November 2, 2005
November 2005 Volume 18 Number 11
On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History
By Norman G. Finkelstein
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, 343 pp.
Review by Vijay Prashad
In February 1967, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Claude Lanzmann (editor of Les Temps Moderne) arrived in Cairo.
They had been invited by the editors of al-Ahram, who had been impressed by Sartre’s stand against
colonialism and racism, by his partisanship for the Arab minority within France and against the
French occupation of Algeria. That Sartre had written a spirited foreword to Franz Fanon’s
influential The Wretched of the Earth had helped his stature in the world that cultivated
anti-colonial republicanism. Sartre met hastily briefed peasants and workers, traveled to
the harsh refugee camps in Gaza, and met with President Nasser. At a visit to the students
of Cairo University after his stop at Gaza, Sartre reported that he “felt deeply for the
misery of the Palestinian refugees living under miserable and often unbearable circumstances
on the borders of a country that used to be their own. I consider the Palestinians’ right to
return to the country of their birth as indisputable. I will not say more today, since
someone might ask how they are to return to their country, and what kind of relationship
should exist between them and those people in Israel today.”
Sartre broke his silence in a special issue of Les Temps Moderne published in June 1967,
just as the Israeli army trounced the Arab forces. In partisan times, the defender of
anti-colonialism defended the right of Israel to defend itself at all costs. The volume was
inspired by Sartre, but edited by Lanzmann, whose documentaries on the holocaust are moving
(notably, Shoah, 1985), but whose work in Israel entirely erases the voice of
the Palestinians (Pourquoi Israel, 1972, is a sophisticated advertisement for the settler
movement, while Tsahal, 1994, offers the perspective of Israeli soldiers on the Yom Kippur War).
In the 1967 volume, Jews wrote in support of Israel, while Arabs attacked it. There was no room
for Jewish critics of Israel or Arabs who had a moderate tone or of Arabs who criticized the
monarchies of Jordan and Saudi Arabia or of Jews who found more danger in the European
holocaust than in the Palestinian rage against Israel.
Such paucity of opinion enraged I.F. Stone, whose rejoinder, published in the New York Review of Books,
comes from a person born into Judaism, but without any automatic fealty to Israel. The opening of his essay elegantly lays out West Asia’s problem: “Stripped of propaganda and sentiment, the Palestine problem is, simply, the struggle of two different peoples for the same strip of land. For the Jews, the establishment of Israel was a Return, with all the mystical significance the capital R implies. For the Arabs it was another invasion. This has led to three wars between them in twenty years. Each has been a victory for the Jews. With each victory the size of Israel has grown. So has the number of Arab homeless. Now to find a solution which will satisfy both peoples is like trying to square a circle. In the language of mathematics, the aspirations of the Jews and the Arabs are incommensurable. Their conflicting ambitions cannot be fitted into the confines of any ethical system which transcends the tribalistic. This is what frustrates the benevolent outsider, anxious to satisfy both peoples.”
One of the problems with Stone’s categories is that he equates “Jewish” with “Israeli,” but
he is too smart not to be aware of that. “It is a pity,” he writes, “the editors of
Les Temps Moderne didn’t widen their symposium to include a Jewish as distinct
from an Israeli point of view.” In other words, when Stone writes of “Jews” in the long
quote above he refers specifically to Messianic Zionists, to those who had made Israel, in
neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz’s memorable phrase, “the religion of the American Jews.”
On the point of how to make space for an engagement with Israeli policy in the context of anti-Semitism,
I.F. Stone’s heir is Norman Finkelstein. Like Stone, Finkelstein is withering in his criticism, but
unlike Stone, Finkelstein is far too earnest and humorless. What he lacks in style, he makes up in his
forensic analysis. Finkelstein’s work has become synonymous with controversy, not so much because of
the intellectual nature of what he does (for his method is decisively mainstream), but for what he has
decided to take on: the prejudice toward Israel of a substantially powerful section of the U.S. Jewish
community. In 2000, Finkelstein published The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on
the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, which developed the thesis that whereas the holocaust is an
unimaginable tragedy, “the Holocaust” as a discursive object has become, among other things, a device
to “immunize Israel from legitimate criticism.” In this book, Finkelstein argues that whereas there is
the genuine problem of anti-Semitism, the discourse of “anti-Semitism” is invoked to silence any and
every criticism of Israeli state policy. “Wrapping themselves in the mantle of the Holocaust, Jewish
elites pretend—and, in their own solipsistic universe, perhaps even imagine themselves—to be victims,
dismissing any and all criticism as manifestations of anti-Semitism,” writes Finkelstein.
