Denial: Norman Finkelstein and the New Antisemitism
3 August 2020
Cover image: Norman Finkelstein speaking at the Communist University, London, August 2016. Youtube. Screenshot.
This article was originally published in Fathom Journal by Alan Johnson, August 2018.
In recent days the US polemicist Norman Finkelstein has injected a crude claim into the debate about antisemitism in the UK Labour Party: ‘the brouhaha is a calculated hoax — dare it be said, plot?’ This kind of denialism and victim-blaming is, of course, itself an example of contemporary antisemitism, and if the UK Labour Party listens to the counsel of Norman Finkelstein about antisemitism in its ranks then it really will have lost its way, and perhaps for good.[i] In response, Fathom is making available an extract from ‘Denial: Norman Finkelstein and the New Antisemitism’ a chapter by our editor Alan Johnson in Unity and Disunity in Contemporary Antisemitism, edited by Jonathan Campbell and Lesley Klaff (forthcoming, Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2018). The editors wish to express their thanks to Academic Studies Press for permission to publish the extract. We encourage our readers to buy the book. The other contributors are David Hirsh, the late Robert Fine, Kenneth Marcus, Dave Rich, David Seymour, Bernard Harrison, Matthias Kuentzel, Rusi Jaspal, Amy Elman, and Lesley Klaff.
The concept of a ‘new antisemitism’ directs our attention to some of the ways in which some people talk about Israel, Israelis and ‘Zionism’, suggesting that these ways have left the terrain of ‘criticism of Israeli policy’ and become something much darker.[ii] The concept is concerned to distinguish between legitimate criticism of that policy (most obviously, of the occupation of the territories, the settlement project, the treatment of minorities in Israel, and the degree of force Israel uses to restore deterrence against Hamas) and an essentialising, demonising and dehumanising discourse which bends the meaning of Israel and Zionism (and most Jews) out of shape until they are fit receptacles for the tropes, images and ideas of classical antisemitism.
The concept alerts us to antisemitism’s tendency to shape-shift through history. And to the possibility that since the creation of a Jewish state, in some quarters, what the demonized and essentialised ‘Jew’ once was, demonised and essentialised Israel now is: malevolent in its very nature, all-controlling, full of blood lust, and the obstacle to a better, purer, and more spiritual world.
The new antisemitism, which might also be called antisemitic anti-Zionism, has three components: a political programme to abolish the Jewish homeland, a discourse to demonise it, and a movement to make it a global pariah state. The old antisemitism – which has not gone away, but co-mingles with the new form – believed ‘the Jew is our Misfortune’. The new antisemitism proclaims ‘the Zionist is our misfortune’. The old antisemitism wanted to make the world ‘Judenrein’, free of Jews. The new antisemitism wants to make the world ‘Judenstaatrein’, free of the Jewish state which all but a sliver of world Jewry either lives in or treats as a vitally important part of their identity.
We have no right to be disbelieving of this development. After all, antisemitism has never really been about the Jews, but about the need of some non-Jews to scapegoat Jews. As those needs have changed throughout history, the physiognomy of antisemitism has also changed.
For Finkelstein, however, the concept of a new antisemitism is nothing but a ‘variant’ of the ‘Holocaust card.’ Playing the card has been simple enough for the Zionists: ‘A central thesis of my book Beyond Chutzpah is that whenever Israel faces a public relations debacle its apologists sound the alarm that a “new anti-Semitism” is upon us.’[iii] His argument proceeded as a triple unmasking: of the agencies that promote the fraud of the new antisemitism, of the motivations of the fraudsters, and of the components that make up the fraud. This extract from the chapter will now examine Finkelstein’s claims about all three.
