Last month at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Norman Finkelstein gave a speech on “the new anti-semitism” to the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. The speech contained a number of interesting ideas; let me summarize a few.
The most important one involves Zionism’s role in fostering anti-Semitism. Jewish organizations assert that there is no connection at all between Israel’s actions and anti-semitic activities; but the opposite is the case, Finkelstein said. And Israel and Jewish groups could do a lot to reduce anti-Semitism by disavowing Israel’s actions or disavowing that Israel is a Jewish state. Finkelstein:
It’s often claimed that there’s… no causal nexus between Israeli actions and anti-Semitism, that you can’t blame it on Israel, that there’s no connection between the… spikes in Israeli violence against Palestinians and the upticks in anti-Semitic violence. When in fact if you go through the evidence collected over many years, that’s exactly what the evidence does show: each time Israel launches another of its murderous assaults, anti-semitic incidents peak in Europe. And they’re often perpetrated by disaffected angry Muslim youth. If in recent times, a larger fraction of these incidents are violent, it’s the blowback from the brutish fanaticism currently plaguing the Arab Muslim world.
Now if you’re really concerned about these spurts of anti-Semitism, and you want to contain them, then there are obvious things you can do.
Number one, Israel can stop carrying out massacres….
Another thing is: Israel can simply stop calling itself a Jewish state, so Jews wouldn’t have to bear the burden for its criminal actions.
And the third thing is, official Jewish organizations in the diaspora, they could cease defending Israel’s criminal actions so it won’t appear as if Israel when it carries out these actions is acting in the name of the Jewish people.
The problem hasn’t been helped by the fact that Netanyahu “in a new phase of his megalomania” is calling himself the representative of the entire Jewish people.
When Muslim youths in Europe take him at his word, and they exact revenge on those whom he claims to represent, it might not be right, but it’s not surprising either.
That is a bracing and honest way to consider the attack on the kosher grocery in Paris. Notice that when Rev. Bruce Shipman said something far milder last summer during the Gaza massacre, he lost his job at Yale.
Finkelstein criticized a recent poll purporting to show that half of Britons hold anti-Semitic views. He scoffed at several of the indices of alleged anti-semitic attitudes. For instance, one measure is the view that Jews think that they are better than other people: 17 percent of Brits agreed with that characterization of Jews. Finkelstein says most Jews are anti-Semitic under that definition.
Between the spectacular success of Jews in the western world on the one hand, and the belief in a theological chosenness on the other, in fact most Jews themselves believe in their group superiority. That’s why Jews, present speaker included, like to kvell– that’s the Yiddish word for boast or brag– over the Jewish pedigree of 20 percent of Nobel laureates. I still remember as a child being very proud of the fact that the seminal figures of modernity, Marx, Einstein, and Freud, they were all Jewish…. If it were true that the belief that Jews think that they are superior is proof of anti-Semitism, the inexorable corollary would have to be that most Jews are anti-Semitic because they think they are better than other people.
These comments exactly mirror my own experience. And I’m glad that Finkelstein is talking about Jewish success, a central condition of Jewish life today. Far from being a liability, being Jewish brings “cachet,” he said, tapping people into “networks of privilege and power.” In western Europe, Canada, and the U.S., being Jewish “opens many doors and it closes none.” He cited Chelsea Clinton’s marriage, and observed that she had not slipped a rung on the social ladder by exchanging vows with a Jew.
Then there is the supposedly antisemitic belief that Jews are disproportionately represented in the media.
The fact of the matter is that even as the ADL– the Anti Defamation League– Abraham Foxman wrote in his book on the New Anti-Semitism, he says, yes it’s true Jews are proportionally overrepresented as a group in influential media, whether it be Hollywood, book publishing, opinion journals or newspapers…. but it has no cultural repercussions because he says if you’re in a position of power say in Hollywood, your only concern is the bottom line.
