About three weeks ago, Moti Perry, an economics professor from
Hebrew University, organized twenty-eight of his colleagues and
together they published a letter supporting students who refuse to
Do Not Employ Arabs, Enemies Should Not Be Offered a Livelihood and We Will Assist Those Who Do Not Provide Work For Arabs are just a few of the slogans covering billboards throughout Jerusalem. These placards refer to Palestinian citizens of Israel. One poster even provides a detailed list of taxi companies that employ Arab citizens and companies that don't. Jewish history, it seems, has been forgotten.
This kind of blatant racism is now common in Israel; it feeds off the widespread fear of suicide bombings, which have also managed to change the Jerusalem landscape. Downtown streets are almost empty, and most businesses have been seriously hurt because of the dramatic decline in clientele. A recent poll suggests that 67 percent of Israelis have reduced the number of times they leave their homes. The only companies that have been thriving in the past months are security firms. Every supermarket, bank, theater and cafe now employs private guards whose duty is to search customers as they enter the building.
One of the effects of this new practice is that profiling has become ubiquitous. Arab-looking residents refrain from using public transportation and from going to all-Jewish neighborhoods and shopping centers. It is not unusual in the city to see groups of Arab men searched at gunpoint by Israeli police, their faces against the wall and their hands in the air.
On the national level, politicians have been exploiting the pervasive fear, using it to foment a form of fervent nationalism tinged with racism. Effi Eitam, the new leader of the National Religious Party, recently approved to become a minister in Sharon's government, has characterized all Palestinian citizens of Israel as "a cancer." "Arabs," he claims, "will never have political rule in the land of Israel," which in Eitam's opinion includes the West Bank and Gaza. Support for Sharon has also risen from 45 to 62 percent following the latest Israeli offensive. The fact that Palestinian citizens, who make up almost 20 percent of the population, adamantly oppose Israel's military assault suggests that only one in five Jewish citizens is against Sharon's war. Most Jews consider themselves victims in this conflict, not aggressors.
The deeply rooted victim syndrome has been manipulated over the past year by the mainstream media in order to rally the public around the flag. For television viewers, Palestinian suffering is virtually nonexistent, while attacks on Jews are graphically portrayed, replayed time and again, thus rendering victimhood the existential condition of Israeli Jews. Radio and television have practically turned into government organs, allowing almost no criticism of Israel's policies to be aired.
It is within this stifling atmosphere that one must understand the slow resurgence of the Israeli peace camp. There are now about 400 new combat reservists who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, joining a similar number of refuseniks from Yesh Gvul ("There Is a Limit"). "We will not go on fighting beyond the 'green line' for the purposes of domination, expulsion, starvation and humiliation of an entire people," the soldiers wrote in an open letter. Since the eruption of the second intifada, eighty-seven conscientious objectors have been incarcerated; thirty-five are currently sitting in jail, more than in any other period in Israel's history.
On April 3, 4,000 Jewish and Arab protesters marched together from Jerusalem toward Kalandia checkpoint, located on the outskirts of Ramallah. The procession was led by women and included four truckloads of humanitarian aid. The demonstrators were stopped by a police blockade only minutes after they set out. As a member of the negotiation team, I was on the police side of the blockade when scores of tear gas canisters and stun grenades were thrown into the crowd. Policemen immediately pursued the protesters, trampling and violently beating them with their clubs. Among the injured were three Arab Knesset members. Later, while waiting for the trucks to return from Ramallah, a police officer explained that a woman precipitated the outburst: "She spat on one of the officers."
The next day, protesters gathered in front of the American Embassy in Tel Aviv to call on the US government to stop Israel's military incursion. The group was mostly composed of Palestinian citizens of Israel, although there were quite a few Jews. Again, the police assaulted the demonstrators, this time because one of them was carrying a Palestinian flag.
