Book Review: Knowing Too Much

by Tim Holmes

Norman Finkelstein's latest book is a major scholarly achievement with an extraordinary depth and range of its insights.

First published: 05 June, 2012 | Category: Book Review, Racism, Terror/War

Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End, by Norman G. Finkelstein, OR Books, 2012. 

In a striking passage in his recent novel Summertime, J. M. Coetzee's diarist considers the mentality of Apartheid's architects: 

Once upon a time he used to think that the men who dreamed up the South African version of public order, who brought into being the vast system of labour reserves and internal passports and satellite townships, had based their vision on a tragic misreading of history. They had misread history because, born on farms or on small towns in the hinterland, and isolated within a language spoken nowhere else in the world, they had no appreciation of the scale of the forces that had since 1945 been sweeping away the old colonial world. Yet to say they had misread history was in itself misleading. For they read no history at all. On the contrary, they turned their backs on it, dismissing it as a mass of slanders put together by foreigners who held Afrikaners in contempt and would turn a blind eye if they were massacred by the blacks, down to the last woman and child. Alone and friendless at the remote tip of a hostile continent, they erected their fortress state and retreated behind its walls: there they would keep the flame of Western Christian civilization burning until finally the world came to its senses.[1]

At the edge of a different continent, defending - as its apologists aver - its own ethnic and religious heritage from its (racialised) enemy, the analogue of Israel's "fortress state" is almost unmissable. If this fact has taken a long time to encroach on Western consciousness, it is in part a testament to the efforts of the state's defenders, as they engage in similar attempts to turn their backs on history.

Yet, as pre-eminent Israel- Palestine scholar Norman Finkelstein points out in Knowing Too Much, encroached it has - and with it, an awareness of Israel's abysmal human rights record, its history of unrestrained belligerence towards its neighbours, and its increasingly racist and reactionary political culture.

Like the South African Apartheid state it echoes, Israel has been steeped in a culture of racism and denial since its inception. Western Jewish progressives seeking the heralded utopian socialism of the kibbutzim routinely found their eagerness and curiosity dashed on the harsh realities of the early Zionist state. As historian Tony Judt described his experiences as a military translator during the June 1967 war: 

For the first time I met Israelis who were chauvinistic in every meaning of the word: anti-Arab in a sense bordering upon racism; quite undisturbed at the prospect of killing Arabs wherever possible … This was a Middle Eastern country that despised its neighbors.[2] 

Stanley Cohen, witnessing a paranoid "xenophobia that would be called 'racism' anywhere else" and persistent liberal denial, likewise recalls that his

"vintage sixties radicalism left me utterly unprepared for this move. Nearly twenty years in Britain had done little to change the naive views I had absorbed while growing up in the Zionist youth movement in South Africa. It soon became obvious that Israel was not like this at all."[3]

Nowadays, Finkelstein notes, even Israel's liberal left has all but collapsed. Neoliberal policies have eroded social concern, bequeathing a selfish, bigoted and authoritarian political culture. Corruption and self-interest are perceived as rife in public life. With the ultra-right now part of Government and legislative attacks on Arab rights common, popular racism mirrors Israel's formal politics. 

Finding hope in this predicament might seem perverse, yet Finkelstein is optimistic, as Israeli Jews' attitudes starkly oppose those held by their liberal U.S. counterparts. Once a major source of support, American Jews are becoming increasingly disillusioned with Israel. Its defenders on campuses, previously unavoidable, are increasingly inaudible; while younger Jews generally feel little connection to "a state that speaks neither to nor for them." 

Historically, Finkelstein argues, American Jews' attitudes towards Israel have been shaped by three factors: ethnicity, citizenship and ideology. The relationship between the first two has been fraught, sensitive as many have been to suspicions of "dual loyalty" - and in general, security and worldly success superseded idealistic attachment to a distant state. Only when Israel became a key U.S. asset could Jews safely grant Israel a show of public support. Nevertheless, the pressure exerted by ethnic identification is abating as American Jews assimilate. To the extent that newly empowered Arab public opinion and Israeli military failures put strain on the "special relationship", the pressure exerted by citizenship could lessen as well.

It is the third factor - ideology - that most seriously threatens to alienate American Jews from Israel. The former, Finkelstein notes, are generally affiliated with liberal Democrats, thanks in part to their education, history of persecution, and repellence - notwithstanding their relative worldly success - at Republican ideology's strains of ethnic and religious exclusivism. If the state's defenders have largely averted liberal condemnation by whitewashing its record of atrocities, too much is now known too widely. Recruiting "true believers" has become a struggle - Israel's partisans reduced either to propaganda so crude it fails to persuade, or apologism so equivocal it fails to motivate. 

