(Norman Finkelstein, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End. OR Books, 470pp, ISBN 9781935928775)
Reviewed by Matt Hill
The twentieth century saw American Jews leave the ghetto behind and become the country's wealthiest ethnic group, but perhaps surprisingly they took their politics along to the suburbs. Stubbornly clinging to their Depression-vintage liberal-Democratic values, Jews turned out almost as strongly for Obama as they once had for Franklin Roosevelt. But how does this square with their other abiding commitment – that is, to Israel?
When its prevailing image was of a plucky David holding back a crazed Arab Goliath, a land of socialist pioneers watering the desert with the sweat of their brow, supporting Israel chimed with liberals' instinctive sympathy for the underdog. But that sympathy is sorely tested by the regional superpower that today scorns international law, routinely resorts to terrifying force, has an increasingly questionable commitment to democracy, and is, to boot, one of the world's most unequal countries. A lot of evidence seems to show a growing disenchantment with Israel among US Jews, particularly of the younger generation. How to understand this, and what might it mean for the world's most intractable conflict?
It was only after Israel’s spectacular victory in the June 1967 ‘Six Day’ War that most Jews warmed to the state claiming to be their homeland; soon it was, as one observer said, the ‘religion of American Jews’. The standard explanation for this mood-swing is that the spectre of Israel’s destruction unearthed memories of the Holocaust and roused Jews' dormant ethnic solidarity. But Finkelstein argues Israel's newfound popularity owed more to the fact that the Cold War rendered it useful to America, as a doorstop against the Soviets’ regional ambitions, and in turn to the Jews, whose familial loyalty was now sanctioned and sanctified by the 'great battle of our time'. Israel performs the same role today, says Finkelstein, with Islamists and Arab nationalists playing the bad guys. Those who argue, like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, that the 'Israel lobby' bends the US against its foreign policy interests have it the wrong way round: Jews tend to follow the government’s lead, not the reverse. As soon as it becomes a net liability for the US, Jews will distance themselves from Israel 'like the slightly meschugge aunt confined to the attic because of “what the neighbours might think.”'
You’d be forgiven some puzzlement here. Because Finkelstein’s argument is that, if US Jews ‘do the right thing’ and push America to reverse course, the Arab-Israeli conflict ‘might yet soon end’. But what's the point of appealing to Jews' conscience if their views faithfully track government policy and not the other way round? And what difference would a sea-change in Jewish opinion make to the US government anyway, if Israel is so vital to its strategy in the region?
Finkelstein tries to finesse this contradiction by making a special case of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Israel may be a useful forward base for the US military, but it's ‘hard to make out how Washington benefits’ from the occupation when it has ‘come at the price of alienating public opinion in the Arab-Muslim world and making [America] a likelier target of terrorist attacks.’ America’s overall Israel policy isn’t likely to change, in other words, but it might be persuaded to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, where its ‘key interests’ aren’t in play.
But aren't America’s key interests bound up with winning over the Arab-Muslim world and, particularly, avoiding terrorism? If you accept the Walt-Mearsheimer view that America's main business in the Middle East is to maintain stability while stopping energy supplies from falling into the hands of any single power, the costs and benefits of supporting Israel look finely balanced. Sure, Israel provides a base – probably the only truly reliable one, long-term – for American might in a hostile, unstable region. But it's also a major cause of hostility and instability. As American hegemony wanes, underwriting Israeli ultra-militarism may become just too costly, in financial and political terms, to be worthwhile. It may one day dawn on US policymakers that Israel can be just as useful a military outpost – and less egregiously offensive to its neighbours – minus the occupation.
How much all this has to do with domestic Jewish opinion is debatable. But it's more than a little ironic that Norman Finkelstein is the man purporting to read the subtleties of the American Jewish mind, having spent decades not so much ruffling feathers in the community as plucking carcasses and stuffing them. His public remarks sometimes evince, at best, a ludicrous absence of tact, and his lack of patience with American Jews shows through these pages. He excoriates one writer for seeing a 'deeper social pathology’ in Palestinian actions, but does the same for Jews, as when says post-'67 Israel ‘became a stage on which American Jews projected and played out racist and chauvinist fantasies of revenge against the goyim’. His enemies will have no problem picking such low-hanging generalisations as evidence of Finkelstein's own supposed pathologies.
Which is a pity, because he can be as brilliant a writer as he is maddening. Knowing Too Much is bulked out with a series of the author’s trademark take-downs of Israel's public cheerleaders. (When credulous intellectuals laud the latest piece of junk pro-Israel scholarship, the sound you can hear is Norman Finkelstein licking his lips.) Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, savaged here for an especially shameless piece of charlatanism about a Soviet plot to nuke Israel, should do the decent thing and quietly retire. Some very palpable and satisfying hits are landed on the likes of Jeffrey Goldberg, Dennis Ross and, most deliciously, Benny Morris. These targeted assassinations are only tenuously linked to the book’s main argument – supposedly the errors of Atlantic hacks, retired diplomats and turncoat historians are the kind of thing about which US Jews ‘know too much’ nowadays – but they’re the highlight of the book.
But for all his brio as a polemicist, Finkelstein is unconvincing as a foreign policy pundit and sociologist of the American Jewish Weltanschauung. Zionism's rationale was to provide somewhere for Jews to escape the outright anti-Semitism and, almost as bad, creeping assimilationism of diaspora life. More than a haven, Israel was supposed to provide Jews with a home where they could realise their authentic Jewish selves. This made a kind of sense – usually if only in theory – for first- and second-generation immigrants as they made their way up the rungs of the American twentieth century. But as they become ever more comfortably immersed in the US mainstream, Israel seems increasingly anachronistic and its attempts at seduction grow more hysterical and absurd. The truth is that few US Jews today have much use for anything Israel has to offer, any more than they can imagine pogroms breaking out in Palm Beach County. If they are starting to look askance at Israel, it's not primarily because they know too much: it's because they look at its neverland of arrested development and perpetual war and feel they have too much to lose.
- Matt Hill is a writer and postgraduate student based in London. (This review was first published in Review31 - http://review31.co.uk – and is republished here with permission.)