Monday, May 02, 2011

Not Far Enough: Fact-Checking Finkelstein

I've been reading This Time We Went Too Far: Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion by Norman G. Finkelstein (OR Books, 2010). Even though Finkelstein is "functionally a Zionist of the Left-liberal persuasion" there is no denying his passionate and often principled argumentation in support of positions that are generally helpful to those unemcumbered by Finkelstein's tribal loyalties.

The "Gaza Invasion" of Finkelstein's subtitle was the 22-day Hanukkah Massacre in the winter of 2008-2009 wherein forces of the Jewish state killed 1,417 Palestinians and wounded 5,303 in Gaza. I can't say I made a thorough examination of Finkelstein's book but I did flag two pages in chapter six, "Ever Fewer Hosannas," in the hardcover edition for follow-up.

At the top of page 110 there appears the last sentence of a lengthy quote from "Poll: Attachment of U.S. Jews To Israel Falls in Past 2 Years" by Steven M. Cohen in the Jewish Daily Forward (March 04, 2005). It says: "Just 57% affirmed that 'caring about Israel is a very important part of my being Jewish,' compared with 73% in a similar survey in 1989." In chapter six Finkelstein is making the case that American Jewish support for Israel is declining.

Finkelstein, apparently, didn't go far enough in reading the article. When read in its entirety a more complex picture of the attitudes of Americans Jews towards Israel emerges. For example, there's the finding that 95% of Americans Jews feel some degree of pride in Israel with fully two-thirds saying they "always" or "often" "feel proud of Israel"; only 5% said "never". Then, too, "Only 13% said they are 'sometimes uncomfortable identifying as a supporter of Israel,' with an additional 14% 'not sure' "; 73% disagreed with the statement.

Concerning the attitudes of American Jews regarding Palestinians, Cohen writes:
When offered sharply critical characterizations of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, more respondents disagreed than agreed. However, substantial numbers were unsure. Thus, by 60% to 11% the sample rejected the assertion that "Israel persecutes a minority population," with 29% not sure. Similarly, by a 65% to 13% margin, they rejected the notion that "Israel occupies lands that belong to another people," with 22% not sure.
To restate that, only 11% of Americans Jews recognize that Palestinians are oppressed by Israel and only 13% admit that Israel occupies Palestinian territory. Curiously, only 17% of American Jews answered "Yes" when asked, "Are you a Zionist?"

Regarding a poll more closely related to the subject of his book, Finkelstein spins the results of J Street's March 2009 "National Survey of American Jews". On pages 118-119, Finkelstein writes, "a poll of American Jews found that 47% strongly approved of the Israeli assault, but—in a sharp break with the usual wall-to-wall solidarity—53 per cent were either ambivalent (44 per cent 'somewhat' approved or 'somewhat' disapproved) or strongly disapproved (9 per cent)."

Now, before I tell you what Finkelstein didn't tell his readers about that poll, I want to emphasize two points: First, these are American, not Israeli, Jews. Second, the poll was conducted from February 28, 2009 through March 9, 2009. The Hanukkah Massacre ended on January 18, 2009.

So, these American Jews were expressing their attitudes more than a month after the fog of war and Israeli gov't. propaganda had begun to clear. The one-sidedness of the 'conflict' was well-known by then, graphic images of Palestinian suffering had circulated widely, and respected international human rights groups had already begun to weigh-in against Israel.

What did American Jews tell J Street pollsters? Fully 75% said they "strongly approved" or "somewhat approved" "of the recent military action that Israel took in Gaza"; a plurality (47%) of American Jews "strongly approved". This despite the fact that 59% "felt that the military action had no impact on Israel's security (41 percent) or made Israel less secure (18 percent)". This is not quite the picture Finkelstein paints.

See also: "Quotable: '99 percent of American Jewry'"

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