23 November 2009 **** Front Page

Image and reality in the Middle East

By Hannu Reime

Introductory address before a lecture by Norman Finkelstein at the University of Helsinki, 14 November 2009

It's a great honor for me to be invited to present these brief remarks, introducing Dr. Norman Finkelstein who will speak to us about the topic “Roots of the Israel/Palestine Conflict and Prospects for Peace”.

Norman Finkelstein is one of the most penetrating and critical scholars of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. He has done research on both the conflict itself and its political and cultural repercussions in the United States and, consequently, in the wider so called Western world, to which Finland, too, belongs.

Dr. Finkelstein has written five books and countless articles for scholarly and cultural journals. His first book Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict was published in 1995. Its title is emblematic of the whole oeuvre of Dr. Finkelstein.

There is a reality, and there is an image in every political conflict, especially in a violent and emotionally and ideologically loaded conflict like the one in the Middle East. The gap between image and reality may sometimes be very wide. It's the duty of a critical scholar, a critical writer, or a critical journalist to try to bridge that gap, to try to show that the image is distorted.

An inescapable fact on the ground in Israel/Palestine is that the conflict was caused by the Zionist colonization and the resistance to it by the local Arab population. In the words of the late French scholar Maxime Rodinson, Israel is a colonial-settler state, born out of colonization; hence the confrontation between two national groups, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

Prospects for peace — the second conjunct in the title of Norman Finkelstein's lecture today — lie in the accommodation between Israelis and Palestinians. But the accommodation is impossible as long as the confiscation and colonization of the Palestinians' land continue. The occupation, siege, oppression and massive armed attacks every now and then by Israel against Palestinians and sometimes against other Arabs, like the Lebanese in the summer of 2006, are all consequences of the colonization and the Palestinians' refuse to submit to the colonial master.

Terms like "colonization" and "colonial-settler state" are no longer "politically correct" as they were during the first half of the 20th century. That's why so called "supporters of Israel" have so energetically tried to distort the image of the reality on the ground. That's also why Norman Finkelstein has been subjected to such harsh attacks. In this, he is not the only one but his case is the most bizarre. Dr. Finkelstein was refused the continuation of his tenure at DePaul University in Chicago. There were attempts to pressure the publisher not to publish his latest book Beyond Chutzpah. Fortunately, the publisher, University of California Press, didn't bow to the pressure.

Let me add that the term "supporters of Israel" should be enclosed within thick quotation marks. In the words of Noam Chomsky, what these people are, in fact, supporting is “Israel's moral degeneration and its ultimate destruction". Although Palestinians are the immediate victims of this conflict, what is at stake in the longer view, is the future of Israeli Jews. I think this point was most perceptively formulated by people in the small, radical Matzpen group in Israel after the June war of 1967. They stated that the questions of refugees, borders and the future of Palestinian Arabs are only "several aspects and manifestations of the central problem: the future of Israel in a predominantly Arab region."

Besides the Israel/Palestine conflict itself, another aspect of Norman Finkelstein's academic work has been the political and cultural repercussion of the conflict in the West and especially in his own country, the United States. This is the topic of his book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, which came out in 2000. The book's title is very provocative, but here again, it's important to remember the difference between reality and the ideological uses made of it. In this case, the reality is the Nazi Holocaust, industrial mass murder of European Jews. The "image" is the use of Holocaust and anti-Semitism in support of Israel's actions in the Middle East.

When I was reading The Holocaust Industry, the thing which most surprised me was Finkelstein's description of how little such topics as Jewish history and the suffering of the Jews, the Holocaust and Israel were discussed in the United States before the war of 1967. The memory of the Holocaust and even interest in Israel were taken to be left-wing causes, by and large.

The US-Israeli strategic partnership started after the June war of 1967 when Israel defeated the surrounding Arab armies. It was more than a military defeat. It was the defeat of secular Arab nationalism, potentially the most threatening challenge to Western imperialist domination of the Middle East and ultimately its oil.

That's why the United States started to support Israel on the massive scale it has done since then, not because Israel is weak but because it is strong. Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world which cannot be sunk, as the former Secretary of State and commander of NATO's forces, General Alexander Haig has formulated the matter.

In this context, it is ideologically useful to present Israel as a potential victim whose Jewish population is threatened with a new Holocaust. If I understand Norman Finkelstein's studies correctly, this is the main reason for the phenomenon that he calls "the Holocaust industry". For this aspect of his work, he has been attacked even more harshly than for his studies on the Israel/Palestine conflict itself.

Generally, I don't like using arguments from authority but let me conclude by noting that despite the attacks against Dr. Finkelstein from so many quarters, his work has been highly praised by such distinguished scholars as Avi Shlaim, an Israeli-British historian of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and Raul Hilberg, the doyen of Holocaust scholars with his major three-volume study The Destruction of the European Jews.

Dr. Finkelstein, the floor is yours.

Read also:

Visit the archive: Middle East, Moshe Machover, Robert Fisk, Noam Chomsky, Hannu Reime


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