided with renewed international pressure on Israel to withdraw from the occupied Arab areas, in exchange for Israel being officially recognized by the neighbouring Arab states.”

Beyond Chutzpah is better written than The Holocaust Industry. In that book Finkelstein was so busy treading on his adversaries that he sometimes forgot to provide his arguments. His analysis of the instrumentalization of the holocaust taboo could therefore not hold a candle to that of Peter Novick who had written The Holocaust in American Life just shortly before.

Perhaps this time Finkelstein benefits from the absurdity of his adversaries. Compared with hysterical people like psychologist Phyllis Chesler who wrote things like “It is as if Hitler’s brownshirts have arisen from the grave, but then in larger numbers, to carry out their sordid ‘Kristallnacht’ (Night of Broken Glass) work, everywhere and forever”, Finkelstein emerges as a very balanced scientist. Nevertheless here, too, his excitement gets the better of his common sense. He is so angry with those who try to fight anti-Semitism by pretending Jews cannot do anything wrong, that he claims the opposite: that anti-Semitism is a response to errors made on the part of the Jews. This is untenable from a historical perspective; one can at most claim that Israel’s politics kindles feelings of anti-Semitism in the event of excesses.

But this blunder is an exception in Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah. It seems more a matter of nonchalant phrasing, because Finkelstein does indeed see true anti-Semitism certainly in the Arab world, judging by his reasoning in his introduction: “I conclude that if, as all studies argue, today’s bias against the Jews coincides with Israel’s brutal oppression of the Palestinians, the sensible, not to mention moral conclusion must be to terminate the occupation. Israel’s total withdrawal would deprive the true anti-Semites who use Israel’s politics as a pretense to demonize the Jews – and who can doubt their existence? – of a dangerous weapon and reveal their hidden agenda.”

So there is absolutely no reason to accuse the author of anti-Semitism, as some in the United States have done. These people unwittingly prove the accuracy of Finkelstein’s statement that everyone who is critical of Israel is discredited as being an anti-Semite.

And Finkelstein is critical of Israel. In part two of his book he disguises his criticism in a polemic with Dershowitz who used his full weight as a Harvard professor and society lawyer (for instance, he assisted O.J. Simpson during his murder trial and Mia Farrow during her court case against her husband Woody Allen) to publicly defend Israel in The Case for Israel. It seems that this volume gave rise to Beyond Chutzpah. Finkelstein has been involved in a public fight with Dershowitz for more than a year now.

It all started when Finkelstein came across a suspicious number of passages in The Case for Israel that bear a resemblance to From Time Immemorial published by Joan Peters in 1984. The central thesis of that book is that hardly any Palestinians lived in Palestine, most of them only arriving when the first Zionists settled there. At first the book was received jubilantly, but later critics detected so many errors, inaccuracies and prejudices that Finkelstein can now label it as a ‘colossal fraud’.

Small wonder that Dershowitz immediately claimed he did not use Peters’ book. But with a few humiliating examples (e.g., from a travel report written by Mark Twain in Israel) Finkelstein demonstrates that Dershowitz has not read older sources himself, but literally takes them from Peters.

Criminal Lawyer
But more important – although it is always good to see the noose tighten around a swindler’s neck – is what Dershowitz wants to achieve with his book and what Finkelstein says against it. The criminal lawyer wants to prove that there is no other country in the world that, under a similar threat, has done more than Israel and succeeded equally well in reaching high-principled standards of justice. Furthermore, he believes there is no other country in the history of the world that has been condemned and criticized by the international community so frequently, so undeservedly and so hypocritically. Finkelstein factually argues the opposite. Both scientists expose a double moral standard – it must be said that Finkelstein is more conclusive here than Dershowitz.

When Dershowitz claims without crediting the source that the Israeli siege and its violent capture of Jenin (April 2002) ‘are considered by many a model for conducting urban warfare’, Finkelstein only has to refer to the report written by the Human Rights Watch which eventually received permission from the Israeli government to do on-site research. The human rights organization published a report in May 2002 in which several operations of the lsraeli army are described as being ‘serious offences of international human rights’. According to the organization some offences were so serious ‘on the face of it’ that they could be labeled war crimes.

So Finkelstein walks all over Dershowitz. Part three of his book is a set of appendices in which he shares his documentation with the reader – exhaustive, usually persuasive, occasionally unnecessarily detailed, but always verifiable. At the end of the book, Finkelstein has defeated his adversaries. The reader can then return to his introduction in which he logically reasons back to his own conclusion: “It is frequently said of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it raises such uniquely deep questions that customary analysis and conclusion are insufficient [… ] It is obvious why Israel’s supporters give this comparison a wide berth and continue to hammer away at the unique character of this conflict: in every comparable situation – Euro-American conquest of North America, the apartheid regime in South Africa – Israel would come out on the ‘wrong’ side of the comparison.”

There is no reason to accuse the author of anti-Semitism as was done in the United States.

Photo: Anti-Israel grafitti on a wall in Ramallah