An Option for “Unworthy Victims”

by Mark Chmiel

On Norman G. Finkelstein, The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A Personal Account of the Intifada Year
First published in the National Catholic Reporter, fall 1997

Some years back, the political critics Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman  coined the expression “worthy and unworthy victims” to refer to  the ways in which U.S. propaganda dictates differential and deferential treatment to victims.  “Worthy victims” are those  victimized by an official enemy of the U.S., and their plight  deserves heightened press coverage and our government’s aid, at least rhetorically.  “Unworthy victims” are those who suffer under U.S.-backed regimes, and so it is best not to call attention to their misery, especially given the usual provenance of their  financial and military backers.

Norman Finkelstein’s most recent book is a preferential option for the perennially unworthy victims, the Palestinians. Emerging out of four trips to Israel and Palestine from 1988 to 1993, the book is a moving eye-witness account  of Finkelstein’s growing friendships with Palestinians in the Christian town of Beit Sahour and in a refugee camp outside of Hebron. Herein, he records their dramatic  hopes and fears, from the beginning of the intifada to its terminus, with the onset of the so-called peace process, symbolized by the “famous handshake” between Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin.

Finkelstein reports on the  evolution of Palestinian attitudes — towards Israel, Arafat, the PLO, their own rebellion, and the future.  A gripping and lucid writer,  he manages to capture both resilience and the despair, the defiance and the lassitude that characterize his friends and their families and associates who have the unique distinction of being, in Palestinian author Edward Said’s formulation, “the victim of the [Jewish] victims.”

Indeed, Finkelstein’s work is  an important contribution for U.S. Christians, given  an ecclesial reluctance over the last few decades to criticize the Jewish state, after centuries of Christian contempt for the Jews. As the son of Warsaw Ghetto and death camp survivors, Finkelstein has dared to speak out against Israeli oppression and offer friendship and solidarity to a people that has regularly been demonized as terrorists and Jew-haters. At one point, he writes: “Israel won sympathy and masked its systematic violations of human rights in no small part by exploiting the memory of the Jewish people’s martyrdom.  To mute criticism, it claimed to be acting in our name and in the name of our tragedy.  Many decent people, Jews and non-Jews, deferred to that claim, turning a blind eye to the suffering of the Palestinians.  Jews who chose silence therefore passively collaborated in Israel’s crimes, for their silence left Israel unchallenged and unimpeached.”

Reflecting his own growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, Finkelstein is not hesitant in this work to invoke the Nazi period to make analogies with what is happening in Israel and Palestine in the present.  He also occasionally reports on  his own tension at being an American Jew among people  who might have every reason to be suspicious of both Jews and Americans.

Besides being an empathetic  chronicle of solidarity undertaken at some modest personal risk, Finkelstein continues the relentless critique of illusions about Israel that he began in an earlier study, Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict.  For example, his chapter “A Double Standard in the Application of International law” is an astounding piece of work, showing how the U.S. was so concerned about Iraq’s illegal occupation of Kuwait (which  justified the Gulf Slaughter in early 1991) and the U.S. support of Israel’s long-standing occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip. Going point by point, he shows how Israel, too, has been guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity,  and crimes against peace.  However, the U.S. media and the government  are blithely indifferent to these crimes, indeed they reward Israel by honoring it as “the only democracy in the Middle East” or in continuing to provide a munificence annually in the billions of dollars (one wonders, however,  how Secretary of State Madeline Albright will  tolerate Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s currying of favor with the Jewish fundamentalists who  push for a brazen increase in settlements, no matter how much this rightly angers the Palestinians).

In an epilogue that strikes painfully close to home, “The End of Palestine?” Finkelstein considers Palestine in the light of the gradual decimation of the Cherokee nation that also endured a policy of diplomatic treachery and political violence.  He quotes U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt as follows:  “It is indeed a warped, perverse, and silly morality which would forbid a course of conquest that has turned whole continents into the seats of mighty and flourishing civilized nations.  All men of sane and wholesome thought must dismiss with impatient contempt the pleas that these continents should be reserved for the use of scattered savage tribes, whose life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid, and ferocious than  that of the wild beasts with whom they hold joint ownership.”  Roosevelt’s convictions are alive and well in Israelis and Americans who will be content when the Palestinians are pacified in their Bantustans or have altogether fled their homeland.

Both searing testimony and  acute political analysis, Finkelstein’s work is an urgent cri de couer   and a welcome, though, unsettling corrective to so much commentary on the Middle East which just presumes that if only fundamentalist terrorists would stop  disrupting the noble peace process, life would be rosy.  As Finkelstein makes clear both with anecdote and analysis, the prospect is grim:  “The lesson of Palestine is as old as history:  applied without mercy or scruple, force works.”

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