Israeli civil libertarian's introduction to German edition of Beyond Chutzpah

March 26, 2006

In News

Preface to the German edition of Beyond Chutzpah

by Felicia Langer

It was high time a book on the misuse of anti-Semitism as a political weapon got written. Now it has found its author: Norman Finkelstein. He is no stranger to daring challenges, and as this book clearly shows, Finkelstein has got what it takes. The precision and meticulousness of his research and analyses are admirable.

In the first part of the book, Finkelstein focuses on the misuse of anti-Semitism by the pro-Israel lobby in the United States and Europe, in support of Israeli policies. Any time there is a real risk that the international community will increase pressure on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories as required by international law, a new anti-Semitism campaign is launched: “yet another meticulously orchestrated media extravaganza alleging that the world is awash in anti-Semitism.”

With their allegations of anti-Semitism, American-Jewish elites seek, above all, to convince everybody that critics of Israel are really anti-Semites in disguise. Reports on what it is like for Palestinians to live under occupation, reports on their oppression and their suffering must remain taboo – only Israel is entitled to victim status. Thus reality is being inverted, in order to make sure that Israel enjoys immunity.

The hysteria about a “new anti-Semitism” serves not only to silence legitimate criticism of Israel, but also to deflect attention from violations of international law and elementary human rights. So, for example, the refusal to participate in a war of aggression against Iraq was equated with hatred of Jews. Writer Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, told US-President George W. Bush on 27 February 2003 that Iraq was a terrorist state, and that there was a moral imperative for intervention. Had the West intervened in Europe in 1938, Wiesel observed, World War II and the holocaust could have been prevented. “That was a meaningful moment for me,” Bush said later, “because it was a confirming moment.”

The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Paul Spiegel vehemently denounced the German opposition to the war on Iraq, making arguments similar to Elie Wiesel’s. Alas, his words had a very bad ring to them in the light of the millions who marched to protest the war, in Germany and all over the world, among them many Jews.

It is appalling to see what kind of allies this lobby has attracted on the right end of the political spectrum: Silvio Berlusconi and Gianfranco Fini from the neo-Fascist National Alliance in Italy, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France… As for the Christian fundamentalists in the United States, the lobbyists argue that the fundamentalists’ proverbial intolerance is not too harmful nowadays, and that what really counts is their favorable attitude toward Israel.

I want to share with the reader my experience of living in Germany, both as an Israeli Jew and as a holocaust survivor. My husband, Mieciu, went through five Nazi concentration camps. He is the only one from his family to have survived the holocaust, and was himself on the brink of death. My mother and I survived, in the USSR, but all the rest of my family were murdered. My husband and I have been living in Germany for fifteen years now, and it has become our beloved home. In all those years, we, personally, have not experienced any anti-Semitism. This merits emphasis because my husband has been talking about his Nazi era suffering for years, and those who have heard him speak at German schools now number in the thousands. I do not, however, want to deny that anti-Semitism and xenophobia exist in Germany. Our first experience in this regard was the following:

One day in 1990, I noticed a black swastika on the wall of a mall in Tübingen. All the beauty of the enchanting summery scenery surrounding it could not cover up this blemish. My husband and I decided to go and remove the swastika, and we went there that same night. However, we discovered that someone had already painted it over, apparently just a couple of minutes before we arrived – someone who, just like us, had been disgusted by the Nazi symbol. This was my first encounter with an anonymous protester in Germany.[1]

These protesters are our allies in Germany: in our fight against xenophobia and the real anti-Semitism, as well as in our fight against war and the devastating Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian people – the policies which are the subject of this book. Norman Finkelstein deplores the misuse of the holocaust by those who use anti-Semitism as a political weapon. His concern is to restore the victims’ dignity and to do what their real legacy requires us to do. My husband, Mieciu, and I share Norman Finkelstein’s concern, and I would like to repeat here what I’ve written elsewhere about this legacy:

Over the years, Mieciu and I have internalized the legacy of those who were murdered, and this legacy, as we see it, is this: never to be silent in the face of any crime or injustice, but to fight relentlessly against each and every form of racism and anti-Semitism, and to defend the dignity and rights of all human beings, whoever they may be. This will be the obligation of the German people for all times, but it is not an exclusively German obligation. In honor of the memory of all those victims and in the spirit of their final legacy, which is humanity, I denounce the decades-long oppression of the Palestinians by Israel, and the wrong that was done to them and that still persists to this day.[2]

