A review that's actually about the book!

December 25, 2005

In News

By Mike Marqusee
Red Pepper, January 2006

When celebrity trial lawyer and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz published ‘The Case for Israel’ in 2003, it was acclaimed by leading US opinion-makers, including The New York Times and Boston Globe, and quickly became a best seller. Yet the book is, as Norman Finkelstein comprehensively demonstrates, “among the most spectacular frauds ever published on the Israel-Palestine conflict”, a remarkably shabby piece of work whose major contentions are clearly contradicted by the documentary record.

There’s value (and pleasure) in the debunking of a bogus authority, but the import of Finkelstein’s new book goes way beyond that. Dershowitz’s arguments are common currency among those making “the case for Israel”. In meticulously rebutting them, Finkelstein not only challenges an influential school of apologetics but also illuminates many of the core issues of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

He contends that far from being a case of intractable ethnic antagonism rooted in anicent identities or cultural differences, the conflict is a straightforward one, arising from the disposession of an indigenous people and an occupation by military conquest. Among historians, there is now a consensus about the uprooting of the Palestinians in 1948. Among human rights groups, there is a consensus about the unacceptable nature of Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories. In the UN and the international community, there is a consensus – from which only Israel and the US dissent – that Israel should withdraw to the pre-1967 borders and that a genuinely independent Palestinian state should be established. It is because these matters – historical and moral – are so straightforward that the champions of Israel resort to obfuscation, falsifying history and demonising critics.

In keeping with the slogan of a “land without people for a people without land”, but in defiance of all historical evidence, Dershowitz claims that Palestine was largely unpopulated prior to the arrival of the Zionist colonists in the 19th century. He draws support for this assertion exclusively from Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial, a book published twenty years ago and long since exposed (by Finkelstein and others) as a fake. (One of Finkelstein’s subsidiary arguments is that Dershowitz is guilty of plagiarism in lifting material extensively and without attribution from Peters’ book). Dershowitz proceeds from this mythological starting-point to insist that Israel has been consistently generous in its efforts to reach peace with the Palestinians – a claim Finkelstein rebuts with a useful appendix precisely detailing Israel’s record of intransigence and its responsibility for obstructing a settlement.

To Dershowitz, Edward Said was “a believer in violence and bloodshed” and the (strictly non-violent) ISM are “active supporters and facilitators of Palestinian terrorism”. He thinks ethnic cleansing is a “fifth rate issue analogous in many respects to some massive urban renewal” and that Israel’s practise of targeted assassinations “strengthens civil liberties, not those of the Israelis but those of the Palestinians”. But perhaps his most extraordinary claim is that Israel’s human rights record in the occupied territories is “generally superb”. Relying exclusively on reports from mainstream human rights organisations and the Israeli press, Finkelstein rebuts this fantasy with a catalogue of ghastly abuses: torture, political liquidations, unlawful and deliberate killings, arbitrary detentions (by the tens of thousands), house demolitions, use of civilians as human shields, attacks on ambulances, and what Amnesty calls “reckless shooting, shelling and aerial bombardment of residential areas”. Here Finkelstein has performed a major service: this is a thorough and scrupulously documented charge-sheet and one that defenders of Israel habitually deny, ignore or downplay.

Regardless of one’s views on the conflict’s origins or solution, Israel’s behaviour in the occupied territories – climaxing with its illegal construction of the wall – ought to be unacceptable from any regime anywhere. Dershowitz and his allies complain that Israel is unfairly “singled out” by critics, but the thrust of their arguments is to exempt Israel from the basic requirements of international law and human decency. What’s most disturbing is that, in the USA and to a lesser extent in Britain, they have succeeded in shielding Israel from the condemnation and sanctions its behaviour deserves. And a key factor in that success has been the wanton abuse of the allegation of anti-Semitism.

