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Finkelstein, a Victim of the Israel Lobby, Denies That It Has Power

US Politics
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Last fall, Norman Finkelstein lost his job at DePaul because of the Israel lobby. As he put it in his only statement on the matter:

[M]y department voted overwhelmingly to tenure me as did the college-level tenure committee, which voted unanimously in my favor. The only inference that I can draw is that I was denied tenure due to external pressures climaxing in a national hysteria that tainted the tenure process…. [over] the past six years….the DePaul administration kept me on its faculty despite overwhelming external pressures."

Too true. Now Finkelstein is lecturing on how the Israel lobby is blown way out of proportion by Walt and Mearsheimer. He calls his lecture "A Critique of the Walt-Mearsheimer Thesis," according to the California State University student newspaper, which summarized his argument after a lecture in Northridge, Ca., last week.

"Now to demonstrate that the U.S. allies with Israel distorts the American national interest, which is what Mearsheimer and Walt claim," Finkelstein said. "You have to show that U.S. policy in the Arab world would be different were it not for Israel…but if you look at the historical record, there’s just no evidence for that."

"When it comes to broad regional fundamental interests, Iraq, Iran, South Arabia oil, it is U.S. national interests that take priority," he said. "When it comes to a local question like Israel and occupied territories, there I think it is a true that it’s the lobby that is destroying U.S. policy because the obvious question you would ask yourself is, I think, ‘What does the U.S. stand to gain from the settlements that Israel is building?’ The answer quite obviously is nothing."

Finkelstein also said that he does not put much stock in "ethnic" allegiances and went on to say that Walt and Mearsheimer were wrong in putting the blame for the Iraq War on Jewish neocons:

"The main architects of the war are always said to be Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney," Finkelstein said. "Well everyone in this room knows Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney are not Jewish and they don’t fit the profile of these Jewish neoconservatives. So how do Mearsheimer and Walt reconcile? (Rumsfeld and Cheney) are obviously not Jewish neoconservatives, and yet you say it was the Jewish neoconservatives who caused the war?"

These arguments are entirely unpersuasive. Let’s take them on. 

First, note Finkelstein’s general argument of a broad regional "fundamental" U.S. interest that is pushed by corporate and business concerns. This is essentially a materialist argument that pooh-poohs the influence of ethnic identification. Finkelstein is a good old leftist in this way; it’s the oil lobby that’s driving our politics. Or the corporate/business  powers in an imperialist society. Though Finkelstein admits that the ethnic lobby plays a part in a local way, in determining U.S. policy in the West Bank. 

Finkelstein made the same sort of distinctions when I interviewed him for the Nation on W-M’s LRB paper two years ago. He said then that he liked their paper, because "The Israel lobby in its broader manifestations… supporters in academic life and publishing, behave like thugs and hooligans. They’ve been getting a free ride for too long."

Presumably these are the thugs and hooligans who destroyed his job at DePaul. But Finkelstein told me then that "elite opinion and policy formulation" were untouched by the lobby.

The argument is flimsy. To begin with, American policy in the West Bank is hardly peripheral. It has damaged the American reputation and influence across the Arab world and in Europe too. And this is not some recent phenomenon. The damage has occurred before our eyes, certainly ever since George H.W. Bush tried to oppose settlements in ’91 and paid–he apparently believes–with his job in ’92. That is nearly 20 years of bad influence at the highest level. Muhammed ElBaradei has said that the treatment of Palestinians is a red flag across the Muslim world, and the writings of Osama bin Laden show that he was fixated on the Palestinian situation as a reflection of U.S. policy. I.e., this is "policy formulation" with global impact. To describe it as peripheral is simply wrong. Why hasn’t Finkelstein’s larger American corporate interest in the Middle East stepped in to avert the damage? Because it is trumped. 

The heart of Finkelstein’s mistake is that he claims a distinction between "elite" opinion/policy formulation and the media/American Jewish culture. His worldview is essentially nostalgic, to a time when corporate bigwigs controlled the government. Maybe they did, and maybe they still have a hand in there; but to dismiss the power of the media is very "last year," as the kids say. In my Nation interview with Finkelstein, he said that " The media are completely controlled by these hoodlums." Meaning the Israel lobby. And what does it mean that political candidates regularly attack oil profits, and no one will dare talk about Israel policy? The candidates evidently fear the Israel supporters more than the oil companies, and I don’t blame them. 

A word about ethnic/religious motivation. Some time back I thanked Finkelstein in an email for publishing the fact, in his fabulous book, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, that political theorist Michael Walzer had once written that there was no universal moral code, but "ethnically-specific clusters of shared understandings" (to use Finkelstein’s typically precise description). In Walzer’s view, one judged one’s own "national family" by different standards than another national family. I.e., Walzer gives Jews a break because he’s Jewish.