Given the structure he proposes to criticize, Finkelstein’s words can only invoke hostility and they have. Before the book came out, one of the its principle villains, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, tried to scuttle its publication. The feud apart, the book makes a substantial case for why the public dialogue on the west Asian imbroglio is so arid. It has nothing to do with the “ancient” or “intractable” nature of the conflict, but with the terms used to discuss it. The framework within which the discussion occurs is entirely biased against justice and freedom in favor of the entrenched elites who want to protect Israel at all costs.
Finkelstein’s project is made more important by the outrageousness of Israeli state policy and of the blank check given it by the United States government (who continues to underwrite Israel’s colonial policy, and yet speaks of peace). What limits Finkelstein’s book is that his adversary is not directly Israeli state policy, but a U.S.-based professor. The conflict with Dershowitz is, admittedly, a ruse because the professor represents mainstream messianic Zionism in the Diaspora. Nevertheless, on some points the book limits itself. Finkelstein’s acerbic assault on Dershowitz’s influential, and yet mediocre, book (The Case for Israel) defines the terrain too narrowly. For instance, he spends too much space on the question of plagiarism and fraud, whether Dershowitz actually inspected the original documents or simply pillaged from a memorable book of mythology, Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial. Dershowitz might be all that Finkelstein argues, and yet this is not the point. One scholar’s leniency toward the protocols of scholarship is not sufficient to indict what is by many accounts a serious ideological barrier: that any criticism of Israeli state policy is ipso facto anti-Semitic. Finkel- stein’s obsession with the problem of plagiarism and of Dershowitz has colored the advance publicity for this book, and, I fear, will end up defining its place in our bookshelves.
What if Finkelstein had provided some space to his critique of Dershowitz, and linked that to the widespread Dershowitzian view in the Israeli state apparatus. One could do a surgical analysis of Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon’s interview in Ha’aretz (August 30, 2002), where he compared Palestinian society to a cancer in the Israeli body politic. “There are all kinds of solutions to cancerous manifestations. Some will say it is necessary to amputate organs. But at the moment I am applying chemotherapy,” he said. This “chemotherapy” is the brutal tactics within the strategy of Occupation, and this brutality will “burn into the Palestinian consciousness” that resistance is futile. For this kind of statement, commentator Ben Kaspit wrote (Ma’ariv, September 6, 2002), “Israel is not a State that has an army, but an army to which a state is adjacent.”
Finkelstein is not an anti-Semitism denier, for he acknowledges both the virility and the vitality of this species of racism. He does not re-tell the well-known emergence of “anti-Semitism” in the crucible of scientific racism, whose story is told by Leon Poliakov in The Aryan Myth. What Finkelstein does point to, with regard to the discourse of contemporary “anti-Semitism,” are two elementary, but deadly, category errors. The first is one that is made by many, including Poliakov, i.e., that Jews are the only “Semites,” whereas the entire discourse of classical anti-Semitism in the era of Schlegel, Bopp, and Herder saw both Jews and Arabs as Semitic (“Arabs, what are they?” asked Benjamin Disraeli. “They’re just Jews on horseback”).
Poliakov does not consider that these European scholars did not distinguish between Arab and Jewish Semites. For them, the construction of the radically different Arab-Jewish Semite provided the means to indulge their fantasy of the Aryan European. To reduce anti-Semitism to racist discrimination against Jews alone occludes the manner in which European racism sought to control the domestic Other (the Jews) and the not so distant Other (the Arabs, who lived on Europe’s frontier). To omit Arabs as Semites allows many pro-Israeli writers to treat Palestinians as the main purveyors of anti-Semitism, and to exculpate the broader horizon of racist public policy and racist thought that fosters anti-Semitism. The mufti of Jerusalem in the 1930s thrived on hatred of Jews, but he was not the problem that led to the holocaust. He is as much a victim of imperialism as David Ben Gurion and his minions who wreaked havoc in west Asia. As one Arab told William Polk, “Anti-Semitism is a deplorable Western disease. We aren’t anti-Semites; we are also Semites. Yet this Western problem is being smoothed over at our expense. Is that your idea of right?” (What Do Arabs Think? November-December 1952).
