December 29, 2005
by Geoffery Alderman
Earlier this month, I was asked by the BBC to participate in a live radio
debate with Professor Norman Finkel-stein, an American Jew, born in Brooklyn
to Holocaust survivors, who now teaches at DePaul University, Chicago, and
who had come to the UK to promote his latest book, “Beyond Chutzpah”.
After Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, Professor Finkelstein must be regarded as the world’s
foremost Jewish exponent of intellectual (as opposed to religious)
Indeed, I understand that Professor Finkelstein is enthusiastically seen in
some quarters as Professor Chomsky’s ideological heir-apparent.
It’s a claim that I would certainly support.
His bitter invective against the role of Zionism in the recent history of
the Middle East far outstrips that of, say, Avi Shlaim, professor of
international relations at Oxford, or of Professor Ilan Pappe at Haifa
University, while his command of the sources is – at least to the untrained
eye – far wider than that of, say, Professor Steven Rose of the Open
University (whom we must remember is not, alas, a trained historian or
I have previously been invited to debate with Jewish anti-Zionists and,
whenever such an invitation reaches me, I ask myself whether the risk of
giving further publicity to the views of these oddballs is actually worth
running. In most cases, I have turned down the request. In Professor
Finkelstein’s case, I decided to take up the challenge.
University teachers are in a unique position “of influence bordering upon
power” to frame the views of those entrusted to their educational care.
Jewish anti-Zionists who occupy such positions must never be allowed to
assume that they have carte blanche, or that their opinions are in any way
shielded from academic scrutiny.
Professor Finkelstein seems to me to specialise in the writing of
semi-sensational works that attract publicity (which presumably impacts
favourably on their sales) mainly on account of their titles.
Five years ago, he published “The Holocaust Industry.”
This slim volume purported to reveal how American Jewry had become
interested in the Holocaust only post-1967, when, he argues, it occurred to
them that their corporate and class interests could best be defended by
using the historical victimhood of the Jewish people as an argument against
having to share their allegedly privileged position in American society with
other dispossessed and persecuted minorities, such as the blacks.
This is an interesting if controversial argument, and a greater scholar than
Norman Finkelstein might have felt the need to exhibit and deploy the
evidence necessary to sustain it. What Finkelstein did, however, was to
launch an attack on the notion of there having been a Holocaust on the scale
claimed by the Jews.
His specious reasoning has already been authoritatively destroyed by, among
others, Professor David Cesarani of London University (in a masterly review
in the Times Higher Education Supplement of August 4, 2000). As Cesarani
argued there, Finkelstein’s exoneration of the conduct of the Swiss banks
towards Holocaust victims is amazing, not least because of the weight of
historical evidence against it.
In “Beyond Chutzpah”, Finkelstein uses a similar approach and falls into a
similar trap: take an interesting idea (in this case, that supporters of
Israel use the accusation of anti-Semitism to deflect criticism of the
Jewish state and to stifle legitimate debate about that state), but then
support it by evidence that is partial and incomplete.
Israel is no more above criticism than any other state. I myself have
criticised successive Israeli governments in this column. At the same time,
I have no doubt that some criticism of Israel is motivated by Judeophobia,
pure and simple. All the signs are there if only Professor Finkelstein, and
similarly myopic Jews, would look for and be prepared to recognise them.
Both on the right and the left in democratic polities (never mind Islamic
autocracies) we can now find Israel depicted as a state that was born in
original sin (the supposed dispossession and attempted destruction of the
Palestinian Arab “nation”) and that ought not, therefore, to exist.
That it does exist is due to the support of Jews worldwide, and of non-Jews
whom they, the Jews, have corrupted and suborned for this purpose. Israel
is, the argument continues, the major threat to world peace. World peace is,
in short, threatened by a new world Jewish conspiracy.
This is the essence of the “new” anti-Semitism, which, in spite of the
vehement denials of Professor Finkelstein and other like-minded Jews, is, I
am sorry to say, alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic. Those Jews
who deny the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination are,
more often than not, among its most slavish (if unconscious) followers, be
they secular, self-hating anti-religious Jews of the left or religious
self-loving pseudo-Orthodox Jews of the right.
When I debated with Professor Finkelstein, I found him singularly unwilling
to confront or engage with this analysis.
As he mouthed to the microphone the same platitudes that appear on the
publicity literature that accompanies his latest book, I wondered how
effective he might be as a teacher of political science.
I do not know what impact he has on his pupils. His retreat into unthinking
dogma certainly frightens me.