Scrupulous scholar smeared for setting the record straight

October 23, 2005

In News

by Dave Himmelstein

They never bring out the welcome wagon for messengers with bad news, so sparks are likely to fly when a one-man truth squad rolls into Montreal next month.

Dr. Norman G. Finkelstein, myth-busting professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, will address a McGill University audience on Tuesday, November 8, at 7:30 PM in the Stewart Biology Building (1205 Dr. Penfield).

Except for Noam Chomsky, no North American “prodigal son” arouses the fury of mainstream Jewish organizations like Dr. Finkelstein. Yet his “sin” is simply to have done exactly what a professional scholar is supposed to do: establish the facts of the case by verifying documentary evidence and monitoring the legitimacy of interpretations. In the course of doing so:

(a) he unmasked an influential but fraudulent scholarly attempt to fortify the Zionist case by writing Palestinians out of their own history; and (even more outrageously)

(b) he exposed the ugly betrayal of the moral legacy of the Nazi Holocaust by greedy, sleazy and self-appointed reparations claimants. (Finkelstein has acknowledged that the only reason his book The Holocaust Industry was able to get published was the existential credentials he brought as the son of concentration camp survivors.)

For these transgressions, he is regularly subjected to the vilest language – but never factually refuted. However, behind-the-scenes retaliation has been severe: despite copious publication and top ratings among students, Finkelstein was dropped by New York University after 10 years of outstanding academic performance.

Targeting myths-in-the-making

Finkelstein earned his maverick spurs as a graduate student at Princeton University back in the eighties, when a ponderous tome by Joan Peters was all the rage. Brandishing a mass of purported “documentation”, From Time Immemorial claimed to prove that Palestinians weren’t really indigenous to the Holy Land but had been drawn there by Zionist-generated prosperity. Finkelstein put Peters’ text under the scholarly microscope, examining the authenticity of Peters’ references and the accuracy of her application of them. He discovered that the work was a monumental fraud, and he broke the bad news in print. While this assessment was eventually confirmed by leading British and Israeli scholars, the news has been slow getting through to North America.

Finkelstein then took on another sacred cow: the high-powered campaign to make the German government and Swiss banks pay reparations to Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. The unsavory facts led him to damning judgments: “blackmail”; “double shakedown”; “an outright extortion racket”. He turned an unwelcome spotlight on the umbrella Claims Conference which, discarding a key point of the agreement it had just signed with the German government, diverted monies earmarked for individual Jewish survivors to an assortment of community-building “pet projects”.

Finkelstein now turns the table on his detractors with his latest book, Beyond Chutzpah – On the Abuse of Anti-Semitism and the Misuse of History. The Yiddish expression chutzpah has been personified as the guy who kills his parents, then pleads for mercy because he’s an orphan. Obviously, going “beyond” chutzpah involves crossing into dangerous territory. Yet, as Finkelstein shows, that is where hard-core defenders of Israel have staked their claim, under the banner of a much-touted bugaboo: “the new anti-Semitism”.

He rubs the reader’s nose in the nuts and bolts of mis-information, meticulously demonstrating that this supposed menace is nothing more than a diversion conjured up through distortion, exaggeration and plain fabrication. “The main purpose behind these periodic, meticulously orchestrated media extravaganzas is not to fight anti-Semitism but rather to exploit the historical suffering of Jews in order to immunize Israel against criticism.” Coincidentally, he notes, these initiatives coincide with periods when Israel is facing increased international pressure to withdraw from the occupied territories.

Finkelstein traces the source of this smokescreen to an American Jewish elite that has overdosed on a “lethal brew of formidable power, chauvinistic arrogance, feigned (or imagined) victimhood and Holocaust-immunity to criticism.” He is unsparing in his indictment of their “recklessness and ruthlessness”, which has turned them,”[a]longside Israel”, into “the main fomentors of anti-Semitism in the world today. Coddling them is not the answer. They need to be stopped.” His antidote is simple and direct: “Tell the truth, fight for justice: This is the time-tested strategy for fighting anti-Semitism as well as other forms of bigotry.”


Chutzpah was also the title of an earlier book by one of Finkelstein’s prize exhibits: Alan Dershowitz, celebrity American defense attorney and bombastic cheer-leader for Israel. (Finkelstein deftly sets the stage for the Dershowitz dissection with a candid quote from from Dershowitz himself: “The defense attorney comes close to being a pure one-sided advocate for his generally guilty client.”) Not surprisingly, Dershowitz launched a frantic campaign of arm-twisting and saber-rattling to keep Beyond Chutzpah from being published.

Fortunately, he failed. Thus, we can enjoy side-by-side comparisons of Dershowitz’s odes to Israel’s “superb” human right record with the homicidal brutality reported by respected organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Israeli group B’tselem. We can savor Dershowitz’s whiney, sanctimonious justification of needles-under-fingernails torture (provided, of course, it’s being deployed by Israel). We can inspect the evidence of Dershowitz’s almost photocopy-like recycling of pseudo-facts from the fraudulent Joan Peters book mentioned previously.

While Dershowitz is the main exhibit, he has plenty of company in self-indulgent hype. Feminist academic Phyllis Chesler compares the mindset of Palestinian supporters to “the kind of electronically charged and altered reality that acid trippers or epileptics may experience just before a seizure.” She also lays bare a fundamental contradiction within the Zionist mindset when she decrees that “[a]nyone who does not distinguish between Jews and Jewish state is an anti-Semite” while at the same time – and in the same book – reminding “American and Diaspora Jews” that “Israel is our heart and soul….we are family” [her emphasis]. Writer Ron Rosenbaum also wants to open people’s eyes to the unsuspected range of anti-Semitic villainy. For instance, in case you thought that it was Zionists who designated Palestine as the Jewish homeland, Rosenbaum informs you that Europeans deliberately located Israel in an “indefensible sliver of desert in a sea of hostile peoples.” While conducting a tour of overblown rhetoric, Finkelstein points out ironies that are grim and deadly. A leading example is the fact that although Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s “fundamentalist theology reeked of anti-Semitism, it was of no account so long as they gave backing to a militarized Israel”.

In Beyond Chutzpah, Finkelstein wades through white-hot material with calm assurance, repeatedly pointing out that his findings lie within the accepted consensus among credible historical scholars. The book maintains a clinical tone, but one that often seethes with indignation. This tonal element was the book’s only blemish for Publisher’s Weekly, which described it as “exhaustively researched and meticulously – if intemperately – argued”. But to this reviewer, the realm of tone is one where Dr. Finkelstein operates to great effect. He challenges mainstream discourse on its own terms. And he is capable of striking a note of exasperated pleading to look-at-the-facts-for-heaven’s-sake.

With all the venom and occupational damage inflicted on Norman Finkelstein, it is worth reflecting on what moves him to soldier on? Professionalism, certainly. Secure in his facts, he can assert the authority of a distinguished scholar, while at the same time exercising scholarship’s ethical imperative to disseminate unwelcome truth. But Finkelstein’s flinty integrity runs even deeper, anchored by a commitment to universal standards and principles. This commitment carries its own bracing oxygen.

It also draws the esteem of principled men and women everywhere – with, perhaps, a special glimmer of appreciation from clear-eyed Jews for salvaging a modicum of “tribal” honor.

David Himmelstein is a teacher and writer in Montreal. He can be reached at:

BEYOND CHUTZPAH – On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History by Norman G. Finkelstein. University of California Press (2005). ISBN 0-520-24598-9