David Remnick erases Norman Finkelstein

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Eshelman Finkelstein 05
Norman Finkelstein (Photo: OR Books)

Yesterday I praised David Remnick for his story about Joan Peters’s 1984 book of propaganda that said that there were no Palestinians in Palestine till Jews got there. And I barely touched on a curious aspect of his piece that many commenters then seized on: Remnick left out Norman Finkelstein’s role in exposing the fraud; he gave credit to an Israeli:

The book was thoroughly discredited by an Israeli historian, Yehoshua Porath, and many others who dismantled its pseudo-scholarship.

Remnick’s link was to Porath’s 1986 review of the book, From Time Immemorial, in the New York Review of Books.

This is a misrepresentation of intellectual history. The story of Norman Finkelstein’s exposure of Joan Peters is one of the great intellectual whodunnits of the Israel-Palestine issue. Finkelstein’s career began with this undertaking, which long preceded Porath’s– in fact, Porath actually cites Finkelstein’s work in his footnotes.

The story began in spring 1984 with the publication of Peters’s book. At that time Finkelstein, who is the son of concentration-camp survivors, was a 30-year-old graduate student at Princeton, lately disaffected from Maoism. He had decided to do his dissertation on Zionism and read the Peters book because everyone was talking about it. He quickly sensed something off about its method.

For much of that spring he lay on his bed tearing the book apart with a pencil– it looked like it had been in a “blender,” he later recounted. When he established glaring internal contradictions in Peters’s data, he did what any scholar did: he called his mother late at night to crow. He first contacted Peters in June 1984; and subsequent editions of the book were amended to reflect some of his early criticisms.

Anyone who knows Finkelstein knows that he was not finished. “I invested two years of my life in this endeavor,” he told me by phone. “My late mother wanted to throttle me. She said, ‘When are you going to finish your dissertation?’ But I was like Captain Ahab.”

By December 1984, he sent out a manuscript to two dozen senior scholars. Only one responded. The phone rang on Saturday morning. It was Noam Chomsky.

Here is Chomsky telling the story:

[The book] was the big intellectual hit for that year: Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman, everybody was talking about it as the greatest thing since chocolate cake.Well, one graduate student at Princeton, a guy named Norman Finkelstein, started reading through the book. He was interested in the history of Zionism, and as he read the book he was kind of surprised by some of the things it said. He’s a very careful student, and he started checking the references—and it turned out that the whole thing was a hoax, it was completely faked: probably it had been put together by some intelligence agency or something like that. Well, Finkelstein wrote up a short paper of just preliminary findings, it was about twenty-five pages or so, and he sent it around to I think thirty people who were interested in the topic, scholars in the field and so on, saying: “Here’s what I’ve found in this book, do you think it’s worth pursuing?”

Well, he got back one answer, from me. I told him, yeah, I think it’s an interesting topic, but I warned him, if you follow this, you’re going to get in trouble—because you’re going to expose the American intellectual community as a gang of frauds, and they are not going to like it, and they’re going to destroy you. So I said: if you want to do it, go ahead, but be aware of what you’re getting into. It’s an important issue, it makes a big difference whether you eliminate the moral basis for driving out a population—it’s preparing the basis for some real horrors—so a lot of people’s lives could be at stake. But your life is at stake too, I told him, because if you pursue this, your career is going to be ruined.

Well, he didn’t believe me. 

Finkelstein’s partial analysis was published in In These Times in September 1985. As I said, Porath would cite this piece several months later, when his own piece was published in the New York Review.

And when Anthony Lewis published a piece on the scandal in the New York Times in 1986– with the famous title, “There were no Indians”–he also gave credit where credit was due.

It is impossible to detail the character of ”From Time Immemorial” in a newspaper column. It has been fully explored in criticisms by, among others, Norman Finkelstein, a Princeton graduate student; Bill Farrell, a Columbia law student; Sir Ian Gilmour, a British M.P., and his son David, and Albert Hourani, an Oxford historian who called the book ”ludicrous and worthless.’

The criticisms are unanswerable, or at least they have not been answered.

The late Edward Said also centrally credited Finkelstein in a chapter on Peters’s claims:

In what I shall now relate… if I speak more about Finkelstein [than other critics of Peters’s scholarship] it is to note his amazing persistence despite odds that would have deterred almost anyone else.

Finkelstein’s place as the unmasker of Joan Peters was cemented when he published Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict in 1995. The book, a classic among Israel’s critics, printed his full paper on Peters; and the footnotes chronicled his efforts to publish it and Peters’s feckless responses to it. In that chapter Finkelstein credited Porath “the noted Israeli scholar,” for his work on the case.

Finkelstein’s role is common knowledge. When the Canadian journalist Jeet Heer wrote to me about Remnick’s elision yesterday, I asked him that very question: How did you know of Finkelstein’s role?

Heer explained, and then offered a wise conclusion on the case:

I think Christopher Hitchens and Alex Cockburn wrote about it in the Nation, and they relied heavily on Finkelstein (who they cited.) There was also a big piece by Anthony Lewis in the NY Times… Anyway, at the time it was very clear that Finkelstein was the one who really nailed the factual case against Peters  – I didn’t hear about other critics like Porath till later. So clearly Remnick was thinking of Finkelstein when he wrote “and many others” (which is itself untrue, since there weren’t that many others who challenged Peters).

As for why Remnick can’t give credit to Finkelstein — again, this is surmise but given Remnick’s stance he probably thinks of Finkelstein as a dangerously anti-Zionist radical and outside the pale of respectable society. So in order to make the point (and maybe with his audience in mind) Remnick cited “an Israeli historian” — i.e. someone who can be trusted.

It’s sad that Finkelstein won’t get credit for this (or his other great work). But that’s the way it often is — it’s the radicals who change how we think, but often mainstream society can’t acknowledge their work because they were discreditable. It’s the way that communists and socialists championed civil rights in the early 20th century long before liberals took up the cause. While liberalism owes them a debt, it can’t be admitted. But the positive side of all this is that Finkelstein’s ideas are permeating all those who think about this issue, even in the hallowed halls of the New Yorker.

Finkelstein offered the following wry commentary on the case, two images from the University of Minnesota archive of Soviet photos:

Lenin with Trotsky
Lenin with Trotsky
Lenin without Trotsky
Lenin without Trotsky


Thanks to Ahmed Moor and others: Remnick does credit Finkelstein, in a backhanded way, in a Haaretz interview published today:

“I wrote this blog piece suggesting that language like this has a history: there was a book that was a kind of totemic book on the right, unfortunately celebrated by some surprising people, and it was called “From Time Immemorial” by Joan Peters, and it was a big bestseller here, until it was discredited very roundly and very thoroughly, and not just by Norman Finkelstein.”

Also noteworthy: in that interview, Remnick is more straightforward about the role of Jewish donors in the Republican pandering on Israel than he is in his New Yorker piece, where he repeatedly characterizes the competition as one for Jewish voters.

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