November 20, 2006 Julie Cohn
Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, (London, New York: Verso, 2001)
In Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Norman Finkelstein tackles the historiography of one of the most controversial and emotionally loaded conflicts of the twentieth century. Finkelstein holds that the literature on the Israel/Palestine conflict contains a systematic bias in favor of the State of Israel. His purpose in publishing Image and Reality is to elucidate this bias through a close examination of recent scholarly work and provide what he terms a “modest contribution” to the literature. In the best tradition of “bunk and de-bunk” scholarship, Finkelstein outlines the traditionally accepted history of the creation of the State of Israel and its defense of its boundaries, revisions to that history dating from the 1970s, and his fresh perspective on what the evidence has to offer. He takes two approaches to this project – first he directly challenges four studies that address the myths surrounding the late 1940’s Israel/Palestine conflict and second he reassesses the Six-Day War of June 1967 and the October War of 1973.
In Part I of Image and Reality, Finkelstein examines four works that purport to revise and clarify the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict - Zionism and the Arabs, 1882-1948 by Yosef Gorny, From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 by Benny Morris, and Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948 by Anita Shapira. Finkelstein credits Gorny with providing a comprehensive exploration of the various strains of Zionist ideologies and inadvertently defining the central issue that ultimately dooms future relations with indigenous Arabs. With the exception of a very small minority, Zionists generally agreed that Palestine should contain a Jewish majority. Because Palestine had only a very small minority of Jewish inhabitants at the beginning of the twentieth century, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers seeking a majority position led to inevitable and ongoing conflict. Finkelstein is less generous toward Peters, whom he accuses of perpetrating a fraud in From Time Immemorial. Peters’ central thesis is that by 1948, the vast majority of Arabs living in Palestine were recent illegal immigrants, and thus had no indigenous claim to the region at the time of expulsion. Using Peters’ own data, supported by extensive reference to her original sources, Finkelstein successfully proves that Peters’ work was purely a myth.
Morris’ work tackles the expulsion of Arabs in 1948 as well, seeking an explanation between the opposing traditional views – that Palestinians were urged to leave during radio broadcasts by neighboring Arab states or that the Zionists expelled the Palestinians. Morris offers a third alternative, that the Palestinian refugee problem was an inevitable by-product of the war. Finkelstein demonstrates that Morris is uncritical in his use of Israeli sources and does not go far enough in his dismissal of traditional arguments. Rather, Finkelstein claims that Morris’ evidence points to systematic and premeditated expulsion in keeping with the Zionist ideology calling for a Jewish majority state. Similarly, Finkelstein challenges Shapira’s effort to establish a non-violent intention on the part of the Zionist movement. Finkelstein sets up three conquest myths – the virgin land myth, the self-defense myth, and the purity of arms myth, then explores Shapira’s evidence and arguments to demonstrate that the Zionists embraced those myths to prosecute the creation of the State of Israel.
In Part II of Image and Reality, Finkelstein tackles the traditional explanations for the June 1967 War and the October 1923 War. Using Abba Eban’s reconstruction of the June 1967 War, Finkelstein challenges the main premise that Egypt provoked aggression, that there was ample justification for Israel’s preemptive attack, and that Israel joined in the consensus surrounding the United Nation’s peace-seeking Resolution 242. While Abba Eban’s account casts Israel in a do-or-die situation in the months before the war, Finkelstein determines that Israel was actively seeking to expand its borders. In a similar vein, Finkelstein draws upon memoirs of Yitzchak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, Golde Meir and others to determine that Israel was not seeking peace after 1967 until Egypt demonstrated a superior use of force in 1973. Only then was Israel willing to pursue a political solution to conflict in the Sinai Peninsula.
Throughout Image and Reality, Finkelstein repeats themes of nationalism and German Romanticism in defining the purpose and ultimate goals of the Zionist movement. He draws comparisons with other nationalist and colonial ventures, including Great Britain’s expansion to North America, the Dutch colonization of South Africa, and most disturbingly, Nazi propaganda and apologia related to eastern expansion and systematic violence. Most persuasive are Finkelstein’s analyses of the written record left by those involved in the creation of the State of Israel and engagement in wars with the Arabs. He is especially adept at identifying the conflicting evidence within individual narratives and the relationship between ideology and action on the ground. Missing from his book are evaluation of the role of Great Britain during the mandate years, although he refers occasionally to the importance of British arms in supporting the Zionist cause, and the complexity of Israel’s interaction with multiple Arab states following nationhood. However, Finkelstein succeeds in demonstrating that Zionist ideology is closely linked to the myths inherent in the conventional wisdom about the state of Israel.
Finkelstein’s credentials, both personal and scholarly, lend strength to his analysis. Finkelstein establishes at the outset that he is Jewish and his parents were survivors of the Warsaw ghetto and Nazi concentration camps. With a Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton, he currently teaches political theory at De Paul University in Chicago. Finkelstein’s research and publications address Israel, Palestine, anti-Semitism, and contemporary views of the Holocaust. In this study, he explores extant literature written from multiple perspectives on the Israel/Palestine conflict, as well as United Nations papers, personal journals, speeches, and memoirs from participants. Finkelstein’s style includes a heavy reliance on footnotes, which present additional detail, extensive arguments, and further insights into the source materials, as well as references to the main text. In Image and Reality, Finkelstein successfully challenges the conventional wisdom of the pro-Israel perspective, exposes kernels of truth in the research of other scholars, invites the reader to reconsider assumptions about the mid-East, and seeks a greater understanding of a highly controversial part of the world.