By Stephen R. Shalom, MERIP – February 2013
Norman Finkelstein, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End (New York: OR Books, 2012).
Stephen R. Shalom
In January 2007, amid the furor over Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, former President Jimmy Carter made his first major public appearance about the book at Brandeis University, which defines itself as “the only non-sectarian Jewish-sponsored college or university” in the United States. He received a standing ovation, going on to say that he had chosen the word “apartheid” for his book’s title “knowing that it would be provocative” and to deliver a speech describing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands as “cruel oppression.” Carter then departed, and Alan Dershowitz, author of The Case for Israel, rose to offer a response. Half the audience walked out. A year later, the Brandeis student senate voted not to congratulate Israel on its sixtieth anniversary.
In Knowing Too Much, Norman Finkelstein offers these incidents in support of his argument that both American Jews and the American public more generally are moving away from uncritical support for Israel. This shift, he suggests, holds out the possibility that the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be settled at last. Other analysts concur that there is growing disillusionment with Israel among American Jews, a phenomenon they attribute either to higher rates of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews (and thus lesser ethnic ties to the Jewish state) or to the increasingly reactionary policies pursued by Israel itself. Finkelstein instead emphasizes another factor: Knowledge of Israel’s crimes has become so widespread that it is no longer possible for US Jews to reconcile support for Israeli policies with the liberal values that most of them embrace.
Attachment vs. Agreement
The claim that Israel has lost support from American Jews is much debated. There is polling data that indicates the claim is false, but these results are very much a function of which Jews are sampled. Studies that show continuing Jewish affection for Israel use samples confined to those who give their religion as Jewish (excluding the increasing proportion of Jews who are Jews only by ethnicity or lineage, who make up a third of the 18-34 age cohort).
Apart from sampling concerns, however, there is the question of what exactly respondents are being asked. Consider one 2010 study that maintains that US Jews are “still connected” to Israel. It reports that: “Political differences on the liberal-to-conservative continuum were unrelated to measures of attachment to Israel. Liberals felt no less connected than conservatives and were no less likely to regard Israel as important to their Jewish identities.” Yet this same study reports: “Notwithstanding the lack of relationship between ideology and attachment, the present study showed that respondents’ general political orientations played a large role in their perspectives on virtually all policy issues related to Israel,” whether on settlements, Jerusalem, the adequacy of US support for Israel or the credibility of Israel’s account of its May 2010 attack on the Gaza flotilla.
So what is the difference between attachment to Israel and agreement with Israeli government policy? In the same way that many Americans maintain that their criticisms of the US government do not make them “anti-American” — indeed, their criticisms may be motivated precisely by a love of country — many Jews believe that their criticisms of Israel do not make them less attached to Israel. Such is certainly the view of J Street, for example, which calls itself the “pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby.” Many Jews agree with Peter Beinart, the former New Republic editor who, though he has broken with the American Jewish establishment, insists that his sharp disapproval of Israel’s present direction is driven by anguished concern for the Jewish state’s future. To be sure, there are Americans and American Jews whose criticisms of the United States or Israel are more radical. But whether or not those attached to the United States supported the invasion of Iraq or the PATRIOT Act makes a real political difference. And in the same way, even if US Jews say they are attached to Israel, it still matters a great deal whether or not they support Israel’s position on settlements or Jerusalem. When a fifth of US Jews with an opinion believe that Israel should evacuate all the settlements and more than a third want to divide Jerusalem (despite Congress having proclaimed in 1995 that the city must remain “undivided”), Israel is in trouble.
While in general hard data is preferable to anecdote, survey data is often murky, and some anecdotes can be very telling indeed. Perhaps most dispositive is the fact that American Jews voted to reelect President Barack Obama in 2012, by a ratio of two-to-one, despite Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s implicit but widely acknowledged endorsement of Mitt Romney. To be sure, neither candidate called for fundamental changes in the US “special relationship” with Israel. But Netanyahu had gone before the UN General Assembly to warn of an existential threat to the Jewish state, and still American Jews voted against his favored candidate. Clearly, the Israeli government cannot take for granted that US Jews will blindly back Israel in the future.
