“This Time We Went Too Far
Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion”
Norman G. Finkelstein
New York, 2010
Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him. -Leviticus 17.
Norman Finkelstein’s “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering” provided a transgressive thrill that has not worn off after a decade, and the intervening and deliciously outrageous fictional assertion of a similar principle in Tova Reich’s “My Holocaust.” The ideas that I as a nonscholar had found astringently liberating from a kind of creeping corruption in American Jewish culture and that premier Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg endorsed were anathema to what Peter Beinart in his essential article on its failure calls “The American Jewish Establishment.” Finkelstein has been accused of being a self-hating Jew and a sloppy academic, while the fact that both his parents were death camp survivors, far from being perceived as support for the authority of his views, has been used as an opportunity to sneer at his pretension in making reference to them. However much he has been repudiated like some latter day Joseph for his obnoxious truth telling, Finkelstein continues, most recently in “This Time We Went Too Far,” to challenge the American Jewish Establishment and the state of Israel.
Classed by Eric Alterman as a “committed anti-Zionist” along with Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein, in “This Time We Went Too Far,” Finkelstein certainly betrays some skepticism about the project of a “Jewish state,” quoting former Israeli Supreme Court President Aharon Barak: “We have still not worked out properly the interrelationship between the Jewishness of the state and the fact that it is a state of all its citizens.” (p. 47) Yet, just as Finkelstein sees Israel’s incontrovertible excesses in “Operation Cast Lead” as opening a new space for self-examination and self-correction – the rather inspiring theme of the Gideon Levy Haaretz editorial the book’s title quotes from – I see “This Time We Went Too Far” as Finkelstein’s own bid for reconciliation with the people Israel and the fact of the state of Israel, a reproof all the more sharp and comprehensive for being fraternal, an intervention for a violent family member whose loss of control threatens himself first.
A short volume, “This Time We Went too far” begins with a thumbnail summary of the history of the state of Israel and its relationship to the Gaza strip. It then provides the first deconstruction of what Finkelstein calls “Israel’s alibi of self-defense” (p. 25). He squarely assigns to Israel the provocation that led to the assault and consistently attributes the most cynical of motives to Israeli government policies. He starkly contrasts the disproportion between the Israelis and the Gazans in both firepower and civilian casualties before and during the assault.
In his second chapter, “Their Fear and Ours,” Finkelstein more extensively examines the motivation for the assault and its antecedents in previous Israeli campaigns against Gaza and Lebanon. He determines that “the main motives for the Gaza invasion were … first … the need to restore Israel’s ‘deterrence capacity,’ and, second, … the need to counter the threat posed by a new Palestinian ‘peace offensive.'”
“Whitewash” – the third chapter – reviews the American and Israeli media coverage of “Operation Cast Lead” with an eye to obvious contradictions such as the claim “that Israel took every precaution not to damage civilian objects” when, in fact, 58,000 homes, 280 schools, 1,500 factories and workshops, several buildings housing media, water and sewage facilities, 80 percent of agricultural crops and nearly one-fifth of cultivated land were damaged or destroyed (p. 60) as well as 45 mosques (p. 63). Again, the thrust of Finkelstein’s argument was that the disproportionate destruction was as deliberate as the documented use of white phosphorous as an incendiary weapon – and that it was both militarily and politically useless – if not counterproductive: “‘It is very dangerous for the Israel Defense Forces to believe it won a war when there was no war,’ a respected Israeli strategic analyst warned.”(p. 74) “Israel could not restore its deterrence by inflicting a military defeat because Hamas was manifestly not a military power.”(p. 79)
Chapter 4: “Of Human Shields and Hasbara,” compares Israeli hasbara (propaganda) to the testimony of IDF soldiers who took part in the operation and the conclusions of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Goldstone Report, which tellingly concluded that “the repeated failure to distinguish between combatants and civilians appears … to have been the result of deliberate guidance issued to soldiers …” (p. 91) Finkelstein resolutely rejects arguments that disculpate the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and Israeli government on the grounds that religious extremists were somehow responsible for the operation’s abuses, “the criminal thrust of Operation Cast Lead – deploying as one soldier after another testified, ‘insane’ amounts of firepower – was the brainchild of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his secular cohorts …” (p. 93) He also concludes that if anyone used human shields during the operation, it was the IDF. Finkelstein makes determinations on the basis of what seems overwhelmingly compelling evidence, and implicitly addresses one of the thorniest aspects of all discussions of the Israel-Palestine situation: the existence of not only at least two sets of goals, motives and histories, but also of different sets of “facts.”
“Inside Gaza” briefly recounts Finkelstein’s own trip to Gaza six months after Operation Cast Lead (arriving via Egypt because this academic has been prohibited from entering Israel for ten years, as an alleged “security risk”) and his contacts with Hamas officials. He acknowledges that “Hamas sought to emulate Hezbollah’s victory in 2006,” but seemed hopeful that “after the massacre it perhaps sunk in that Israel cannot be defeated by shooting firecrackers and Roman candles at it.” (p. 101) In a paragraph that will surely inflame the passions of his detractors, he acknowledges a certain emotional solidarity with the young Hamas militants who guarded his party during their stay in Gaza.
Finkelstein completes the book with a chapter reviewing the evidence for a shift in public opinion, including the “break-up of hitherto blanket Jewish support for Israeli wars,” and providing further deconstruction of Israel apologists. The epilogue is largely devoted to the Goldstone Report and its reception in Israel and elsewhere and about which he concludes,
“It can fairly be said that the Goldstone Report marked the end of one era and the emergence of another: the end of the apologetic Jewish liberalism that denies or extenuates Israel’s crimes and the emergence of a Jewish liberalism that returns to its classical calling that, if only as an ideal imperfectly realized, nonetheless holds all malefactors, Jew or non-Jew, accountable when they have strayed from the path of justice.” (p. 141)
And while Alan Dershowitz might disagree with me that “This Time We Went Too Far” pretty much passes the Dershowitz litmus test for legitimate anti-Israel criticism, that ideal of Jewish liberalism seems to me to be Finkelstein’s project in the book under review. As part of a final peroration arguing for inclusion of those I would characterize as the “new liberal Zionists” in the struggle for justice for Palestinians, Finkelstein asserts, “It should not be lost from sight that the ultimate goal is – or ought to be – a settlement enabling both parties, everyone to live proud, productive, and peaceful lives.”(p. 145) “The prize to which our eyes should be riveted is human rights, human dignity, and human equality.”
I suspect this book, along with the Goldstone Report preceding it, have been influential in precisely the ways Finkelstein describes and subscribes to, in contributing to an ongoing, widespread and radical rethinking of the liberal Zionist idea. Is a “Jewish” democratic state an oxymoron? I certainly continue to hope not, but the recent deadly episode with the MV Mavi Mamara, the invasions of Lebanon and Gaza, the settlements policy, attacks against Israel’s once-famous press freedom and the outrageous conversion bill recently before the Knesset, suggest that, in practice, the state of Israel is moving ever further from that ideal. Those for whom allegiance to their group – however defined – is more important than justice, will never understand individuals like Finkelstein: individuals for whom their group’s adherence to its own strictest and most elevated standards of virtue is the over-riding concern. These individuals’ aspiration is to act as agents of transformation and purification for their own group – and by extension, for us all.