EXCERPT: Why the American Jewish Romance With Israel Is Coming to an End, By Norman Finkelstein

The following is an excerpt from "Knowing Too Much" by Norman Finkelstein (OR Books, $18/10)

My book was conceived in the mid-2000s and largely completed by 2008. Although its publication was unavoidably delayed, I did manage to lecture widely on its thrust that a tipping point had been reached: large sectors of the significantly liberal American Jewish community now knew too much of the truth about the Israel-Palestine conflict to continue lending Israel blind support. The argument was skeptically received by audiences and experts alike back then, but just a few years later, as these lines are being written, it has practically passed into conventional wisdom.

Although disagreements persist on exactly why American Jews are “distancing” themselves from Israel, it is largely accepted that in recent years a divide has opened up. Indeed, the poll data sampled in this book probably underestimate the depth of this estrangement because of the traditional reticence of Jews to “air dirty laundry in public,” and because of their reluctance to acknowledge that Israel no longer touches them as it once did.

The anecdotal evidence on this growing alienation however is hard to miss.

Besides the periodic high profile defections of the likes of Peter Beinart and David Remnick, one can point to the profusion of public testimonials by Jews expressing their disenchantment with Israel, the acid criticism of Israel by influential liberal Jewish bloggers, the indifference of Jews on college campuses to “pro”-Israel events, and the small numbers of Jews attending public rallies in support of Israel at moments of crisis or on commemorative occasions.

Judging by the historical record and polling data, a trio of factors will, as in the past, shape the contours of the American Jewish relationship with Israel:

Ethnicity—American Jews have felt a “natural” affinity for a state that identifies itself as Jewish and where many of their Jewish brethren reside. But surveys show that as rates of Jewish intermarriage climb, this sense of ethnic affinity will correspondingly weaken;

Citizenship—American Jews have felt a deep sense of gratitude toward the United States because it is not only where they live, but also where they have experienced a success and prosperity unprecedented in the annals of Jewish history. However, American Jews also carry many of the insecurities typical of a minority group, and in the specific case of Jews, the fear of the “dual loyalty” bogey. Insofar as the respective “national interests” of the United States and Israel come into collision, American Jews have been, and will continue to be, resistant to appearing disloyal—not least for prudential reasons—to their country of citizenship;

Ideology—In the course of nearly a century American Jews have demonstrated an enduring commitment to liberal values and have contributed disproportionately to the vitality of liberal American institutions. In recent years however they have experienced a conflict between fidelity to these liberal values and fidelity to an increasingly illiberal Jewish state.

The focus of my book has been on the ideological rift. It has been argued that in the face of the accumulated documentary record American Jews are no longer able to reconcile Israeli policy with bedrock liberal principles. Except in cloistered Orthodox Jewish communities, and among elderly Jews who have been weaned on Zionist mythology, the human rights, historical, and diplomatic record of the Israel-Palestine conflict can no longer be ignored. To be sure, propagandistic accounts of the conflict still gain wide currency. But unlike in the past, when much of scholarship could fairly be described as Exodus with footnotes, a huge gap has now opened up between media-promoted pabulum, on the one hand, and the findings of respected scholars and human rights activists, many of them Jewish and Israeli, on the other. Because it is tapped into the broader intellectual culture, the liberal, highly literate American Jewish community can no longer be unaware, or pretend to be unaware, of the brutal realities of Israeli policy.

Meanwhile, the hitherto reliable tactics of invoking The Holocaust and dismissing the bearers of bad news as anti-Semites (or self-hating Jews) are proving less efficacious as the Holocaust industry increasingly becomes an object of derision, and the number and respectability of these bearers of bad news steadily mounts. Can it be credibly sustained that so many respected Israeli historians and journalists, so many respected legal scholars, judges and human rights organizations, so many forums of world public opinion are all driven by a common and collusive loathing of Jews?

We stand now at a crossroads. Having invested so much in fabricating an illusory Israel, the generation of liberal American Jews who climbed on board after the June 1967 war will probably stay the course. Tempting though it might be, pride and fanaticism prevent them from scurrying off as the ship sinks, not to mention that holding aloft the cause’s banner until the bitter end will yet garner them applause. Just as the hacks in the American Communist Party sang the Soviet Union’s praises even after it imploded, the likes of Alan Dershowitz will continue to laud Israel’s “generally superb” human rights record even after Israelis themselves look back upon on it with shame.