Israel never deserved its reputation as a light among nations, argues Finkelstein, though he notes that Israel has gone from being one of the most egalitarian countries in the world to one of the most unequal and right-wing. More than a third of Israeli children live in poverty; in 2010 nearly two out of five Israelis agreed that “democracy is not suited to Israel”; and polls show broad support for denying political rights to the Arab minority. But more important than any change in the reality, says Finkelstein, is that today Israel’s transgressions are too well documented to be ignored by decent people. Israel committed terrible crimes in 1948 and in the years that followed. But they were not widely known. Now, thanks to a plethora of historical studies (such as Finkelstein’s own wonderful debunking of Zionist mythology in his many books, including this one) and reports by well-respected human rights organizations, Israeli and international, the truth is no longer obscured. And with the truth plain, support for Israel must necessarily decline. “It is doubtful,” comments Finkelstein, that “a new generation of American Jews can be inspired by the slogan, ‘Israel: Not the world’s only human rights violator.’”
Survey data regarding the US public’s views on Israel-Palestine is as complicated to interpret as the findings about American Jews. When given a choice between supporting Israel or the Palestinians, the public overwhelmingly selects Israel. But when questions offer the option of favoring neither side, that neutral choice is endorsed by strong majorities. A May 2011 CNN poll, for instance, asked: “In the Middle East conflict, do you think the United States should take Israel’s side, take the Palestinians’ side or not take either side?” Sixty-five percent of respondents chose the third option, while 32 percent chose Israel and 1 percent the Palestinians. Finkelstein quotes M. J. Rosenberg’s judicious summary that polls show American backing for Israel “is broad but…not very deep.” The lukewarm public attitude toward Israel, notes Finkelstein, is particularly astonishing given the near unanimous media support that Israel enjoys in the United States.
Anecdotal evidence supports the claim that Americans’ support for Israel is declining. To take one example, in October 2012, leaders of 15 churches and Christian religious organizations — including the Presbyterians, Methodists, Evangelical Lutherans, American Baptists, United Church of Christ and the National Council of Churches — wrote to members of Congress calling on them to “hold Israel accountable” by “making the disbursement of US military assistance to Israel contingent on the Israeli government’s compliance with applicable US laws and policies.” In the last five years, Quakers, as well as Presbyterians and other mainline-denomination Christians, have pushed resolutions in their respective churches in favor of divesting from companies entangled with the occupation.
Finkelstein says that poll data shows a “precipitous decline” in support for Israel in the last few years, but this statement is questionable. The polls he cites from the Israel Project do show a sharp dropoff between March 2008 and June 2009 in the percentage of registered voters who wanted the United States to support Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians, but that number has fluctuated dramatically over time. In the period June-August 2009, for example, it jumped from 44 percent to 63 percent, though nothing dramatic had happened on the ground. And after dipping to 51 percent in December 2010, the proportion was back to 60 percent by November 2011. And there are other indicators that undermine the “precipitous decline” claim. For example, while a majority always chooses “neither side” when that option is offered (by other pollsters), the proportion favoring Israel has shown a modest increase.
But while there is no survey evidence of a rapid fall in support for Israel, Finkelstein’s main conclusion about US public opinion is persuasive: “It can no longer tenably be claimed that the president and both Houses of Congress near unanimously support Israel because of overwhelming popular support.”
What, then, accounts for US government backing for Israel? In Finkelstein’s view, the close ties between Washington and Tel Aviv are not simply a function of pressure from the Israel lobby. Rather, they reflect the genuine commonality of interest between the elites of the two countries. For dominant sectors in the United States, an overriding goal is to maintain control over the vast energy resources of the Middle East. This aim has required countering Arab radicalism and blocking the efforts of local forces that have sought to redirect the region’s oil wealth to benefit the people of the region. So when Israel smashed the armies of its Soviet-armed neighbors, or humiliated nationalist regimes or weakened the Arab opponents of close US allies like Saudi Arabia, it was serving not just its own interests, but those of the United States as well.