Finkelstein asks who has ‘foisted the new antisemitism on the international agenda’? His answer: not ‘honest and decent people’ with ‘ordinary moral values’ but Israel’s apologists.[iv] (These two categories pretty much exhaust the cast of characters in Finkelstein’s books.) He indicts Jewish ‘impresarios’ such as former ADL director Abraham Foxman and Jewish ‘ancient divas’ like the novelist Cynthia Ozick for creating ‘the new antisemitism scam’ with the backing of ‘well-heeled “pro” Israel organisations and foundations’ – the ‘de facto agents of a foreign government’ – supported by ‘the Bush administration and Israel.’ [v]
And everybody is in on the scam! From the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to the left-wing veteran Todd Gitlin; from the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel to the National Executive Committee of the UK Labour Party; from successive US Administrations to those US University Presidents that are strapped for cash; from ‘entrepreneurial black professors’ like Henry Louis Gates Jr.[vi] to the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, ‘a hack who regularly plays the antisemitism card’;[vii] from all the ‘organisations directly or indirectly linked to Israel or having a material stake in inflating the findings of antisemitism’ [viii] to a ‘stupid Goys’ such as, according to Finkelstein, the present author.[ix]
And why have Israel’s apologists invented the new antisemitism? To ‘taint any criticism of Israel as motivated by antisemitism’ and to ‘turn Israel (and Jews) not Palestinians, into the victim’.[x] Decent moral people wishing to oppose the occupation are faced with a conspiracy by tricksy Zionists to ‘cry wolf’ in order to shut them up.[xi] A ‘smear campaign’ [xii] has been designed ‘not to fight antisemitism but rather to exploit the historical suffering of Jews in order to immunise Israel against criticism.’[xiii] It is all a ‘sham,’ designed to ‘whip up hysteria,’ and to function as a ‘club … to assail Israel’s critics’ by portraying those critics as ‘classical Jew-haters’.[xiv] In short, the game is ‘political blackmail.’[xv] That assertion, endlessly repeated, is as far as Finkelstein’s analysis of the motivations of the fraudsters goes.
And how does the new antisemitism fraud work? How does it manage to ‘silence … media,’ ‘muzzle academic freedom’ and ‘undermine the most basic principles of human rights’?[xvi] According to Finkelstein, there are three components: ‘exaggeration and fabrication; mislabelling legitimate criticism of Israeli policy; and the unjustified yet predictable “spillover” from criticism of Israel to Jews generally.’[xvii]
David Hirsh, a leading UK scholar of contemporary antisemitism, accepts that ‘the issue of antisemitism is certainly sometimes raised in an unjustified way, and may even be raised in bad faith’, noting as an example those on the Israeli right who characterize advocates of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank as antisemitic.[xx] Our responsibility (at once analytical, political and moral) is to make a good-faith effort to distinguish between times when exaggeration or falsification is happening and times when it is not. [xxi] But Finkelstein spurns this labour of distinction: ‘the hysteria over a new antisemitism hasn’t anything to do with fighting bigotry – and everything to do with stifling criticism of Israel.’ [xxii]
Hirsh has observed that the typical form of the denial of the new anti-Semitism is the ad hominem attack which leaves the substance of the question at issue unaddressed’. [xxiii] To be sure, Finkelstein’s work is replete with that kind of thing. He smears the global campaign in the 1980s to free Soviet Jewry as a plot designed to ‘vilify the Soviet Union’;[xxiv] he questions the mental health, as well as the good-faith, of those who claim to see a new antisemitism;[xxv] he dismissed the 2006 UK All-Party Parliamentary Report into Antisemitism because its author, Dennis Macshane MP is a ‘notorious Israeli Firster’;[xxvi] he attacked Jonathan Freedland, the widely respected Guardian journalist, and a critic of Israeli policy, as a ‘dull-witted creep’;[xxvii] he avers that all the ‘antisemitism mongers should crawl back into their sewers’. And so on.