As in his previous books, it is chiefly these works of propaganda and apologetics that concern Finkelstein.[4] Before addressing Israel's defenders, however, he considers some strident - and widely defamed - critics. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt - two accredited, mainstream "realist" international relations scholars - critiqued the power of Israel's censorious defenders in their 2007 work The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Sadly, Finkelstein argues, in important respects their account inverts reality. The "lobby" is in fact a largely contingent phenomenon, its opportunist membership siding with Israel only after June 1967, when Israel demonstrated its strategic value to the U.S. Scrutinising the historical record, Finkelstein finds, contra The Israel Lobby , that American Jews have never made the U.S. Government act against its core interests. In reality, the coincidence of U.S. and Israeli interests against strong independent movements in the Middle East underpins the superpower's "special relationship" with its regional enforcer. The historical record evinces no evidence - and much counter-evidence - that the Israel Lobby caused the Iraq war, its (mostly gentile) neoconservative architects wedded not to Israel but to their own careerism, bigotry and bellicosity. Nevertheless, on issues such as Palestine's occupation, where the stakes for the U.S. are low (Arab Governments demonstrating little genuine concern) the "lobby" has proved particularly influential. 

How, then, has this influence manifested itself? Finkelstein examines - and successively eviscerates - three prominent works on Israel from media, academia and politics respectively. The first is the semi-autobiographical account Prisoners by Jeffrey Goldberg, a leading U.S. commentator on Israel - tellingly, Finkelstein notes, since his "field work" was "as a cog in Israel's machinery of torture". 

Nor has this experience proved salutary. While demonising bloodthirsty, fratricidal, masochistic, self-obsessed Arab Muslims, Goldberg systematically ignores, tones down or fabricates spurious excuses for the Israeli torture he aided and abetted. The word "torture" is reserved for Palestinian interrogators' use of excruciating binding (Israel's routine use of the practice goes unmentioned). When not revelling in Jewish militarism or dropping cheeky jokes about summary executions, Goldberg despairs of the Palestinian savages for spurning non-violence.(He omits that precisely such tactics have been not only widespread but systematically and ruthlessly crushed by Israel.) Beneath this tapestry of "hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness, implausibility and absurdity", however, Finkelstein spies a subversion of conventional Zionist immigrant narratives. Goldberg ultimately disowns the harsh culture of Israel for America - a milestone, Finkelstein believes, signifying "American Jewry's farewell to Israel". 

Before considering academic and political authors, Finkelstein provides a stark illustration of the Israel lobby's pernicious influence, in this instance on human rights groups. During Israel's 2006 attack on Lebanon, Finkelstein reveals, Human Rights Watch applied a double -standard benefiting Israel in adducing conclusions from the facts it presented. HRW concluded there was "no doubt" Hezbollah targeted civilians "much of the time" - though it struck mostly military targets and nearby areas. "nexplicably broaden[ing] its mandate", the watchdog championed UN resolutions demanding Hezbollah's disarmament - sparing Israel any equivalent discourtesy. Hezbollah's threats of reprisals constituted "spreading terror"; half a million Israeli leaflets presaging its bombing of southern Lebanon were merely "too general to be helpful". Absent plausible military targets, Hezbollah attacks on civilians were presumed deliberate; Israel's were not, even though HRW had explicitly acknowledged their more sophisticated targeting systems; officials’ admissions; deliberate attacks on ambulances; and even the straightforward fact of its deliberate attacks on civilians. Israel's historically unprecedented saturation of southern Lebanon with indiscriminate cluster bombs - absent military targets and foreseeing widespread civilian casualties - HRW described merely as "in some locations possibly a war crime". In case after case, HRW's politically massaged conclusions - the result of concerted Israel lobby attacks - belied its own evidence. 

In his next chapter, Finkelstein revisits distortions of history by Michael Oren and (briefly) litigious pro-Israeli con artist Alan Dershowitz, incorporating recently unearthed evidence. Citing examples of a robust scholarly consensus, Finkelstein notes Israel's well-established history of military predominance, territorial conquest, ethnic cleansing, persistent belligerence and diplomatic rejectionism. By contrast, popular propaganda - such as Michael Oren's heralded Six Days of War, on the 1967 conflict - use spurious sources and suppression or distortion of key facts to excuse Israel. 