But there is one respect, argues Finkelstein, in which the interests of Washington and Tel Aviv diverge. For Israel, the continuing occupation of Palestinian territory seized in 1967 serves standard colonial purposes: The West Bank is a source of land and water, as well as an outlet for religious fanaticism. For US elites, however, the occupation provides no special benefit, and therefore the US has no particular interest in promoting it. Nor, however, has Washington had any strong reason to oppose the occupation. And thus for years the US government deferred to the preferences of the Israel lobby, which was supported by most American Jews, and the American public at large. In a Middle East convulsed by the Arab uprisings, however, the occupation makes it harder to further US interests. Finkelstein continues that US elites may now see the divergence with Israel over the occupation as a liability, and US Jews may break with Israel as well.
It is rarely realized, observes Finkelstein, that American Jews have not always been obsessed with Israel. In 1956 Nathan Glazer found that Israel had “remarkably slight effects on the inner life of American Jewry.” Just before the June 1967 war, the American Jewish Committee published a symposium, “Jewish Identity Here and Now,” bringing together 31 of the “best minds in the Jewish community.” Only three of these top Jewish thinkers chose to mention Israel at all, two of them to say that Israel was irrelevant.
All that changed with the 1967 war. Suddenly, supporting Israel was a path to power and privilege in the United States. Israel was defeating Soviet arms, and there was no quagmire, let alone a need for US troops. Where Jews had been outsiders of dubious patriotism — think of the Rosenbergs — they could now back Israel without raising suspicions of dual loyalty. Devotion to Israel and fealty to US power were one and the same. Those Jews intent on “making it” (a phrase supplying the title of Norman Podhoretz’s 1967 autobiography, which barely mentions Israel), hitched their wagons to the Jewish state’s star. “In short,” Finkelstein writes, “the operative factor in the American Jewish love affair with Israel has always been not fidelity but utility.” This judgment seems something of an overstatement: If the romance is purely utilitarian, then why would the political-ethical factor of Jewish liberalism be causing Jewish disillusionment with Israel today? But Finkelstein makes a compelling case, nonetheless, that 1967 was a watershed year for the relationship between US Jews and Israel.
The Israel Lobby
1967 was a crucial turning point for the Israel lobby, now also freed from the yoke of the dual loyalty charge. In the face of criticisms from conservatives such as Alfred M. Lilienthal and Paul Findley, who argued that the lobby was pressuring the US government to act in ways contrary to the national interest, mainstream supporters of Israel now maintained that, on the contrary, Israel warranted US support because it was a strategic asset for Washington and because it shared the US commitment to democracy and justice. On the left, the premises of this debate were rejected — the pursuit of US interests was not the goal and both the United States and Israel were seen as opponents, not advocates, of democracy and justice — but otherwise there has been a similar split. On one side are those who believe that the lobby pushes Washington to wink at Israeli oppression of the Palestinians and on the other those who believe that support for Israel is consistent with US imperial interests and thus that the lobby is not the cardinal factor in explaining US backing of Israel.
Certainly, the strength of the lobby is suggested by the alacrity and consistency with which Congress passes pro-Israel resolutions, or by the facts that Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign aid since World War II and that of the 83 vetoes cast by the United States at the UN Security Council, 58 have come on behalf of Israel. The US, in fact, has used its veto to protect Israel more times than all other countries have cast vetoes on all subjects since 1975.
Nevertheless, the strategic asset argument is also compelling. If it were really the case that the Israel lobby was acting against the interests of the US elite, why would the latter put up with it? Would not the task for those who want to change US policy be simple, as Noam Chomsky has remarked? To paraphrase Chomsky, activists would need only point out the facts to Lockheed Martin, Microsoft and ExxonMobil, and the corporate giants would quickly bring Israel and the lobby to heel. Moreover, as Joseph Massad has argued, why would it take the Israel lobby to keep the United States from pursuing a just foreign policy in the Middle East, when nowhere else in the world does Washington pursue justice?
The 2007 book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, has reenergized the debate. These two political scientists put forward the view that the lobby has been decisive in leading the United States to follow policies in the Middle East contrary to US interests. Finkelstein argues that they are partly right and partly wrong:
Contrary to Mearsheimer and Walt’s contention, Israel remains a strategic asset as it projects and protects American power in a region of critical importance to the United States. A conflict of interest does exist, however, between the US and Israel on the secondary issue of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, and here the Israel lobby exerts considerable influence over policymaking in Washington.