Closely related to his love of the ad hominem is his addiction to what Freud called ‘the tendentious joke.’ As opposed to the ‘innocent joke’ which depend on verbal dexterity, the tendentious joke depends on the indirect expression of hostility or obscenity and is a very serious thing because it makes possible, thought Freud, ‘the satisfaction of an instinct (whether lustful or hostile) in the face of an obstacle that stands in its way.’[xxviii]
After posting a map at his website that suggested that Israel and Israelis should be transferred en masse to the USA, Finkelstein said that it was ‘funny’. Another favourite joke is that his sister got him onto Netflix only for him to discover that ‘every third movie is about the Holocaust’. Although Netflix offers around 2,500 movies, all he found was ‘Holocaust, Holocaust, Holocaust! Crazy!”[xxix] Another favourite of his is this one: ‘To quote Gloria Gaynor’s inspirational refrain, Jews “will survive” this onslaught of nonexistent, pseudo and contrived anti-Semitism.’ [xxx]
Finkelstein put on a political stand-up routine when I debated him in London about the new antisemitism in March 2015. To a few hundred students he told a rolling ‘gag’ about the 2014-2015 YouGov poll of antisemitic attitudes in the United Kingdom. His ‘punch line’ was that agreement to statements about Jews can’t be an indicator of antisemitism if those statement are… true.
For example, Finkelstein told the students that the 17 per cent of people who agreed with the statement ‘Jews think they are better than other people’ are not antisemitic because Jews do think that. Between ‘the spectacular secular success of Jews in the Western world, and their theological chosen-ness, most Jews believe in their group’s superiority.’ [xxxi]
The 17 per cent who agreed that ‘Jews have too much power in the media’ are not antisemitic because Jews are over-represented in the media and they do use that over-representation for Jewish ends. For example, it is the over-representation of Jews in Hollywood that leads to the ‘media’s obsessive focus on the Holocaust.’[xxxii] ‘My impression is that every third film available for download, even in romantic comedies, seems to be about the Holocaust’ he said, to laughter, asking his audiences ‘Who can seriously believe that the pro-Jewish bias of the corporate media has nothing whatever to do with the influential Jewish presence at all levels of it?’[xxxiii]
Of the 13 per cent who agreed that ‘Jews talk about the Holocaust too much in order to get sympathy,’ Finkelstein said there must be something wrong with the mental faculties of the 87 per cent who didn’t agree. To more laughter, he asked the students, ‘Doesn’t every sane person think that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust?’ [xxxiv]
Taboos fell like nine pins that night. ‘Jews are tapped into the networks of power and privilege’ he said, and are ‘the richest ethnic group in the United States’ and so ‘if you marry a Jew, it opens doors’. If some Jews faced a little stigma, so what? Such stigma is ‘socially inconsequential’ he reassured the hall. It is more socially consequential to be ‘short, fat, bald or ugly than to be Jewish’ he said, to more laughs. ‘Look,’ he added, ‘most people carry on in life, bearing these stigmas. It’s called life. Get used to it.’ (Sitting next to Finkelstein that evening it struck me that he had not mentioned to the students that Jews – not the ‘short, fat and ugly’ – had been singled out for murder by Islamists only two months earlier in Paris, and in Copenhagen only a month before. When I pointed this out, I thought he looked uncomfortable.)
So blasé was Finkelstein that night that a press officer from the Stop the War coalition, not a group known to be friendly to Israel, stood up and objected: ‘Hold on, we do need to take antisemitism seriously!’