Continuing his exposures of spurious history, Finkelstein's next chapter - on Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez's Foxbats over Dimona: The Soviets' Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War - takes a surreal turn. As a work of "scholarship", he demonstrates, the book never rises above the risible. Essentially a bizarre work of paranoid conspiracism, it fantasises the hidden hand of the Soviets behind the 1967 war, plotting to destroy Israel's nascent nuclear weapons capability. Its "evidence" - heralded throughout with breathless superlatives ("astonishing"; "sensational"; "historic"; "crucial"; "startling"; "remarkabl[e]"; "extraordinary"; "unprecedented"; "momentous") - consists of ludicrous speculations; laughably spurious sources; deranged inferences; and straightforward fabrications. Counter- evidence is omitted and dismissed, but is most commonly twisted - in truly insane ways - to fit the theory. 

Next, Finkelstein demonstrates how such spurious histories underpin legal apologetics. Prominent legal authority Julius Stone, for instance, argues that, since Israel occupied the Palestinian territories in self-defence - the U.N.'s ruling against forceful territorial acquisition only ever a sop to the Arabs - it may annex them perfectly legally. In reality, Finkelstein notes, neither the U.S. nor Israel believed its "self-defence" rationalisation at the time, Israel itself the only U.N. member to advance it, or to demand anything less than full withdrawal. (A similar consensus upholds the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948.) 

These principles were subsequently upheld by the International Court of Justice's ruling declaring Israel's West Bank wall illegal. In a lengthy and detailed Appendix, Finkelstein contrasts this decision with that of Israel's High Court of Justice (essentially an Israeli Government rubber-stamp). Having effectively decriminalised Israel's settlements, Finkelstein reveals, on the question of the wall's necessity the HCJ openly and reflexively deferred to the superior "expertise" of Israel's military commander. Yet it also dismissed independent expert judgments; praised changes to this "necessary" route; and even selectively contested the commander's judgment.

Having established the legalities, Finkelstein delves into one representative official account of the "peace process", by U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross (along with complementary accounts by his aides, Martin Indyk and Aaron David Miller). Ross points the finger of blame at Palestinian terrorism - ignoring, glossing over or excusing Israel's much greater record of terrorism, incarceration, torture, house demolition and economic warfare, and denying its notorious culture of impunity. He even faults Yasir Arafat's leniency against Palestinian terrorism - when, under U.S.- Israeli pressure for which Ross takes some credit, Arafat actually committed widespread abuses in a major crackdown. (Al Gore praised Arafat's thugs for "doing the right thing".)  By dismissing international law and subordinating the purely "subjective" framework of legal rights (Palestinians' "myth" or "sense of entitlement") to his own, naturally objective interpretation of each side's "needs" (frequently "symbolic" for Palestinians but "real" for Israelis), Ross is able to invert the entire history of the 2000-1 negotiations. He thus concludes not - as in reality - that the Palestinians made every concession on offer, but that Israel's abundant generosity was rebuffed. For Ross, as for the mafia, "because the Israelis held the territories, they were on the giving end." Having thus "rigged" his account, Ross nevertheless contradicts himself, accusing the Palestinians of "rejecting compromise" while simultaneously acknowledging their "meaningful concessions". Most extraordinary, however, are details of the U.S. role: Clinton's furious eruption at talk of Palestinian legal rights ("This isn't the U.N. security council here. This isn't the U.N. General Assembly ... I'm the President of the United States"); Ross's contemptuous demands for Arafat's grovelling self-abasement; U.S. negotiators' membership of pro-Israel lobby groups; and even - almost unbelievably - their disquiet and "fur[y]" at Israeli "compromises". 

The book's last chapter revisits the work of once-eminent Israeli historian Benny Morris. In a previous work, Finkelstein revealed that, in chronicling Israel's 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, Morris's extenuating conclusions ("born of war, not by design") belied his own incriminating facts.[5] (Morris subsequently expressed regret that Israel failed to "finish the job".) Nevertheless, if the "old" Morris' scholarship, albeit compromised, was often valuable, the "new" is an embarrassing propagandist hack - probably, Finkelstein speculates, seeking alignment with Israel's political culture. Morris formerly concluded that Zionism's deeply-rooted goal of expelling the Arabs naturally engendered resistance (albeit religiously-expressed and indiscriminate). Now, mangling his own evidence, Morris depicts innocent Jewish self-defence against Muslims' preternatural, age -old, "eliminationist" antisemitism - failing to explain why it emerged only when and where Zionism took root. He likewise revives the "David versus Goliath" mythology of 1948 he once debunked; excuses the early state's atrocities and provocations as self-defence; suppresses its territorial ambitions; minimises and excuses its gruesome assaults on Lebanon, including the 1982 invasion in which he fought; converts the first intifada from an exploding tinderbox of grievances into a bloodthirsty, antisemitic jihad; whitewashes - through "mind-numbing repetition" of "Government press releases" - Israel's second intifada atrocities; and manufactures a history of Israeli accommodation and Palestinian rejectionism since 1947. Morris' own "two-state solution"? Hand the West Bank back to Jordan. (Thankfully, democracy has no place in Arab Muslim culture, just as Palestinians are liars, and crime statistics prove that those people don't value human life like you and me.) 