More recently, that is, after the 1967 War, “anti-Semitism” undergoes its second categorical reduction. The context is important. By the 1960s overt racism had become both illegal and gauche in the advanced industrial states.
In the U.S., as structural racism against African Americans intensified, other demographically smaller minorities, such as Jewish Americans and Asian Americans, benefited economically and socially for a variety of reasons too complex to entertain here. As anti-Semitism in the prejudicial and structural sense declined, Finkelstein argues, the “new anti-Semitism” emerged: now the guardians of the Jewish community, such as the Anti-Defamation League, held that Israel was the “Jew among Nations,” and any criticism of it is tantamount to “anti-Semitism.” Finkelstein quotes from a series of ADL reports on “anti-Semitism” from 1982 onward to trace the transformation “from anti-Semitism against Jews to anti-Semitism the object of which is the Jews’ surrogate: Israel.” From this analysis, the head of the ADL, Abraham Foxman, declares, “Very quickly the actual survival of the Jewish people might once again be at risk.” In other words, the critique of Israeli policy portends another holocaust.
This incendiary language and analysis provides cover for the outrageous policies of the Israeli government. Those policies would have gone by without comment if not for the creation of a network of human rights organizations. As the popular Intifada took hold of Palestinian society, Israeli state policy engineered harsh retribution to crush not only the militants but the society in general. This is what the Palestinian historian Saleh Abdel- Jawad calls “sociocide.” To collect material on this assault on society in general, a host of human rights organizations emerged as the Ansar archipelago grew to torment the rising: Arab Association for Human Rights (1988), Physicians for Human Rights (1988), B’tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (1989), Addameer: Prisoners Support and Human Rights Association (1992), Palestinian Center for Human Rights (1995), Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (1996), Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (1996), and Al Mezan Center for Human Rights (1999). These joined the older, revived groups such as the two veteran legal and medical human rights groups, al-Haq (created in 1979 as Law in the Service of Man) and the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (1979). The non-governmental organizations played a crucial information-gathering role during the first Intifada and on. Indeed their work set the terms for the much thumbed, but infrequently cited reports by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch and the London-based Amnesty International. The NGO reports could be found around the world, however they rarely got the coverage they deserved. Part of this is not because of censorship in the conventional sense (although there was and is plenty of that from the Israeli state), but because of the ideological blockade that prevented criticism of Israeli state policy. One does not have to dig hard to find the record of the Israeli state’s malfeasance in the Occupied Territories. Indeed, Finkelstein notes, “It is mainly because these uniquely authoritative publications lie around collecting dust that apologists can propagate so much mythology about Israel’s human rights record. Were their findings widely disseminated, Israel’s occupation would clearly be seen as morally indefensible.”
For over 100 pages, Finkelstein provides a very useful summary of the documentation from these human rights groups. Finkelstein here produces his most effective assault on the vacuousness of Dershowitz’s defense of Israeli policy. Der- showitz praises Israel’s “lofty principles,” its adherence to the rule of law in its relationship to the Palestinian people—that is his brief in The Case for Israel. On interrogation techniques, on ticking time bomb scenarios, on targeted assassination, on the condition of the Occupied Territories and their management, Finkelstein offers the views of our Harvard professor and then compares them to the evidence accumulated from human rights organizations, from other scholars, from the news media, and from the Israeli government. In each case, Dershowitz comes off as a serial falsifier. Finkelstein’s method does not quite show that this is more than a problem of a rogue scholar, but of an entire intellectual apparatus that falls on its sword to defend the policies of the Israeli state. We don’t get to hear enough from others who make the same sorts of points as Dershowitz, not just commentators, but crucially officials of the Israeli government. (In fact, Dershowitz draws much of his evidence from Israeli government sources, whose bias he does not address because their integrity is taken for granted.)
One of the most devious ideological stratagems is to equate unequal forces and then to bemoan the lack of compromise from the weaker toward a solution.