Two days later, on April 6, 15,000 people marched from Rabin Square to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, calling on Sharon to immediately withdraw all military forces from the occupied territories and to restart negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. "The occupation is killing us all!" the demonstrators shouted. Channel 2 spent twenty seconds covering the event; Channel 1, Israel's public station, ignored it.
Not everyone disregarded the protest. Likud Knesset Member Gideon Ezra called upon the secret services to begin monitoring more carefully the activities of leftist organizations and blamed the only two journalists who continue to document what is happening on the Palestinian side--Amira Hass and Gideon Levy--for encouraging the campaign against Israel. Given the increasingly repressive atmosphere inside Israel, it appears that without massive pressure from abroad--not unlike the sanctions imposed on South Africa--Israel will not withdraw from the occupied territories, nor will it cease to oppress and subjugate the Palestinian people.
A few months after the 1967 war, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a professor at Hebrew University and a leading Israeli intellectual--who was also an observant Jew--stated that Israel must immediately withdraw from the occupied territories. He argued that the occupation was unjust and would inevitably lead to the oppression and subjugation of the Palestinians, and to the corruption if not destruction of Israeli society. Until his death in the mid-1990s, he continued to criticize the occupation, using piercing, prophetic language to condemn the immorality of Israeli policies. For years, Leibowitz also averred that if 500 reservist soldiers would simultaneously refuse to serve in the territories, the occupation would end.
The fifty combat officers and soldiers who announced--in an open letter published on January 25 in the Israeli press--that they would no longer serve in the territories were in many ways following Leibowitz's advice. Already, 125 more soldiers have signed, among them sergeants, lieutenants, captains and even a few colonels (see www.seruv.org.il/defaulteng.asp for the full list). Thousands of Israelis have called a hotline to express support for the group and to donate money to help it publish ads in local papers, while Yesh Gvul ("There Is a Limit"), started by Israelis who refused to serve in Lebanon twenty years ago, is distributing leaflets urging others to join the soldiers' action. A group of women is organizing a petition, claiming that reserve officers are not the only ones carrying the burdens of occupation, while a number of twelfth graders, who will be drafted this coming summer, have also announced that they will not serve in the territories.
The fact that the letter has created such a stir both inside the military establishment and in society at large has to do with the profile of those who initiated it: These are not radical leftists but rather people affiliated with Israel's political center and members of the social elite. They have experienced firsthand the effect of the occupation, so their views cannot be dismissed.
Shuki Sadeh, a paratrooper reservist who was among the signers, told a newspaper how he had seen an Israeli soldier kill a young Palestinian boy at a distance of 150 meters. "What angered me at the time," Sadeh explained, "was that our soldiers said, 'Well, that's another Arab who has disappeared.'" Ariel Shatil, an artillery master sergeant recently on duty in the Gaza Strip, recalled that while it's claimed that the Palestinians shoot first and Israelis just respond, in reality, "We would start shooting and they would fire back."
The Israeli military has been shaken by the letter--not least because the soldiers are discrediting the Israeli depiction of the conflict and exposing the army's excessive use of force--and is now trying to prevent the "damage" from spreading. Rami Kaplan, one signer, has been demoted from his position as deputy commander of a reserve tank battalion, and other signers have been notified that they, too, will be stripped of their command. Yigal Bronner, a Sanskrit scholar who serves in a tank unit and also signed the letter, says, "It is as if both sides [the military and refuseniks] believe Leibowitz's prophecy...the soldiers are committed to amassing 500 conscientious objectors, while the Israeli government and military are afraid that if they do, the occupation will actually end."
EXCERPTS FROM THE OPEN LETTER
We, reserve combat officers and soldiers of the Israel Defense
Forces, who were raised upon the principles of Zionism, sacrifice and
giving to the people of Israel and to the State of Israel, who have always served in the front lines, and who were the first to carry out any mission, light or heavy, in order to protect the State of Israel and strengthen it;
We, combat officers and soldiers, have been on reserve duty all over the occupied territories, and were issued commands and directives that had nothing to do with the security of our country, and that had the sole purpose of perpetuating our control over the Palestinian people. We, whose eyes have seen the bloody toll this occupation exacts from both sides;
We, who sensed how the commands issued to us in the territories destroy all the values we had absorbed while growing up in this country;
We, who understand now that the price of occupation is the loss of the IDF's human character and the corruption of the entire Israeli society;
We, who know that the territories are not Israel, and that all settlements are bound to be evacuated in the end;
We hereby declare that we shall not continue to fight this War of the Settlements.
