Saturday, May 20, 2006

Debunking Old Myths Regarding the Israel/Palestine Conflict

Rummaging through a few pages of Norman Finkelstein's website, I came across video and audio transcripts of one of Finkelstein's lectures, held in Canada in 2004, with the title "Is Criticism of Israel Anti-Semitic?" and believed I had previously read transcripts of this lecture and decided to reminisce a little. I was wrong: I hadn't come across a transcript of this material before and most likely was confusing it with another article or lecture.

The lecture in question is about 1h40 long and is broken up into seven audio/video streams. Broadly speaking, Finkelstein's speech can be broken up into three parts: debunking myths on the Israel/Palestine conflict, analysis of what constitutes "the New Anti-Semitism" and finally (the least interesting part I felt) musings on the Dershowitz/Finkelstein feud.

I found the first sixty minutes or so by far the most attractive part of the whole thing because, without presenting anything substantially new, Finkelstein debunks some of the most common myths regarding the conflict that so often pollute the arguments deployed by staunch pro-Israel supporters. Worth reiterating, in my view:

  • The conflict is not unique and valid parallels can be drawn with various, similar situations in past history.

  • The conflict is not complicated or hard to understand. It doesn't require harking back to "Biblical enmities" or "Cosmic justice". It doesn't take rocket science to comprehend it.

  • American support for Israel, now overwhelming and unwavering, didn't start until after the 1967 war. Post WW II and prior to 1967 the loyalties of the Americans lay squarely with West Germany, the new fortress against Communism. At that time, there was little, if any, sympathy for Israel, back then decidedly a leftist country in search of its own socialist utopia. The Holocaust was hardly a topic of interest in the American mainstream. American Jews, broadly speaking, also held Israel at arms length, for fear of being accused of having dual loyalties.

  • Palestine was not an empty space, prior to the arrival of the Zionists, and Arabs did not migrate there en masse pretending to be the indigenous people of Palestine, the Palestinians. The myth that there really is no Palestinian people continues to be dissipated today, in particular by extremists in the pro-Israel movement.

  • The 1948 refugee problem was not created by Arab radio broadcasts, urging the Palestinians to flee, so Arab invading forces could sweep the Jews into the sea. No records of such broadcasts were ever found and the story is a hoax.

  • There is nothing new about the "New Anti-Semitism": waves of new anti-Semitism have been created repeatedly to meet political expediency.

Finkelstein spends also some time on the now largely forgotten hoax, the book called "From Time Immemorial" by Joan Peters, a 1984 bestseller which continues partly to be responsible for the myth that "there are no real Palestinians". Finkelstein's meticulous work in exposing this colossal piece of fraud cost him an academic career, as Chomsky explains here.

If you haven't yet seen and heard footage of the
"Is Criticism of Israel Anti-Semitic?" lecture, you can do it here. Finkelstein is clear and eloquent, as well as entertaining in parts. Remember, this about a lot more than just the "New anti-Semitism", which is in itself a fairly boring subject...


At 8:18 PM, Blogger Sophia said...

Finkelstein is brilliant ! But what distinguihes him from neo-con zionists crusaders is his rigour and his moral standards. With Noam Chomsky, they are the quintessence of the Academic, public intellectual and social activist.

At 8:26 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Finkestein seems to me to have a certain detachment that is hard to find with Morris, Karsch, Dershowitz, Pipes and many others. That counts for a lot with me: this debate is far to partisan, the knives are out all the time. It seems to me F. loses himself less in character assasinations and that's a good thing. I really enjoyed this lecture which I missed first time.

At 11:25 PM, Anonymous David Zarnett said...

Gert, I think Finklestein is just like the others and just as attached. He has firm political biases, personal biases and is heavily involved in "character assassinations." In his speech he clearly mentions he is from the left thus it is OK to assume he views the historical record in that way. His stated reason for publishing his book called "The Holocaust Industry" was (in his own words): "It was basically a political motive."

