Professor Ilan Pappe on Beyond Chutzpah

January 27, 2006

In News

By Ilan Pappe

Why is the history of modern Palestine such a matter of debate? Why is it still regarded as a complex, indeed obscure, chapter in contemporary history that cannot be easily deciphered? Any abecedarian student of its past who comes to it with clean hands would immediately recognize that in fact its story is very simple. For that matter it is not vastly different from other colonialist instances or tales of national liberation. It of course has its distinctive features, but in the grand scheme of things it is the chronicle of a group of people who left their homelands because they were persecuted and went to a new land that they claimed as their own and did everything in their power to drive out the indigenous people who lived there. Like any historical narrative, this skeleton of a story can be, and has been, told in many different ways. However, the naked truth about how outsiders coveted someone else’s country is not sui generis, and the means they used to obtain their newfound land have been successfully employed in other cases of colonization and dispossession throughout history.

Generations of Israeli and pro-Israeli scholars, very much like their state’s diplomats, have hidden behind the cloak of complexity in order to fend off any criticism of their quite obviously brutal treatment of the Palestinians in 1948 and since. They were aided, and still are, by an impressive array of personalities, especially in the United States. Nobel Prize winners, members of the literati, and high-profile lawyers—not to mention virtually everyone in Hollywood, from filmmakers to actors—have repeated the Israeli message: This is a complicated issue that would be better left to the Israelis to deal with. An Orientalist perception was embedded in this polemical line: Complex matters should be handled by a civilized (namely, Western and progressive) society, which Israel allegedly was and is, and not entrusted to an uncivilized (i.e., Arab and regressive) group like the Palestinians. The advanced state will surely find the right solution for itself and its primitive foe.

When official America endorsed this Israeli position, it became the so-called Middle Eastern peace process, one that was too sophisticated to be managed by the Palestinians and hence had to be worked out between Washington, DC, and Jerusalem and then dictated to the Palestinians. The last time this approach was attempted, in the summer of 2000 at Camp David, the results were disastrous. The second intifada broke out, and it rages on as this article goes to press.

The Zionist narrative is as simple a story as the history of the conflict itself. The Jews redeemed their lost and ancient homeland after two thousand years of exile, and when they "returned" they found it derelict, arid, and practically uninhabited. There were others on the land, but they were basically nomads, the kind of people you could, as Theodor Herzl wrote in 1895, "spirit away" outside the Promised Land. Still, the empty land somehow remained populated, and not only this, but the elusive population rebelled and tried to harm the Jewish returnees. Like any other narrative, this one too can be laid out elegantly and scholarly or conveyed coarsely and simply. It can appear as a sound bite on American television when a suicide bombing is "contexualized," or it can dominate a book produced by one of the prestigious university publishing houses in the West. But however verbose or taciturn Israel’s advocates may be, the historical narrative they insist on broadcasting is a false representation of the past and present realities in the land of Palestine.

In academia, the Israeli claim of complexity and the Zionist time line as a whole have been exposed as propaganda at best. Similarly, the pendulum has swung in favor of many principal chapters in the Palestinian narrative, regarded hitherto as an Oriental fable. The emergence of critical and post-Zionist scholarship in Israel helped this process along by providing internal deconstruction of the Zionist metanarrative and accepting many historical claims made by the Palestinians, especially with regard to the events of 1948. The group of "new Israeli historians" who have focused on 1948 have endorsed the basic Palestinian argument that the native people were forcefully dispossessed in what today would be called an ethnic-cleansing operation.

But outside the universities, particularly in the United States, public figures continue to be embarrassingly and unapologetically pro-Israeli. Few have dared to challenge these self-appointed ambassadors because many of them are quite often influential journalists, highly placed lawyers, or former politicians, ex-hostages of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in its most active years. Norman G. Finkelstein is one of the few who has. In 1984 he confronted head-on Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine, which claimed that most of the Palestinians made their way into the territory only in the 1920s and ’30s—an assertion so ridiculous it made Peters’s book easy prey. Finkelstein tore her argument to shreds.

