Demographic, Environmental
Security Issues Project


Challenging the Official Version:

a review of Norman G. Finkelstein’s

Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.

Verso, 1995. 243 pages.

Middle East Policy, Vol VII, No 1, November 1999

by Ronald Bleier

In Image and Reality, Norman Finkelstein, an adjunct professor of political theory at Hunter College of the City University of New York, the son of Nazi concentration-camp survivors, makes a significant contribution to the literature of the so-called New Historians. These mostly Israeli (with a sprinkling of American and Palestinian) scholars have been engaged for two decades in the controversial task of reevaluating the official and heretofore largely unchallenged version of the history of Israel.

The findings of the New Historians have largely been made possible by the release of many documents from the archives of the Israeli government beginning in the late 1970s. The weight of the official version of a heroic and militarily precarious Israel, cruelly attacked by powerful Arabs was so pervasive that even liberal Jewish participants in the events of 1948 were convinced of its validity. Israeli historian Simha Flapan, an active figure in Labor party politics in 1948, explained that despite his first-hand knowledge of contemporary events, he had no idea until much later that so much of what he believed was merely propaganda.

Finkelstein writes that in the spring of 1982 he was drawn into research on the topic of Zionism when work on his dissertation coincided with the outbreak of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In the wake of the Lebanon war, he became intrigued with the question of whether a Jewish state could also be democratic, the subject of a highly publicized debate between Michael Walzer and Noam Chomsky. The thesis that emerged from Finkelstein’s dissertation, and which is synthesized in the first chapter of his book, is "that Zionism is a kind of Romantic nationalism fundamentally at odds with liberal values."

Finkelstein’s point is that the aim of Zionism has always been to create a Jewish state by establishing a Jewish majority in Palestine irrespective of the rights of the indigenous Arabs (p. 99). But at the beginning of the twentieth century, the sizable Arab population already living there made a Jewish majority seem impossible to achieve. For example, in 1917, the year of the Balfour Declaration in which the British government promised to aid in the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the Arab population of 600,000 outnumbered the Jews by more than 10 to 1.

In the next 30 years, a dramatic change in the demographic balance took place due to massive Jewish immigration, especially during the Hitler years and World War II and after. Even so, by the end of 1947, the Jewish population, which had reached 600,000, still represented only a third of the population of Palestine, as the Arab population had grown to about 1.2 million. Nevertheless, the Jewish community was much more unified, purposeful and effective. As a result, by the end of the 1948-49 war, only about 65,000 Arabs and about an equal number of Bedouin remained within Israel.

How did it happen that about 750,000 Arabs left their homes to become refugees? It might seem surprising at the end of the century, when the term ethnic cleansing has become a staple of our vocabulary, that controversy still rages over the circumstances driving the removal of the Arabs from what became Israeli territory. Not only does debate still rage over the refugee issue in such unsurprising places as the right-wing Zionist community, but Finkelstein also finds Zionist apologetics in more mainstream voices.

Finkelstein devotes a chapter to arguing that Benny Morris, the author of the authoritative The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (Cambridge University Press, 1987), defends Zionism on the crucial issue of responsibility for expelling the Palestinians. Similarly, Finkelstein argues in his chapters on the 1967 and 1973 wars, that the well-known former Israeli ambassador and foreign minister, Abba Eban, often made truth a casualty as he nurtured Israeli interests in the international community. On the less reputable side of the spectrum, Finkelstein includes a chapter detailing his exposé of Joan Peters, author of the immensely popular From Time Immemorial (Harper and Row, 1984). According to Finkelstein, her book implies that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians simultaneously forged their genealogies in order to deny Jewish legitimacy to the contested land.

Types Of Zionism

Finkelstein identifies and distinguishes among the three most important movements that made up Zionism: political, labor (or socialist) and cultural Zionism. Finkelstein argues that labor and cultural Zionism joined the hard-line position associated with political Zionism. All three strands, he insists, combined to form a consensus on the core issue of achieving a Jewish majority through the use of force, since the Arabs wouldn't willingly leave.

For labor/socialist Zionism, class structure was the key issue. The socialists believed that there were too many middlemen and not enough laborers. Since the interests of the labor class "required a socialist Jewish state, this was the only true solution to the Jewish predicament." As the Socialists agreed that a Jewish state required a Jewish majority, they represented not a real alternative to political Zionism, but merely a supplement to the hard-line position (p. 9).

For example, Finkelstein quotes from Anita Shapira’s Land and Power (one of the "more substantial contributions on the Israel-Palestine conflict") and finds there the "remarkable ... acknowledgment ...that labor Zionism and the dissident right-wing Zionist organizations were in basic accord as far as the deployment of physical force against the Arabs was concerned."

According to Shapira, Stalinist Russia was the inspiration for the brand of socialism embraced by the Yishuv (as the Jewish community in Palestine was known before the State of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948). "Effectively this meant that for them `a historical mission liberates its bearers from the restrictions of simple morality in the name of higher justice’…. Terror was thus explicitly condoned as a legitimate ‘means of struggle.’ The highly respected kibbutz leader Yitzak Tabenkin was fond of quoting that favorite Stalinist stand-by, `when trees are felled, the chips will fly" ( p. 113).

