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Exchange: The Scholarship of Norman Finkelstein

NB: These comments appeared on Harry’s Place. For a comprehensive analysis of Norman Finkelstein’s writings, see my chapter “Norman G. Finkelstein: Chomsky For Nazis” in The Jewish Divide Over Israel. See also the Finkelstein interviews here and here.

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There seems to be some kind of dispute here as to whether (a) Norman Finkelstein has been published in a scholarly journal and (b) he is a historian.

The answer isn’t hard to find, because he has already told us:

Not one article by me has ever been published in a scholarly journal. In Hunter [College] I can never give a class on the extermination of the Jews, only on the history of political theory.

In other words, he does not publish in scholarly journals and he is not an academic historian.

And since the argument from authority is being used, here’s what some actual historians have said about his output:

“an ideological rant, masquerading as scholarship”
– Ronnie Landau (Spectator, July 22, 2000)

“misinterpretation of history and questionable use of sources... distorted by a venomous dislike of the ‘American Jewish elites’”
– David Cesarani (THES, August 4, 2000)

“a novel variation on the anti-Semitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion... reckless and ruthless... irrational and insidious”
– Omer Bartov (NYT, August 6, 2000)

“takes a serious subject and distorts it for improper purposes”
– Israel Gutman (Haaretz, March 30, 2001)

“most trivial... appeals to easily aroused anti-Semitic prejudices”
– Hans Mommsen (ibid.)

“the twenty-first century version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion
– Ronald W. Zweig (Journal of Israeli History, Summer/Autumn 2001)

It’s ridiculous to cite Raul Hilberg’s endorsement. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the relevant background knows that this had nothing to do with scholarly considerations.

Posted by: Paul Bogdanor at October 23, 2007 09:22 AM

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... so the point of contention is whether or not Finkelstein is a genuine historian

that’s the point to engage with, if you can

my point all along has been that none of Finkelstein’s fan club have managed to produce one piece of cogent and tangible evidence (that will stand up to scrutiny) to back up their claims (NB: arguing from authority is not evidence)...

Posted by: modernityblog at October 23, 2007 05:19 PM

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so the point of contention is whether or not Finkelstein is a genuine historian

Since neither side appears to know Finkelstein’s oeuvre in sufficient detail to provide a cogent argument one way of the other, perhaps both positions should retire until they feel competent to provide such analysis.

Posted by: XofTheX at October 23, 2007 05:58

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XofTheX: I do know Finkelstein’s writings in detail. I’ve written a book chapter analysing them. He is a charlatan. The real DePaul scandal is that he was dismissed for rhetorical thuggery rather than academic fraud.

Here’s an example:

In early May 1967, Israel’s cabinet reportedly decided to attack Syria and numerous Israeli officials openly called for massive retaliation... The Soviets apparently got wind of the Israeli cabinet decision and conveyed a warning – albeit overblown – to Nasser... Israel was in fact planning an attack... Nasser reacted in mid-May to the new Israeli threats by moving Egyptian troops into the Sinai and ordering the removal of UNEF from Sinai, Gaza, and Sharm-el-Shaykh overlooking the Straits of Tiran.

http://caliber.ucpress.net/doi/abs/10.1525/jps.2003.32.3.74

Here Finkelstein is claiming:-

1. That Israel was about to attack Syria
2. That this was the cause of the Soviet warning
3. That Egypt’s moves were meant to help Syria.

These are bald-faced lies. The Soviet “warning” to Egypt was one of the major diplomatic hoaxes of the 20th century. It was a total fabrication. And both Syria and Egypt knew this. Egypt’s chief of staff visited Syria to investigate the “warning.” He found no evidence of an impending Israeli attack; the Syrian army was not even in a state of alert. Egyptian military intelligence reached the same conclusions. For direct quotations, see Richard B. Parker, The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East (Indiana University Press, 1993), p95.