But that’s plainly not the case, Finkelstein said. There is surely a link between the overrepresentation of Jews in Hollywood and the omnipresence of the Holocaust as a cinematic concern, “putting all other human suffering in the shade.” He said there were 110 Holocaust films produced in the last three decades; but only 36 about slavery in the U.S. and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
And why shouldn’t people conclude that there is a connection between who sits in seats of influence and the content they produce. We accept such arguments when it comes to race and gender, Finkelstein said:
It’s perfectly fair in liberal precincts – politically-correct liberal precincts – to say that white people as against people of color, they have too much power in the media. Or it’s perfectly correct to say, men as against women, they have too much power in the media. Because everybody understands that if you‘re a man against a woman… there’s going to be a kind of natural propensity to give unfair time to yourself, your group, your gender. So it’s perfectly fine to say that white people as against people of color have too much power in the media, or men as against women have too much power in the media. Why, then, does it become anti-Semitic to flag the overrepresentation of Jews in the media? (17:45 min)
I don’t think that anyone has expressed that idea more clearly.
Finkelstein went on to question how much discrimination Jews face. Being Jewish carries a stigma, he said, but it is less of a burden than other forms of social prejudice, say those against being fat, short, bald, or unattractive. These are all life’s “stigmata,” he said– “God’s roll of the dice”– and people have to learn to live with them.
The evidence offered that being Jewish invites discrimination or violence is laughable, he said. The correlation of incidents involving violence and Jews in the west is flimsy; and if being Jewish was a bar to opportunity, then why are there so many Jews at leading universities. Forty percent of the student bodies of Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania– and 2 percent of the overall population. Twenty to 25 percent at Yale, Harvard and Cornell, 13 percent at Princeton and Brown. “This is hardly evidence of anti-Semitism.”
In fact, anti-Semitism has been “vanquished,” he said, and is approaching zero; and Finkelstein said he thought the argument that Jews are actually being favored in admissions at Ivy League schools to the detriment of Asian-Americans is intriguing.
In the last part of his lecture Finkelstein engaged the charge that it is anti-Semitic to single Israel out when many other countries do bad or worse stuff. Finkelstein took the charge seriously and had a very good answer, chiefly involving the special character and longevity of the injustice in Palestine.
The Q-and-A was notable for a couple of comments. Finkelstein differed with Noam Chomsky over the role of the Israel lobby. He said that the lobby was the reason the U.S. supports the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The U.S. has “no stake in the occupation” and would “be euphoric” if Israel withdrew from the occupation.
Then there was Finkelstein’s defense of the two-state solution. I’ve often heard him defend it before, but what struck me as remarkable is that on the one hand he said that the two-state solution was what apartheid South Africa had hoped to achieve by creating the Bantustans, a solution that the world resisted successfully (something Ali Abunimah said many years ago); but on the other the two-state solution should be supported in Israel and Palestine because it reflects international law and world opinion.
Citing global political and public opinion on the question, Finkelstein asked, “What is the maximum, the maximum one could hope to extract?” A Palestinian state in 20 percent of historical Palestine, he said. “Name me one country in the world that supports one state,” he went on challengingly. Even the Greens and Sinn Fein support two states.
“It’s not politics in my opinion,” he said, to demand one state, given that context. “You are imposing a personal opinion on a conflict, as if your personal opinion had anything to do with it.”
Addressing the BDS movement, or boycott, divestment and sanctions, Finkelstein said it was failing a “selfless” Gandhian test in insisting on Palestinians’ rights but not respecting the “reciprocal obligations” to honor the rights of the antagonist. He referred here to the rights of Israelis to their state, which is recognized under international law. BDS has no position on Israeli rights, he said, and in fact “discards Israeli rights”– and that is not a winnable position. There is a tendency among BDS supporters to believe that BDS can liberate Palestine. He called this “a naïve and almost silly position,” and one that did not reflect the South Africa experience, where a mass movement liberated the country.
(I disagree with Finkelstein’s points here, as to one state being a political movement, as to there being no country that supports one state (Israel does), as to BDS’s respect for Israelis’ rights and the effectiveness of BDS; but I will leave the countering to others, or another time.)
Thanks to Annie Robbins for picking up the lecture, seizing on many of the ideas above, and preparing notes for me on it.