By Jamie Stern-Weiner, New Left Project – 14 Nov 2011
Norman Finkelstein is one of the world’s foremost scholars on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He is the author of, most recently,Beyond Chutzpah, which systematically documents the realities of Israel’s human rights record, and This Time We Went Too Far, an analysis of Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008-9.
His forthcoming book argues that American Jews are distancing from Israel as the dissonance between the latter’s conduct and their liberal values increases. Also, together with Mouin Rabbani, he has written a pamphlet intervening in the Palestinian solidarity movement to make a case for how to resolve the conflict. [Full disclosure: I did research assistance for the pamphlet]. New Left Project met up with him last week to talk about it.
In your forthcoming book you argue that American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel. What is the evidence for that?
There are two kinds of evidence. First, there is a huge amount of polling evidence now showing that, at least in the under-forty generation, there is a significant distancing from Israel. There are some people who still say it’s not true – they claim that in all generations the younger are always more distant, and then as they get older they feel more of a pull towards Israel. That’s called the ‘lifecycle thesis’. But it’s not credible anymore. The best pollsters, like Stephen Cohen, are clear that if you ask questions like, not just ‘how do you feel about Israel?’, but ‘how often do you talk about Israel?’, ‘how closely do you follow events in Israel?’, and so on, if you look at all that polling evidence it’s clear that a distancing is occurring.
Having said that, one qualification. There is serious dispute about what is causing the distancing. So people like Stephen Cohen say it’s intermarriage – Jews are now intermarrying at a rate of about 60% in the United States, and when you intermarry you tend to settle in a less Jewish-centric milieu. And when you’re in a less Jewish-centric milieu, then the tendency to feel a pull towards Israel begins to weaken, because nobody around you is talking about it. It’s not a focus of conversation. So the qualification is: even if you acknowledge that an estrangement from Israel is occurring, there is still the second question of what accounts for it.
Aside from the polling evidence, I think the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. You see it everywhere, with high-profile defectors like Peter Beinart and David Remnick, and then you read all of these testimonials by Jews talking about how they’re really embarrassed by the way Israel is carrying on. You see this whenever there’s a meeting or convention. There was the Jewish Federations General Assembly recently, and Peter Beinart gave one of his anguished speeches, and then a young woman stood up and she started to avow her anguish… it’s everywhere. This is not sightings of Elvis – this is serious anecdotal evidence that Jews are becoming less and less attached to Israel.