Finkelstein points out that Mearsheimer and Walt cannot explain why traditional (and non-Jewish) conservatives like John Bolton or George Will support Israel. It cannot be any ethnic tie or obeisance to the lobby; it must be that they consider Israel a strategic asset.
Finkelstein convincingly refutes several of the supporting examples used by Mearsheimer and Walt. They claim that Washington invaded Iraq in 2003 as a result of Israel lobby pressure, with disastrous consequences for US interests. But, asks Finkelstein, were such invasion architects as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld pawns of the Israel lobby? Would they have compromised what they saw as US interests to serve Israel? Were they duped by their neo-conservative deputies? Mearsheimer and Walt concede that Israel supported the Iraq war only after US leaders had come close to resolving on attack — and in that case, Finkelstein argues, Israel clearly was not the prime mover. Mearsheimer and Walt say that the neo-conservatives “believed that removing Saddam would improve America’s and Israel’s strategic position” — but if so, declares Finkelstein, “they did not lobby for war despite American interests, let alone solely on Israel’s behalf.”
Mearsheimer and Walt also cite US backing for Israel in its 2006 Lebanon war as an instance of the lobby getting the United States to support Israel at the expense of its own interests. Indeed, Mearsheimer and Walt claim that Washington knew beforehand that the Israeli offensive was doomed to fail. But, as Finkelstein comments, Mearsheimer and Walt do not show how US officials would have known what the outcome would be nor that they did know. And “losing a war (both Tel Aviv and Washington underestimated Hezbollah) surely does not prove the absence of a rational strategic motive for initiating or lending support to it.”
Finkelstein reviews the historical record to make a strong case that Washington’s Middle East policy (as opposed to its specific Israel-Palestine policy) has rarely been driven by the lobby. But he may prove too much here. He argues, for example, that the lobby was unimportant in US backing of the partition of Palestine. It is true, as Finkelstein argues, that White House counsel Clark Clifford advised Truman to recognize Israel and disregard threats from Arab oil producers, but surely it suggests some role for the lobby that Truman chose to follow the advice of Clifford, one of his political aides, rather than the sharply contrary views of his national security advisers. (Just as in the 2006 Lebanon case, that the foreign policy team turned out to be wrong in 1948 — the Saudis did not cut off oil exports — “does not prove the absence of a rational strategic motive” in their advice not to extend early recognition to Tel Aviv.)
More generally, while Finkelstein makes a powerful argument that Israel was a strategic asset for US policy in the Middle East, except on the secondary issue of Israel-Palestine, where the lobby has held sway, it is not always so easy to separate out the primary from the secondary. If US backing for Israeli oppression of Palestinians inflamed public opinion throughout the Middle East, destabilizing US allies or making it more difficult for the United States to deploy troops to the area, that is not irrelevant to the US position in the larger Middle East. It may be the case, as Finkelstein says, that the occupation is a thorn in Washington’s side amid the Arab revolts, but it is hard to see why that has not been the case for some time.
The Israel lobby is extremely influential, but several factors seem to have contributed to a diminution in its power. There is the growing Jewish disagreement with Israeli policy. There is the increasingly right-leaning political shift in Israel. And there is the fact that the lobby has moved sharply rightward, while Jews have not. In 1986, for example, Malcolm Hoenlein, an activist with ties to the settler movement, became executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. In 1996 AIPAC’s top post went to an official from the Republican Jewish Coalition; and, in 2008, the Conference of Presidents collaborated with the John McCain campaign. Reform and Conservative Jews have grown increasingly fed up with Israel’s privileging of Orthodox Judaism. And J Street was established as a counterweight to AIPAC; while not taking the principled positions of Jewish Voice for Peace, it offers an alternative to AIPAC and a cover for politicians who wish to distance themselves modestly from Israeli policy.
