on 5 May 2014
Norman Finkelstein first came to public prominence with his brilliant expose (published as a chapter in his book "Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict") of Joan Peters's much-lauded book "From Time Immemorial"; and much of his work has consisted of similar devastating critiques of best-selling books of Zionist propaganda (notably "Beyond Chutzpah", which eviscerates Alan Dershowitz's "The Case for Israel"). "Old Wine, Broken Bottle" is the latest in this formidable line.
This very short book is a kind of follow-on or extra chapter to Finkelstein's 2012 book "Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End". Finkelstein's argument in "Knowing Too Much" is: now that US Jews know the truth about Israel's past and present treatment of the Palestinians - in particular, as a result of the work of the New Israeli Historians, the truth about Israel's ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 - American Jews have been faced with a conflict between their tribal loyalty to Israel and their liberal and universalist conscience; the liberal and universalist conscience has won; and American Jews are either speaking out strongly against Israeli policies or - in the case of the majority - silently losing interest in and turning away from Israel, which has become an embarrassment.
In accounting for this victory of universalism over nationalism, Finkelstein gives as the main reasons a) the long tradition of the association of American Jews with liberalism and b) (to a much lesser extent) self-interest, in view of the excellent position of Jews in the US. He omits, however, to point to the Jewish universalist tradition that derives ultimately from the Hebrew Prophets. But he himself, underneath all his cool logic and citing of international law, seems to me to reflect - though he would probably repudiate the comparison - something of the searing anger and indignation of the Prophets in his relentless demolitions of Zionist propaganda.
Now another Zionist best-seller has come out: Ari Shavit's "My Promised Land" - and "Old Wine, Broken Bottle" is Finkelstein's latest devastating hatchet-job. Those like myself who enjoy the no-holds-barred, excoriating wit of Finkelstein's "take-downs" (and I think most people do, apart from the targets and their supporters), will not be disappointed by this critique. It is as hard-hitting and entertaining as all his previous ones.
Finkelstein argues that "My Promised Land" is written in response to American Jews "knowing too much" and turning away from Israel; it is an attempt to re-package Zionism in the light of the new situation and win back American (and other Diaspora) Jews. The old myth of the Palestinians Arabs having fled as a result of broadcasts from Arab countries urging them to flee has had to be jettisoned - too much is now known. The new Zionist strategy is "Yes we did it, but it was a tragic necessity in order to achieve the survival, spiritual and physical, of the Jewish people". But this means that, as Finkelstein puts it, Shavit is faced with the question: "How does one excuse ethnic cleansing? This is quite the challenge for a self-described champion of human rights...." (page 21).
With his usual brilliance, Finkelstein exposes (together with the many other contradictions, sentimentalities and hysterias in "My Promised Land") the logical flaws in Shavit's justifications for the creation of a Jewish majority ethnic nation-state by means of ethnic cleansing. Shavit's claims are that a) it was the only way to preserve non-Orthodox Jews against the dangers of becoming assimilated into US and European culture, because of the lack of antisemitism after World War Two. b) conversely (and itself in a somewhat contradictory way), it was the only way to save the Jewish people physically, by preventing "a second Holocaust".
In response to the first claim, Finkelstein points out that a) it would not justify ethnically cleansing 750,000 people just to ensure that non-Orthodox Jews could preserve their Jewish identity, and b) that, ironically, Israel in fact, as Shavit himself constantly points out, lacks Jewish content - "lost were the depths and richness of the Jewish soul", as Shavit writes. In response to the second, he dryly points to Shavit's own claims (inflated though they are) about the terrible danger that Israel is in, surrounded by enemies, and comments: "it cannot be a coherent argument justifying Palestine's ethnic cleansing that Jews need a state to prevent a 'second Holocaust' if, of the many places on the planet where Jews currently reside, the only one where they face such a dire prospect is Israel".
In "Knowing Too Much", Finkelstein raises the question of whether American Jews have ended their love-affair with Israel because they "know too much" about the past or because Israel has actually changed for the worse in recent years. Was there once, as is often claimed, a "beautiful Israel" that has become corrupted by the Occupation? Finkelstein's answer is that American Jews have changed because the image has at last caught up with reality; ie there never was the "beautiful Israel" of Zionist mythology. But he writes that he says this with important qualifications, and there has indeed been a regression and corruption in Israeli society, which has moved to the right. This deterioration is particularly apparent in the degeneration of erst-while liberal left-wingers such as the New Historian Benny Morris (to whom Finkelstein devotes a chapter in "Knowing Too Much") and Ari Shavit (whom Finkelstein compares to Morris). Thus Finkelstein points out in "Old Wine, Broken Bottle" that
"Shavit first came to wide public notice during the first intifada, when, in 1991, his eloquent account of army service in a Gaza prison camp was published in the prestigious 'New York Review of Books'. Reproduced as a chapter in 'My Promised Land', his searing record of Israeli brutality ends on a defiant, black-and-white note: 'there are no complexities here, no mitigating circumstances'. In an updated addendum to the chapter, however, Shavit discovers and underlines the 'complexity' of the situation."