His personal biases are a product of his parents being holocaust survivors who we might assume were anti-zionist as well as such sentiment was not uncommon. (But i'm speculating). When I saw Finklestein speak, these two biases come out quite strong when he refused to answer a question from a student in the audience who mentioned the Holocaust and seemed to have an alternative political bias. He definitely embarrassed himself and got quite angry and red in the face.

The book you have a picture of is a clear character assassination. It is a response to Dershowitz's "Chutzpah." He also called the ideas of Morris and Dershowitz Nazi-esque in front of a student crowd. With a lack of precision, Finklestein further strips the term 'Nazi' of its meaning renedering that word truly polemical and propagandistic nowadays.

He began his career proving Peter's book as a hoax (but he neglects to explain the actual reason it is a hoax) and then moved to published a book in 1998 that attacked the work of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen on Nazi Germany although Finklestein is neither an expert of Nazi Germany nor does he speak German (this is what he said in the speech that I saw when responding to a question).

I have read "Beyond Chutzpah" and I see it as no different than most other books on the topic from Morris to Karsh. Where Finklestein differs from most historians is that he expresses a view that: 1) the objective truth can obtained and 2) history is simple.

At 1:35 PM, Blogger Oleh Yahshan said...

is this the same finklestein who on the one hand wrote "THE HOLOCAUST INDUSTRY" and just recently appeared as a guest speaker at a conference called "Holocaust in the holy Land"??

must be a great guy - he is so good he is gaining experience in the same thing he goes against. AMAZING!!

(scroll down a bit to see the poster)

At 1:36 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Hi David,

Well, personally I'd always refrain from using terms like "nazi-esque" (or worse; "Nazi"). But when it comes to Dershowitz, you already know my opinion of this man, who embodies just about everything I don't stand for. Regards Morris, surfing for some articles to read on/by Morris I recently found this Haaretz interview (here reprinted by Counterpunch and I was very surprised at what this so-called revisionist historian has to say about ethnic cleansing and assorted niceties. With opinions like these, no one should expect to get the kid glove treatment. But I admire his candour.

I haven't read "Beyond Chutzpah", except for a few excerpts, some reviews and an introduction to the German edition, so I can't judge easily. Going by Finkelstein himself, the book deconstructs Dershowitz's take on Israel's human rights record and critiques "The Case for Israel". I don't see that as a character assassination.

Re the misuse of the term "anti-Semitism", Finkelstein has my full thumbs up (both thumbs): David, you don't seem to realise the scale of the problem because you haven't been at the receiving end of it. I have many, many times and so have many of my compatriots. It's routine to call publications like The Guardian "anti-Semitic propaganda" or compare BBC coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict to "the worst Nazi propaganda". Whilst Britain is considered by many to be the most anti-Semitic country in Europe, we have one consolation: they also say that about France and other European countries! And Dershowitz' rebuttal of the W.& M. paper is more of the same.What is the matter with these people? Well, in response, "f*ck*ng stupid Americans!&%*%£$ and then some more..." is what kind of springs to mind... If they're going to throw mud they should be ready to get some in their own faces too.

"He began his career proving Peter's book as a hoax (but he neglects to explain the actual reason it is a hoax) and then moved to published a book in 1998 that attacked the work of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen on Nazi Germany although Finklestein is neither an expert of Nazi Germany nor does he speak German (this is what he said in the speech that I saw when responding to a question)."

Well, sorry if I missed something here but it seems he explains why "FTI" is a hoax rather clearly. Surely you're not coming to the defence of something that is considered as big a canard as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion"? If I've got that part wrong, please do enlighten me.

Finkelstein doesn't speak German, G-d, that must really sting (LOL)!

I'll be publishing a response to your previous comment on this blog soon.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger Gert said...


Check out Finkelstein's website to beter understand what he stands for. But to you he'll be nothing more than another "self-hating Jew".

At 3:41 PM, Blogger Gert said...


Please find the response to your comments on Hamas >>>>>>>>>


At 5:07 PM, Anonymous David Zarnett said...


I haven't been on the receiving end of what? anti-Semitism? well, while living in Scotland I sure was as well as one experience I had in the south of France.

