A non-partisan journal of the left.

This time he went too far: On Norman Finkelstein

Thu 3rd Nov 2011

To be the most controversial figure in a debate as acrimonious as the one surrounding Israel-Palestine is some accolade. But Norman Finkelstein surely deserves that honour – and that's one of the few uncontentious things you can say about him. To critics of Israel, the Jewish American author – currently on a UK speaking tour – is a heroic, taboo-busting dissident. To many of Israel’s defenders, merely to voice approval of his views is to step outside the limits of civilised debate.

A striking example of the passions Finkelstein arouses is provided by a short clip from American Radical, a 2009 documentary film about the author. After a lecture at a US campus, Finkelstein is denounced by a distressed audience member for comparing Israeli actions to those of the Nazis. His increasingly famous reply (which I urge you to watch, here) is worth quoting. After explaining that both his parents were Holocaust survivors, that they took part in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and that all his other relatives died in the Nazi camps, he says:

And it's precisely and exactly because of the lessons my parents taught me and my two siblings that I will not be silent when Israel commits its crimes against the Palestinians. And I consider nothing more despicable than to use their suffering and their martyrdom to try to justify the torture, the brutalisation, the demolition of homes that Israel daily commits against the Palestinians. So I refuse any longer to be intimidated or browbeaten by the tears. If you had any heart in you, you would be crying for the Palestinians...

In other words, no matter how great a people's suffering, it remains answerable for its own crimes. In a debate so often marred by relativism and special pleading, Finkelstein's moral axiom (in short: two wrongs don't make a right) is as unimpeachable as his rhetoric is exhilarating. Which is why I was so disappointed to find him gainsaying that same principle in a recent interview. Asked if he categorically denounced the targeting of Israeli civilians by groups such as Hezbollah, Finkelstein replied: 'It is impossible to justify terrorism.' But he went on to do just that, saying: 'I do believe that Hezbollah has the right to target Israeli civilians if Israel persists in targeting civilians, until Israel ceases its terrorist acts.'

Much of what Finkelstein has said with regards to Hezbollah is common sense, even if common sense isn't a quality the group normally inspires. The Shi'a militia emerged as a response to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. (The war was cynically conceived as a way of undermining the Beirut-based Palestinian leadership's unwelcome attempts to draw Israel into peace negotiations, dubbed a 'peace offensive'. Even prime minister Menachem Begin admitted it was a 'war of choice'.) For the next eighteen years Hezbollah provided the main resistance to Israel's occupation of the south of its country. Finkelstein has pointed out that in any normal context we would not regard Hezbollah as terrorists but as a legitimate national liberation group:

People have the right to defend their country from foreign occupiers, and people have the right to defend their country from invaders who are destroying their country. That to me is a very basic, elementary and uncomplicated question [source].

So far, so true – and brave. But, of course, Hezbollah has gone further than attacking Israeli military installations on Lebanese territory. In July-September 2006, after border skirmishes led to a ferocious Israeli onslaught, Hezbollah fired a continuous hail of rockets at towns and cities in the north of Israel, killing forty-four civilians.

Lebanon's toll of civilian casualties dwarfed Israel's at over 1100. But there's an important principle at stake here, which is this: targeting civilians is never a legitimate weapon of war. Yes, Israel is proportionately more culpable than Hezbollah for causing 1100 deaths as against forty-four. But it is emphatically not the case that Israel is therefore guilty and Hezbollah innocent. If we don't insist that civilian life is sacrosanct, then we're in a moral universe where each act of depravity can conceivably be justified by some previous barbarism.

God knows the history of the Middle East is littered with more than enough acts of bloodshed for each side to excuse its own. There's no act of slaughter – from the levelling of a Gaza neighbourhood by Israeli F-16s to the mass murder of Jewish school kids by some death-crazed suicide bomber – that hasn't been justified as 'self-defence' by its perpetrators. There comes a point when I'm liable to feel the need to 'defend' myself against your 'self-defence' – and the whole sanguinary circle starts again.

As a combination of scholar and activist, Finkelstein is a rare specimen. On the one hand, there's his forensic attention to detail, the almost pedantic exactitude that made his name when, as a young graduate student, he exposed a best-selling book as a hoax by examining its source material. Then there's the moral fervour of the polemicist, the anger of the son of parents who survived genocide. Most of the content of his books is typical of Finkelstein the scholar; in interview, however, he wears the guise of the activist. You'd never find a passage like the following, for instance, in one of his published works:

It has been a long time since I felt any emotional connection with the state of Israel, which relentlessly and brutally and inhumanly keeps these vicious, murderous wars. It is a vandal state. [. . .] I have some good friends and their families there, and of course I would not want any of them to be hurt. That said, sometimes I feel that Israel has come out of the boils of the hell, a satanic state [source].

The quality uniting the scholar and the activist is obsession. And only someone obsessed with Israel's crimes – grave though they are – could describe it in the above terms. If Israel is 'satanic', what epithet characterises some of its neighbours, like Syria, Iran or Saudi Arabia?

Obsession has its uses, and few have been as diligent in exposing Israeli wrongdoing as Finkelstein. But by refusing an opportunity to condemn unequivocally the murder of civilians by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, he throws away the scales by which to weigh Israel's transgressions – and cedes the moral high ground. Forty-four civilian deaths may seem insignificant compared to 1100, but once we discount the lesser crime, we have no means of measuring the greater. (Incidentally, perhaps one reason I find it difficult to be blithe about such statistics is that I nearly became one. I happened to be in Haifa in 2006, and clearly remember watching several times a day as Hezbollah's katyusha rockets screamed across the city sky, each one primed and tipped with its deadly load.)

I don't believe one mistake – serious though it is – cancels all Finkelstein's excellent work in books like Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict and Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. Self-evidently you can be right about some things and very wrong about others, and I don't believe in blacklisting authors. But while he continues to make excuses for murder, we've lost a courageous and principled moral voice. I only hope we get it back, soon.

Matt Hill blogs at The Muddle East

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