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Filmmakers Notebook #71 

PERSPECTIVES ON THE WALL (a series)

Professor Norman G. Finkelstein (University of De Paul, Chicago)

[This is part one of a series entitled ďPerspectives on the WallĒ held at International House, University of Chicago, February 12, 2004 Other panelists were Derek Jinks, Ali Abunimai, and Rosane Assaf. Event sponsors: Students for Justice in Palestine, Global Voices, Middle East Studies Student Assn, Muslim Student Assn., and Not in My Name. Special thanks to Labor Beat/Chicago (laborbeat.org) for videotaping the event.] 

The first panelist was Professor Norman G. Finkelstein, DePaul University, Chicago.

Professor Finkelstein:

Normally, in a panel of this sort, I devote the time that is allotted to me to discussing the historical background to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but I think Iím going to use this occasion to do something slightly different, to set the context for the other three speakers.

Namely, to ask I think an interesting question about the Israel-Palestine conflict, and also about the question of The Wall. Namely, why does this conflict Ė or why does The Wall Ė raise so much controversy?

In any other circumstance, I donít think any rational person or persons have any difficulty adjudicating morally or legally the question of The Wall. Whatever kinds of security concerns you have, they canít be mitigated by building a wall on somebody elseís property. Anyone who owns a backyard knows that. Thatís not a complicated legal question, and those who explored it legally have reached a common conclusion that, obviously, Israel has no right to do so. 

It certainly has a right to build a wall on its property. It doesnít have the right to build a wall on somebody elseís property. Itís not very complicated. And the question is, why should there be a panel devoted to that topic. Why is it that with the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict, all sorts of controversies arise which, in any other circumstances, seem to be not particularly complicated at all. And thatís what I want to look at. 

If you look at the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, thereís always an attempt to endow it with some kind of cosmic or mystic significance, very difficult for the lay person to apprehend, requires all sorts of profound knowledge and so onÖ 

In fact, I donít think thatís true at all. I donít think the conflict is particularly complicated. I donít think it raises especially complex political or historical issues. I think that pretty much we can find analogous situations elsewhere which raise basically the same questions. So I donít think itís particularly complicated. 

And then you have a second fact. The second fact is, surprisingly for all the apparent controversies surrounding the conflictÖ. surprisingly, there is now pretty much a broad consensus among scholars about what actually happened. There was a period of time you could say Ė 20 or 15 years ago -- when there were real fundamental differences about the historical recordÖ. The dominant Ė I hate academic language but Iíll use it just this once Ė the dominant narrative was the Israeli one. But since the last 15 years, perhaps a little more, thereís been pretty much a broad consensus on the historical record. There are areas where people disagree but by and large, on the big issues, the basic framework, there isnít all that much disagreement about what happened.

And as you get closer to the present, thereís less and less disagreement. So, for example if you look at human rights reports, I mean mainstream human rights reports Ė Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Bet T'selem , the Israel Center for Human Rights, Israel Commission Center for Human Rights in the occupied territories, or a whole slew of other human rights organization reports, because Israel has its own domestic versions of many international organizations Ė the Public Committee Against Torture, Israel Physicians for Human Rights, there are all these branches of international organizations in Israel.

I had the fortune or misfortune the past couple of months of reading through human rights reports of the last 10 years and it comes to quite a substantial amount weíre talking about Ė two or three thousand pages of reports. The remarkable thing about the reports is they hardly disagree about anything. In fact, you would think the same person or persons were writing all the reports. 

If you take, for example the reports on Jenin, what happened during Operation Defensive Shield in JeninÖ. You take Amnesty International which issued a special report. You look at Human Rights which issued a special report. You look at Bet Tíselem which did a special report. You look at Physicians for Human Rights which did a special report. You read them all. They all reach the same conclusion. So that raises, really, for somebody whoís following this topic, it does raise an interesting question. If basically thereís a consensus on the historical record, and if basically thereís a consensus on the human rights record, what accounts for all the controversy?

Well, I would say there are two categories for what accounts for it. What I would call legitimate disagreement, and what I would call illegitimate disagreement. The legitimate disagreement basically falls into two categories. Namely, moral judgment and political judgment. So, for example, letís take a classic case. What happened to the Palestinians in 1948? Thereís pretty much a consensus now among Israeli, American and British historians that the Palestinians were expelled in 1948; it was an expulsion; an ethnic cleansing. Thatís factual. But then there are differences on how you morally judge what happened. 

So Benny Morris, the Israeli historian, will say, Yes, it was a ethnic cleansing, but, morally, I think it was a good thing. In fact, I think the mistake was not enough Palestinians were expelled. 

But he doesnít disagree on the factual questions. He has a different moral judgment. He thinks ethnic cleansings are a good idea. He says, you look over the 20th century, it hasnít been bad. He says, Okay, 15 million Germans were expelled during, right after World War II, it wasnít so terrible. Okay, two million happened to have died. No big deal. At the end of the day it was a good thing. Or so he thinks.

Another area where you can have difference of moral opinion. You agree the Palestinians were expelled in 1948, but now the question is, 50 years later, how do you resolve the problem? And that raises both moral and political issues.

Morally, do the Palestinians have a right to return after 50 years? Thatís a moral question. Some may wish to argue that Israeli Jews have established a foothold over generations in the part of Palestine that became Israel, and that Palestinians have lost that right to return. Thatís a moral judgment. At what point do you lose your right to return? How much time has to elapse before you lose that right? And then thereís a political question there. Namely, you can say Palestinians preserved that right, but itís no longer politically feasible. And so, in order to resolve the conflict, Palestinians, even though they have that right in the abstract, to resolve the conflict they have to effectively forgo that right. So, thatís a moral and a political disagreement, but not a disagreement over the historical record. 

