Book Review: The Case Against Israel

Neumann, Michael: The Case Against Israel, CounterPunch and AK Press, ISBN 1-90485-946-1, 220 pages, $16.50 (paperback)

Michael Neumann is the US-born son of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany, and Herbert Marcuse’s stepson. He now teaches philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada.

A tireless advocate for the Palestinian cause, Prof Neumann has consistently de-bunked conventional wisdom, more often than not in the online newsletter CounterPunch. In August 2002, in an essay tauntingly entitled Protect Me from My Friends - Pro-Palestinian Activists and the Palestinians, he wrote

“The enormous, ignored fact of the Palestinian story is that America is not, as the left loves to think, pursuing some vital interest in its alliance with Israel. On the contrary, America is acting against its vital interests.”

Apart from its pertinent critique of the left, this, of course, pre-empts aspects of the recent Walt/Mearsheimer article The Israel Lobby by several years. So why didn’t it stir up the same controversy as the latter? There are two possible answers. Firstly, Neumann’s impeccably Jewish pedigree makes him a difficult target for those whose only weapon is the “anti-Semite” charge. Secondly, Counter/Punch is a leftie website from which attacks on Israel are “only to be expected” and hence can be safely ignored.

The same factor precludes the kind of response that one might have expected had The Case Against Israel been issued by a major publishing house such as John Wiley & Sons, who published Alan Dershowitz’s best-selling The Case For Israel in 2003. Publication by CounterPunch was a sure guarantee that The Case Against Israel would not be reviewed in the mainstream media and would not be the focus of the kind of concerted vilification to which the ultra-establishment figures Walt and Mearsheimer have been subjected. Given Neumann’s formidable capacity for rational riposte, this is regrettable.

Although the title of this little book gives the misleading impression that it is conceived as a reply to Dershowitz’s lamentable screed (Dershowitz gets only one un-indexed look-in), its thrust is rather similar to Norman Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah, which is so conceived. Both authors maintain that “the Israel/Palestine conflict is not so complex as it has been made out to be” (Neumann), and set about cutting away the thicket of obfuscation with which it has been deliberately surrounded. The historian Finkelstein marshalls a massive array of evidence that utterly disproves that adduced by Dershowitz, while the philosopher Neumann’s preferred weapon is Ockham’s razor, a logical procedure for stripping away layers of assumption.

Neumann’s main argument is rapidly sketched:

“The Zionist project… was entirely unjustified and could reasonably be regarded by the inhabitants of Palestine as a very serious threat, the total domination by one ethnic group of all others in the region. Some form of violent resistance was , therefore, justified…”

Describing his focus as “moral and political…not legal”, Neumann quickly disposes of international law, which “has no central authority to enforce it. The UN… is unavailable because the most powerful countries can veto any sanction they dislike…”

A few pages later, the “right of self-determination of peoples” is dismissed as a tool for either side, being equated with “advocating the political supremacy of an ethnic group.” He later elaborates that the Palestinians “could appeal, not to rights of ethnic self-determination, but to rights of self-government within a sovereign geographic area.”

A historical account (for Neumann by no means shuns history, just as Finkelstein doesn’t shun logic) demonstrates that Zionism always intended to establish a sovereign state in Palestine, however cunningly it sought to dissimulate this end. The indigenous Arabs were perfectly well aware of this, hence “they would have been irrational not to resist…” Neumann’s verdict on Zionism is uncompromising and devastating - “It was wrong to pursue the Zionist project and wrong to achieve it” - and from this he draws the conclusion that “much that is said in its defence, and in Israel’s defence,… is irrelevant.”

By now the pro-Palestinian activist is feeling smug and elated. However, Neumann’s logic inexorably leads him to the less comfortable conclusions that Israel does indeed have a right to exist, however illegitimate its foundations, and a concomitant right to self-defence.

“Israel’s existence is tainted, not sacred, but it is protected by the same useful international conventions that allow others… to retain their ill-gotten gains. …The more your actions, right or wrong, put your life in danger, the more you are justified in defending yourself.”

Hence Neumann is even prepared to concede that “ ‘the occupation itself’, in the narrowest sense of the word, was no great crime.” Indeed he believes that the 1967 war, which “liberated” the West Bank from Jordanian tutelage, gave Israel “a chance to make handsome amends for the crimes on which it was built…Israel could have sponsored…the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state…” Instead, largely spearheaded by the USA, the settlements made a bad situation infinitely worse, and it is the settlements and the brutal military regime instituted to defend them that bear the brunt of Neumann’s often eloquent disgust.

When he comes to the options available to Palestinians for countering Israel’s race-war, Neumann is brutally consistent: there are none, save violence. This part of his argument will be unacceptable to the fainthearted, but it is up to them to refute it. He does not content himself with dismissing passive resistance as an option in the Palestinian context, but denies that it has worked in any context where the powerless faced the unscrupulously powerful. Gandhi “cannot be said to have won independence for India”, Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement had the backing of the US establishment, indeed “was practically a federal government project”, and South Africa’s ANC “was never a nonviolent movement but a movement that decided, on occasion, to use nonviolent tactics”.

As for “terrorism”, which he defines as “random violence against non-combatants”, he distinguishes it from “collateral damage” with the assertion that the latter “involves knowingly killing innocent civilians” while “Terrorism involves intentionally killing innocent civilians”, concluding that “the moral difference is too academic even for an academic.” Why, then, is “terrorism” considered to be particularly morally repugnant, while “collateral damage” tends to be taken in our moral stride?

“Imagine trying to make such a claim. You say: ‘To achieve my objectives, I would certainly drop bombs with the knowledge that they would blow the arms off some children. But to achieve those same objectives, I would not plant or set off a bomb on the ground with the knowledge that it would have that same effect. After all, I have planes to do that, I don’t need to plant bombs.’ As a claim of moral superiority, this needs a little work.”

The Palestinians, he repeats, are without options. Israel has all the options, principally that of unilateral withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, but refuses to use them. Hence he refuses “to pronounce judgment on Palestinian terrorism.”

So why does Israel still command such support from the US? Neumann deftly dismantles the notions that there are either “shared values” or a “confluence of interests” between the US and Israel, or that Israel is anything but a hindrance in the pursuit of America’s nefarious oil politics. The US/Israel alliance is analysed historically as a relic of the cold war perpetuated by inertia: “Stale ideology has enshrined a counter-productive alliance at the heart of American foreign policy.” Neumann calls for the US to change sides, and itemises the obvious benefits that would accrue from such a U-turn:

“It would instantly gain the warm friendship of Arab oil producers and obtain far more valuable allies in the war on terror: not only the governments of the entire Muslim world, but a good portion of the Muslim fundamentalist movement! The war on terror, which seems so unwinnable, might well be won at nominal cost, and quickly… Perhaps most important, switching sides would revitalize America’s foundering efforts at non-proliferation.”

Neumann’s final verdict: “Israel is the illegitimate child of ethnic nationalism.” While it is not his brief to “formulate specific strategies” leading towards a solution, he advocates “vigorous anti-Israeli action” primarily in the shape of “the most extensive international sanctions possible”, undeterred “by the horrors of the Jewish past.”

The Case Against Israel is, in my view, the most comprehensive and devastating critique of Israel in print. Its value as a campaigning tool consists primarily in the icy precision of its logic, and its independence of quibbles about international law or historical responsibility. Following its elegant arguments requires a concentrated application of the reader’s own reasoning faculties - but the exercise is worth it.

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