Norman Finkelstein says, rightly, that those Jews who want to fight the real anti-Semitism must first of all expose the alleged “anti-Semitism” as the sham it is:

Tell the truth, fight for justice: this is the time-tested strategy for fighting anti-Semitism, as well as other forms of bigotry. … A full Israeli withdrawal from the territories conquered in 1967 would … deprive those real anti-Semites exploiting Israel’s repression as a pretext to demonize Jews – and who can doubt they exist? – of a dangerous weapon, as well as expose their real agenda. And the more vocally Jews dissent from Israel’s occupation, the fewer will be those non-Jews who mistake Israel’s criminal policies and the uncritical support (indeed encouragement) of mainline Jewish organizations for the popular Jewish mood.[3]

A clear and unambiguous statement.

In the second part of this book, we read about the human rights situation in Israel/Palestine. Israel’s human rights record is “generally superb,” Harvard Law School professor and lawyer Alan Dershowitz claims in his book, The Case for Israel. “The purpose of this book,” he writes, “is to help clear the air by providing direct and truthful defenses to false accusations.” Dershowitz’s book became a best seller in the United States. American-Jewish organizations widely distributed it on college campuses; and the Israeli Foreign Ministry bought thousands of copies, in order to distribute them.

Having devoted 23 years (1967-1990) to defending the Palestinians in the occupied territories and having been the first Jewish lawyer to do so, I have many things to say about the human rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israel’s flagrant violations of these rights. I want to thank Norman Finkelstein for exposing Alan Dershowitz’s lies in this book and for making available to the reader important information from the various Israeli, Palestinian, and international human rights organizations, who have – ignored by Dershowitz – unanimously and vehemently deplored Israel’s human rights violations, many of which amount to war crimes. I, too, deplore them, and I do so both as a witness to an era and as an eyewitness. I denounce the various Israeli governments.

Those pages of this book dealing with Israel’s crimes during the Al Aqsa intifada – crimes which, according to Dershowitz, did not happen – are deeply distressing. Reading these pages, the German media’s reluctance to cover Israeli crimes, and their concealment of the actual scale of the Israeli repression in the Palestinian territories, becomes glaringly obvious.

One chapter is devoted to the so called liquidations (a Nazi terminus, incidentally), i.e., Israel’s assassinations of Palestinian “suspects,” which Dershowitz justifies. Already during the first intifada (1987-1993), the undercover units made frequent use of their license to kill. In the course of the second intifada, these assassinations have become official Israeli policy. Extrajudicial executions are not only acts of state terrorism but quite simply, according to the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, war crimes.

During a 21 August 2002 talk I gave in Vienna, I spoke, inter alia, about Israel’s criminal invasion of the occupied territories, which Norman Finkelstein, too, discusses in his book, and which was euphemistically referred to as Operation Defensive Shield. I spoke about the executions, and the crimes in Jenin refugee camp, but also about a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Vienna’s Jewish Community had sent their members to disrupt the talk, to defame me both as an anti-Semite and a traitor, to stage tumultuous protests, to shout “Nazis out!” etc. Things very nearly got physical, and the event had to be broken off. The Austrian branch of the Jewish lobby could not bear to hear the truth and used the allegation of anti-Semitism as a weapon.

The chapter entitled “Israel’s Abu Ghraib,” on torture, is of particular significance for me. When I saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq, on the TV screens, I thought of my tortured Palestinian clients, and publicly declared: “These are the Israeli methods to break the detainees. It’s just that there are no photographs and, regrettably, our torturers enjoy immunity.” I thought about Sami Esmail – Norman Finkelstein reports his case – and about Dershowitz who already in 1978 had been willing to lie in order to whitewash Israel’s methods of ill-treatment and torture. I saw my clients’ wounds, resulting from torture, with my own eyes. I petitioned the Israel Supreme Court. To no avail. In some cases, the torture led to permanent psychological disorder; some of my clients – for example, Auad Hamdan from the West Bank who died in July 1987, and Mahmud El Masri who died in the General Security Service’s wing of Gaza prison in March 1989 – even lost their lives.[4] I would suggest to read this especially important chapter very carefully, for Israel has resumed its routine torture of Palestinian detainees, and inside the prisons the horrors depicted in this book are very real.

