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Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History
Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History
Norman G. Finkelstein
University of California Press, 2005
343 pp., 42.95

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Paul Charles Merkley

"These Pigs on the Face of the Earth"

Israel's most relentless critic.

A dedicated, manic assassin of the reputation of the Jews and of Israel, Norman Finkelstein is much admired by college student audiences for his lively platform presence and his snarling, late-night comic style. The Finkelstein method (which brings the audiences to his lectures) is to hold up to ridicule individual pro-Israel polemicists by endless nitpicking about references that go wrong or about anomalies and contradictions between and among their many published statements in many different times and places. The entire lifetime record of the published author is picked over for anomalies, contradictions, and food for tu quoque. Finkelstein brings a virtual wheelbarrow of documented errors onto the platform and pours it out, to the delight of the audience, as proof that the general truths from which his adversary draws his scholarly or political commitments have, before your very eyes, been proved to be "myths," "frauds," and "hoaxes."

No serious person can deny the doggedness of Finkelstein's pursuit down the path from footnote to footnote. The effect can be quite chilling, especially when it comes home to the vulnerable celebrity-polemicists such as Alan Dershowitz and various spokesmen for the Anti-Defamation League or the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dershowitz gets the full Finkelstein treatment in the present book; in fact, the bulk of it is a rehash of the record of Finkelstein's several assaults on Dershowitz's uneven polemics. The real scholars, producers of the unanswerable accounts which draw upon documents in all the relevant languages, don't get noticed—except (for example) in a footnote about the reigning master of Middle East History, Bernard Lewis, where in the tu quoque mode, a reference appears to a remotely relevant matter (Lewis' judgment on the historicity of the Armenian massacre). There are no references to any of my three published scholarly books on matters very germane to Finkelstein's apologetics. But then, I am being petty.

Anyone whose familiarity with the historical record is second- or third-hand is almost bound to carry away from these lively performances the impression that he has just seen reduced to ruins the truth upon which the other side (the Jews, Israel, and the friends of both) depends—that all that massive detail about discrepancies in the references, all that gotcha, adds up to demolition of historical truth.

Let me note a few departures from reality (in order of occurrence): The opening line of Finkelstein's book is about Joan Peters' 1984 book, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine, which we are immediately told is now universally dismissed as "a gigantic hoax." In fact, the first reviewers of that book noted the whiff of scissors-and-paste about it but welcomed it rightly as providing for general readers proof of the fallacy of Palestinian nationhood. Meanwhile, although other scholars have fleshed out the same theme with more accurately reported documentation, Peters' book remains a valuable summary vindication of the observation (sustained by all the travel literature and all the governmental surveys, all the royal commissions and all the scientific demographic and topographic studies) that it was the success of the Zionist experiment in that part of the Ottoman Empire that created the basis for the development of economic life. And it was this success that drew an adequate population base (including tens of thousands of Arabs from nearby regions) to lay the foundations for partition of the region and the eventual erection on the site of two mutually respectful political entities: a Jewish State and another Arab State (Jordan, four times the size of Israel, having already been carved from the mandate).

Everything about the past that Palestinians believe they cannot live with Finkelstein dismisses as "hoary Zionist myths," "propaganda," or "fairy tales."

Finkelstein shows no familiarity with the monumental scientific studies of the region conducted in the 1930s by Walter Lowdermilk, Assistant Chief of the Soil Conservation Division of the Department of Agriculture in the Roosevelt Administration, housed today in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library. These proved irrefutably that centuries of absence of adequate population had led to the degradation of the soil, and that the beginning of its restoration traces to Jewish colonization. Nor does Finkelstein make reference to any of the other scientific studies, including those commissioned by the Mandate Authority in the inter-war years, which document the same conspicuous truth. If he has heard of these studies, Finkelstein is suppressing knowledge of them; if he has not, he stands in contempt of historical record and scientific fact.

Then comes Finkelstein's blanket denial that any substantial part of the population of the region in pre-Mandate days was other than "indigenous"—a term which he uses exactly as it is used of North American first nations. This assertion stands together with another: that what was indigenous was Arab. The reality (again borne out by all the Ottoman documents, all the Royal Commissions and other scientific studies of the time as well as the memoirs and reports of all the missionaries) is that many races besides the Arabs (Turks, Kurds, Circassians, and many descended from blocs of inhabitants transferred from other parts of the Ottoman Empire, including the Balkan peoples) lived in Palestine when the Jewish settlers arrived in the mid-19th century. In the face of all this, Finkelstein simply posits that Palestine and the Palestinians have always been exclusively Arab.

Throughout the book we find evidence that Finkelstein has bought, kit-and-kaboodle, the PLO's fantastic anti-history: the Jews did not originate there four thousand years ago, they wandered in somewhere along the line unnoticed by History, but were thrown out by the Romans upon the destruction of the Second Temple two thousand years ago; none were to be found thereafter until after the modern Zionists, abetted by cynical British imperialists, began their usurpation of the land. The record of history and the methods of history count for nothing in this company. Everything about the past that Palestinians believe they cannot live with Finkelstein dismisses as "hoary Zionist myths," "propaganda," or "fairy tales."

