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New Texts Out Now: Norman Finkelstein, Knowing Too Much

[Cover of Norman Finkelstein, [Cover of Norman Finkelstein, "Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End"]

Norman G. Finkelstein, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End. New York: OR Books, 2012.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Norman Finkelstein (NF): I have been active on the Israel-Palestine conflict for the past three decades. I first got involved on 6 June 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon. Although I was almost never allowed to teach the Israel-Palestine conflict (I mostly taught political theory), my research and publications have focused on it. I also used to visit the occupied Palestinian territories annually until Israel banned me in 2008. 

My own personal experience was the original impetus for the new book. While lecturing at colleges and to community groups during the past decade, it became increasingly obvious that public opinion, including Jewish public opinion, had significantly shifted. The struggle for Palestinian rights was no longer a marginal, or even unpopular, cause. The book attempts to shed light on the roots of this important phenomenon. I am most interested in the political ramifications of this shift in public opinion: What does it signify about the prospects of reaching a broad public that includes a wide swathe of the American Jewish community?

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NF: The book looks at the origins of the American Jewish relationship with Israel, and focuses on the historical, human rights, and diplomatic records on the Israel-Palestine conflict. It demonstrates that the authoritative scholarly treatments of these topics no longer support the Israeli narrative. The basic fact is that the formidable ideological façade Israel erected to deflect criticism of it has now more or less collapsed. The largely liberal American Jewish community is finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile its liberal credo with Israeli conduct. 

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

NF: The book is a comprehensive treatment of many topics that I have touched on in the past, and also several that I am touching on for the first time. Its range includes the origins of American Jewish liberalism, the real impact of the Israel lobby on American policy-making, and misinformation and disinformation in popular accounts of the conflict (for example, by Jeffrey Goldberg, Michael Oren, and Dennis Ross). The book not only brings to bear the full weight of three decades of research and reflection, but also attempts to examine the subject matter from novel perspectives. Most of the scholarship on the Israel-Palestine conflict is either straightforward chronological narrative or freighted with “high theory.” I try to find a better balance that rests on a solid scholarly foundation but also rethinks many conventional assumptions.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NF: The book is written in a non-academic style and pitched to a general audience. Unfortunately, nowadays most people, in particular, young people, don’t read very much, and on the rare occasions when they do read, it’s either text-messages or relatively short items on the web. The attention span and self-discipline of young people, when it comes to mental labor, has significantly diminished. So I suppose that this book will be something of a challenge. But I also think it repays the investment in time. There is a lot in the book that will surprise even the most knowledgeable students of the conflict: for example, what really happened in June 1967 and its aftermath at the United Nations.  

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NF: Alongside Knowing Too Much, I also just published a book entitled What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance, and Courage. It is based on a close reading of half of Gandhi's collected works. I first began to read Gandhi in order to see whether his ideas on nonviolence had real application to the Palestinian struggle. Gandhi’s collected works come to ninety-eight five-hundred-page volumes. I read about half of this corpus, running from 1930-1947. In the book, I attempt to synthesize what Gandhi actually meant by nonviolence. It is not nearly as simple as it appears at first glance. In addition, it is not true that Gandhi was categorically against violence. He attached first importance not to nonviolence but to courage. He believed that if you didn’t have sufficient courage to be nonviolent in the face of an assault on your person or dignity, then you should use violence. The worst sin for him was not violence but cowardice. He said that cowards did not deserve to live.

I am currently working on a book with Mouin Rabbani entitled How to Solve the Israel-Palestine Conflict. The book will attempt to lay out a blueprint for how to proceed. It resists any and all clichés, and tries to rethink the whole problem of a solution, albeit starting from the premise that there is no alternative to the two-state settlement.

Excerpts from Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End

From the chapter “A Conspiracy So Immense”

A central premise of this book is that current academic scholarship on the Israel-Palestine conflict has achieved impressive levels of objectivity, that this historical record is better known, and that consequently more and more people are able to see through the propaganda from which Israel has benefited for so long. The battle, however, is far from over. Full-fledged “pro”-Israel frauds masquerading as scholarship still get published by distinguished university presses and still gain praise in the academy. But these hoaxes also provide backhanded validation of the argument in this book: the foundations of the official Zionist narrative have been so completely shattered that attempts to restore Israel’s pristine image must rely on preposterous inferences and speculations.

