Die Tageszeitung Review of Beyond Chutzpah

July 3, 2006

In News

Oliver Tolmein: “Contrived Controversies: Norman G. Finkelstein fights ‘anti-Semitism as a political weapon’ with real commitment, but his argumentation is a tad too simple,” Die Tageszeitung, 1 July 2006.

“Boycott Israel! Goods, kibbutzim, and beaches!” we used to read on Hamburg’s Hafenstrasse squats. This slogan triggered off a vehement political dispute about anti-Semitism on the Left. Most of those groups who were arguing with one another back then disbanded a long time ago; but replies to the question “What’s your position on Israel?” remain as obdurate and vehement as ever.

It’s hard to think of a topic that might prompt equally irreconcilable positions within German society as does the issue of the politics of the state of Israel. And the front lines in this debate do not run along the usual political boundaries: the self-imposed pro-Israel stance of the Springer press finds common ground with radical “anti-German” positions, while real socialist anti-imperialists come up with points which right-wing, conservative anti-Zionists are also happy to make.

In his book, “Anti-Semitism as a Political Weapon” [German edition of Beyond Chutzpah], US political scientist Norman G. Finkelstein once again – committedly, but rather unsurprisingly – takes a stand against Israel’s policies. For, according to Finkelstein, Israel’s “brutal repression of the Palestinians” makes things easy for the “real anti-Semites.” The fact that Finkelstein wrote an extra preface for the German edition indicates that he is well aware of the significance of this very special market for his books. He notes, apparently without any deeper knowledge of what’s going on in this country, that “If Germany was once the European hotbed of anti-Semitism, it has now become the hotbed of philo-Semitism.”

The content of the preface to the German edition is characteristic of the whole book. With his whole dead seriousness, Finkelstein puts forth the thesis that there really is no reason for any controversies about the Israel-Palestine conflict, because first, there’s broad agreement among historians on the genesis of the conflict and second, most political and legal bodies know exactly what needs to be done in order to solve it. Therefore, he says, “the preponderance of controversy on the Israel-Palestine conflict is contrived by Israel’s apologists.”

The focus of attention here is defense lawyer and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz whose polemic, The Case for Israel, Finkelstein seeks to meticulously refute in the second part of his book. For his readers, this undertaking is rather tiring. In the first part of the book which, at any rate for German readers, seems more interesting, Finkelstein sets out to refute the allegation of a growing anti-Semitism.

In this context he attacks, among others, NGOs like the Anti-Defamation League; intellectuals like psychology professor Phyllis Chesler; and Kofi Annan whom he chides for having asserted Holocaust uniqueness when, “given that Africa is currently being ravaged by starvation, disease, and war,” one might have thought “that he would have bigger priorities than mobilizing the international community to affirm Holocaust uniqueness.” When Finkelstein gets down to specifics, he often argues meticulously and is able to document distortions and falsifications by several friends of Israel. Yet politically not much is gained by his work because his discussion of the Palestinian side is not nearly as critical, and the image of the conflict, as he presents it, therefore seems skewed.

Most important, his political analyses and proposed means to resolve the conflict are as simple as his reflections on the relationship between poverty in Africa and Holocaust uniqueness. For example, his thesis that Israel’s withdrawal would at once cut the ground from under the feet of the “real” anti-Semites, runs through the book without being substantiated by hard facts.

It’s astonishing that a political scientist who dedicates his academic life to fighting the misuse of the anti-Semitism allegation as a political weapon, can fail to grasp the hatred of Jews in its essence. The least he could do is reflect on the fact that the worst persecution of Jews took place at a time when the mere thought of an Israeli occupation was still inconceivable.

Norman G. Finkelstein, Antisemitismus als politische Waffe. Translated by Maren Hackmann, Piper, Munich 2006, 388 pp., EUR 19.90.

(Translation: Maren Hackmann)