But Israel’s egregious practices can no longer be credibly denied and few American Jews, especially among the younger generations, are willing to publicly support them. The reason is not hard to find. A young, liberal and idealistic Jew does not want to have to defend flooding south Lebanon with four million cluster submunitions, or firing white phosphorus shells reaching a temperature of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit on hospitals in Gaza, anymore than he or she wants to defend the legality of Israeli settlements against the considered opinion of every member of the International Court of Justice. If you are the son of a Rush Limbaugh or the daughter of a Sean Hannity, you might not recoil at such a public posture. But it’s just not a Jewish thing.

Twenty years ago Israeli soldiers toured U.S. college campuses to be feted by Jewish students as war heroes. Now, the campus Hillels drag them on tours to persuade Jewish students that Israeli soldiers are not war criminals. Twenty years ago “pro”-Israel Jewish students aggressively interrogated critics of Israel at public events. Now, they sit silently in the audience, or do not even bother to show up. Twenty years ago defense of Israel was the Jewish cause on college campuses. Now, Jewish activists fill the ranks of the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters. Twenty years ago campus Jewish organizations relished the prospect of making the case for Israel in the court of public opinion. Now, they machinate behind closed doors to stifle public debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Once a banner of pride for American Jewish youth, Israel has now become its albatross.

American Jewry will increasingly have to decide between two mutually exclusive options. The first is to jettison its professed liberal values. In the Israeli context this has been the route taken by the likes of historian Benny Morris. After having gone some distance towards dispelling the mythology and exposing the underside of Israel’s founding, Morris has now proceeded to declare, “There are cases in which the overall final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.” In an earlier epoch apologists for Stalin’s Russia dutifully recited that standby of “breaking eggs to make an omelet.”

In light of the resilience of liberal culture in the U.S., and the formative role that American Jews have played in its development, the likelihood that many of them will opt for this crude alternative is remote. The more likely scenario is that American Jews will cast Israel adrift. In their hearts and minds the Jewish state will return to the status quo ante the June 1967 war: an occasional object of charity and a rallying-point only in times of existential crisis. But beyond this, Israel will be put out of sight like the slightly meschugge aunt confined to the attic because of “what the neighbors might think.”

A pair of interrelated practical-political conclusions also flow from the findings of my book. Those working toward a just and lasting peace should, and need only, stick to what the authoritative record shows. The most potent weapons in the struggle for a just peace are Truth—the facts assembled in the scholarly literature and human rights reports—and Justice—the concerted wisdom of representative judicial and political bodies on the parameters for the conflict’s resolution. In the face of these weapons American Jews in particular are “defenseless”: they can run but they can no longer hide from what the factual record shows, while their liberal consciences, or the fear of appearing hypocritical, will not allow them to sanction the immoral Israeli practices that this unimpeachable record documents.

In addition, because American Jews are susceptible to appeals based on truth and justice, it is not only possible to reach them on a principled instead of a self-interested basis, but that is probably the only basis on which they can be persuaded. To try to reach Jews on a narrowly ethnic basis would mean posing the eternal question, “Is it good for the Jews?” Not only is such a question morally problematic but also, for all anyone knows, what Israel has wrought might be “good for the Jews.” To try to reach Jews on the basis of American “national interest,” it would have to be shown that U.S. and Israeli interests fundamentally conflict. But arguably they don’t.

To try to reach Jews on the basis of their liberal conscience, however, it would have to be shown that Israeli policy cannot be reconciled with elementary principles of justice. Here, the answer is no longer open to serious dispute. We are therefore in the historically rare position of being able to build a mass movement that appeals not to narrow sectarian or patriotic interests, but to the great universal principles that have brought glory to and elevated humankind.

The end of the American Jewish love affair with Israel will be a boon not only for Palestinians but for Israelis as well. Since the June 1967 war Israel has been a stage on which American Jews have played out their fantasies and a pawn in their pursuit of power and privilege. If Israel has become a crazy state, it is in no small part because of American Jews. By abetting its most retrograde tendencies and freeing it of needful restraints, they have exerted a baleful influence on Israeli society. But American Jews now have an opportunity to right a double wrong: the horror inflicted on Palestine, and the damage caused to Israel. If the liberal conscience of American Jews is pricked and, finally, they do the right thing, the long, dark night might yet soon end.