There is no doubt that Norman Finkelstein has suffered for his criticism of Israel. Although once feared as Israel’s harshest academic critic in the West, lately he seems to spend much of his time denouncing the Palestine solidarity movement.
He has furiously denounced the Palestinian-led campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel as “a cult” (projection bias, perhaps, as his own following becomes increasingly cult-like). He dismisses as unrealistic any approach to resolving “the conflict” other than a two-state one. Yet in the appendix to Knowing Too Much, his latest book, he claims that Israel’s wall in the West Bank, once completed, will “preempt any possibility of a two-state settlement, condemning Palestine and Israel to endless bloodshed” (308).
In Finkelstein’s blinkered view, then, there are only two options. Either the “conflict” is “settled” via partition between an Israeli state and a rump Palestinian state on 22 percent of the former land of Palestine, or there will be “endless bloodshed.” At best, you could call this an extreme lack of imagination.
His latest book does not focus on the issue of “what is to be done.” It seems he’s saving that for “a forthcoming book on resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict” (438, note 1). Instead, Knowing Too Much demonstrates Finkelstein’s great strength: picking apart and demolishing the arguments of his pro-Israel enemies.
The book’s thesis is explained by the subtitle Why the American Jewish Romance With Israel is Coming to An End. Finkelstein summons polling and other evidence to back up his point that liberal American Zionists, Israel’s firmest supporters since 1967, have started to become more and more embarrassed by the state as it shifts more and more to the right, and its many crimes become more obvious to the world.
Casting Israel adrift
“American Jewry will increasingly have to decide between two mutually exclusive options,” he concludes. “The first is to jettison its professed liberal values … [but] the more likely scenario is that American Jews will cast Israel adrift” (302).
Finkelstein’s argument on this point is essentially complete by page 89. But he then spends the remainder (449 pages in total) taking apart various “popular bestsellers” that continue to propagate various liberal Zionist myths. He explains his approach: “Up until recent times … most scholarship on the Israel-Palestine conflict could be described with only slight exaggeration as Exodus with footnotes” (93). Exodus is Leon Uris’s 1958 Zionist propaganda novel that was a bestseller at the time and later made into a Hollywood film starring Paul Newman.
Finkelstein thus targets books in the spirit of Exodus, since although scholarship has improved, some popular literature is still heavily skewed towards the Zionist narrative.
These chapters, the bulk of Knowing Too Much, are a mixed bag. Finkelstein ably demolishes his targets, but it sometimes feels like shooting fish in a barrel. I had never heard of Foxbats Over Dimona — a 2007 book that had little impact — and it sounds utterly ridiculous, but the chapter dedicated to it seems tangential.
More to the point is his evisceration of former Israeli prisoner guard Jeffery Goldberg’s self-justifying memoir (“He claims that he ‘never hit a Palestinian who wasn’t already hitting me,’” 120). Goldberg — who has no discernible expertise — has emerged as an influential figure on Palestinian-Israeli affairs, courted and flattered even by Barack Obama. Also quite good is how Finkelstein undermines the Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren’s bestselling account of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David.
A good kicking for Benny Morris
The best chapter in the book is the one dedicated to giving Benny Morris a good kicking. Morris gained fame as one of the “new historians” who dived into the Israeli archives and reassessed old Zionist myths about the establishment of Israel. Morris’ exposure of the deliberate and calculated nature of Israel’s mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 remains significant.
But Morris himself has moved more and more to the right over the years, giving an infamous interview with Israeli daily Haaretz in 2004 in which he openly said: “There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing … A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians” (“Survival of the Fittest,” 9 January 2004).
By contrasting “old Morris” with “new Morris,” Finkelstein shows how the historian has revolved 180 degrees in some cases. Although “old Morris” was not without his problems, as a historian he was at least honest enough to reveal many facts.
Finkelstein lands so many great zingers and devastating judgments here that it is actually fun to read as well as competent. Morris’s last book, Finkelstein writes, “lacks any redeeming value and reeks of rancid propaganda” (254); “the new Morris has discarded his prodigious scholarly apparatus … and instead cribbed a vacuous formula and hitched it to an ahistorical framework … for which he adduces not a scrap of evidence … which possesses the singular virtue of exonerating Zionism” (265); “the new Morris inters the whole of the historical record that the old Morris so painstakingly exhumed” (280); and, “He appears to have culled grand insights from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Orientalist Stereotypes” (293).
If Knowing Too Much had come out in 2008 (as originally intended), the central argument may have been more controversial, but as Finkelstein notes it has by now almost passed into conventional wisdom (299). A more interesting question, though, is why this shift in liberal opinion has happened, and here Finkelstein is most unconvincing.
It seems he puts it down to factors such as “critical publications by .. B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International … Haaretz reporters Gideon Levy and Amira Hass;” and the fact that “mainstream historical scholarship” now “upholds impressive standards of objectivity” (xvii). You may have noticed a critical omission: any Palestinian agency whatsoever.
Palestinian resistance, activism and educational campaigns such as boycott, divestment and sanctions are ignored in this book, despite the significant and growing influence they have had especially over the last few years. Even the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq is marginalized in Finkelstein’s account: it has a single listing in the index compared to over a dozen for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem (despite the fact that Al-Haq was established a decade before B’Tselem and has a solid international reputation).
Finkelstein would probably argue this omission is down to his focus on “mainstream” or “liberal” opinion. But on the evidence of this book, these remain fairly vague terms. Even if unintentional, this approach is no excuse for marginalizing Palestinians from their own struggle.
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist from London who has lived and reported from occupied Palestine. His website is www.winstanleys.org.