Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History by Norman G. Finkelstein (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, 343 pp.)

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
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
, 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
, 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. 

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

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

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. 

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.