In a talk on April 28 organized by UB’s Graduate Group in Marxist Studies, visiting speaker Norman Finkelstein set out to demonize Israel using the following interpretive strategy. First, always refer to the “Israel-Palestine” conflict, never to the broader enmity to Israel, nor to repeated Arab wars to annihilate Israel. Second, give to Israel’s and her supporters’ actions always the most sinister possible interpretation, while never, never, offering critical scrutiny to the acts of her enemies. Third, find (as he sees it) flaws in certain books sympathetic to Israel, thereby to generally condemn Israel historiography as fraudulent. All this is a lead-up to a more important scheme.
Finkelstein knows full well the force that the Holocaust exerts in motivating Zionism, the Jewish movement for collective self-defense. His response: smear Israel by tying Zionism to Nazism. Disparage important Jewish authors about the Holocaust, such as Elie Wiesel. From tendentious investigations of Jewish institutions, claim evidence of misbehavior by some individuals, from which to conclude that these institutions are exploiting the Holocaust to make money (Jews’ primary motive, as we all know) or to serve Israel.
Then comes Finkelstein’s crowning tactic: tar Jewish civic leaders with Nazism. He claims (without evidence) that they suppressed publications about the Holocaust in the post-war period to avoid embarrassing America for its close links to West Germany, where one-time Nazis held important posts. He then asserts that the thousands of books that have since appeared about the Holocaust were put out because, after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, Zionists needed new reasons to defend Israel’s right to exist. (There are many reasons for delayed literary reflection on trauma. My own mother could not bring herself to speak to me about her experience in Auschwitz until the late 1970s.) He does not explain who could suddenly instruct writers to write so many books. Perhaps it was the Elders of Zion.
Why go to such lengths to slander a people’s need to come to terms with a catastrophe? It has to do with his self-description as a “leftist.” You might think it consistent with the traditions of progressive thought that people who have suffered the deepest oppression, who have survived the machinery of extermination, should no longer depend on nation-states that had perpetrated or tolerated their liquidation, but should rather exercise self-determination and collective self-defense. This is a right that a sincerely progressive thinker would grant to all peoples. (It is what some Israeli leaders have sought to grant to Palestinians, only to be repaid with terror war and Jihadist aggression meant once again to exterminate the Jews.) It would follow from progressive thought that, in the wake of the Russian pogroms and the Holocaust, Jews had a right and duty for collective self-defense. Horror of horrors! That would mean that Zionism is a just and humane cause! Of course to a hater of Israel, which is what Finkelstein is, this conclusion is abominable.
If a principle that a progressive person would apply to all peoples is uniquely prohibited to one people, that is bigotry. To Finkelstein, this bigotry applies uniquely to one people. It deserves a unique name: anti-Semitism. Finkelstein’s anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. His builds a case for it through slander.
An example of how Finkelstein does it appears in an online interview on a Web site called “Counterpunch.” In it, Finkelstein gives his take on the recent immigration to Israel of Russians, some of whom have turned out to be non-Jews. He writes that “the reason why is because the Israeli establishment likes the blue-eyed, blonde-haired Aryan types as a racial group.” Of course, this is a fabrication meant to make Jewish leaders seem like Nazis. When I confronted him with this after his speech, his only evidence was that some works of pro- Israeli literature had blonde and blue-eyed protagonists. He went on to give as an example a character in Leon Uris’s “Exodus.” The character’s name, Finkelstein explained, is “Ari,” which he said-publicly to 100 or so avid listeners-is “a diminutive of ‘Aryan.'” Stupid as that statement is (“Ari” is short for the ancient Hebrew name “Arieh”), it reveals his slanderous scheme.
If these brief examples are representative, Finkelstein is a huckster. And, oh yes, he is an anti- Semite. It’s too bad that UB professors, including someone called a “distinguished professor,” would see fit to invite this man, but that hardly needs to be pointed out. The more interesting upshot is rather different. So-called “progressive thought,” to the extent that UB’s graduate Marxist group represents it, seems to see itself as so ideologically downtrodden and to have reached such a state of intellectual desperation that it must resort to claiming Jihadist crusaders as resistance fighters and to recapturing lost thrills by going to bed with Jew haters.
Department of Urban and Regional Planning
School of Architecture and Planning
Ernest Sternbers is a member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East