Is the Cat Out of the Bag on Israel?

norman-finkelstein-knowing-too-much-reviewThroughout the past decade, reports of Israel’s military and political atrocities are more widely disseminated than ever before, especially since the construction of the wall in the West Bank, the 2009 assault on Gaza, and the rapidly increasing settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In his latest book, Knowing Too Much: The American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to An End, veteran activist Norman Finkelstein argues that the growing international awareness of the Israeli occupation has heralded a perceptible shift among the U.S. Jewish community away from a close identification with Israel.

American Jews, of course, do feel a special attachment to Israel. To this end, Finkelstein highlights ties related to ethnicity, citizenship, and ideology, but argues that tensions between ethnic Jewish identity and U.S. citizenship have allowed ideological considerations to triumph. Finkelstein points to the lukewarm ethnic affiliation with Israel prior to the 1967 War and contrasts it with the outpouring of support and solidarity after the “great victory” in 1967. He argues that American Jewish attitudes towards Israel tend to fluctuate based on what is most socially and politically salient within the United States at any given time.

According to Finkelstein, criticism of Israeli policies from American Jews is growing far stronger than anything American politicians can muster. Although disagreeing with some of their more controversial claims, Finkelstein concurs with scholars Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer in their argument that U.S. support for the Israeli occupation would have eroded long ago if not for the formidable “Israel lobby.” Emphasizing the widening gap between U.S. policy decisions and American public opinion, Finkelstein cites several polls showing that more Americans are critical of Israel than ever before. “It can no longer be tenably claimed,” he concludes, “that the President and both houses of Congress near-unanimously support Israel because of overwhelming popular support.”

Finkelstein does not argue that the discourse is shifting now because of a dramatic increase in Israeli injustice, but rather because the extent of Israeli abuses is now exposed in realms that American Jews can no longer ignore. Because American Jews are often well educated and tied into scholarly, intellectual circles, they are unavoidably confronted with a wave of credible scholars, professionals, and activists announcing their outrage at Israel’s policies.

Finkelstein realizes that the mainstream U.S. media remains largely under the thumb of pro-Israel interests, but he contends that among the social and professional circles in which many American Jews find themselves, arguments disparaging Israel are becoming the norm. He further argues that the credibility of many of these new critics disallows them from convincingly being labeled anti-Semites. Finkelstein points out that it is becoming increasingly difficult especially for younger American Jews, who proudly consider their community a bastion of liberalism and condemn human rights abuses elsewhere, to reconcile their love for Israel with its violations against Palestinians.

Countering staunch supporters of Israel like Alan Dershowitz and Martin Peretz who dismiss criticisms of Israel’s human rights record by pointing to other countries that commit more horrendous crimes, Finkelstein responds: “It is doubtful a new generation of American Jews can be inspired by the slogan, ‘Israel, Not the world’s only human rights violator.’”

Other chapters of Finkelstein’s book discuss a range of issues that appear to be superfluous to his main argument, although interesting unto themselves. He addresses pro-Israel opposition to human rights accountability both in Jeffrey Goldberg’s book, Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew across the Middle East Divide, and in Benny Morris’ more recent work that refutes much of his own previous scholarship. Finkelstein exposes well-known organizations like Human Rights Watch for focusing more on violations by Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon war than on Israeli crimes. Although Finkelstein presents convincing arguments, they tend to draw attention away from the evolution of American Jews’ opinions about Israel. To this end, the middle section of Knowing Too Much seems somewhat irrelevant and slightly disorienting.

Finkelstein admits that much of the research for this book was completed in the early 2000s, and the writing was mostly finished by 2008, even though the book was not published until 2012. However, the data that has since been compiled regarding American views towards Israel supports his overall claim. For example, a December 2011 Salon article points out that not only scholars but also diplomats and political professionals, such as Bruce Riedel, Paul Pillar, and Lawrence Wilkerson—all of whom held prominent positions in the U.S. intelligence community—have recently voiced pointed concerns over Israeli policies. The word is slowly getting out, and as Finkelstein reminds his reader, that’s what counts.

Finkelstein briefly mentions a March 2010 Zogby poll in which 63 percent of U.S. Democrats agreed with the statement, “Israeli settlements are built on land confiscated from Palestinians and should be torn down and the land returned to Palestinian owners.” As the progressive community at large becomes increasingly willing to condemn Israeli injustices, American Jews feel more politically and ideologically alienated from Israel as they try to retain support of liberal values.

Finkelstein applauds the recent victories of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign as the Presbyterian Church USA, the World Council of Churches, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church have all held votes on a boycott of Israeli products. The BDS movement has grown exponentially since it was launched after a call from Palestinian civil society in 2005 and today represents one of the most powerful tools to escalate the shift in discourse that Finkelstein describes. Many scholars and activists have compared the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa with the blossoming one for justice in Palestine. And as Finkelstein reminds us, the more Americans who shift to a critical view of Israel, the stronger the movement grows to promote greater justice there.

Emily Johanson is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.