[To sum up, Finkelstein is] a simplistic lumper who refuses to make the most elementary analytical distinctions, believing that the concept of new antisemitism hasn’t anything to do with fighting bigotry – and everything to do with stifling criticism of Israel; a polemicist with an ugly and sectarian mode of argument and a prose style that is a parody of a once-flourishing antisemitic literature; a lover of the ad hominem attack which leaves the substance of the question unaddressed, preferring to parade before the readers his collection of ‘stupid goys’, ‘ancient divas’, ‘dull-witted creeps’, ‘impressarios’, ‘hacks’, ‘Isarel-Firsters’, and ‘antisemitism mongers’ who should ‘crawl back into their sewers’; a tendentious joker trading in the indirect expressions of hostility or obscenity; a conspiracy theorist who reduces the history of Holocaust memory to the machinations of the Zionist propaganda machine, and contemporary forms of antisemitism to a public relations exercise; a crude reductionist who prefers a caricatural simplification of the historical process to a careful reconstruction of the dynamics of either collective memory or protean hatreds; a man who normalises antisemitism by telling his audiences that most Jews believe in their group’s superiority, talk too much about the Holocaust, are over-represented in the media and use that over-representation for Jewish ends, are tapped into the networks of power and privilege, and who should stop complaining about antisemitism, as they have not arrived at ‘Kristallnacht, let alone Auschwitz’ and, a man who believes it is too simple to say that accusations of Jewish responsibility for Israeli policy are antisemitic, too simple to say accusations of Jewish power anti-Semitic, and who thinks that if you want to really touch a Jewish nerve, you should make the analogy with the Nazis, because that’s the only thing that resonates with them.
[i] In 2003, it was as a member of the editorial board of the journal Historical Materialism that I invited the Italian intellectual historian Enzo Traverso to review a new edition of Norman Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust Industry. Traverso took his critical distance, to put it mildly. Of Finkelstein’s claims about Holocaust compensation payments, Traverso judged the book guilty of lumping together the Jewish Claims Conference, about which ‘most’ of his points are ‘probably correct’, and the national commissions that were established in Europe which were based on ‘completely different ethical and political rules’ and which ‘aimed to establish the truth and make amends for justice, not to seek profit’. Traverso noted that Finkelstein ‘takes the side of Swiss banks, portraying them as victims of a Jewish “racket”’ In effect, he had issued ‘an absolution and whitewash’ by portraying the banks as ‘victims, even though they were the first to practice extortions and … not against powerful economic institutions … but a persecuted community, just before and during its extermination!’
Traverso didn’t stop there. Finkelstein’s denunciatory zeal, he observed, was not ‘circumscribed and contextualised’ but was a ‘simplistic, sectarian, polemical and provocative’ form of argumentation. His writing ‘often seems to parody, in a very unpleasant way, the stereotype of a once-flourishing anti-Semitic literature’. The very title of Finkelstein’s book, he pointed out, ‘recall[ed] the old anti-Semitic myth of a “Jewish Conspiracy”’ noting that the book was welcomed in Berlin by ‘an enthusiastic public of nationalists.’
Traverso noted ‘the simplistic and unilateral character’ of Finkelstein’s claim that the ‘Holocaust Industry’ was a plot to fend off criticism of Israel. Finkelstein had failed to reconstitute the complex ‘itinerary of the Judeocide’s collective remembrance within American society.’ Instead, he had just trashed the very idea of collective memory and substituted ‘a conspiratorial vision of history’ in order to explain the rising salience of Holocaust remembrance in the culture. In doing so, he had ignored several research paths, each with an impressive literature, that had explained the rising importance of the Holocaust in western culture in various ways: ‘the return of repressed memory’, the ‘age of the witness’, ‘the birth of a particularist ethos among American Jews’ and a ‘generational shift in Germany and Europe.’ All were ‘unworthy in Finkelstein’s eyes’, so in lieu of a genuine historical analysis we find only a gross simplicity verging on a conspiracy theory to account for the increased attention given to the Shoah: ‘an alliance between US imperialism and the State of Israel, with the support of American Jewish elites’.
Traverso found repulsive Finkelstein’s claim that Holocaust representations in books, poems, plays, paintings and films were nought but ‘products of a propaganda machine.’ What of the works of ‘Andre Schwartz-Barth, Primo Levi, Jean Amery, Ruth Kluger, Imre Ketez and Victor Klemperer?’ Traverso demanded to know. He was shocked that Finkelstein ‘seems indifferent’ to the fact that many expressions of Holocaust memory have been ‘a powerful motor for the antifascist, anti-colonialist and antiracist struggles of several generations.’ Traverso’s summary judgement of Finkelstein’s book was damning: a ‘caricatural simplification of the historical process’.