A prime example is the recent book Foxbats Over Dimona: The Soviets’ Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War by Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez. Although both authors hail from Israel, the book was largely an American phenomenon: Yale University Press published it, and the praise it garnered came largely from American experts. It bespeaks the persistent aberrations of American intellectual culture when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Ginor and Remez conjure a highly provocative theory. The June 1967 war marked, according to them, the climax of a manifold Soviet conspiracy to destroy Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Additionally they allege that not only the Soviets but also the Arabs, Americans, and Israelis have participated in a “cover-up” of this conspiracy for the past forty years, until their own “laborious sleuthing” unearthed nuggets of information and connected the dots.

The core argument of Foxbats is fairly straightforward. Beginning in the early 1960s the Soviet Union began to panic that Israel was on the verge of producing nuclear weapons at its Dimona reactor. The Soviets and their Arab client states lacked, however, a legitimate pretext for launching a pre-emptive strike. In search of a credible alibi the Soviets plotted with Arab leaders to lure Israel into attacking first and then planned to destroy the Dimona reactor in a counterattack, which the US would acquiesce in because Israel was the aggressor. This minutely orchestrated conspiracy worked perfectly until the climactic moment of 5 June 1967 when the unanticipated destructiveness of Israel’s first strike eliminated the possibility of an effective reprisal. It was, in the authors’ phrase, an “inept conspiracy.”

It would be hard to exaggerate the magnitude of their alleged revelations. It is not just that no evidence of such a conspiracy has surfaced in the vast documentary record on the June 1967 war and that it has eluded the attention of scores of trained scholars who have pored over this record. What is yet more remarkable, not one of the co-conspirators in this multitudinously ramified Soviet plot has yet stepped forward to bear witness to it.

After the June war the Egyptian leadership fell out in mutual recriminations over culpability for the military debacle, but no one pinned blame on a Soviet plot. After President Anwar Sadat expelled the Soviet Union from Egypt in 1972 and castigated it while realigning with the US, he did not use this ripe occasion to expose the Soviet plot, and neither did any of the Egyptians who subsequently wrote memoirs of the war. After the Soviet Union imploded in 1989 and a lucrative cottage industry sprung up of ex-Communists testifying to the countless perfidies (real and imagined) of the Soviet era, none of the conspirators stepped forward to expose this Soviet plot. And the authors never make clear what motives the US and Israel might have had in perpetuating the cover-up.

Still, it cannot be ruled out a priori that new pieces of evidence might have turned up that compel a revisiting of the historical record. The authors do and do not make such a case. They concede that they have not found a “smoking gun” such as a transparently incriminating archival document. Rather, they claim to have amassed an “astonishing number of facts” which if properly contextualized—this is the crucial point—provide ample proof of a Soviet conspiracy. Insofar as the validity of their book stands or falls on this alleged new evidence, there appears to be no alternative except to go through the salient pieces they adduce one by one.

It might as well be said at the outset that the book does not contain a scrap of evidence to support the claim of a vast Soviet conspiracy and cover-up. If one discounts the breathless prose that introduces each new “disclosure”; the hysterical italics used to embellish banal statements; the “special” techniques resorted to for decoding documents; the reliance on anonymous and otherwise dubious sources; the speculative propositions of what “could,” “may,” “might,” “must have” and “possibly” happened, which then mysteriously metamorphose later in their book into dead certainties; and the outright mangling and misrepresentation of source material—if one discards all this dross what remains of their allegedly tantalizing evidence can barely fill a thimble. The authors compare their “prodigious” labor of “setting straight the historical record” to a “10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, of which we receive a random five pieces in the mail every week.” To judge by the evidence adduced in their book, it appears that they were inundated with junk mail.


From the chapter “History by Subtraction”

The new Benny Morris mounts the case that Palestinians have always rejected a two-state settlement and will not be sated with less than the whole of Palestine. Although the allegation is highly dubious it nonetheless piques the curiosity just how he proposes to resolve the conflict. Yale University Press announces on the jacket of Morris’s latest book that “he arrives at a new way of thinking about the discord, injecting a ray of hope in a region where it is most surely needed.” What is this ray of hope?

