Why American Jews are falling out of love with Israel

Peace may be possible in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and American Jews may bring it about. Far-fetched? Not according to outspoken scholar Norman Finkelstein, who argues in his latest book that Israel's excesses are irreconcilable with liberal Jewish values.

Both your parents are Holocaust survivors. How has this influenced your views of Israel?
My parents were strong supporters of the Soviet Union because they believed – rightly – that it was the Red Army that defeated the Nazis. They looked at the world through the prism of the Nazi holocaust. When Israel aligned with the US early in the Cold War, my parents came to loathe Israel. But it did not figure in my upbringing.

You have been quoted as saying that the 1982 war in Lebanon ended your indifference to the Middle East’s troubles. What was it about that particular event that forced a reaction?
In the course of Israel’s 1982 attack on Lebanon, it killed 15-20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, overwhelmingly civilians. The war climaxed in the Sabra-Shatila massacre, but that was only a small blip on the real screen. Once I got involved, I began to read a lot on the subject and wrote my doctoral thesis on Zionism. Unfortunately, the conflict never found a resolution, so I couldn’t in good conscience extricate myself from it.

Not all Jews back Tel Aviv policy. Ultra-Orthodox protesters outside the Republican convention earlier this year.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

The main thrust of your book is that the era of ‘beautiful Israel’ has passed for American Jews. What are the main drivers of this alienation?
American Jews are liberal. They have consistently supported the Democratic Party since Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal. Because so much more is now known about the Israel-Palestine conflict, it has become impossible for American Jews to reconcile their liberal beliefs with Israeli conduct.

You contend that US support for Israel is on a precipitous decline, but you also relate how all US politicians, and the media, vehemently opposed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ statehood bid in 2011. What proof do you have that American Jews’ dissatisfaction with Israel is truly on the wane?
The polls overwhelmingly show that support for Israel among American Jews is on the decline. There have also been high-profile ‘defections’ in recent times, including the editor of the New Yorker (David Remnick), the former editor of the New Republic (Peter Beinart) and, in late April, a Nobel laureate in Economics (Paul Krugman).
Public opinion is not always registered in the political arena. One can cite a hundred examples of policies Americans in general support – such as on healthcare – that are never mentioned in public debate.

Explain your critique of the influential Israel Lobby. Did authors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt overstate its power?
The debate on the Israel lobby tends to oscillate between two poles: some say it determines US foreign policy in the Middle East in favour of Israel and against American national interests, whereas others say that US élites determine American foreign policy and Israel subserves US interests. In my opinion, the Israel lobby does determine US policy in the Israel-Palestine conflict, because this is a secondary issue for US élites (an irritant, rather than a primary concern), whereas when it comes to fundamental regional concerns (Iraq, Iran), it is the US that calls the shots.

American Jews may not know every detail of the Israel-Palestine conflict but they know it ain’t a pretty picture

How will the ‘lobby’ of die-hard supporters be affected by the shift in how liberal American Jews view Israel?
They will lose some of their political clout, but still will retain some of it because a lot of wealthy rightwing Jews will still contribute to ‘the cause’. It also depends on whether disaffected American Jews fall silent or publicly criticize Israeli policy. This in turn will depend on whether a solution to the conflict that American Jews can embrace is on the table or whether the only alternative they are offered is the whole dissolution or liquidation of Israel. We need to be able to present to American Jews a reasonable resolution based on incontrovertible principles of law.

You praise the reports of human rights groups in helping to distinguish facts from ‘Zionist fiction’. But, at the same time, you criticize Human Rights Watch (HRW) for its report on Lebanon. What mistakes did it make?
HRW does not make ‘mistakes’. It makes political calculations. It relies heavily on liberal Jewish donors, so it occasionally trims its sails when it comes under heavy attack by the Israel lobby. Although Israel fired four million cluster submunitions on south Lebanon when the war was already over in August 2006, HRW could not find evidence that Israel had committed war crimes. It was very shameful, and cowardly.

You make a compelling case for how academic literature has shown up the holes in the dominant Israeli narrative. But how do you see these hard facts filtering down to the general public, or American Jews of a less scholarly bent?
American Jews are tapped into the circuits of liberal culture; they attend the best colleges and universities in the US. They may not know every detail of the Israel-Palestine conflict but they know enough to know it ain’t a pretty picture.

If you could choose just one glaring falsehood regarding Israeli history that you would like the world to know, what would it be?
Your readers would gain a lot from reading Zeev Maoz’s Defending the Holy Land. After an exhaustive review of the scholarly literature he concludes that, with the ‘possible exception’ of the 1948 war, Israel has never fought a war of self-defence.

You pull no punches in your writing. Books that relay the Israeli version of events are described as ‘sheer fraud’, ‘absurdities’, ‘shoddy’ and ‘rancid propaganda’. You also take both sides – pro- and anti-Israel – to task: critiquing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, as well as old foes like Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz. Do you ever tire of conflicts and clashes?
Yes, I do tire. But I don’t intend on being anyone’s useful idiot. Die Gedanken sind frei [Thoughts are free] – that’s my credo.

How do you think the revolts that swept the Arab world in 2011 will affect US-Israeli relations?
Too soon to tell, although clearly Israel can no longer depend on the lock-step obedience of its hitherto two major allies in the Muslim-Arab world: Turkey and Egypt.

You argue that the distancing of American Jews from Israel will ultimately benefit Israelis as much as Palestinians. Explain how.
Israel has become a crazy state, intoxicated by its power and self-righteousness, which can and does act with impunity because of the US veto. It desperately needs a sobering-up. Paul Krugman wrote the other day that it’s heading toward ‘national suicide’. I think he’s right.

What steps do you think need to be taken to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict? Do you support a two-state solution, for example?
Personally, I would prefer no states, in the Middle East as elsewhere. But such a preference has no bearing on politics. I support the maximum that can be achieved now, which is the solution supported by the whole of the international community: two states on the June 1967 border and a ‘just resolution’ of the refugee question based on the right of return and compensation.

Knowing Too Much by Norman Finkelstein was published by Or Books in June 2012.