Stephen R. Shalom: Do we know enough? — On the book ‘Norman Finkelstein, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End’

22 February 2013

By Stephen R. Shalom, MERIP – February 2013

Norman Finkelstein, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End (New York: OR Books, 2012).

Stephen R. Shalom

In January 2007, amid the furor over Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, former President Jimmy Carter made his first major public appearance about the book at Brandeis University, which defines itself as “the only non-sectarian Jewish-sponsored college or university” in the United States. He received a standing ovation, going on to say that he had chosen the word “apartheid” for his book’s title “knowing that it would be provocative” and to deliver a speech describing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands as “cruel oppression.” Carter then departed, and Alan Dershowitz, author of The Case for Israel, rose to offer a response. Half the audience walked out. A year later, the Brandeis student senate voted not to congratulate Israel on its sixtieth anniversary.

In Knowing Too Much, Norman Finkelstein offers these incidents in support of his argument that both American Jews and the American public more generally are moving away from uncritical support for Israel. This shift, he suggests, holds out the possibility that the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be settled at last. Other analysts concur that there is growing disillusionment with Israel among American Jews, a phenomenon they attribute either to higher rates of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews (and thus lesser ethnic ties to the Jewish state) or to the increasingly reactionary policies pursued by Israel itself. Finkelstein instead emphasizes another factor: Knowledge of Israel’s crimes has become so widespread that it is no longer possible for US Jews to reconcile support for Israeli policies with the liberal values that most of them embrace.

Attachment vs. Agreement

The claim that Israel has lost support from American Jews is much debated. There is polling data that indicates the claim is false, but these results are very much a function of which Jews are sampled. Studies that show continuing Jewish affection for Israel use samples confined to those who give their religion as Jewish (excluding the increasing proportion of Jews who are Jews only by ethnicity or lineage, who make up a third of the 18-34 age cohort).1

Apart from sampling concerns, however, there is the question of what exactly respondents are being asked. Consider one 2010 study that maintains that US Jews are “still connected” to Israel. It reports that: “Political differences on the liberal-to-conservative continuum were unrelated to measures of attachment to Israel. Liberals felt no less connected than conservatives and were no less likely to regard Israel as important to their Jewish identities.”2 Yet this same study reports: “Notwithstanding the lack of relationship between ideology and attachment, the present study showed that respondents’ general political orientations played a large role in their perspectives on virtually all policy issues related to Israel,”3 whether on settlements, Jerusalem, the adequacy of US support for Israel or the credibility of Israel’s account of its May 2010 attack on the Gaza flotilla.4


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