Norman G Finkelstein, 'Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History' (updated edition)

IssueFebruary 2009
Review by Gabriel Carlyle

The Israel-Palestine conflict is often presented in the British media as a highly controversial subject of near-labyrinthine complexity – with its “road maps”, “final status agreements”, and endless “peace processes”. The tacit implication is clear: unless you’ve spent ten years getting a PhD in Israel-Palestine studies, and can argue fluently about the minutiae of the Wye River Memorandum and the Yom Kippur war, don’t even dream of trying to form an independent opinion. In truth, as Norman Finkelstein documents with forensic scholarship in this exceptionally fine book, much of this “controversy” has been deliberately kicked up to obscure just how uncontroversial the conflict now is.

Thus, on the historical front, there is now “a broad consensus among scholars that Palestinians suffered an ethnic cleansing in 1948”, while on the legal-diplomatic front pretty much the whole world – except the US and Israel – now agrees upon the solution: full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories (including East Jerusalem), a state for the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, full peace between Israel and its neighbours, and a recognition of the Palestinian refugees’ “right to return”.

Likewise, real controversy over Israel’s appalling human rights record (house demolitions, assassinations, indiscriminate killings, torture, use of human shields, collective punishment etc…) is virtually nonexistent. Indeed, in the thousands of pages of human rights reports he read to produce this book, covering a 15-year period, Finkelstein was able to find “only one case of one demonstration where two human rights organisations differed on one tiny point”.

Recently reprinted in paperback, this edition contains quite a bit of new material, including a new preface and a chapter on the World Court’s judgement on Israel’s separation wall. However, the core of the book (the preface, chapters 4-9, and the two appendices on the historical record and that dreaded “peace process”) clocks in at roughly 260 pages, making it less of a door-stop than it first appears.

Of all the vast literature on the conflict, this is the book that I would most recommend to the newcomer (though everyone else should read it as well!).

As in earlier books Finkelstein uses another text as a foil for his arguments. Here that role is played by Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, which Finkelstein convincingly demonstrates to have been little more than a “threadbare hoax”.

However, as Finkelstein – an activist as well as a scholar – notes, the real issue isn’t Dershowitz but Israel’s human rights record, and the real task for activists is to “unite the many to defeat the few” by mobilising around the (uncontroversial) global consensus for a two-state solution and a just peace.

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