Finkelstein’s very valid interview

Earlier this month the BBC's Hardtalk TV programme featured an interview with the American-Jewish political scientist Norman Finkelstein. As a result the BBC has brought upon itself a great deal of communal opprobrium, on two counts. The first is that Finkelstein was an inappropriate interviewee, more especially because the subject-matter of the interview was support for Israel amongst American Jews. The second I'll come to in a moment.

Finkelstein, with whom I debated some years ago, is (to put it mildly) a controversial figure. His Princeton PhD apparently comprised an excoriation of the much-respected writer Joan Peters, who in her acclaimed 1984 book From Time Immemorial had argued that the "Palestinians" were not indigenous to the territory we call "Palestine" and therefore have no claim to it. Finkelstein condemned the book as essentially fraudulent.

In his 2000 book The Holocaust Industry Finkelstein insisted that Israel and its supporters deliberately exploited the memory of Nazi genocide in order to stifle criticism of the Jewish state and its "horrendous" human-rights record. Five years later, in Beyond Chutzpah, he widened this argument to include what he regarded as the misuse of the history of antisemitism for broadly similar purposes. Famously denied tenure by DePaul University two years later, Finkelstein has contrived to cross swords with just about every pro-Israeli academic of note (especially Alan Dershowitz) . Condemned by the Anti-Defamation League as "an obsessive anti-Zionist", he was in 2009 denied entry to Israel.

All this is background. I do not share Finkelstein's views on Zionism, anti-Zionism, Hizbollah, Hamas, antisemitism or the misuse of the Holocaust. I do not even share his views on the alleged waning of support for Israel among younger American Jews.

I do, however, agree with him that the real aim of the boycott movement is not to further the cause of human rights in Israel but to destroy the Jewish state. What his motives were in making this astonishing accusation last February I know not. The point is that he made it and pressed it home, charging that those behind the boycott of Israel were guilty of "silliness, childishness and a lot of leftist posturing" - and that for all this they had actually achieved very little.

Hardtalk might indeed have chosen to interview someone else on the subject of American Jewry and the Jewish state. Yet I cannot for the life of me see why Finkelstein should not have been interviewed. And, as it turned out, he was given a tough time by the interviewer, Sarah Montague, who clearly knew her stuff. But, in introducing the programme, she made a statement that has, if anything, caused more controversy than the fact the Finkelstein was in the hot seat. "American presidents," she said, "have long been criticised for being too in thrall to the Jewish lobby. The American Jews influence US foreign policy and that explains America's unwavering support for Israel."

We might criticise her for being ungrammatical ("too in thrall"). But was she wrong to refer to "the Jewish lobby?" I think not.

The fact of the matter is that there is a Jewish lobby - or rather there are Jewish lobbies - in the USA, just as there are in the UK and in virtually every country in which Jews dwell in significant numbers. It would be astonishing if there were not.

What were the activities of Menasseh ben Israel and his associates who petitioned Cromwell to allow Jews to settle in England if not the actions of a Jewish lobby? What is the entirely legitimate work today of Shechita UK if not the work of a Jewish lobby? The use of the definite article - "the" - does I agree suggest an organised structure. So what? Jews have rights, and in democratic polities these rights extend to organising for legitimate purposes.

To argue that Sarah Montague's reference to "the Jewish lobby" raised the spectre of a world Jewish conspiracy after the fashion of the forgery known as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion is - with deep respect to those who have so argued - plain daft. That Jews do not decide the foreign policy of the USA is demonstrable. That they lobby in order to influence it is undeniable. May they long have the strength to continue doing so.

Last updated: 2:13pm, May 30 2012