Human Rights Watch and Lebanon
Several of the chapters in Knowing Too Much are gems — the account of the origins of the 1967 war, the skewering of Jeffrey Goldberg, Benny Morris and Dennis Ross — but do not bear very much on Finkelstein’s main thesis.
One chapter that is pertinent is the critique of reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. What is especially telling is that even though, in Finkelstein’s rendering, HRW succumbed to financial and other pressures from the Israel lobby to soften some of its conclusions, the facts gathered by HRW nonetheless “paint a damning picture of Israeli conduct…which could not have pleased Israel’s apologists.” In his many analyses of Israeli behavior, Finkelstein has drawn heavily on the reports of human rights groups, including HRW. These groups, he writes, have demonstrated courage and principle in their criticisms of Israel, but they have not been flawless. Despite their faults, however, these reports have made it impossible for Israel to hide its crimes.
HRW issued four major reports on the 2006 conflict. One, Fatal Strikes, was released during the fighting. Two other reports were released a year later, Civilians Under Assault and Why They Died. And then a few months later, a fourth report was issued, Flooding South Lebanon, about cluster munitions.
Finkelstein persuasively demonstrates that HRW used inconsistent standards in judging Israel and Hizballah. For example, the rights group charged Hizballah with war crimes for firing unguided rockets into populated settings, since these weapons were not accurate enough to assure that they would not hit civilians; the firing of these rockets, says HRW, constituted war crimes even if they never hit a civilian. Finkelstein notes that “HRW itself provided ample evidence that these rockets were able to discriminate between targets,” and the UN Human Rights Council reported in October 2006 that “a significant number of Hezbollah attacks did hit military targets.” In any event, when Israel used imprecise weapons in populated areas on a vastly larger scale, HRW refrained from charging Israel with war crimes. In response to Israel’s massive resort to cluster munitions, HRW only offered the much gentler formulation that this tactic was “in some locations possibly a war crime.” Israel fired 4 million submunitions, most of them at “population centers,” compared to some 4,000 Hizballah rockets fired, about a quarter of which hit “built-up areas.” None of Israel’s cluster munition carriers was precision-guided and only a small number had any guidance system at all.
Hizballah maintained that it fired at civilians only because Israel had already done so, and HRW quoted a July 16 statement from Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah to this effect. HRW condemned this policy of “belligerent reprisal” against civilians as “never permitted” by international humanitarian law, though Finkelstein checked the authority HRW cited — the International Committee of the Red Cross — and found that the Red Cross said, “It is difficult to conclude that there has yet crystallised a customary rule specifically prohibiting reprisals against civilians.” “The point at issue,” says Finkelstein, “is not the morality of such reprisals but their standing under international law. Although it would surely be difficult to justify ethically belligerent reprisals against civilians, the fact remains that, in this condemnation of Hezbollah, HRW misrepresented international law.” Point taken, but since Finkelstein concedes that HRW has in the past condemned Israel for belligerent reprisals against civilians, its position here cannot be traced to any deference to Israel or the Israel lobby.
Regardless of the legal status of belligerent reprisal, HRW asserted that “Hezbollah’s claims of having spared civilians during the war’s first days are not credible.” Finkelstein notes that the example HRW provided to refute Nasrallah was a Hizballah communiqué listing Israeli civilian communities targeted on July 18 — well after Israel’s large-scale strikes on Beirut and Nasrallah’s statement. Finkelstein adds that HRW “adduced no evidence that Hezbollah was targeting Israeli civilians before July 16.” This comment is incorrect: HRW cited several instances of attacks on Israeli civilian communities as early as July 13 where they found that the corresponding Hizballah communiqués offered no explanation that they had been aiming at military targets. But Finkelstein’s larger point is correct. Hizballah warned from early on (July 13) that it would respond to Israeli attacks on civilians with those of its own, and Israeli attacks had “killed at least 55 civilians…by July 13,” more, Finkelstein notes, than the total number of Israeli civilians killed during the entire 34-day war. And Hizballah attacks on Haifa, except for a single rocket for which Hizballah denied responsibility, did not begin until July 16, after Israel had started its extensive bombing of Beirut.