To use the term anti-Semitism nowadays is problematic but instead of calling these people stupid, and wondering "what the fuck is wrong with them", I suggest another way to look at it. My grandparents are both survivors of Auschwitz. They are extremely sensitive to what they perceive as anti-Semitism and based on their experiences that is quite understandable. The Holocaust, its technology and ideology, is a European creation that it is still suffering from. Anti-Semitism is rooted in European Christian culture in a way that it is not in North American society. In many ways, North American society is far more egalitarian and less discriminatory than Europe. I would argue, Canada is one of few post-nationalist countries in the world. The European Jewish experience over many centuries is riddled with anti-Semitism and this has created a serious sensitivity to it. I don't think we can ignore that. That legacy plays out today.

If you indeed represent the views of the Left in this case, then I see a problem. To express solidarity with a group who you perceive as suffering under Western imperialism and colonialism but to express annoyance and condescension to those who have suffered one of the gravest acts in human history is in my view troubling.

It is not that I disagree with you that many have overused the term (i.e. AIPAC and some Cdn pro-Israel groups), but the way that you describe these people is troubling for me. Pro-Palestinian groups in Canada do the exact same thing at least from what I have noticed. But they receive much less media attention for it.

I was in Britain during the last election between Blair and Howard. I saw campaigns ads by Labour which drew Howard (a jew) as Shylock and a pig. I was also in Britain during the British lecturers boycott of Haifa University and Bar-Ilan university. The boycott was to target those institution that do not disassociate themselves with the gov'ts "apartheid" policy. Ironically, Israeli academic institutions are the most critical of the gov't - that is the reason why eventually the boycott was overturned a month later.

Why is this anti-Semitic? While it may be some sort of political statement, to punish Jewish academics for gov't policy amounts to general discrimination against a people. The fact that the union overlooked the actual situation at Israeli universities indicates something troubling. Its similar to the way Walt & Mearsheimer over emphasized the power of the Israel Lobby - these are some serious omissions by academics who we would think are quite knowledgeable, scholarly and fair.

Again this year, another lecturer union aims to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Why not boycott American academic institutions for the war in Iraq? Why not boycott Russian academic institutions for the brutalization of chechnya? Why not boycott Chinese academic institutions for the continuing occupation of Tibet? (Where is the Left on that issue by the way? It seems to be ignored) Why do not they boycott their own institutions since their government sent troops to Iraq? Why single out Jews?

I think the European Left has a serious guilt complex. Marxism and anti-Semitism has a long history. Leftists are not afraid to refer to right wing academics as Islamophobes, but when they are called anti-Semites it is a whole new ballgame.

P.S. Finklestein doesn't speak or read German so how can he be able to criticize a scholary work on Nazi Germany that is based on primary documents that are in German. No expert on German history lacks the ability to speak the language.

At 9:03 PM, Blogger Gert said...


Thanks for your impassioned response.

Real anti-Semitism exists, in Britain and elsewhere. So does real xenophobia, homophobia, racism and islamophobia. I'm sorry to hear you've been at the receiving and of anti-Semitism, here in Britain (but I'm not surprised).

Being non-Jewish I haven't been the victim of anti-Semitism, that's self-evident. Nonetheless, growing up in Antwerp with loads of Jewish friends I became the target of accusations of anti-Semitism from the age of 18 or so. I wasn't a particularly vocal critic of Israel at all (and neither were my parents) but I did have some questions regarding the conflict. Frankly I feel that these assimilated Jews had about as much of a clue about the whole thing as I had. Remember, we were very young. Yet to question one aspect of Israel's history triggered the "you're no friends of the Jews anymore" response. Very distressing too, I can assure you. The result was that for perhaps 15 years or so I never discussed any matters regarding Israel (or Jewish matters for that matter) with any Belgian (or other) Jews. Out of sheer sensitivity I simply kept my trap shut. That I seriously feared using the term Jew because of the reaction it could provoke counts for nothing, I guess. That when I first mentioned I thought you might be writing from a zionist perspective you clammed up and broke off the conversation doesn't mean anything either, I suppose. You are perhaps the first Jew in all that time that I have indeed discussed the matter with and I thank you for it. But easy it hasn't been for either of us.