Hailed by Michael Lowy as ‘the most gifted historian of his generation,’ Traverso is a trenchant critic of Zionism and the policies of the State of Israel, most recently in his The End of Jewish Modernity, reviewed by Phillip Spencer in Fathom. See Enzo Traverso, Understanding the Nazi Genocide. Marxism After Auschwitz (Pluto Press, London, 1991); Enzo Traverso, The Marxists and the Jewish Question. The History of a Debate, 1843-1943 (Prometheus Books 1994). The review discussed here, ‘Uses and Misuses of memory: Notes on Peter Novick and Norman Finkelstein’ was published in Historical Materialism, Volume 11, Issue 2, pp. 215-225, 2003, and all the quotations in this footnote have been taken from that review.
[ii] On the new antisemitism, see Steve Cohen, That’s Funny You Don’t Look Antisemitic (London: Beyond the Pale Collective, 1984); Mitchell Cohen, “Does the Left Have a Zionism Problem? From the General to a Particular” in Jack Jacobs, ed. Jews and Leftist Politics. Judaism, Israel, Antisemitism and Gender (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2017); Stan Crooke, “The Stalinist Roots of left ‘anti-Zionism’”, in Two Nations, Two States, Socialists and Israel/Palestine, (London, Workers Liberty, 2001); Robert Fine and Philip Spencer, Antisemitism and the Left. On the return of the Jewish question (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2017); Joel S. Fishman, “The Cold-War Origins of Contemporary Anti-Semitic Terminology” (Jerusalem Viewpoints, 517, 2004, 2-16); Norman Geras, “Alibi Antisemitism”, (Fathom, Spring 2013); Ben Gidley, “The Politics of Defining Racism: The Case of Anti-Semitism in the University and College Union”, (Dissent Blog, 26 May 2011); David Hirsh, Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections. Working Paper, Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, Yale University, 2007; David Hirsh, “Defining Antisemitism Down” (Fathom, Winter 2013); David Hirsh, “Hostility to Israel and Antisemitism: Toward a Sociological Approach,” (Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, 5, 1401-1422, 2013; David Hirsh, Contemporary Left Antisemitism, Routledge, 2017, Paul Iganski and Abe Sweiry, Understanding and Addressing The ‘Nazi card’: Intervening Against Antisemitic Discourse (London, The European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, 2009); Alan Johnson, “Intellectual Incitement: The Anti-Zionist Ideology and the Ant-Zionist Subject”, in Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm, eds. The Case Against Boycotts of Israel, (MLA Members for Scholars Rights, 2015a); Alan Johnson, “The Left and the Jews: Time for a Rethink” (Fathom, Autumn 2015); Alan Johnson, Antisemitic anti-Zionism: the root of Labour’s crisis. A submission to the Labour Party inquiry into antisemitism and other forms of racism (BICOM 2016); Anthony Julius, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Antisemitism in England, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010); Moishe Postone, “The Dualisms of Capitalist Modernity. Reflections on History, the Holocaust, and Antisemitism’, in Jack Jacobs, ed. Jews and Leftist Politics. Judaism, Israel, Antisemitism and Gender (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2017); Alvin H. Rosenfeld, ed, Deciphering the New Antisemitism (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2015); Robert Wistrich, ”Anti-Zionism as an Expression of Anti-Semitism in Recent Years”, (1984); Robert Wistrich, ”Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism” (Jewish Political Studies Review, 16:3-4, 2004); Robert Wistrich, From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel (Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press, 2012); Elhanan Yakira, Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust. Three Essays on Denial, Forgetting and the Delegitimisation of Israel, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
[iv] Norman Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah. On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005, pp. 5-6.
[v] Ibid. p. 61, 69, 62.
