Thursday, May 8, 2008

Torture, Jews and Finkelstein's 'fact-finding'

It's hard to not set aside your mental faculties when sitting down for a lecture from Norman Finkelstein.

Probably American Jews' least favorite American Jew, Finkelstein first made his name with "The Holocaust Industry," in which he accused Jews of exploiting memories of the Holocaust for financial and political gain, and for Israel's sake; it was well-reviewed by a few, such as Noam Chomsky and Raul Hilberg, and panned by the guy Finkelstein said inspired it, Peter Novick, who said it made "egregious misrepresentations" and "absurd claims."

Last year, Finkelstein re-entered the spotlight with a beautiful pissing match with Alan Dershowitz of Harvard. With a little assistance from campus activists like StandWithUs, Dershowitz helped push DePaul University into denying its infamous academic tenure.

When I last heard Finkelstein speak, at Cal State Northridge in February, he was booed and hissed for about an hour by leaders of the Jewish Defense League (a group that, to be fair, might be able to make an anti-Semite out of Abe Foxman). His audience last night at UC Irvine was quite a bit more receptive. Having been invited by the Muslim Student Union, whose members have called for the destruction of Israel, Finkelstein kicked off Palestinian awareness week, which this year carries the theme, "Never Again? The Palestinian Holocaust."

"Is Criticism of Israel Anti-Semitic" was the title of Finkelstein's speech, but he didn't get to that topic until minute 83 of his 101-minute address. Instead, he spent most of the time talking about the controversy surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he said is "contrived, fabricated" to "deflect attention from, and sown confusion about, the documentary record" -- one that he claims indicts Israel on just about every human-rights account.

Listening to Finkelstein, you get the impression that Jews really do run the world, and that, as Kevin MacDonald argues, anti-Semitism is just what they had coming. Of course, Finkelstein repeatedly reminded the audience that Jews like he were cast off like chaff for challenging the establishment.

I was drifting in and out, thankful to have a tape recorder, when he said something that caught my attention. On the topic of civilian casualties, Finkelstein indulged a criticism of a familiar target.
There is this journalist writing for The New Yorker magazine, now he writes for The Atlantic magazine; his name is Jeffrey Goldberg. And recently he came out with a book called "Prisoners," and it was his account of his life in Ansar Three prison camp during the First Intifada. He was a guard in the camp. He also tortured Palestinians, which is to say he is the perfect expert for The New Yorker on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Finkelstein went on to discuss a scene from the book in which Goldberg snaps at a Hamas official that at least Israeli soldiers don't try to kill children. (You can hear more of the audio here.) Finkelstein claimed that, in fact, they do. But that is not the point I want to discuss.

I read "Prisoners." In fact, I really enjoyed "Prisoners," which I discussed here last summer. Though a mission of hope, the book is, in the end, a lamentation of Israel's unresolved future and of Goldberg's time at Ketziot (AKA Ansar Three), where he served as a guard after making aliyah and living on a liberal kibbutz. What I couldn't recall in his penance was any discussion of torturing Palestinian prisoners.

A good two hours later, as Finkelstein was being hurried from the podium to a book signing for his fellow travelers, I asked him where he had discovered this information. His answer: In Goldberg's book.

"He said he sent people to the zinzana; he sent people to the refrigerator," Finkelstein said. "That is an accessory to, or a, torture."

Such deduction says a little something about Finkelstein's insights into human-rights reports. Previously, Finkelstein had claimed that Goldberg was at least aware of the torturing that must have gone on at the prison camp.
Although admitting that he personally sent prisoners to the zinzana, and although liberal in his outrage at the "cruelty" of the tortures Palestinians inflicted on each other, Golderg rejects (albeit indirectly) the insinuation that he himself might be an accessory to torture, if not a torturer himself. When the guards needed "someone to go solitary" for a minor infraction of prison rules, Goldberg recalls at one point , "twenty Arabs immediately volunteered." He processes this not as a demonstration of their solidarity and courage but rather as vindication that the "Arabs want to be our victim" and "the Geneva Convention said nothing about prisoners who asked to be punished."
But this was a new indictment.

The zinzana, for that matter, was not described as a room where Palestinians were waterboarded. Translated in rough Arabic, the word means solitary confinement -- something you would find at most any prison in the world.

Finkelstein's scholarship has been discredited before; here are criticisms from the London Review of Books and the right-wing pro-Israel, some would say hawkish, groups CAMERA and StandWithUs. So I e-mailed Goldberg with the subject, "Finkelstein accuses you of torturing Palestinians," and he immediately called my cell.

"That is just ridiculous. I never laid a hand on anybody," Goldberg told me. "One of my principle roles there was making sure the prisoners had fresh fruit.

"Norman Finkelstein is a ridiculous figure and he is lying and purposely misreading my book. The dishonesty is stunning, but we've come to expect it. He is a malignant fantasist. I'd expect nothing less from Hezbollah's foremost Jewish American spokesman."


Guy Vestal said...

You have indeed been on the "anti-Semitism beat" as of late, but that is ok. At least you are are the better side of it!

But I have a question... Can it be correct in the eyes of Israel if Americans were to put their support behind the Jewish State just for the sake of Genesis 12:3 only? Throw out all of the US Foreign policy whining, and choose the Bible as the reason to support her?

I really could care less about internal politics in Israel, and the like. Because I know that God's will is set in stone already. What am I, or anyone else going to do to try to "kick against the pricks" when it comes to wanting to do more than standing firm on Gen 12:3

Anonymous said...

While it is possible that Finkelstein misunderstood or exagerrated Goldberg's role, I think you make a mistake if you take the latter's side & judge him pure as driven snow. I find Goldberg to be just as much as partisan ideologue as Finkelstein. Goldberg's review of Jimmy Carter's book was a raging, dyspeptic mess. There is no doubt that Goldberg is a very good writer. But his judgments about the I-P conflict & the Arab world in general are completely off the mark.

You don't have to accuse Goldberg of being a torturer to find his book woefully self-serving & breast-beating. I mistrust his motives entirely.