We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.
We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israel Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel's defense.
The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose and we shall take no part in them.
EXCERPTS FROM THE LEAFLET
We all want to defend our country. We're all sick and tired of terrorism. We all want peace. But do our actions permit of an end to the cycle of bloodshed?
Since 1967, Israel has ruled over 3.5 million Palestinians, running their lives by means of a forcible occupation, with continual violations of human rights.
Ask yourself whether your actions in the course of your military service enhance national security? Or do those actions merely fuel the enmity and the acts of violence between us and our Palestinian neighbors?
SOLDIER: THE OCCUPATION BREEDS TERRORISM!
When you take part in extrajudicial killings ("liquidation," in the army's terms), when you take part in demolishing residential homes, when you open fire at unarmed civilian population or residential homes, when you uproot orchards, when you interdict food supplies or medical treatment, you are taking part in actions defined in international conventions (such as the 4th Geneva Convention) and in Israeli law as war crimes.
Soldier, is there a people anywhere in the world that will not resist an occupation regime? If you were in the Palestinians' shoes, would you be willing to bow your head to a foreign ruler?
SOLDIER: THE OCCUPATION UNDERMINES OUR COUNTRY
The occupation and the violence that it prompts drag the economy down into recession. Investors are in flight, tourists stay away, entire sections of the economy are in collapse.
SOLDIER: IT'S IN YOUR HANDS!
Ariel Sharon's government is failing to use nonviolent approaches in its confrontation with the Palestinians.
You have "little trace," exclaimed Gershom Scholem in a letter he sent to the great Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt, of "love for the Jewish people." It was the early 1960s, and Scholem, one of Israel's most prominent intellectuals, was responding to her analysis of Adolf Eichmann's trial. Scholem's attack was spurred by several assertions Arendt had made, including her allegation that the Jewish officials in the ghettos--the Judenrat--expedited the extermination machine; if they had not collaborated with the Nazis, Arendt wrote, fewer Jews would have been killed.
Scholem's criticism expressed the prevailing view held by Israel's elite. Not surprisingly, Arendt was censored in Israel, and it took thirty-six years before an Israeli press agreed to translate her writings. Although the recent appearance of Eichmann in Jerusalem in Hebrew has rekindled an age-old debate, it seems that Israelis can now relate to the Holocaust in a more mature way.
Corners of the Jewish establishment in the United States may not be ready to cope with similarly forceful criticism, though, judging from the response to Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry. A review put forth in the New York Times tossed it aside as "an ideological fanatic's view of other people's opportunism, by a writer so reckless and ruthless in his attacks that he is prepared to defend his own enemies, the bastions of Western capitalism, and to warn that 'The Holocaust' will stir up an anti-Semitism whose significance he otherwise discounts." There are two major problems with this line of criticism. First, it summarily dismisses Finkelstein's arguments without any attempt to engage his disturbing accusations. Second, instead of concentrating on the book, the reviewer goes after the author, implying that Finkelstein, the son of survivors, represents a neoteric breed of anti-Semite. In this way, it resembles the assault on Arendt.
On the book's first page Finkelstein distinguishes between the actual historical events of the Nazi holocaust and "The Holocaust," a term denoting an "ideological weapon." He notifies the reader that The Holocaust Industry deals only with the ideological component, which is used to cast both Israel and "the most successful ethnic group in the United States" as victims. Victim status, in turn, says Finkelstein, enables the Zionist state, which has "a horrendous human rights record," to deflect criticism, and US Jewish organizations (the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and others) to advance dubious financial goals.
