Israel’s advocates in the dock

Issue: 111

Ruth Tenne

A review of Norman Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (Verso, 2005), £16.99

My advanced computer’s software does not seem to recognise the word Islamophobia. Each time I try to key in the word it is highlighted as an error. Yet the word anti-Semitism is always accepted by my computer. It seems that the concept of Islamophobia has not yet entered the virtual world while anti-Semitism has long penetrated the global conscience—though its meaning may have differed throughout

Norman Finkelstein’s book Beyond Chutzpah offers a gripping, scholarly account of the extent to which the charge of anti-Semitism has become a weapon readily used by the Israeli lobby to fend off a genuine criticism of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians and to stifle any attempt at forcing Israel to comply with international law. In order to give some intellectual weight to their political expedient the term of ‘new anti-Semitism’ has been invoked by Israel’s apologists who argue that ‘if classical anti-Semitism is anchored in discrimination against the Jewish religion, the new anti-Semitism is anchored in discrimination against the Jews as people and the embodiment of that expression in Israel’ (p33).

Professor Finkelstein skilfully dissects and demolishes the dominant trope of ‘new anti-Semitism’, claiming that ‘the consequences of the calculated hysteria of a new anti-Semitism have not been just to immunise Israel from legitimate criticism. Its over-arching purpose, like the war against terrorism, has been to deflect criticism of unprecedented assault on international law’ (p45). Following on from his previous book, The Holocaust Industry, Finkelstein argues that ‘a parallel distinction needs to be made between real anti-Semitism and the instrumentalisation of anti-Semitism by American (or other) Jewish elites’. He goes on to say that the ‘evidence of new anti- Semitism comes mostly from organisations directly or indirectly linked to Israel or having a material stake in inflating the findings of anti-Semitism’.

Having demonstrated and dissected the supporting evidence Finkelstein concludes convincingly that ‘the worst enemies in the struggle against real anti-Semitism are the philo-Semites… By turning a blind eye to Israeli crimes in the name of sensitivity to past Jewish suffering, they enable Israel to continue on a murderous path that foments anti-Semitism, and for that matter, the destruction of Israelis.’

Finkelstein’s comments regarding the phenomenon of philo-Semitism, which ‘typically arises on the European scene’ are especially disturbing. The recent trial and jail sentence of ‘Holocaust denier’ David Irving under crusading Austrian laws; the suspension of the Mayor of London for his ill-judged, yet unintentional, ‘Nazi jibe’ at a Jewish journalist; the emotionally charged statement by the British Chief
Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, warning Europe of the tsunami of anti-Semitism which engulfs the world, seem to create a witchhunt atmosphere that is likely to destroy the perilous multi-faith harmony in Britain and Europe.

Equally perturbing is the decision to set up a Parliamentary All-Party Inquiry into anti-Semitism which singles out religiously-motivated abuses against Jews—implying that similar offences against Muslims (which, according to the police, are three times higher than against Jews) are insignificant.

The focus on anti-Semitism rather than on the rising incidents of Islamophobia is also noted by Finkelstein, who discusses the findings of a study by the Pew Research Center in the US. This study concluded that ‘favourable ratings of Jews are actually higher now (March 2004) than in 1991’, pointing out that Europeans hold much more negative views of Muslims than of Jews (p76). In consequence, Finkelstein
argues, ‘a non ideology driven political agenda would rank animus directed at Muslims as a priority concern’.

Undoubtedly the use of anti-Semitism as a political instrument may carry the danger of self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby the misuse and mislabelling of anti-Semitism may increase real manifestations of anti-
Semitism. There is a significant difference between institutionalised anti-Semitism, such as in Nazi Germany, and random and fluctuating incidents of racial and religiously-motivated attacks which are given
to being misused and employed as political weapons. Such concern was echoed recently by the carefully chosen words of the home secretary, Charles Clarke: ‘There is a fundamental difference between anti-Semitism and attacking Jews for race and faith’ (Evening Standard, 7 March). In the same vein, Finkelstein concludes that ‘those Jews committed to the struggle against the real anti-Semitism must in the first instance expose the specious anti-Semitism for the sham of it’ (p84).

The crux of Finkelstein’s book, however, is the exposure of Israel’s abuse of human rights which is legally defended and justified by Alan Dershowitz’s book, The Case for Israel (2003). Dershowitz, according to Finkelstein, had lifted significant parts of his source material from Joan Peters’ book, From Time Immemorial, which had ‘plagiarised Zionist propaganda tracts’ attempting to prove that Palestine had been virtually empty and barren before the ‘Zionist colonisation’. Finkelstein contends that both Dershowitz and Peters used the same modi operandi where ‘in disguise of scholarly tract each grossly distorts the documentary record’(p90).

To counter Dershowitz’s claim that Israel’s record on human rights is generally superb, Finkelstein eruditely distilled and analysed thousands of pages from reports issued by Israeli and international human rights bodies. Those documents include horrifying records of torture of minors, indiscriminate killing, unlawful and willing killing of innocent citizens, hostage taking, attacks on ambulances, hospitals and medical personnel, and excess use of lethal force—all of which are carried out by the Israeli military under the blanket approval of Israel’s Supreme Court which ‘rationalised virtually all controversial actions of the Israeli authorities, especially those most problematic under principles of international and humanitarian law’ (Professor Kretzmer, The Hebrew University, 2002). This claim is echoed by the Israeli human rights information centre, B’Tselem, which maintains that ‘what renders Israel’s abuses unique is the relentless efforts to justify what can not be justified’.

Perhaps the most appalling crime documented in Finkelstein’s book is the indiscriminate, and arguably intentional, killing of children. According to B’Tselem, during the second Intifada (September 2000 to September 2004) 598 Palestinian minors were killed as compared to 110 Israeli minors. ‘It is no wonder that many people term such a wholesale killing of children terror’, concludes an Israeli journalist (G Levy, Ha’aretz, 17 October 2004).

Norman Finkelstein’s formidable forensic skills and compelling evidence turn Alan Dershowitz’s book, The Case for Israel, into a testimony for the case against Israel.

Unlike Norman Finkelstein I was brought up on the Zionist ideology by my parents who emigrated to Israel in the early 1930s. As a child I was told that the Jewish people have the right to the biblical land and that my kibbutz—which was built on the the ruins of an ancient Jewish town—is an expression of our national heritage and legitimate claim to the land of Israel. I never saw the ruins of this talmudic ancient Jewish town but I saw the ruins of the three Palestinian villages nearby, which, together with about 400 other Palestinian villages, were razed to the ground in the aftermath of the 1948 ‘War of Independence’. The slow recognition that a nation which claims to ‘rise from the ashes of the Holocaust’ has no moral right
to trample upon the living soul and national aspirations of another people made me campaign against the injustice inflicted on the Palestinians. Finkelstein’s book, as he hoped, provided me with a solid basis and inspiring impetus ‘to act on the basis of truth’, so as to ‘achieve a just and lasting peace in Israel and Palestine’.