In recent years, a band of polemicists enjoying ready access to the media have warned that a “new anti-Semitism” is rampant (especially in Europe) and that Jews are once again in mortal peril. However, their principal evidence for this alarming claim is the growth of opposition to Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. In 2003, for example, what Finkelstein calls a “contrived scandal” erupted around the sensational allegation that the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia had suppressed a report showing a frightening rise in anti-Semitism within the EU. In fact, the report was rejected because its methodology was hopelessly flawed. It cited as evidence of anti-Semitism the widespread “assumption of close ties between the US and Israel” (something US politicians routinely boast about), the belief that Israel has perpetrated “ethnic cleansing”, displays of the Palestinian flag, wearing of the kefiyah and calls for a boycott of Israeli goods. The Independent and The Guardian, among other European newspapers, were said to “smell of anti-Semitism”.

Proponents of the “new anti-semitism” thesis go further. They frequently label the anti-globalisation movement and even the global opposition to the Iraq war as anti-Semitic. In the US, they routinely identify what they call European “anti-Americanism” as a veiled form of anti-Semitism. Yet they are willing to embrace Sylvio Berlusconi – whose allies inlude the political heirs of Mussolini – because of his support for Israel.

The agenda of the would-be scourges of “the new anti-Semitism”, Finkelstein notes, is “not to fight anti-Semitism but rather to exploit the historical suffering of Jews in order to immunise Israel against criticism.” That does not mean that all allegations of anti-Semitism are bogus or that they can be dismissed out of hand as the machinations of the Israel lobby. In addition to old-fashioned right-wing Jew hatred, there is also, undoubtedly, what Finkelstein calls “the unjustified yet predictable ‘spillover’ from criticism of Israel to Jews generally.” Here Finkelstein enters territory that will be contentious even among the most dedicated supporters of Palestine. Some will balk at his discussion of the degree to which Jewish support for Israel is to blame for anti-Semitism. But as Finkelstein notes, it is the apologists for Israel who consistently re-enforce the identification of Jews with the state of Israel (and even the Israeli government) and thereby expose Jews world-wide to the anger and resentment provoked by Israeli policy.

The “new anti-Semitism” school of thought is pernicious not only in its demonising of critics of Israel and Zionism, but also in its cheapening of a grave charge and its cynical exploitation of the horrors of the Nazi holocaust. “Those Jews committed to the struggle against the real anti-Semitism must, in the first instance,” Finkelstein argues, “expose this specious ‘anti-Semitism for the sham it is.”

In making his case, Finkelstein constructs a formidable scholarly fortress. If he occasionally indulges in exasperated sarcasm, it’s hard to blame him, given his opponents’ jaw-dropping chutzpah (according to Dershowitz, “The fault for all civilian casualties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies exclusively with the Palestinian terrorists.”). Most importantly, he guides the reader through this contested terrain with the aid of a detailed map and a universal moral compass. Examining each assertion or argument, he asks whether it is based on ascertainable historical fact and is compatible with a humanist ethic that prizes all human life equally.

Unsurprisingly, a ferocious campaign has been mounted against Finkelstein. Dershowitz repeatedly threatened his publishers with libel actions and appealed directly to California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to compel the University of California Press (US publisher of Beyond Chutzpah) to suppress the book. The leader of the Anti-Defamation League – originally founded to protect Jewish civil rights but now largely dedicated to hounding critics of Israeli policy – has labelled him a “holocaust denier”. On his website Dershowitz claims that Finkelstein thinks his own mother (a Holocaust and Warsaw ghetto survivor) was “a Nazi collaborator”.

Pro-Palestinian activists in Britain will be only too familiar with the smears and misrepresentations which are the stock-in-trade of Israel’s apologists. The playing of the anti-Semitism card, in particular, has caused widespread frustration and anguish. (Those of us who are both Jewish and pro-Palestinian, of course, are dubbed “self-haters”). In responding to our accusers, we have to take the greatest care in drawing crucial distinctions – between Judaism and Zionism, between Jews and Israel, between politics and ethnicity – not least because our opponents so often fail to make precisely these distinctions. But we mustn’t allow the Union of Jewish Students or the Jewish Chronicle to set the terms of debate. They may bristle whenever anyone compares Israel to apartheid South Africa or Zionist colonisation to the European conquest of North America. But only those who blind themselves to the realities chronicled by Finkelstein would find such comparisons anything but apposite and indeed necessary.