Whereas in the case of American Jews, universalism has triumphed over tribalism, among Israel liberals the opposite has happened. Finkelstein writes that Shavit still thinks of himself as left-wing, but his attitudes are now those of "an unreconstructed European imperialist" (page 22) and will fail to convince American Jews (other than die-hard and aging Zionists, who are the ones who have applauded the book).
A puzzling omission from Shavit's book is that - in what is otherwise a comprehensive history of Israel up till the present time - there is no mention at all of Operation Cast Lead, Israel's brutal onslaught on Gaza in 2008-9. Puzzling that is, until one reads Finkelstein's reminder that during Operation Cast Lead Shavit enthusiastically and appallingly supported it in his Ha'aretz articles, so much so that he now evidently prefers to keep quiet about it. But Shavit does include in his book a chapter justifying the existence of Israel's nuclear reactor at Dimona and another chapter hysterically magnifying the threat from Iran. Both chapters are subjected to a powerful critique from Finkelstein.
Finkelstein will no doubt provoke much opprobrium by his comparison at the end of the book. He cites (for the second time) a crucial passage in which Shavit makes a distinction between the admissions of callous and cruel Israeli ethnic cleansers and those of regretful and sorrowful ones (also mainly the ones who gave the orders, not the ones who carried out the atrocities) - "I condemn Bulldozer. I reject the sniper. But I will not condemn the brigade commander and the military governor and the training group boys. On the contrary. If need be, I'll stand by the damned.... Because I know that if it wasn't for them, the State of Israel would not have been born. I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter and my sons to live". Finkelstein compares this to Himmler's infamous Posen speech in which he "extolled the Einsatzgruppen for having stayed human despite the inhuman ordeal that Fate had put them through: 'Most of you well know what it means to see a hundred corpses - five hundred - a thousand - lying there. To have gone through this and yet....to have remained decent....'" Finkelstein is not comparing ethnic cleansing with genocide; he is pointing out the appalling mindset of "the end justifies the means" that informs both quotations.
Finkelstein writes that, though the Nakba cannot be justified, there is nonetheless a justification for Israel's existence: "Israel exists: THAT is its ultimate argument.....yes, it was born in 'original sin', which no amount of Zionist apologetics can erase. But most (if not all) states have originated in sin. It would be more prudent if Israelis put behind them, finally, Zionist mumbo-jumbo and made reparation for the colossal wrong inflicted on the people of Palestine."(pp.43-4)
But in providing his solution for the conflict, Finkelstein's cool logic and adherence to international law become, in my view, a detriment rather than the powerful asset they are in the rest of the book. He himself writes that "to date, no Israeli government, left, right or centre, has come close to agreeing to withdraw from the major Jewish settlement blocs (comprising 10 per cent of the West Bank) that preempt the possibility of a Palestinian state." (page 64). As Sari Nusseibeh has pointed out (in an interview in Der Spiegel in 2012), it is still logically and mathematically possible for half a million settlers to be moved into Israel proper behind the 1967 borders, but in practice that is not how people actually behave: "Can you take away half a million people? No you cannot. Nothing is impossible, mathematically speaking. But we are talking about politics, and in politics not everything is always possible". Yet Finkelstein still persists in clinging to the two-state solution: "A broad consensus anchored in international law has endorsed a two-state settlement of the Israel/Palestine conflict on the 1967 border and a 'just' resolution of the Palestinian refugee question". (Page 67) In fact, this "broad consensus" is increasingly changing into a consensus that the two-state solution is finished - destroyed by Israel; and that some form of one-state solution - probably a binational state that recognises two national identities - is the only way of resolving the conflict.
But though I disagree on this point, this is a difference of opinion and does not affect my decision to award five stars to "Old Wine, Broken Bottle". It should of course be read in conjunction with "My Promised Land", but the latter book is also worth reading in its unwitting expose of the hollowness and craziness of Israeli society and of the degeneration of Israel's liberal left - an expose given brilliant and witty open articulation by Finkelstein.