Others have already shown that the holocaust has served to justify pernicious acts. Tom Segev, a leading Israeli journalist, said as much over a decade ago in his book The Seventh Million. In the early 1980s, Israeli scholar Boaz Evron observed that the holocaust is often discussed by "a churning out of slogans and a false view of the world, the real aim of which is not at all an understanding of the past, but the manipulation of the present." Thus, Finkelstein's contribution to the existing literature involves his concentration on US Jewish organizations. He attempts to go beyond Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life [see Jon Wiener, "Holocaust Creationism," July 12, 1999], which focused in part on abuses committed by Jewish organizations and intellectuals, by providing a much more radical critique. Finkelstein strives to show how the organizations have "shrunk the stature of [Jewish] martyrdom to that of a Monte Carlo casino."
The major claim of the first chapter, "Capitalizing the Holocaust," is that until the 1960s "American Jewish elites 'forgot' the Nazi holocaust," their public obliviousness induced by a fear of being accused of "dual loyalty." Finkelstein urges the reader to keep in mind that the United States opposed Israel's 1956 invasion of Egypt and did not become an ardent champion of the Jewish state until the mid-1960s. Accordingly, he avers, Jewish elites were apprehensive about accentuating the holocaust for fear that this would be interpreted as favoring Israel over the United States.
The reader is also reminded that after World War II, Germany became "a crucial postwar American ally in the US confrontation with the Soviet Union." It was, I believe along with the author, a sad moment in Jewish history when organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League "actively collaborated in the McCarthy-era witch hunt." The crux of Finkelstein's argument in this context is that Jewish organizations "remembered" the holocaust only after the United States and Israel had formed a strategic cold war alliance. They suddenly realized that "The Holocaust" (in its capitalized form) could be employed as an ideological tool.
Finkelstein does not hesitate to use blunt language rather than euphemism; and although he usually applies words in a precise manner, at times he gets carried away in his analysis. For instance, at the very end of the first chapter, after discussing the dissolution of the longstanding alliance between American Jews and blacks, he claims that "just as Israelis, armed to the teeth by the United States, courageously put unruly Palestinians in their place, so American Jews courageously put unruly Blacks in their place." The book offers no support for the sentence's second clause; the analogy it sets up, too, is erroneous and can easily be used to discredit Finkelstein and thus his more serious charges.
The book's principal weakness, however, develops in its second chapter, "Hoaxers, Hucksters and History." Finkelstein dedicates this portion of the book to undermining two "central dogmas" that "underpin the Holocaust framework: (1) The Holocaust marks a categorically unique historical event; (2) The Holocaust marks the climax of an irrational, eternal Gentile hatred of Jews."
My criticism has nothing to do with Finkelstein's analysis of the second dogma, whose paradigmatic example is Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. The main thesis underlying Goldhagen's book--which has been acclaimed in some quarters but derided in many others--is that ordinary Germans were no less anti-Semitic than National Socialist Party members. Goldhagen's theory serves the notion that Jews can always fall prey to Gentiles, which makes them the quintessential and eternal victims. And if "'all people collaborated with the Nazis in the destruction of Jewry,'" then, as Boaz Evron points out, "everything is permissible to Jews in their relationship to other people." Together with Ruth Bettina Birn, an international expert on Nazi war crimes, Finkelstein examined Goldhagen's references one by one, and in their book A Nation on Trial they concluded convincingly that Hitler's Willing Executioners is not worthy of being called an academic text.
My problem, rather, lies with Finkelstein's attempt to demonstrate that the holocaust was not a unique historical event. I disagree with Elie Wiesel, who for a "standard fee of $25,000 (plus a chauffeured limousine)"--in Finkelstein's aside--insists that "we cannot even talk about it," and I follow Finkelstein's admonition that it's helpful to compare it with other historical events. Yes, Finkelstein is right that Communists, not Jews, were the first political casualties of Nazism, and that the handicapped were the first genocidal victims. He is also correct that Gypsies were systematically murdered. But these facts do not prove that the holocaust was unique only "by virtue of time and location," in his formulation. Even though mass genocide has occurred elsewhere, death trains, gas ovens and Auschwitz have not. The holocaust, including the horrific experience of European Jewry, was unique.