Then we have the assertion that "it is today conceded by all serious scholars" that the Arab radio broadcasts of 1947–1948, urging local Arabs to flee, are "a Zionist fabrication." No, not all serious historians have conceded this point; indeed, even memoirs of Arab statesmen of the time make reference to the broadcasts. Ditto Finkelstein's assertion of undisputed consensus for the claim "that the Palestinians had been ethnically cleansed in 1948." All the major details of the story leading to the success of the Jewish struggle to achieve their homeland with the approval of the United Nations are tossed aside as "myths . … Zionist fabrications," which persist, we are told, only because most people have read the book Exodus by Leon Uris, or have seen the sentimental movie based upon it.

The same "unqualified consensus," Finkelstein assures us, maintains that "Palestinian detainees have been systematically ill treated and tortured, the total number now reaching probably tens of thousands." Among many other difficulties with this assertion, there is no reference at all in these pages to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners imprisoned as terrorists, many of them multiple-murderers of Israeli citizens, who have been released and restored to the Palestinian Authority in the misguided hope of winning points with American and world opinion. Most of these have evidently resumed their careers as assassins.

But the epitome of chutzpah is Finkelstein's breathtaking assertion that there is "on historical questions" an "unqualified consensus" against any part of the story about current events as told by Israel and the Jews—"or at least among those sharing normal human values."

All of this gets us to the top of page 3. To continue at this pace would take a lifetime, for which I have better uses. What sticks to me as I put aside this noisome book is the odor of loathing for Jews everywhere—for their history, for their habits of thinking, and for their pervasive influence in the world. To achieve this unrelieved contempt for Jews, for Israel, and for the friends of Israel, Finkelstein raises the Palestinians to the unrelieved dignity of victims. There is no hint in all these pages of why Israel has had to resort to violence. There is no hint of moral distinction between violent force exercised by a state in defense of the lives of its citizens and violence exercised by suicide bombers. There is no reference to the history of Arab terrorism and no reference to the present reality of Islamic terrorism—although we are told that "the overarching purpose of the 'war on terrorism' [led by the U.S.] has been to deflect criticism of an unprecedented assault on international law."

No thought at all is given to the circumstance that has forced Israel to arm itself as it has done, to rally its entire population to make the sacrifice of compulsory military service. There is no recognition that from its birth the only option given to Israel has been self-defense or liquidation—something always candidly declared by its Arab foes. Symptomatic of this technique of avoiding matters of behavior on the part of Israel's enemies is the fact that there is not a single substantial reference to Islam in the entire book. (Present company will want to know what is said about Christians and the Church—but there are no references in the index to either. There is, however, a routine sprinkling of undeveloped asides concerning American fundamentalist tools of the Israeli right.)

No honest friend of Israel denies that Israeli soldiers and Israeli citizens have often—too often—resorted to foul means. Israel has in place legal mechanisms for detecting and punishing these aberrant acts; many Israelis languish in prison today for their unlicensed assaults against Arab civilians. There exists in the Israeli press, among Israeli scholars, and in the fray of Israeli politics a lively debate on such matters (including voices as critical of Israeli government policy as Finkelstein is).

But in the world according to Finkelstein, Israelis are sadistic oppressors—partly by conditioning, but ultimately by nature. "Of course," he says, "with marginal exceptions, no one contests Israel's right to defend itself against terrorism; the criticism springs from its gross violation of human rights in the name of fighting terrorism." But the "exceptions" are not "marginal": they include the entire Muslim world, a working majority of the member-states in the General Assembly of the United Nations, and at least the left end of the political spectrum throughout the Western world.

Those of us who imagine that our loyalty to Israel follows from sincere calculation of historical rights and wrongs are mindless dupes of the Jews' mighty propaganda machine. The Jews exploit the world's fear of appearing anti-Semitic to command silence while they perpetrate unremitting sadistic violence upon an entirely innocent population. No one will be surprised to learn that their partner in this cosmic crime is the United States: "The brutal U.S. aggression against Vietnam and the Bush administration's aggression against Iraq engendered a generalized anti-Americanism, just as the genocidal Nazi aggression during World War II engendered a generalized anti-Teutonism. Should it really surprise us if the cruel occupation by a self-declared Jewish state engenders a generalized antipathy to Jews? … The real wonder is that the spillover hasn't been greater."

Leave aside, for our purposes here, the equation of the United States with Nazi Germany. Finkelstein's words encourage his readers and listeners to treat Israel and all Jews as outlaws. What does this lack to distinguish it from the Jew-hatred which spills out daily from the imams of Palestine as of the other Arab polities? Theological referents aside, how do these words differ from the recent message of the official imam of the Palestinian authority, Sheikh Mudeiris: "Why is there this malice [as Muhammad taught, on the part of the rocks and the trees towards the Jews]? Because there are none who love the Jews on the face of the earth: not man, not rock, and not tree, everything hates them. They destroy everything, they destroy the trees and destroy the houses. Everything wants vengeance on the Jews, on these pigs on the face of the earth, and the day of our victory, Allah willing, will come."

This is a book that has to be read very slowly and carefully, neglecting none of the footnotes, none of the charts and graphs and none of the appendices—or not read at all. Having done the former, I recommend the latter.

Paul Charles Merkley, a retired professor of history at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, is a consultant on foreign policy. He is the author most recently of American Presidents, Religion and Israel (Praeger).

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