To call the problem in west Asia a “Palestine-Israel conflict” is to assume two things: that a “Palestine” exists, which it does not (there is only a Palestinian Authority with limited powers over the Occupied Territories), and to assume that both the Palestinians and the Israelis are in the midst of a war of parity, which is entirely false. Israel has a highly equipped modern army, which is well trained in counter-insurgency and in conventional warfare. Its close relationship with the U.S. means that it receives an immense amount of financial and military aid. The Palestinians, by contrast, live under an occupation, with comprador managers whose fealty to their people is firmly held in check by the monopoly over sanctified force held by the Israeli government. Those who choose the armed path against Israel are few, and their arms are no match for that of their adversary. Because of this inequality, three Palestinians have died for every Israeli since the start of the second Intifada in 2000. This should be a marker of the toll borne by Palestinian society. Yet, Dershowitz and others argue that Palestinians die because of their own policies. They have killed their own or set themselves up to die.
Finkelstein takes Dershowitz’s claims about Palestinian atrocities (forcible rape of women to make them suicide bombers, location of bomb-factories near kindergartens), and demolishes them as the fantasy of Israeli intelligence services. Other reasonable scholars who have looked into these sorts of claims (such as Barbara Victor on so-called “terrorist abortion”) dis- miss them out of hand.
Dershowitz uses the Palestinian tragedy to traduce its leadership, a rhetorical strategy that is as effective as it is immoral.
Israel’s policy in the Occupied Territories is morally indefensible. This would be clear to people only if the screen that blocks our ability to air the real record of its violations could be withdrawn. That screen is the discourse of “anti-Semitism,” the claim that any criticism of Israel is itself anti-Semitic. The new phrase “Islamo-fascism” (coined by columnist Christopher Hitchens) is a convenient way to short-circuit the older fear of Fascism (Nazism) with the newer fear of terrorism by Muslims. “Islamo-fascism” is shorthand for the votaries of the “new anti-Semitism.”
Responding to Stone’s August 1967 essay, the novelist James Michener wrote a long rebuttal. At its close, he made the point, “The same people who abused the Jews for not having resisted Hitler now abuse them for having resisted Nasser too much. Apparently these critics want the Jew to carry with him a moral micrometer to measure how far he is allowed to go in resisting extinction: enough to preserve his reputation among warlike nations but not so far as to save his life or make anyone angry.” At the time the media in the advanced industrial states had failed to catalogue the provocative military incursions of Moshe Dayan’s forces from 1966 onward. Dayan’s enthusiasm had been clear decades earlier, at least in 1953 when he said, “We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and the cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a home. This is the fate of our generation, the choice of our life—to be prepared and armed, strong and tough or otherwise, the sword will slip from our fist and our life will be snuffed out”—no compromises, no political solution, only the fist. If the Arab armies had attacked without provocation, then the principle of self-defense does apply. But Michener’s remark about “warlike nations” and his silence on the structural violence of the Israeli state against the dispossessed Palestinians leaves much to be desired.
Setting aside the moral concerns, even the practical question of how Israeli Jews might secure their peace is equally not served by force of arms. As Dayan himself recognized in 1953, “Who are we that we should argue against their hatred? For eight years now [the Palestinians] sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their very eyes, we turn into our homestead their land and the villages in which they and their forefathers have lived.” This recognition intact, Dayan nevertheless argued that violence is the only solution. This was not I.F. Stone’s position, whose words Michener ignored.
Stone understood the problem of a people in Diaspora, who fight for their rights where they are a minority but who seem to want to dominate the minority in their nation-state. “For Israel is creating a kind of schizophrenia in world Jewry. In the outside world the welfare of Jewry depends on the maintenance of secular, non-racial pluralistic societies. In Israel, Jewry finds itself defending a society in which mixed marriages cannot be legalized, in which non-Jews have a lesser status than Jews, and in which the ideal is racial and exclusionist. Jews must fight elsewhere for their very security and existence against principles and practices they find themselves defending in Israel.”
The way forward is not to replicate the logic of racism and exclusion, but to strive for justice at home and abroad, in Jerusalem and in New York. And such was the position of Rabbi Louis Wolsey (American Council of Judaism) who told the U.S. Congress in 1942, “The problem of the Jew is linked inextricably with the problem of democratic equality. Nothing but equality will do for the enduring safety of the Jew—and the world.” The fight for equality is a far better protection from the horrors of anti-Semitism than a turn to state violence.
Vijay Prashad is the author of ten books, most recently The Rise and Fall of the Third World (New Delhi: LeftWord Books and New York: the New Press, 2006). He teaches at Trinity College.