Finkelstein's error is in conflating two issues: the uniqueness of the holocaust, on the one hand, and how this uniqueness is interpreted and put to use in manipulative ways, on the other. He fails to recognize that one need not debunk the uniqueness of an event in order to compare it and criticize its use and abuse.
Nonetheless, when it comes to analyzing how "The Holocaust" has been employed to advance political interests, Finkelstein is at his best. He shows how "The Holocaust" demagogues draw a link between "uniqueness" and "Jewish chosenness" and demonstrates how both are used to justify Israel's rightness, regardless of the context. His most notable contribution is in the third chapter of his book, "The Double Shakedown," where he couches as an exposé his view that "the Holocaust industry has become an outright extortion racket." The chapter deals with a few specific cases but mainly focuses on the circumstances leading to the compensation agreement between Switzerland and a number of Jewish organizations. In this disturbing affair the devil is in the details, and Finkelstein has done his homework.
The empirical evidence he supplies is alarming. He documents how Jewish organizations have consistently exaggerated numbers--of slave laborers or the amount of "victim gold" purchased by the banks--in order to secure more money. This sort of inflation was recently repeated in an October 23 letter written by Burt Neuborne--the lead counsel in the Swiss banks case--to The Nation. Neuborne claimed, for instance, that if one takes into account that there were "more than 2 million wartime accounts" whose records have been destroyed, then the $1.25 billion compensation provided by the Swiss "barely scratches the surface of the stolen funds." Neuborne fails to mention the findings published by the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons, also known as the Volcker Committee, in its Report on Dormant Accounts of Victims of Nazi Persecution in Swiss Banks (1999). The committee established that approximately 54,000 dormant accounts had a "possible or probable" relationship to Holocaust victims, and of these only half had any real likely connection. Considering that "the estimated value of 10,000 of these accounts for which some information was available runs to $170-200 million," even Raul Hilberg, author of the seminal study The Destruction of the European Jews, infers that the "current value of the monies in the dormant Jewish accounts is far less than the $1.25 billion paid by the Swiss."
Hilberg himself has accused some Jewish organizations of "blackmail," and Finkelstein describes in detail how this economic strong-arming was carried out. While the high-powered lawyers representing the organizations haggled with the Swiss, the Jewish lobby launched an extensive campaign. This drive included the publication of studies--supported by the Simon Wiesenthal Center--that accused Switzerland of "knowingly profiting from blood money" and committing "unprecedented theft," and claimed that "dishonesty was a cultural code that individual Swiss have mastered to protect the nation's image and prosperity." Using its leverage, the lobby utilized these allegations in the House and Senate banking committees in order to orchestrate a "shameless campaign of vilification" against Switzerland, in Finkelstein's words. Simultaneously, it convinced officials in a number of states, including New York, New Jersey and Illinois, to threaten the Swiss banks with economic boycott. Finally, the banks bent in response. Call it what you will, ingenious lobbying or conspiracy theory, Finkelstein manages to disclose how this well-oiled machine has utilized abhorrent methods to fill its coffers.
The World Jewish Congress has amassed "roughly $7 billion" in compensation moneys. One reads that former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger earns an annual salary of $300,000 as chairman of the International Commission on Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims, while ex-Senator Alfonse D'Amato is paid $350 an hour plus expenses for mediating Holocaust lawsuits--he received $103,000 for the first six months of his labors. Most of the attorneys hired by the Jewish organizations earn around $600 an hour and their fees in total have reached several million. One lawyer asked for "$2,400 for reading Tom Bower's book, Nazi Gold." These attorneys might be demanding a smaller fee than is common to such litigation, but even a small percentage of a billion dollars is a lot of money. One should keep in mind that Finkelstein's mother received $3,500 for spending years in the Warsaw ghetto and in labor camps--the same amount D'Amato made in ten hours' work. These numbers plainly suggest that the "struggle," as much as it may be about paying damages to victims, has elements of an out-and-out money grab.