Finkelstein’s willingness to recycle this kind of disinformation tells you everything you need to know about his “scholarship.”

Posted by: Paul Bogdanor at October 23, 2007 07:03

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Paul: Your characterisation of Norman Finkelstein as a “charlatan” is unwarranted.

In relation to the origins of the Six-Day war, Finkelstein’s claims are supported by a number of eminent scholars, most notably Richard B. Parker in his study The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East (Indiana University Press, 1993), the very work you cite in support of your charge of “academic fraud.”

Since this is a complex issue, allow me to quote Parker at length:

According to Brecher, Israel’s cabinet decided on May 7 that if Syria did not heed its public warnings and all other noncoercive methods failed, Israel would launch a limited retaliation raid. It is conceivable that, as one such “noncoercive” measure, Israel engaged in a disinformation effort using any of a number of possible channels, such as the Beirut rumor mill or Israel’s own intelligence assets in Cairo. In this way, Israel may have floated information indicating that a large-scale raid was in preparation and pinpointing the units which would participate and when.

The purpose would have been to intimidate Syria, not to alarm the Soviet Union and Egypt. The report could have been picked up by the Soviets, however, who could have taken it seriously, perhaps because it was specific, and detailed and fit with their perceptions.

This hypothesis is certainly the most attractive. It would explain everyhing. In particular it would explain why the Soviets would believe the report – they thought the original source was Israeli. I have found no direct evidence to support it, but I have also found none for the other hypotheses, including the invention theory. (My emphasis)

Anthony Nutting, in Nasser (pp. 397-98), argues that Israel was trying to draw Nasser into a fight. The Israelis, he writes,

Appear to have deliberately set out to persuade the Russians, and hence the Egyptians, that a major assault on Syria was imminent. By a clever combination of leakage, for the benefit of the Soviet Embassy in Tel Aviv, and fictitious radio messages which they rightly assumed would be picked up and relayed to Cairo by Russian ships patrolling in the Eastern Mediterranean, they made sure that Nasser would be immediately informed that his Syrian ally was about to be invaded.

Although Nutting obviously was drawing on conversations with many senior Egyptians, he gives no sources, and one cannot tell whether this report was an exercise in imagination or whether there were some facts to back up his thesis.

This explanation was first suggested to me by an Israeli scholar in 1987, but I have been unable to find another Israeli who will accept it. Two bits of information support the thesis to some extent. First, on leaving Israel when relations were broken in 1967, Soviet Ambassador Chuvakhin reportedly accused Israel of waging a disinformation campaign. Second, when I asked General Aharon Yaariv, who was director of Israeli military intelligence in 1967, about the possibility of such a campaign, he said. “Not at that time. There had earlier been discussion of taking some Syrian territory and holding it... the Soviets might have gotten wind of that.” The Soviets had gotten wind of the May 7 Cabinet decision at some point; in their statement of May 23, discussed below, they said Israel’s decision to attack Syria was take on May 9. If they held such a belief before May 11, it, along with the statements of Israel’s leaders, would have inclined them to accept readily anything purported to be the details of what everyone knew was about to happen. (My emphasis)

Source: Richard B Parker, The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East (Bloomington: Indiana Unversity Press, 1993), pp. 18-19.

Posted by: Jeremy Stein at October 24, 2007 04:20

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Jeremy: you miss the point completely. And your reading of Parker is rather selective.

Finkelstein made these claims:-

1. That Israel was about to attack Syria.
2. That this was the cause of the Soviet warning.
3. That Egypt’s moves were meant to help Syria.

I cited the Egyptian chief of staff and Egyptian military intelligence, as quoted by Parker, to show that all of these claims were false.

You haven’t disputed my summary of the Egyptian findings or the findings themselves. Instead you’ve tried to defend Finkelstein by quoting Parker. You reproduced a passage that says:

A. Israel’s cabinet had discussed reprisals against Syria.
B. The Soviets may have found out about this.
C. It may have inspired the Soviet warning.