"What the f**k is wrong with them" is not an intelligent question, I'll grant you that. Maybe North American society is indeed more egalitarian than European, that's well possible, I'm not sure. I've only been to the US twice, enjoyed my visits but also had a very bad experience. It doesn't colour my view of the US though.

You were one of the first people to point out to me that US support for Israel is quite a recent phenomenon. Finkelstein and many others confirm that. A recent BBC documentary on Hollywood's works on the Holocaust also confirms that the US mainstream knew little about these crimes and wasn't at all that bothered. Yet today those pointing the finger of anti-Semitism are those same Americans who know least about the whole thing and lump "anti-Semites" very conveniently together with "Commies" and other undesirables, such as "Islamofascists", "dhimmis", "useful idiots" (a leftist term, I know), "traitors", "lovers of Eurabia" etc. David, don't make me drag up evidence, it would be all too easy. What is levelled at those who are critical of certain aspects of Israeli behaviour is nothing but horrendous abuse, beyond words really. Our loyalties are constantly being put into question and we are slandered and smeared in the vilest of terms.

"To express solidarity with a group who you perceive as suffering under Western imperialism and colonialism but to express annoyance and condescension to those who have suffered one of the gravest acts in human history is in my view troubling."

Where do I express "annoyance and condescension to those who have suffered one of the gravest acts in human history"? I find that really offensive. If anything me and the vast majority of people I know and respect still feel guilt over the Holocaust, even if we had nothing to do with it personally. How much more do we have to bend over backwards to prove we are sorry? What can we do to make things right? Prove undying loyalty to Israel? In the face of some of the injustices that have been committed in its name, something that is broadly accepted by many Israeli Jews as well as non-Israeli Jews? Whilst accepting that the conflict isn't unique?

Anti-Semitism is completely wrong because it assumes that for whatever reason Jewish people are inferior. Clearly they aren't, they're just people. People, like all others, capable of getting things wrong sometimes. Not quite so unique in that respect.

The point you're making on Howard is frankly ridiculous; you are getting this, much to my dismay, completely wrong. Frankly, I really didn't even know Howard was Jewish and I'm a politics buff. Here's what Wiki has to say about it:

" Six days after the Derek Lewis incident on Newsnight, Ann Widdecombe, his former minister of state in the Home Office, made a statement in the House of Commons about the dismissal of then Director of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis and famously remarked of Howard that "there is something of the night about him", a bitter and widely quoted comment that fatally damaged his 1997 bid for the Conservative Party leadership. The comment was taken as a reference to his dour demeanour, which she was implying was sinister and almost Dracula-like, related to his Romanian ancestry. Some commentators felt there was a hint of anti-semitism about the remark." A hint...

The caricatures you may have seen were a quite funny reference to Mr Howard's Romanian heritage. Perhaps not to everyone's taste but with anti-Semitism this has nothing to do. Britain is a bastion of political correctness: Mr Howard's "anti-Semitic" detractors would have paid a very heavy political price for bringing his Jewishness into the equation. You don't seem to understand the political scene here very well.

As regards the boycotts, I wouldn't have supported them, as I have stated on other peoples' blogs, quite unambiguously.

"Why do not they boycott their own institutions since their government sent troops to Iraq?"

You underestimate the level of opposition to the Iraq war, both from the right and the left. Nor do we (the left) single out Jews. I honestly don't quite understand where you're getting this from. The only leftist party that does voice criticism of Israel is Respect (Mr Galloway). In general British political life, support for Israel is very unambiguous.

"I think the European Left has a serious guilt complex. Marxism and anti-Semitism has a long history. Leftists are not afraid to refer to right wing academics as Islamophobes, but when they are called anti-Semites it is a whole new ballgame."

The Holocaust wasn't exactly a Marxist enterprise. I agree that Jewish persecution in Soviet Russia was serious. But you're connecting dots, regards the British modern left.

