Norman Finkelstein’s new book, Knowing Too Much, shows that support for Israel is declining among American Jews, as evidence of Israeli wrongs is now unavoidable, argues Season Butler.
Norman Finkelstein, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance With Israel is Coming to an End (O/R Books 2012), xx, 472pp.
In the past, support for Israel as the Jewish homeland has not been viewed as incongruous with the generally liberal lean of the Jewish electorate in the United States. Even among progressive, non- (or not necessarily) Zionist Jews, broad support for Israel and a belief in Israeli legitimacy has largely persisted. Indeed, the reporting of the Arab-Israeli conflict within the US has long been generally pro-Israel, leaving much of the general population ignorant of the serious human rights abuses and breaches to international law perpetrated by that state.
Instead, a more positive view of Israel has prevailed, one of a progressive democracy in an undemocratic region, a post-War oasis which was well-deserved and even necessary following the horrors of the Holocaust. In Knowing Too Much, Norman Finkelstein charts the increasing distancing of liberal American Jews from Israel. While some commentators and think tanks attribute this diminution of support to a lack of historical knowledge of the state’s origins, a distance from the halcyon days of kibbutzes and the defence of noble ideals, Finkelstein’s thesis is that it is knowing *more* rather than less which has dampened Jewish support for Israel.
History over mythology, documentary evidence over anecdote, American Jews are beginning in larger numbers to hold Israel to account for its wrongs, rather than offering increasingly unconvincing platitudes to excuse them. The facts presented in *Knowing Too Much* are those which compound the ‘ideological rift’ between American Jewish liberalism and Israeli neoconservatism. ‘The gap in the mindset between American Jewry and Israelis on war and peace and kindred issues verges on an abyss’ (p.89).
Furthermore, the assumption of Israel’s survival versus Arab rights is becoming more widely understood as a false dichotomy among more American Jews, particularly younger ones. There is a growing recognition of Israel’s foreign and domestic policies as fundamentally inconsistent with those values of truth and justice which underpin liberal beliefs. The ability to view the facts around the Israel-Palestine question selectively, in a way which allows a blindly pro-Israel perspective is simply no longer possible, Finkelstein asserts. This is not because Israel's policies are getting worse, but rather that evidence of its morally dubious practices are now too copious, and originate from too diverse and credible a pool of sources, for the relatively well-educated, generally liberal majority of American Jewry to ignore.
Through a comprehensive historical survey of Israel’s foundation and conflicts and the ways in which these are understood globally, Finkelstein charts the myths about Israel and the information which has come to light to dissolve them. Knowing Too Much exposes the quagmire of Orwellian paradoxes: Israel as nuclear strongman versus Israel as the bullied new kid of the Middle East; Israel as US proxy versus Israel as US president-maker; Israel as Socialist utopia versus Israel as aggressive, neoconservative regional hegemon; the Zionist belief that the Jewish people had no future among the goyim against the growing influence and prosperity of American Jews. ‘The old, immaculate myths won't persuade Jews, while the new, warts-and-all myths won't inspire them’ (p.102).
Finkelstein opens his argument with an initial challenge to the assumption that Israel has always enjoyed unconditionally enthusiastic support from American Jews. The founding of the state of Israel in 1948 was met, he says, largely with indifference from American Jews. It was not until Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, and Israel’s establishment as a regional ally in the United States’ anti-Soviet project that the ‘American Jewish romance with Israel’ began in earnest.
The dual loyalty problem is an important one. The increase in American Jewish avowal of, and support for, Israel in 1967 coincided nicely with Israel’s strategic importance in the toppling of the Nasser regime in Egypt. Where the interests of the US and Israel fail to intersect, and when evidence of Israeli practices which are inconsistent with liberal values prove difficult to justify and impossible to ignore, we will see an American Jewry increasingly disillusioned with Israel.
Finkelstein challenges the idea of Jewish solidarity being the principle reason for the support of Israel by American Jews. Utility, not loyalty, binds Washington and Tel Aviv. He argues that Scooter Libby, the Jewish neoliberal in Bush’s cabinet, took Kissenger as his role model, the same Kissenger who said, in 1970, ‘if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern’ (p.76). When the interests of Washington and Tel Aviv cease to overlap – as is the case with the colonisation of Palestine – American Jewish popular opinion will diminish.
In his discussion of pro-Israel popular literature, he attempts to show that even literature with a Zionist propagandistic lean can no longer do the job effectively. The quantity of facts which must be present to lend a work of literature a modicum of credibility will still leave the reader ambivalent at best. Would-be propaganda is now so flimsy that it serves as a kind of literary own-goal.
Finkelstein supports his points comprehensively, but at times this takes his discussion quite far from his central thesis. And it is not that the conversation wanders off track – his prose is too assertive for that. It feels more that the reader is taken for a march, which means the argument must march back to rejoin the central thread. He writes with an acute awareness of his critics and their tactics. When he presents the results of opinion polls to support an argument (usually some iteration of the assertion that American Jewry is increasingly, quantifiably, disillusioned with Israel), he must include the results of polls which presented similarly worded questions to pre-empt accusations of bias.
In his questioning of how the popular revolts comprising the Arab Spring will affect Israel’s position in the region, Finkelstein begins to bring his analysis right up to the present historical moment. What is missing from Knowing Too Much is a comprehensive analysis of the Obama election. In a book about paradigm shifts in the ideological alignment of American Jews, an examination of Obama’s support on the part of the Jewish electorate, possible conflicts arising between Obama’s administration and the pro-Israel lobby, and the president’s aims vis-à-vis American-Israeli relations, would have brought Finkelstein’s book right up to date. Finkelstein’s thorough research and presentation of poll data might have elucidated the Jewish reaction to Obama’s activity (or lack thereof) with regard to Israel and the Middle East peace process, and given the reader a sense of the American Jewish consensus with regard to how it would like the American political leadership to move forward.
Still, Knowing Too Much provides the reader with a solid historical education into the Arab-Israeli conflict and leaves one with a sense that if Israel fails to revise its policies and practices it will find itself increasingly isolated, even from those who had once constituted its most important and influential supporters.
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