Finkelstein's analysis here boils down to three major criticisms: First, US Jewish organizations have been using shady methods to squeeze as much money as they can from European countries; second, while these organizations "celebrate" the "needy victims," much of the money gained in the process does not reach the victims but is used by organizations for "pet projects" and exorbitant overhead salaries; and third, that Jewish organizations' ongoing distortion of facts and emotional manipulation foments anti-Semitism. While his arguments are convincing, his attempt to be provocative leads to carelessness. His claim that the "Holocaust may turn out to be the greatest theft in the history of mankind" is preposterous, especially considering the history of imperialism. And yes, the "Holocaust industry" probably engenders some anti-Semitism; but Finkelstein should also clearly state that any misbehavior by Jewish organizations does not, and never can, provide an excuse for it.
Finkelstein does not spend all of his ire on his critique of Jewish organizations; he forcefully condemns US double standards as well. Why, for example, was a Holocaust museum built on the Washington Mall while there is no similarly high-profile museum commemorating crimes that took place in the course of American history? "Imagine," he says, "the wailing accusation of hypocrisy here were Germany to build a national museum in Berlin to commemorate not the Nazi genocide but American slavery or the extermination of Native Americans." Along the same line, the United States pressures Germany to pay compensation for its use of slave labor, but few in government dare mention compensation for African-Americans. Swiss banks are asked to pay back money taken from Jews but are allowed to continue profiting from the billions of dollars deposited by tyrants like Mobutu and Suharto at the expense of indigenous populations.
Informing Finkelstein's analysis is a universal ethics, which echoes Arendt's important claim that Eichmann should have been sentenced for his crimes against humanity rather than his crimes against the Jews. His book is controversial not entirely because of his mistakes or his piercing rhetoric but because he speaks truth to power. He, and not the Jewish organizations he criticizes, is following the example set by the great Jewish prophets.
Although most Israelis, even those who consider themselves members of the left, are blaming Yasir Arafat for escalating the current violence, some are trying to voice a different position. They have organized a number of small protests calling for Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and against the shooting of demonstrators.
In addition, about fifty Israeli scholars and community leaders--Jews and Arabs--have published a petition in Israel's daily Haaretz stating that war must and can be avoided. The petition was initiated by sociologist Baruch Kimmerling. Signers include Ruchama Marton, the founder of the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights; Dalia Kirstein, director of the Center for the Rights of the Individual; and Gila Svirsky, former director of the Israeli and Palestinian feminist group Bat Shalom. Also signing were literary figures David Grossman, Yitschak Laor, Yigal Shwartz and Orly Lubin; economist Arieh Arnon; and three Palestinian citizens of Israel who teach at Ben-Gurion University, Ismael Abu-Saad, Thabet Abu Rass and Ahmad Saadi. The petition demands:
§ An immediate and unilateral Israeli commitment to evacuating the provocative settlements and zones that are to be included in the Palestinian state--including those in the Gaza Strip, Hebron and the Jordan Valley.
§ That Israel accept Palestinian sovereignty over all Arab neighborhoods and mosques inside Jerusalem, while Israel will maintain sovereignty over the Western Wall. The city, within this framework, will be completely open to all residents.
§ That Israel declare a strong commitment to insuring equal rights in every area to all Palestinian and other citizens of the state of Israel, and that it stop shooting at demonstrators.
§ A release and exchange of all prisoners on all sides.
We believe that only the acceptance of this package and the immediate cessation of all violence by all populations on all sides can serve as the basis for rebuilding trust among Jews, Palestinians and the Arab world.
In a book of interviews published a few years ago, Chronicles of Dissent, Noam Chomsky recounted a childhood incident that shaped his life.