[vi] Ibid. p. 70.
[vii] Jamie Stern-Weiner, and Norman Finkelstein, “American Jewish Scholar behind Labour’s ‘antisemitism’ scandal breaks his silence” (openDemocracy, 3 May 2016).
[viii] Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah, p. 66.
[ix] Norman Finkelstein wrote this of our debate on his blog. ‘”These are bad bad times” = “this is good business for stupid goys like me – who, if we weren’t getting paid to defend Israel, would have to find a real job”’ (Norman G. Finkelstein Blog, 13 March 2015). In Mein Kampf, Hitler used the term ‘dumb goyim’ to refer to gullible gentiles who, thinking well of the Jews, were manipulated by them. He wrote that ‘the Jews again slyly dupe the dumb Goyim.’ This antisemitic trope is also found in Tom Paulin’s poem Killed in Crossfire. As well as using the Nazi analogy (‘the Zionist SS’) Paulin’s poem depicted those gentiles who were, in his view, taken in by Israeli propaganda as ‘dumb goys’. When his poem elicited a critical response, Paulin wrote a second poem disparaging ‘the usual cynical Goebbels stuff’. See the brilliant discussion of Paulin’s poem in Anthony Julius, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Antisemitism in England, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 236-240).
[x] Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah, p. 33.
[xi] Ibid. p. 66
[xii] Stern-Weiner and Finkelstein, American Scholar.
[xiii] Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah, p. 22
[xiv] Ibid. p. 76, 23, 28, 32.
[xv] Stern-Weiner and Finkelstein, American Scholar.
[xvi] Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah, p. 34, 70, 46.
[xvii] Ibid. p. 16.
[xviii] Ibid. p. 67
[xix] Norman Finkelstein, ‘Dr. Norman Finkelstein on “The New Antisemitism”’ (YouTube, SJP at UW-Madison, 2015). Finkelstein’s own writings and speeches are replete with exaggerations. The separation barrier, he claims, ‘eventually … might also keep in Israel as much as half the West Bank’ (Beyond Chutzpah, p. 51). In fact, according to the left-wing NGO B’Tselem, the barrier leaves ‘3 per cent of the West Bank territory cut off, west of the barrier’ and if completed as planned, ‘the barrier will isolate an additional area of more than 6 per cent of West Bank lands on the Israeli side’. (See B’Tselem. The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, “Separation Barrier”, 1 January 2011.). He also claims that ‘American Jewish elites … are the main fomenters of antisemitism in the world today’ (Beyond Chutzpah. p. 85). And so on.
[xx] David Hirsh, ‘Accusations of malicious intent in debates about the Palestine-Israel conflict and about anti-Semitism: The Livingstone Formulation, “playing the anti-Semitism card” and contesting the boundaries of antiracist discourse’ (transversal 1, 2010, p.47, p. 76).
[xxi] My own attempt to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and the new antisemitism, or as I call it antisemitic anti-Zionism, can be found at Alan Johnson, Antisemitic anti-Zionism: the root of Labour’s crisis. A submission to the Labour Party inquiry into antisemitism and other forms of racism (BICOM 2016).
[xxii] Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah, p. 76. Emphasis added.
[xxiii] Hirsh, Livingstone Formulation, p. 51.
[xxiv] Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah, p. 25.
[xxv] Ibid. p.39, 40, 71.
[xxvi] Finkelstein, Kill Arabs.
[xxvii] Stern-Weiner and Finkelstein, American Scholar.
[xxviii] Quoted in Anthony Storr, Freud: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989 p.86).
[xxix] Finkelstein, The New Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust Industry, 1:25:20.
[xxxi] Norman Finkelstein and Alan Johnson Debate, Kings College London, 2015 (audio and transcript in author’s possession).
[xxxiii] Beyond Chutzpah, p.83.
[xxxiv] Norman Finkelstein, Finkelstein-Johnson Debate.