Knowing Too Much is undoubtedly a major scholarly achievement, and though its title mildly misleads as to its subject matter, the extraordinary depth and range of its insights, and of the research underpinning them, more than compensate. It is also, despite its often grim contents, very funny, tapping a deep vein of mordant humour in its subjects' absurdities. 

The book nevertheless contains a number of ostensibly questionable judgments. Most of these concern the "lobby", and the political influence of American Jews. Finkelstein, for instance, tends to present Mearsheimer and Walt's Israel lobby as almost congruent with American Jews, when in fact the authors explicitly argue otherwise. His "opportunism" theory is a victim of this conflation: though entirely plausible when applied to the "lobby", it seems inordinately cynical when applied to American Jews in general. Finkelstein's lobby, meanwhile, is a curiously contradictory beast. If opportunistically pursuing power and position in America, for instance, why is it so vocal on Palestine, where U.S. and Israeli interests diverge? Equally, why are there so many examples of American Jews promoting pro-Israeli policies before 1967? And why does media apologism for Israeli crimes barely seem to differ in Lebanon - where U.S. interests are at stake - and in Palestine, where they are not? Often, indeed, what Finkelstein attributes to the lobby could have just as much to do with inter-state dynamics, the result of U.S. trade-offs to keep Israel sweet. 

These residual concerns are few and minor, however. Overall, Knowing Too Much is an invaluable work of scholarship by one of the world's leading - and most consistently outspoken - authorities on Israel's role in the world. It thoroughly deserves, and repays, a close reading from anyone with even a passing interest in human rights and the future of the Middle East. 

Tim Holmes is a writer and activist who lives in mid-Wales.


[1] J. M. Coetzee, Summertime, London, Harvill Secker, 2009.

[2] Tony Judt, Thinking The Twentieth Century, cited in Michael O'Donnell, "Thinking Out Loud", The Washington Monthly, March/April 2012.

[3] Stanley Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing about atrocities and suffering, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2001/2007, p. xi, 157.

[4] See, for instance, Norman G. Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, London, Verso, 2003; Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, London, Verso, 2005.

[5] Finkelstein, Image and Reality, ibid., pp. 51-87.

  • bob brown, on 29 June 2012 - 04:05

    Oh lord, where to begin. Israel has been the only country in the history of the world that has taken in vast numbers of poverty stricken illiterate black Africans (Ethiopeans - about 100,000). This is the exact opposite of racism. They did it knowing that it would be a significant financial burden in terms of educating, feeding, and housing these people. Other Western countries send aid, but none would dream of a mass immigration.
    The countries where black slavery still exists today are the Muslim/Arab countries of Saudi Arabia, the Emerites, Somalia, and Mauritania. Israel was the first to arrive on the scene in Haiti after the earthquake and set up the only hospital capable of performing operations. I want to write much much more, but it’s not letting me.                     





  • Tim Holmes, on 11 July 2012 - 11:21

    Good grief - how low are you prepared to stoop? Israel accepted Jewish Ethiopian immigrants and dispossessed and butchered native Arabs for precisely the same reason: the ethnic exclusivism underpinning the modern state. Israel is not the only country to accept black African immigrants: there are an estimated 755,000 to 1.2 million African migrants living in Italy, for example, and around 4.6 million in Europe as a whole. And recent racist rhetoric from the Israeli Prime Minister and interior minister against Africans - which inspired some serious racist attacks - do not do much to substantiate your depiction of an open and accepting culture. Nor indeed does the evidence of persistent discrimination and exclusion against Israel’s Ethiopian community unearthed by the Bank of Israel. Still, why let anything as crude as the facts disturb your “Light Unto The Nations” fantasy?

    ““If we don’t stop their entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state,” Binyamin Netanyahu said at Sunday’s cabinet meeting. “This phenomenon is very grave and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity.”

    “... the interior minister, Eli Yishai, [said]: “Why should we provide them with jobs? I’m sick of the bleeding hearts, including politicians. Jobs would settle them here, they’ll make babies, and that offer will only result in hundreds of thousands more coming over here.”

    “Yishai repeated an earlier call for all migrants to be jailed pending deportation. “I want everyone to be able to walk the streets without fear or trepidation ... The migrants are giving birth to hundreds of thousands, and the Zionist dream is dying”“

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