Morris alleges that Israel cannot withdraw from the West Bank until “the IDF acquires the technological capability to protect its population centers from short-range missile attacks.” But, alas, “it is unclear whether such a system will be operational before 2013 and whether it will be effective”; indeed, the costs involved “could impoverish Israel and render the defensive systems ultimately inoperative.” It is difficult to make out the ray of hope, let alone justice, in holding the elementary human rights of Palestinians hostage to Israel’s budgetary constraints. Incidentally, do Arabs get to occupy Israel until they can protect themselves against its periodic rampages?

But far be it from Morris to despair. His so-called new way of thinking is to revive the Allon Plan “of a partition of Palestine into Israel, more or less along its pre-1967 borders, and an Arab state, call it Palestinian-Jordanian, that fuses the bulk of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the east bank, the present-day Kingdom of Jordan.” Morris does not pretend that Palestinians are likely in the future to acquiesce in a settlement that they have forcefully opposed in the past, but ever espying a glimmer of hope he points to a solution: Jordan’s “relatively powerful army and security services…would provide the possibility of reining in the militants.” No doubt Jordan’s torture chambers will also come in handy.

It might be supposed that such a “two-state settlement” violates the basic right to self-determination, but the new Morris also sets the naive reader straight on this misapprehension. For, according to him, Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims—“they” are not like “us”; “they” don’t attach the value “we” do to human rights. Thus Morris dots his text with these aperçus: “Palestinian spokesmen regularly invoked slogans like democracy, majority will, and one man, one vote—catchphrases and norms that, in fact, were completely alien to their history and social and political ethos and mindset”; “Western liberals like or pretend to view Palestinian Arabs, indeed all Arabs, as Scandinavians, and refuse to recognize that peoples, for good historical, cultural, and social reasons, are different and behave differently in similar or identical sets of circumstances”; “Palestinian Arabs, like the world’s other Muslim Arab communities, are deeply religious and have no respect for democratic values and no tradition of democratic governance.”

In his own research on the 1948 war Morris qualifies his every conclusion with a seemingly endless string of caveats. He shows no compunction however about spewing forth gross generalizations about the history, ethos, mindset, culture, and society of “the world’s…Muslim-Arab communities.” He possesses no known expertise on the Muslim-Arab world and cites no sources for any of his allegations. Poll data do not support claims of his, such as that Muslim-Arab communities devalue democracy. He appears to have culled his grand insights from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Orientalist Stereotypes. After the Egyptian people erupted in revolt against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, Morris knowingly observed that “what Egyptians really want” was “probably” their “material betterment” and “not political freedom and human rights.” If Westerners believed otherwise, it was because they “don’t know Arabic.” As it happens, neither does he.

Lest there be any doubt on the chasm separating “them” from “us,” Morris adduces this clincher: “The value placed on human life and the rule of (secular) law is completely different—as exhibited, in Israel itself, in the vast hiatus [sic] between Jewish and Arab perpetration of crimes and lethal road traffic violations. Arabs, to put it simply, proportionally commit far more crimes (and not only ones connected to property) and commit far more lethal traffic violations than do Jews. In large measure, this is a function of different value systems (such as the respect accorded to human life and the rule of law).” Like some crazed xenophobe scratching out his manifesto while holed up in a dimly lit garret, Morris collates in a sprawling endnote an ethnic breakdown of crime statistics obtained from “Chief Inspector Hamutal Sabagh” and “in my possession.” But couldn’t the data demonstrate not that Arabs are intrinsically different but that like minorities suffering discrimination elsewhere they are more vulnerable to the criminal justice system? The disparity in auto fatalities should according to Morris convince all but “the most disconnected and unrealistic of minds” that Jews couldn’t possibly live together with Arabs under one roof. Indeed, knowing what we all know about women drivers, isn’t it verily a miracle that men have managed to live with them for so long?

[Excerpted from Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End, by Norman Finkelstein, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2012 OR Books. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]

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