Similarly cultural Zionism demanded a Jewish state with a Jewish majority although it traveled a different theoretical route. Cultural Zionism was driven less by the fear of anti-Semitism "than by an increasingly secular civilization that rendered [Judaism] anachronistic. The real danger was not the Gentile's icy rejection, but, rather, their seductive embrace." Yet even Ahad Ha’am, the "outstanding theoretician of cultural Zionism" could at the same time adopt objective and sympathetic attitudes towards the Arabs and also adhere to the tough Zionist consensus. Finkelstein quotes Yosef Gorny, the author of Zionism and the Arabs, 1882-1948: A Study of Ideology citing Ahad Ha’am who "`saw the historical rights of the Jews outweighing the Arabs’ residential rights’" (p. 14).

Nor should it be surprising that liberal elements of Zionism joined the hard line against the Arabs. The two peoples – Jew and Arab – have been contending over a tiny land with limited resources for more than a century. As in many other such struggles, when an opportunity arises for the stronger side to take decisive action, there is overwhelming pressure to do so. Finkelstein’s message is that Zionism is no different from any other conquering regime.

The Zionist-Imperialist-Fascist Connection

Finkelstein compares Zionism to such settler movements as the British in North America, the Dutch in South Africa, and the Nazis in Eastern Europe. He makes clear that "to compare phenomena is not to equate them." However he insists that the similarities he indicates are "significant" and "disquieting" (Chap. 4, p. 88).

All these regimes included the notion of virgin land or wilderness as a core component of their "standard conquest myth." Thus in 1622, an Englishman justified the takeover of Indian land with the argument that "whereas England was `full,’ North America was ‘empty, spacious, and void’" (p. 89). Finkelstein provides a detailed description of the century-long campaign by European Americans to dispossess the Cherokee nation in his companion book, The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A Personal Account of the Intifada Years ( University of Minnesota Press, 1996). His account is dense with similar rationalizations by such notables as Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and many others.

Zionism joins other settler movements in its extensive use of the wilderness myth. Finkelstein writes that "Until World War I, Israel Zangwill’s slogan `A land without a people for a people without a land’ typified Zionist propaganda in Palestine." (p. 95). After the establishment of the state, "Zionist literature systematically and with considerable effect, rewrote the history of Palestine – in particular, by writing the Arabs …out." Thus David Ben-Gurion, the Yishuv’s leader and the legendary first prime minister of Israel, wrote in his Personal History that "Palestine on the eve of Zionist colonization [was] `in a virtual state of anarchy … primitive, neglected and derelict’. Jewish settlements `revitalize the `Land of Israel’ as they are built on `desolate tracts, on swamps and sands, on deserted and barren hillsides’ (p. 96). The Nazis also made use of the Wilderness myth. Hitler "depicted Eastern Europe as a virgin land or wilderness: `thinly settled,’ `desert,’ desolate,’ `wide spaces’ …"(p. 92).

Another similarity between Zionist and Nazi propaganda was their claim to the land based on historical right. "Even so sober a thinker as Ahad Ha’am could aver that Palestine was `a land to which our historical right is beyond doubt and has no need for far-fetched proofs." Finkelstein reports that the same argument was seized "with a vengeance" by the Nazis themselves. "Germany was said to have legitimate claims on Slavic territory…since it was `already inhabited by the Germans in primeval times,’ `fertilized by the most noble ancient German blood,’ `Germanic for many centuries and long before a Slav set foot there’…" (p. 101).

Tilting At Benny Morris

As one of the early and foremost proponents of the new Israeli history, Benny Morris is regularly attacked by those who wish to uphold the official version. Finkelstein is virtually alone in his critique of Morris from the left. Finkelstein uses Morris’s invaluable data to demonstrate that the Israeli historian's repeated attempts at mitigating Israeli responsibility for the Palestinian exodus cannot be supported by the documentary record. Finkelstein objects to Morris’s exculpatory formulation that the Palestinian refugees were "born of war, not design." Instead, Finkelstein argues, the expulsions were the result of a long-standing Zionist desire to create a Jewish majority in Palestine and that when war came, organized planning to remove the Arabs was well developed.

One of Morris’s major assertions is that the "main wave of the Arab exodus, encompassing 200,000 – 300,000 refugees, was not the result of a general, predetermined Yishuv policy. The Arab exodus of April - May [1948] caught the Yishuv leadership…by surprise, though it was immediately seen as a phenomenon to be exploited." Finkelstein disputes this. He argues that Morris "obscures the fact that Israel's statehood declaration was actually the watershed date." Before that date the Zionist leadership was especially sensitive to international opinion partly because of threats, mainly from the United States, to rescind the U.N. Partition Resolution. After May 15, restraints on the Israelis were loosened by the Arab invasion. This allowed the Zionists to "pursue with virtual impunity a policy…openly and relentlessly bent on expulsion. At least as many and probably more Arabs fled after Israel's statehood declaration as before" (p. 61-62; emphasis in original).