I remember saying to Finkelstein, well at least I know where Walzer stands, and I am grateful to him for his honesty. Indeed, I admire Walzer for his soulful, reflective openness, which I first saw as a college kid when he sought to explain a philosophical point by saying if he could be playing guard for the New York Knicks he wouldn’t be lecturing us now. But in our email exchange, Finkelstein responded in essence, Oh, he just said that to get attention, or some cynical statement. He could not take Walzer on his word about there being an ethnic motivation, because Finkelstein does not see that as a real motivator. (I imagine this is because he is an old Marxist, and Marxism doesn’t account for all the religious movements that are affecting us, from Islamic radicalism to Christian fundamentalism to Zionist claims on Jerusalem; it sees religion as a veil on the real stuff, empire and material advantage. Well sorry, but here ethnicity is very important indeed.)

The other point Finkelstein makes is his joke that Rumsfeld and Cheney were not Jewish. You hear this joke all the time when people are dismissing the role of the neocons in pushing the greatest foreign policy disaster of the last 50 years. I believe Dov Zackheim made the same joke at the Nixon Center. This is foolish. If you’re an intellectual, you really ought to believe that ideas have influence. The ideas that Marx originated in the British Library changed a continent. Freud’s ideas changed popular culture. Finkelstein’s books have been translated into dozens of language. Walt and Mearsheimer have never excused Rumsfeld, Bush and Cheney from the horrible decision to go to war. But decisions are based on ideologies and ideas and and worldviews. Policy formulation owes a lot to thinktanks, which is why conservatives have spent so much money funding them a stone’s throw from the State Department; and in 2001 neoconservative ideas were regnant: that the U.S. as the only superpower could impose democracy by force and it would stick; that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians was irrelevant to our crusade for freedom in the Arab world, even in the eyes of the Arabs; that radical Islam was taking over the Arab world and hated our civilization, etc. From the Peace Corps to the Laffer curve, the history of policymaking is filled with bright ideas that hooked-up intellectuals brought to the table. To put all the blame on Cheney and Rumsfeld is anti-intellectual. 

All in all, I find Finkelstein’s critique somewhat confusing. He has done amazing, pioneering and lonely work in Israeli history and the uses of the Holocaust. He was an inspiration to Walt and Mearsheimer, and when he lost his job last year, Mearsheimer gave an eloquent speech at a forum in Chicago decrying the decision and showing beyond doubt, based on years of his own involvement with tenure committees, that Finkelstein was super qualified to receive tenure–on the criteria of quality of scholarship, likelihood of continuing scholarship, citizenship in the university, and teaching skills (famous, in Finkelstein’s case). Here is Mearsheimer’s speech, in audio. And here is an excerpt:

Almost everyone admits that significant outside pressure was brought to bear on DePaul to deny Finkelstein tenure. Alan Dershowitz’s intervention in this regard is the most visible example of outside interference, but he was surely not the only outsider to weigh in against Finkelstein. DePaul’s leaders acknowledge the outside pressure, but deny it had any effect on the final decision. Of course, what else are they going to say? They are certainly not going to admit that they caved into pressure from the Israel lobby. But there is little doubt that they did, as there is no other plausible explanation for the top administrators’ decision to override the recommendations of the political science department and the college-wide tenure committee.

…I think key elements in the Israel lobby have worked so hard to demonize Finkelstein and make sure that he was denied tenure…

I’m not saying that Finkelstein should agree with Mearsheimer because Mearsheimer fought for him.  One should not expect loyalty from independent intellectuals. But so much of Mearsheimer’s agenda is also Finkelstein’s–changing U.S. policy in the Middle East, crediting the great work of the New Historians on the Palestinian expulsion–that you’d think he might praise/endorse W&M in addition to critiquing them.

Finkelstein is a famously complicated guy; he can be strident and emotional. And I wonder if he is not slightly envious of all the attention they’ve gotten. I have no evidence, just an impression. More important, there is a Jewish angle. When I interviewed Finkelstein for the Nation, he told me he thought W&M’s LRB paper might have an "ugly" wake. "The debate can easily turn ugly. I have talked to Mearsheimer, he’s recognized that possibility. He can see why American Jews would be concerned."

Finkelstein specifically mentioned an argument that might emerge, that Jews don’t serve in the American armed forces in anything like their numbers in the population. This is in fact an argument I have made on this blog: that Jews are way underrepresented in the military, way overrepresented in policymaking. I have done so in the American tradition of shining sunlight on elites and with the belief that pogroms will not result. Of course, in Finkelstein’s nostalgic view, the Israel lobby is not an elite. No, it only runs roughshod in the media, academia and U.S. policy in the West Bank.

When he allowed that things could get ugly, he was responding in a protectively-ethnic manner, out of concern that there could be Jewish persecution in the U.S.; and god knows he has every right to think this way, being the son of Holocaust survivors. Indeed, I know other Jewish leftists who are similarly concerned (and who also rationalize these fears with arguments about the powerlessness of the lobby). But these feelings of his remain unexamined and undeclared. His own identification issues are not as forthright as Walzer’s.

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