13 May 2012

Norman Finkelstein: The BBC Legitimises a Crank

I would say "The BBC beats a dead horse", but this is the headline chosen for a Henry Jackson Society editorial (no link, unfortunately, the site is a bit of an enigma). So here is the full text:

The BBC has a strange set of editorial guidelines. A ccording to a leaked memo sent to BBC staff by the network’s senior manager, Abu Qatada – Al-Qaeda affiliate and indefinite London resident –can only be classified as a “radical” because to call him an “extremist” would be a “value judgment”. Yet apparently, the Beeb has no problem using the darkly suggestive term “Jewish lobby” to frame a debate over whether or not a certain ethnic minority in the United States has got a succession of US presidents “in thrall” to its demands.

In the latest instalment of HARDtalk, presenter Sarah Montague interviews Norman Finkelstein on the subject of whether or not young American Jews are becoming less concerned with the fortunes of the Jewish state, and how this might alter the dynamics of US foreign policy.

Finkelstein is an odd choice as barometer of Diaspora opinion. He is best known as the author of The Holocaust Industry, a thin polemic which argued that the Shoah had been systematically exploited by the American Jewish community as a marketing tool for Zionism. The Jewish leadership, he wrote in characteristic style, was a “repellent gang of plutocrats, hoodlums, and hucksters”. Since then, Finkelstein has been a regular visitor to Europe, appearing on university campuses to enumerate the sins of what he calls the “lunatic state”. Back home, his academic career has floundered after he was denied tenure at DePaul University; he now writes primarily for his own website.

Finkelstein postures simply as a staunch defender of human rights and international law, though he is not above declaring “solidarity” with the Iranian terrorist proxy group Hezbollah, which, when it isn’t busy blowing up former prime ministers or helping Bashar al-Assad kill Syrians, holds rallies in Lebanon where a popular chant is “Death to Jews”.

HARDtalk’s raison d’etre is to create “good telly” by tackling controversial subjects and antagonising controversial figures. But the entire premise of this latest broadcast was as false as it was revelatory of how extremists have managed to shift the acceptable bounds of mainstream discussion about the Middle East. First, it legitimises the notion that American Jewish support for Israel is ideologically monolithic and disproportionately influential at the political level, which, as countless historians and intellectuals on the left and right have pointed out, not-so-subtly traffics in the classical tropes of anti-Semitism. Second, as HARDtalk presenter Sara Montague herself indicates, the latest polling data show that there is not a drop in young American Jewish support for Israel; on the contrary, support has remained consistently high. So why bother having a discredited crank on to argue the opposite?

Actually, “argue” might be too high of an estimation for Finkelstein’s performance, which grades into hilarious self-indictment. He claims that there is “anecdotal” evidence to support his view that young Jews are becoming disenchanted with Israel: namely, that whereas he used to cause quite a fuss on American college campuses in the 1960s, nowadays, hardly anyone turns up to hear him speak. When Montague points out that this might just be a sign that no one takes him seriously anymore, he balks.

Why the BBC has chosen to take him seriously is another matter.