Those, to me, Iím speaking now personally, those seem to me to be reasonable, legitimate grounds for disagreement Ė because peoples moral and political judgments differ. 

I suspect there are some on the panel this evening who believe that Palestinians have the right both morally and should preserve the right politically to implement the right of return. Take someone like Professor Chomsky, heíll say, Yes, they have the right to return, but politically itís infeasible and unrealistic and we should just face up to that fact. Those are legitimate grounds to disagree, in my opinion. 

Thatís one category of disagreement. But now, thereís a second category of disagreement which to my thinking is altogether illegitimate. And for the time that remains, I want to look at that illegitimate category of disagreement. First of all, thereís an attempt to envelop the Israel-Palestine conflict in a kind of ideological fog Ė to obfuscate, confuse and divert from whatís actually happening. So you hear all this nonsense about ĎClash of Civilizations,í and clashes of religion, ancient enmities, biblical hatreds Ė all of this nonsense is conjured up to, in my opinion, try to confuse, divert and obfuscate the reality of the conflict.

None of those images, or the purported reality behind them, in any way help to facilitate, in my opinion, trying to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict. Thatís one category, in my opinion, of illegitimate disagreement.

A second category is constantly invoking the Holocaust horror. The dragging in of the Nazi Holocaust or itís current form, the dragging in of totally fraudulent thing called the Ďnew anti-Semitism.í These are all efforts, once again, to obfuscate, divert and confuse the issue. 

The purpose of the new anti-Semitism is very straightforward. Iíve examined the literature very carefully, to my chagrin. I had to read most of that nonsense in the past month. If you look at what they tabulate as the new anti-Semitism, almost all of it Ė I donít say all Ė but almost all of whatís tabulated as the new anti-Semitism is simply criticism of Israel. So, for example, if you look at all the publications Ė which Iíve done Ė theyíll typically tabulate this anti-Semitism: anyone whoís saying that Israel is constructing an apartheid-like regime in the occupied territories. Thatís catalogued as anti-Semitism. Any one who says Israel is guilty of ethnic cleansing Ė using that term Ė thatís qualified as anti-Semitism. About 90 percent of the so-called new anti-Semitism is just criticism of Israel which they want to taint. They want to taint it by calling it anti-Semitism.

And it serves another purpose, of course. It turns the perpetrator into the victim. So now Jews can claim Ė Israel can claim Ė that itís the victim of a new anti-Semitism. Whereas in fact, Israel and its apologists are involved in a very brutal repression and occupation. Thatís the second category.

And the third category which time wonít allow me to elaborate on, but in many ways is the most pernicious of the fraudulent kind of controversy, is simply that there is this massive, massive production of sheer fraud and sheer fabrication of the Israel-Palestine conflict. And unfortunately, regrettably, it has the backing of the mainstream media for this fraud and fabrication.

The most recent entry into this sweepstakes nonsense is of course this Alan Dershowitz book, The Case For Israel, which is just sheer fraud from beginning to end. Itís kind of shocking when you read a book like that. One third of it is simply plagiarized. Okay, ordinary people donít lose their minds over plagiarism. It happens in academia. But the thing is, he plagiarized another hoax! Itís really peculiar. He not only plagiarizes, but he plagiarizes a book which is universally, uniformly recognized to be a fraud. Secondly, large parts of the book are simply flat-out made up. At this point Iíve come across at least 20 assertions in the book which are simply fabricated whole cloth.

Iíll give you one quick example. He has a point in the book where he mentions the 1995 case of a Palestinian named [Abded El Zasmed] Harizat who was tortured to death by shaking. And he says, itís claimed he was tortured to death by shaking, but in fact an independent investigation found that Harizat died from unrelated causes to the shaking. 

I checked everywhere. I checked the state prosecutor, the Israeli justice department, the Israeli high court Ė because it went to the high court, that particular case of the death by shaking. I checked with all the autopsies that were done. A professor [Derrick] Pounder [an M.D] in England monitored the autopsies. Absolutely no one Ė no one Ė including the Israeli high court ruling, disagrees he died from shaking. This is just flat-out fraud. Itís flat-out fraud that happens to be currently at the top of the Amazon[.com] list -- between zero and 100, depending on the day. Itís now one of the top-selling books in the United Kingdom.

And even when the fraud is revealed, even when itís meticulously, exhaustively, irrefutably documented, it doesnítí affect the reviews at all. If you look at the reviews that came out in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Boston Globe after it was well known the book was a hoax, itís still received reviews saying this is the greatest thing since sliced bread Ė you know, The Case for Israel. And thatís a major problem. It seems to me, if Ė if Ė the conflict and discussion of it were confined to the historical record and the legitimate sources of disagreement, yes, there would be disagreements, but there wouldnít be this kind of complete incapacity for people to even relate to each other. Because I think one body of dissent is from Mars, itís not from Venus. 

Professor Finkelstein is the author of 4 books: The Holocaust Industry, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, A Nation on Trial, and The Rise and Fall of Palestine. For further information: http://www.normanfinkelstein.com Transcribed and published by snowshoefilms.com 
filmmakers notebook #71 
 

 


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updated Jan 2004