As regards Islamophobia, we should be as careful to level this at anyone and we do other accusations of xenophobia. It cannot be denied in my view that some leading figures have expressed anti-Muslim feelings in terms that are fairly bone-chilling. Using those terms with respect to a Jewish person would (rightly so) result in widespread condemnation. Daniel Pipes really burns that candle at both ends in that category. What happens? You find his quotes plastered all over the Internet by far rightwing dimwits whose worldview amounts to "Nuke Iran" (many different t-shirts with that slogan are now available, always worn by buxom blonds with great bosoms, of course).

I hope we can regain more of a mutual understanding again. Please don't take anything I wrote personally: it isn't intended that way.

At 11:37 PM, Anonymous David Zarnett said...

Thanks for your comment. Likewise, my comments were not personal. We have come along way since our first dialogue on our respective blogs. (Unfortunately, I have really
neglected mine of late).

Anti-semitism is a tough issue to discuss. You are probably right that I do not understand the British political context considering I am Canadian, but I can only say living in Britain for 7 months gave me some insight. Seeing those cartoons coupled with how some of my collegues connected the evil Jew with the Conservative party was troubling. Not to say such talk doesn't occur in Canada or America, but among my friends of the left such ideas do not get voiced openly. By no means do I think that this is a representation of British society. My perception of anti-semitism in British society was further evidenced by my experience at a few soccer (football) matches where the crowd would chant "yid" in chorus. Perhaps this is meaningless but this is what my grandfather was called in Poland in the 1920s and '30s.

But I am a product of a certain culture which impacts the way I view society. I wholeheartedly disagree with those who argue that anti-semitism has been exploited in some way as a matter of policy whether by the israeli govt, zionists, AIPAC, etc. The fear of, and sensitivity to, anti-semitism is a major component of the Jewish mentality. Especially when it comes to Israel when considering that for many Jews, Zionism and Judaism are interwoven and inseperable.

At 3:10 PM, Blogger Gert said...

David, thanks for your comment.

Let me first say that my own response of 9.03 PM smacked (with hindsight) of haste.

I forgot for instance, last but certainly not least, to mention the surviving of Auschwitz by your grandparents. What to say that's not going to sound like a schmaltzy cliché? I'm not so good at this kind of situation. Well, I can only say that for their sake, your parents' sake and the rest of your family's sake, that thankfully they made it through what must possibly be the biggest ordeal anyone can be put through.

As regards Mr Howard, perhaps I did really miss something at the time, but personally I never associated the "Dracula" cartoons with anti-Semitism directed at his person. I didn't know at the time Mr Howard was Jewish. Perhaps that says something about my own perspective.

As regards "Yid", I always thought that meant Jew in Yiddish, mainly used in the Diaspora context. I don't know of any British Jewish footballers, which is not to say there aren't any, I just don't know them (I'm not a football fan). Racism of all kinds does occur on football matches by supporters, so perhaps your experience is an illustration of this. I'm not downplaying this.

Anti-Semitism does of course exist in Europe but I can't honestly say whether it's on the rise or on the decline. I think it's fairly marginal and therefore difficult to measure with any degree of accuracy.

Where genuine anti-Semitism occurs, I believe it should be denounced in the strongest of terms.

That Jewish identity, Judaism and Zionism are inextricably intertwined is something I'm aware of and respect.

The problem with politically motivated accusations of anti-Semitism is in my view similar to the same type of accusations of Islamophobia. Genuine critiquing of Islam and its more radical expressions isn't just useful, it's also needed. For that reason, people need to be careful with branding others as Islamophobes. That call isn't always easy to make, as is the case with anti-Semitism.

I accept that Europe's legacy of anti-Semitism throughout the centuries isn't something that cannot be ignored or will simply disappear. I think it's also problematic, possibly irrelevant, to try and associate this legacy with the left or the right. It seems to transcend these boundaries.

As regards your blog, I know the feeling. Blogging is very time-consuming and apparently most blogs don't survive much beyond two years. I'm certainly feeling some metal-fatigue already, as do some others I know and visit.

Best regards.


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