Süddeutsche Zeitung Review of Beyond Chutzpah

June 12, 2006

In News

Ludger Heid, “Kronzeuge mit Chuzpe: Norman G. Finkelstein zieht erneut gegen Israel zu Felde,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 6 June 2006 (

Ludger Heid, “Crown Witness with Chutzpah: Norman G. Finkelstein Has Embarked on a New Anti-Israel Crusade,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 6 June 2006

The harshest criticism of the disproportionate military operations against the Palestinians comes from within Israel itself. Also, the majority of Israelis advocate a two-state solution. It would nonetheless be absurd for the Israeli government to accuse the domestic opponents of its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians of anti-Semitism. Yet, according to Norman G. Finkelstein, this is exactly what it does. He deplores the use by Israel and its big American ally of the anti-Semitism slur against critics of their common Palestine policy. This criticism includes condemnations of repressive measures taken against the Palestinians like, for instance, the settlement policy, the construction of a wall encroaching on Palestinian territory, or the targeted killings of Palestinian militants. According to Finkelstein, Israel uses its historic victim role to exculpate itself for its rigid policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, while at the same time it sabotages their legitimate interests in an autonomous state. This rhetoric bespeaks a demonization of Israel, based on ideological preconceptions. It’s the kind of talk one usually hears from the mouths of declared anti-Zionists.

Finkelstein is an American-Jewish professor of political science who, in order to make his views appear more credible, sets great store by the fact that he is the son of Holocaust survivors. He differentiates between the terms “Nazi holocaust” and “The Holocaust,” the former denoting the actual historical event, the latter the ideological instrumentalization of that event. And so he returns to his old thesis.

The gist of Finkelstein’s claim is this: Israel pursues an anti-Palestinian agenda, and this agenda is carried out with the active support of the US. Together they instrumentalize the destruction of the Jews in order to justify moral blackmail. They try to make sure that critics of Israel appear as anti-Semites in disguise. And they want any reports about the suffering inflicted on Palestinians by the Israeli occupation to be taboo because, in their view, only Israel is entitled to victim status.

It soon dawns upon the reader that Finkelstein’s polemic is above all a devastating critique of Alan M. Dershowitz’s apologetic book, The Case for Israel, the American edition of which came out in 2003. The book has also been published in German translation.* Dershowitz, a Harvard professor of law and a top lawyer, is an influential figure in the US; his book became an immediate best seller and was widely distributed. His autobiography, which had been published shortly before,** was appropriately titled Chutzpah.

The fact that Finkelstein is the son of survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto does not make his anti-theses any more credible. On the contrary, one might argue that he himself resorts to the same argumentative means that he accuses his critics of. And then there is something else that ought not to be overlooked, and one should not be overly timid about it, for Finkelstein himself does not exactly treat others with kid gloves: Finkelstein appears to enjoy the role of a Jewish – hence seemingly unchallengeable – crown witness who provides the anti-Israel/anti-Jewish factions with (anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic) cues.

Finkelstein’s message for his German readers is to follow a moral imperative and to try to rise to a real challenge: to keep an eye on the human rights violations that are being committed today while at the same time bearing in mind the German past that is calling for retribution. However, due to his superficial polemic, Finkelstein’s distinction between legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies of separation and exclusion on the one hand, and the genuinely anti-Semitic/anti-Zionist opinions and prejudices on the other, is not particularly convincing.

To be sure, even declared friends of Israel can have their doubts about, or even despair over, Israel’s policies. Yet it is astonishing that Finkelstein never once mentions the [Jewish state’s] right to exist, a right which is persistently denied by Arab hardliners who in the meantime have taken over governmental responsibility in the immediate vicinity of the Jewish state.

Finkelstein has caused a stir again, like he did in 2001, when he broke the taboo about the “Holocaust industry.” Though his latest book may be less provocative than the one that came out five years ago, it, too, clearly is a case of “chutzpah,” as the American edition correctly notes. And now that Finkelstein has once again been given a forum, it probably won’t be long before German combatants join the historians’ debate he has been fueling in the United States.

Norman G. Finkelstein, Antisemitismus als politische Waffe: Israel, Amerika und der Mißbrauch der Geschichte. Piper, Munich 2006, 388 pp., EUR 19.90.

(Translation: Maren Hackmann)

Translator’s notes:

* Here the reviewer refers readers to a review on the same page, of both Dershowitz and Chomsky, by Thorsten Schmitz, “Im Pulverdampf des Kampfgeschehens: Beim Thema Nahostkonflikt sind vor allem einäugige Polemiken beliebt,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 6 June 2006.

** In the German edition of Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah, which the reviewer pretends to have read, it is repeatedly noted that the American edition of Dershowitz’s Chutzpah already came out in 1991 and that the German translation was published in 2000.