Thursday, February 11, 2010

Troubling Norman

Norman Finklestein arouses strong views, not least because he so often chooses to be gratuitously insulting. He takes pleasure at getting under the skin of his targets. He is also a relentless critic of Zionism and Israel. Writing in the Times, Stephen Holden refers to him as "a thorn in the side of the Israel lobby". Holden is reviewing "American Radical", a new documentary film about Finklestein. I could not help but to notice that he labored to make Finklestein seem a crank. For instance, Holden juxtaposes Finklestein's assault on the risible scholarship of Joan Peters to the acclaim that the book received.

"The film chronicles the controversies in which Mr. Finkelstein has become embroiled, beginning with his attack on Joan Peters’s widely praised [added italics] 1984 best seller, “From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine,” which he denounced as a hoax."

The Peters book did receive praise when it appeared mmore than a quarter century ago, especially from reviewers who were intent to discredit the nationalism of Palestinians; however, the book was lambasted by serious scholars. Apparently Holden didn't notice. Here, for instance, is historian Yehoshua Porath writing in the New York Review of Books, in 1986:

"I am reluctant to bore the reader and myself with further examples of Mrs. Peters's highly tendentious use—or neglect—of the available source material. Much more important is her misunderstanding of basic historical processes and her failure to appreciate the central importance of natural population increase as compared to migratory movements. Readers of her book should be warned not to accept its factual claims without checking their sources. Judging by the interest that the book aroused and the prestige of some who have endorsed it, I thought it would present some new interpretation of the historical facts. I found none. Everyone familiar with the writing of the extreme nationalists of Zeev Jabotinsky's Revisionist party (the forerunner of the Herut party) would immediately recognize the tired and discredited arguments in Mrs. Peters's book. I had mistakenly thought them long forgotten. It is a pity that they have been given new life."

Also see the subsequent exchange between Porath and Ronald Saunders.

Finklestein attacked the Peters book as a hoax. Might it not be useful for the reader to know that renowned historians were also deeply critical of the book?

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