The Finkelstein-Morris spotlight on the Israeli expulsions of Palestinians that took place before the declaration of statehood also helps to dispel a persistent myth about Israel's early vulnerability. After the U.N. Partition Resolution of November 29, 1947, fighting immediately broke out in Palestine between the two sides. The stronger Jewish forces were so successful that virtually all the Arabs residents were forced to flee from such towns as Haifa, Jaffa, Safed, West Jerusalem and elsewhere before May 15. The hundreds of thousands of Arabs who became refugees created pressure for intervention in the Arab street on reluctant Arab governments, well aware that they were unprepared for war against Israel. The Arab "invasion" never threatened Israel's existence. No Jewish population center in territory designated for the Jewish state was ever threatened or attacked. Rather the Arab forces merely managed to put something of a brake on Israeli territorial conquests in areas that were designated to be in the proposed Arab state or in proposed international territory. As a result, by the end of the 1948-49 fighting, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza remained under Arab control despite the additional 20 percent more territory that Israel conquered for itself.

The Case of Abba Eban

Abba Eban, the highly regarded former Israeli ambassador and foreign minister, is Finkelstein’s "foil" for the last two chapters of his book, which cover the 1967 and the 1973 wars. Finkelstein once again challenges the official Israeli/Zionist version and argues that in their different ways both wars were products of Israeli territorial ambitions and desire for hegemony.

The origins of the 1967 war go back to the 1956 war, in which Israel joined with France and England and successfully attacked Egypt and captured the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. Israeli gains were reversed and conquered territory reluctantly abandoned as a result of President Eisenhower’s forceful intervention. In subsequent years the Israelis staged provocative "retaliatory" raids that led to increasing area tensions. Finally, due in part to a series of strategic blunders by Gamal Abdel Naser, Egypt’s president, and a "yellow" light from the Johnson administration, the stage was set for the lightening war in which Israel captured the Sinai, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Israelis took the opportunity of their victory to force another 200,000 Palestinians into permanent exile in addition to expelling more than 100,000 Syrian Arabs from the Golan Heights.

One of the persistent myths in connection with the 1967 war is that the capture of the Golan Heights was crucial for Israel's security. The official Israeli line has been that the "bombardment of our northern settlements" from the Golan Heights was an intolerable security issue. Finkelstein goes back to the contemporary record to demonstrate that the situation was exactly the reverse. Israel, the stronger side, contrary to international agreements monitored by the United Nations, forced out scores of Syrian farmers from the demilitarized zone between the two countries. The feeble Syrian response amounted to desultory and largely symbolic shelling from the nearby Golan Heights. In most cases, the shelling was of Israeli military personnel in tractors, disguised as farmers, who were evicting Syrians from their villages. The Israelis often responded with provocative and disproportionate air raids, sometimes deep into Syrian territory. In one case, in December 1955, an Israeli air attack killed 56 Syrian civilians. In the 6 months prior to the June 1967 war, the Israelis did not suffer one casualty from Syrian shelling from the Golan Heights (pp. 131-132).

The October 1973 War

In the wake of Israel's remarkable victory in the 1967 war it was expected that Israel would trade land for peace in accordance with provisions of United Nations resolution 242 calling for the return of captured territories. In the event, however, Israel stubbornly refused to accede to the international consensus that Egypt also had joined by 1971. At the height of their obduracy, the Israelis publicly declared that they would annex the Egyptian territory they captured during the war. In 1971, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier "officially delineated new boundaries" encompassing captured territory, and likewise in August 1972, the Israeli Cabinet approved an "`openly annexationist’ blueprint." Finkelstein argues that the Israeli refusal to negotiate left Egyptian President Sadat with only two options: unconditional surrender or war.

Finkelstein points out that the course of the successful Camp David negotiations of 1979, in which Israel returned all the Egyptian territory it conquered, helps to expose the emptiness behind many of Israel’s avowed security concerns. For example, Israel had maintained that it would never abandon Sharm-el-Shaykh. This area that had long been referred to as a "`vital’ `lifeline’ that Israel `definitely and categorically’ would not evacuate" did not figure in the negotiations. Instead Israel "bargained [unsuccessfully] to keep the settlements [in the northern Sinai] mainly for fear that dismantling them would set a bad precedent for the West Bank" (p. 167).

In his discussion of Abba Eban, Finkelstein makes clear that he cannot fault the Israeli diplomat for his spirited defense of Israeli policy, even if Israeli justifications do not coincide with the documentary record. Eban’s job, Finkelstein concedes, was to defend Israel's interests. Rather the author faults the "intellectual culture" that uncritically accepts Israeli justifications no matter the demands of simple justice and the human-rights implications for Israel's adversaries.

Similarly, in the epilogue to his chapter on the Joan Peters book, Finkelstein records how difficult it was, especially in this country in the mid-eighties to get a hearing on his and others’ exposure of Peters’s "colossal and multifaceted hoax," even though her book went through eight cloth printings and received hundreds of positive notices by 1984 (pp. 45ff.). One of Finkelstein’s themes is the power of the "language of force," the rule that the stronger side dominates the political landscape. His book provides a welcome corrective to the power of the image over the reality when those who prefer to believe the official version control the agenda.

The End

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