Finkelstein also compared HRW’s report issued during the war with the one it issued a year later. A juxtaposition of these reports “shows that the factual findings of Fatal Strikes critical of Israel were overwhelmingly confirmed, but the legal conclusions were significantly revised.” For example, he writes, “Fatal Strikes had concluded that ‘in some cases…Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians’…and that the ‘pattern of attacks during the Israeli offensive… indicate[s] the commission of war crimes’ by Israel.” In Why They Died, however, HRW “omitted mention that Israel ‘deliberately targeted civilians,’ except for a couple of stray, tentative remarks; …and put Israel’s culpability for serious violation of the laws of war in the conditional subjunctive — for example, if an Israeli commander indiscriminately targeted an area knowing civilians were present, then he would be guilty of war crimes.” (emphasis in Finkelstein’s text)
In Why They Died HRW sought to mitigate Israeli war crimes by stating that Israeli attacks on civilians were not deliberate but the result of the faulty assumption that there were no civilians in the area. But as Finkelstein convincingly shows, HRW itself documented the fact that Israeli leaders and commanders knew that this “assumption” was false. Finkelstein also shows that in judging Hizballah, HRW considered the absence of a legitimate military target in the vicinity of an attack on civilians as indicating a deliberate attack on civilians, while this same standard was not applied to Israel.
Israel’s arsenal was technologically far more advanced than that of Hizballah and it could strike targets with immensely more precision. If international humanitarian law prohibits indiscriminate attacks, does it thereby give the high-tech belligerent an advantage over its low-tech foe? HRW says that the function of international humanitarian law is not to “ensure an even-handed contest,” but to protect civilians, so that Hizballah has to find “alternative ways of fighting war,” such as responding to Israeli bombs and missiles with such means as “sniper fire.” Finkelstein does not think much of this argument, and certainly banning Israel’s precision weapons would have saved more civilian lives — by a factor of about 25 — than banning Hizballah’s imprecise ones. But actually international humanitarian law does not create quite the imbalance that HRW or Finkelstein assume.
International humanitarian law prohibits combatants from “locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas” and obliges them to “endeavor to remove the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian objects under their control from the vicinity of military objectives.” But what do the words “near” and “vicinity of” mean? Clearly they must be defined in terms of the prevailing military technology available to one’s adversary. Thus, because Israeli smart munitions are much more accurate than those of Hizballah, Hizballah has fewer restrictions on where it can place military forces and objects than does Israel.
Israel clearly located military targets impermissibly near civilian objects. For example, the northern command headquarters was located in the city of Safed, and a navy training base in Haifa was across the street from a major hospital and adjacent to low-rise apartment buildings. HRW is correct to state that Israel’s failure to keep military and civilian objects separate does not absolve Hizballah of its responsibility to aim only at military targets and only when the expected civilian loss is not disproportionate to the anticipated military gain. But given the dramatic 25-to-1 disparity in the civilian death toll caused by Israel and Hizballah, respectively, Israel’s failure to observe the requirement of proportionality clearly exceeded that of its Lebanese adversary.
Human rights reports criticizing Israel and their authors have been subjected to unrelenting attack from the Israel lobby. HRW was assailed for being anti-Israel by its founder and former chairperson, Robert Bernstein. The Anti-Defamation League has charged Amnesty International with being “bigoted, biased and borderline anti-Semitic.” Justice Richard Goldstone was subjected to all sorts of calumnies after he released his report on the 2008-2009 Gaza war. These attacks have sometimes caused the rights groups to give ground, as they did with Goldstone. But too much of what has been reported has been confirmed by other human rights organizations — Israeli, Palestinian and international. No sane person believes that all these groups are anti-Semitic. So, despite the trimming of sails and recantations, the truth about Israel’s crimes is known by more and more people.
Norman Finkelstein makes a compelling case that a growing number of American Jews and Americans more generally now know a great deal about Israel’s wars and its record vis-à-vis the Palestinians, weakening public support for Israel. Whether this knowledge is “too much” or even sufficient to break the power of the Israel lobby is uncertain. What is clear, however, is that until Washington stops giving Israel a blank check, the prospects for justice in Palestine remain grim.