Now, in Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse
of History
, Finkelstein goes after bigger targets and challenges some of the most sacred taboos in the American public arena regarding Zionism and Israel. One such exposure involves the misuse, indeed abuse, of Holocaust memory in defense of Zionism. Any substantial criticism of Israel is immediately branded by apologists for the state as a new wave of anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League’s grotesque manipulation of the message of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ and its purported association with the Palestinian struggle against occupation makes one wonder how intelligent people—even basically moral people—could spin such idiotic tales and arouse unwarranted, hysterical reactions with the effect of papering over Israeli atrocities on the ground. The puzzlement grows when one reads Finkelstein’s industrious, at times sarcastic book, which shows how easy it is to distinguish what happened in fact from what Israeli sources (and their American defenders) say happened. Scholarly work by historians Finkelstein does not particularly care for because of their political positions (such as Benny Morris) and self-inhibited Israeli human rights organizations such as B’Tselem show that even within their apologetic and cautious representations there are few doubts remaining on two issues: that Israel forcibly ejected the Palestinians in 1948 and that it has abused, oppressed, and humiliated those that remained ever since 1967.

I will spare most of the individuals for the purposes of this review; they are all named in the book. One after another, the most famous figures in the American Zionist establishment—and some fellow travelers, like the current president of Harvard—are all shown here to subscribe to the exact same message: Criticism of Israel feeds a new wave of anti-Semitism in the United States. Reading their declarations in a single place, one can appreciate the madness of their views, and Finkelstein has not missed a thing.

And to his further credit, he does not dismiss the possibility that anti-Jewishness has in fact risen as a result of Israeli brutality in the occupied territories. But the cry of anti-Semitism is not a response to this development; it is rather, in his words, "an ideological weapon to deflect justified criticism of Israel and, concomitantly, powerful Jewish interests."

No one co-opts intelligence in defense of a fable better than Alan Dershowitz. Finkelstein observes that, unlike Elie Wiesel, a troubled Jew who cannot apply his universal moral standards to the state of Israel and thus legitimizes all its misdeeds and crimes by default, Dershowitz comes from the realm of criminal law and has himself stated that "the criminal lawyer’s job, for the most part, is to represent the guilty, and—if possible—to get them off." Israel must be guilty in Dershowitz’s mind, as becomes apparent in The Case for Israel, which defends his client’s most obvious crime—its human rights record. It would have been a more "complex" case had he chosen to stand for Israel’s right to exist or its wish to represent world Jewry, but no: He opted to cleanse the most glaringly unpleasant feature of the Jewish state since its inception—its treatment of the Palestinians. In so doing, Dershowitz attacks everyone from Amnesty International and the United Nations to Israeli human rights organizations and Jewish peace activists, on top of course of condemning anyone who is Palestinian or pro-Palestinian. They are all part of the new anti-Semitism.

The most original aspect of Finkelstein’s book is his deconstruction of Dershowitz’s praise for the Israeli Supreme Court and his own examination of the court’s record. Finkelstein’s book is full of evidence of Israeli oppression that in itself is essential reading for those who wish to judge Dershowitz’s propagandist claims. But the Israeli Supreme Court is one of the strongest links in an otherwise very weak chain on which Dershowitz hangs his defense of Israel. It is after all a body commended throughout the world for its professionalism and impartiality. Finkelstein systematically shows how the most callous aspects of the occupation—torture centers, demolition of houses, targeted killings, and denial of medical care—were in fact legitimized a priori by the Israeli Supreme Court. The court, and the legal system as a whole, like the Israeli media and academia (neither of which is treated in the book), are essential components in the state oppression and occupation of the West Bank. Much more work needs to be done in this direction; hopefully Finkelstein will be one of many who further analyze this atrocious reality.

The concluding section of Finkelstein’s book is devoted to the historiographical aspects of Dershowitz’s work. We can only concur with Finkelstein that "next to Alan Dershowitz’s egregious falsification of Israel’s human rights record and the real suffering such falsification causes, Dershowitz’s academic derelictions seem small beer." In fact the coda is anticlimactic in such a powerful book, but to be fair it appears as an appendix and not as an integral part of the work. Morris stars as the main source for refuting Dershowitz’s historical claims; it would have been better to use Palestinian historians and oral history sources in addition to Morris. But this does not undermine the overall service Finkelstein has performed in exposing one critical layer of knowledge production concerning Palestine that for years defeated any attempt for the Palestinian plight to receive a fair hearing from the American public. The Palestinians deserved, but never received, the same empathy and support good-hearted Americans usually lend to occupied, oppressed, and persecuted people the world over—even those harassed by their own government. Shrewd advocates of the occupier and the oppressor—abusing Holocaust memory and heightening years of anti-Semitism—succeeded for a long time in stifling solidarity with the Palestinians. This book cracks the wall of deception and hypocrisy that enables the daily violation of human and civil rights in Palestine. As such, it has the potential to contribute to the removal of the real wall that shuts out those in the occupied territories.

Ilan Pappe is the author, most recently, of The Modern Middle East (Routledge, 2005).