You forgot to mention that in the preceding pages Parker also says:

D: The Soviet warning was about Israeli troop concentrations near the Syrian border.
E: The Soviets had been making that claim for months before the Israeli cabinet meeting.
F: There were no Israeli troop concentrations and both Syria and Egypt knew it.

I’m assuming that by the time you reached the passage you quoted to make points A-C, you had forgotten the discussion on the preceding pages, in which he makes points D-F.

Here is the Soviet “warning” of May 1967:

[Nasser:] Israel was concentrating huge armed forces of about 11 to 13 brigades... divided into two fronts, one south of Lake Tiberias and the other north of the lake... The decision made by Israel at this time was to carry out aggression against Syria as of May 17.

[Sadat:] They told me specifically that ten Israeli brigades had been concentrated on the Syrian border.

– Parker, p5.

But here is what the Soviets were saying in April 1967:

[Heikal:] Kosygin had given the Israeli ambassador a sharp dressing down about Israeli troop concentrations against Syria. The ambassador had replied that he could deny the existence of such troop concentrations and that Eshkol had asked the Soviet ambassador in Tel Aviv to go see for himself that there were none. Kosygin had rejected this invitation, as the Soviet ambassador in Tel Aviv had rejected Eshkol’s.

– Parker, pp10-11.

And here is what the Soviets were saying in October 1966:

Chuvakhin had delivered a diplomatic note to Eshkol saying “there are at present renewed concentrations of the Israeli army on the Syrian border.” Eshkol had invited Chuvakhin to go with him to see for himself and Chuvakhin had declined.

– Parker, p11.

Parker adds: “One Israeli researcher has recorded eight occasions on which the charge was raised officially or in the Soviet press before the crisis.”

Did the Soviet “warning” – allegedly inspired by an Israeli cabinet meeting – have any basis in reality? Were the Soviets interested in finding out? In your reading of Parker you obviously missed this passage:

When the Israelis learned of it they invited the Soviets to tour northern Israel and see that there were no concentrations. They reportedly extended the invitation three times and each time the Soviets refused it, saying they already knew the facts and did not need to go to the area.

In addition to Israel’s denials, observers from the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) stationed in the region reported that they had seen no concentrations. Similar reports were received from US and other foreign military attaches in Israel.

Various Arab sources also confirmed that there were no visible signs of such concentrations.

– Parker, p8.

And here is what Badran, the Egyptian minister of war, told the Soviets a few days after their “warning”:

We sent [General] Muhammad Fawzi [the chief of staff] to Syria and the airplanes made a reconnaissance and they did not find a single Israeli soldier.

– Parker, p8.

And here is what Fawzi, the Egyptian chief of staff, wrote in his memoirs:

I did not get any material proof concerning these reports. To the contrary, I saw two aerial photographs of the Israeli front, taken by the Syrians on the twelfth and thirteenth of May [the date of the last Soviet “warning” – PB] which showed no change from the normal military situation.

– Parker, p9.

I think that even Finkelstein would have some trouble explaining how Soviet warnings that Israel was concentrating troops to attack Syria could have been inspired by public threats or reports of private discussions which said nothing about any troop concentrations.

I think that even a propagandist of Finkelstein’s talents would have trouble explaining how Soviet warnings in October 1966 or April 1967 could have been inspired by reports of an Israeli cabinet meeting that took place in May 1967.

And I think that even a charlatan of Finkelstein’s calibre would have trouble explaining how Egypt’s aggressive moves could have been a response to the Soviet warning when Egypt had already determined that the Soviet warning was false.

Perhaps that explains why he chose to suppress these facts. And perhaps your eagerness to cite Parker in support of Finkelstein’s claims explains why you missed the evidence from Parker that demolishes Finkelstein’s claims – even though the evidence appeared just a few pages before the passage you decided to quote.

Posted by: Paul Bogdanor at October 24, 2007 09:03