In addition, Norman Finkelstein writes about house demolitions as collective punishment. During the second intifada, Israel began using this cruel measure on a massive scale. Thousands of Palestinians have been rendered homeless, many of whom not for the first time in their lives. This policy is in contravention of international law and has been condemned by the international community. Yet Dershowitz justifies it. Basing himself on human rights reports, Finkelstein documents that Palestinians have been buried alive in the rubble of their homes. I cannot stress too much that, in all those years, my attempts to get the Israel Supreme Court to abolish or at least halt this collective punishment, illegal under international law, were futile. Finkelstein also writes about the destruction of “illegally” built homes. I hereby declare that I tried for many years, mostly without success, to obtain building permits for Palestinians. Israel pursues a clear policy of strangulation, and Norman Finkelstein has reached the same conclusion as I have: the aim of this policy has been to maximize the land available for Jewish settlement and to make it impossible for Palestinian towns and villages to expand.

“[Israel’s] Supreme Court is among the best in the world, and it has repeatedly overruled the army and the government and made them operate under the rule of law,” Dershowitz avers. Basing himself on human rights reports and Israeli expertise, Norman Finkelstein proves this absurd thesis to be wrong.

I agree with Finkelstein that, instead of seeking justice, the Israel Supreme Court has all too often legitimized injustice, and that singing paeans to it is absolutely unwarranted. I testify to this as the first “pioneer lawyer” who has had 23 years of experience with petitioning the Israel Supreme Court on behalf of Palestinians, against the occupying forces. Many Israeli colleagues of mine can testify to this too. No matter what the issue – house demolitions; settlements and land grab; deportations; torture; denial of family unification; administrative detention – the Supreme Court routinely rejected my petitions, and it did so mostly in violation of wholly unambiguous maxims of international law. It was to protest these many years of the Supreme Court’s pursuit of injustice as well as the brutal military justice system of the occupation that, after 23 years, I shut down my lawyer’s office in Jerusalem. This does not mean, however, that I admit defeat. Rather the contrary. I continue to take every opportunity to bring the truth to light.

Norman Finkelstein seeks to disentangle, historically and politically, the artificial web of complexity woven around the Israel-Palestine conflict, and demonstrates how the conflict may be solved in accordance with international law. He describes the “two-state settlement.” The Palestinians have declared long ago that they would be willing to make do with roughly twenty percent of historic Palestine, while it remains to be seen how the refugee problem will be solved in accordance with international law. Israel, on the other side, continues to illegally settle the occupied territories, builds an apartheid wall encroaching deeply into the West Bank, and refuses to accept any responsibility for having caused the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees.

Norman Finkelstein calls upon his readers to get politically involved and to commit themselves to the truth, “so that, together, we can achieve a just and lasting peace in Israel and Palestine.” By deploring the wrong done to the Palestinians, he reaches out to the dispossessed, thus building a bridge of peace between Israel and Palestine. Finkelstein’s is an important voice, a conscientious and human voice – a different Jewish voice, a blessing both for the Palestinians and the Jews.

10 May 1976 was a memorable day for me. I gave a talk at Harvard University’s Science Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Due to massive threats, the event and I were under police protection. The disruptions, shouts, and boos were immense. The rowdies, Jewish-Zionist students, yelled, “She won’t speak here!” Afterwards, a woman came up to me and handed me a portrait she had made of me. The drawing was entitled:

“Blessed are the peacemakers”

For me, this gift proved that the rowdies had not gained the upper hand. I would like to say to the author of this book:

“Blessed are the peacemakers!”

Tübingen, Germany, October 2005
Felicia Langer

(Translation: Maren Hackmann)

1. Felicia Langer, Miecius später Bericht: Eine Jugend zwischen Getto und Theresienstadt, Lamuv Verlag, Göttingen 1999, pp. 136-7.

2. Ibid., pp. 127-8.

3. Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, University of California Press, Berkeley 2005, p. 85.

4. See Felicia Langer, Zorn und Hoffnung (autobiography), Lamuv Verlag, Göttingen 1991, pp. 388-98.