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What Norman Finkelstein Gets Wrong About Gazan Misery

Political scientist Norman Finkelstein has made a career out of bashing Israel, but when it comes to why Gazans are so unhappy, he gets a lot of things wrong.
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November 30, 2023
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“I, for one, will never begrudge—on the contrary, it warms every fiber of my soul—the scenes of Gaza’s smiling children as their arrogant Jewish supremacist oppressors have, finally, been humbled,” cheered Norman Finkelstein, one of Israel’s bitterest academic critics, when he heard about the October 7 massacre. “Glory, glory, hallelujah. The souls of Gaza go marching on!”

When I read his statement, the question I found myself asking was, why? What was it that excited Finkelstein so much about news of slaughtered people?

One might speculate that, as a self-described loner, Finkelstein is some sort of sociopath without any moral sense. But that can’t be quite right. In the very same essay, Finkelstein unmistakably conveyed ethical feelings such as his conviction that chattel slavery and Nazi antisemitism were wrong. Like many advocates for the Palestinians, moreover, he has always presented himself as a humanitarian, genuinely concerned with the wellbeing of oppressed people everywhere.

“For the past 20 years the people of Gaza, half of whom are children, have been immured in a concentration camp,” was how Finkelstein justified his celebration of Hamas’s pogrom. “Today [Oct. 7] they breached the camp’s walls. If we honor John Brown’s armed resistance to slavery; if we honor the Jews who revolted in the Warsaw Ghetto—then moral consistency commands that we honor the heroic resistance in Gaza.”

Or as he later told the podcaster Candace Owens, “Everybody thinks, ‘Yeah, we should start with October 7th, that’s when the story begins,’ but … that’s not when the story begins; that’s where the story climaxes: After being born into a concentration camp, and living in that inferno for twenty years, they finally resolved to revenge the curse that had been inflicted on their lives.”

What warmed every fiber of his soul, then, wasn’t a result of his lack of morality; instead, it was because his ethics are more pristine and consistent than ours. The revulsion we felt at reports of tortured Israeli families and kidnapped children was transcended in his higher consciousness by a more penetrating insight into their Jewish supremacism and systemic oppression.

But before we aspire to his higher moral awareness, let’s pause to ask two questions whose answers Finkelstein appears to assume he knows. The first is: Was life in Gaza really so accursed and wretched?

Recent data from the UN’s Human Development Report Office (HDRO), whose reports enjoy editorial independence from the politicized United Nation’s General Assembly, painted a rather brighter picture of life in Gaza and the West Bank. Last year, the Palestinian areas were given a Human Development Index (HDI) value of 0.715, “which put the country in the High human development category—positioning it at 106 out of 191 countries and territories,” according to the HDRO study (italics mine).

This “high” development score signifies that, prior to Oct. 7, the standard of life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip had surpassed nearly half the countries worldwide, when measured by such vital indicators as life expectancy at birth, mean and expected years of schooling, and overall economic prosperity measured in U.S. dollars. Obviously, the same could not have been said for the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto and Southern slavery.

Finkelstein’s analogies of concentration camps and slave rebellions are further belied by social media posts that ordinary Gazans themselves had been posting in recent years about their interesting lives. Visit @imshin’s valuable X account, for example, to witness countless instances of extravagant Gazan consumerism, from exquisite dining in beachfront restaurants and resorts to playful excursions in amusement and water parks.

Finkelstein’s analogies of concentration camps and slave rebellions are further belied by social media posts that ordinary Gazans themselves had been posting in recent years about their interesting lives.

Thanks to Gazan social media, one can vicariously experience the allure of their designer clothes and adorable baby attire, behold their fascination with fancy cars at their luxury car dealership, indulge in the festive atmosphere of their bustling shopping malls, savor afternoon tea in their charming rooftop cafés, unwind in their luxury chalets and villas, and discover the glamour of their finely crafted gold, including spectacular gold-plated iPhones. Moreover, one can share in their delight in filling up grocery carts at stores packed with delicious foods, and witness their holiday vacationing and sporting events beyond the supposedly impossible confines of their concentration camp.

Somewhat ironically, the much-discussed hospitals in Gaza, with footage of advanced medical equipment, is yet another indicator that life in their “refugee camps” wasn’t quite the hellscape that Finkelstein and others would have us believe. One of the reasons Gaza received a high HDI value was because Palestinian healthcare had been fairly good. As observed in these pages in 2021, a pregnant woman’s baby stood a better chance of survival in the West Bank and Gaza Strip than in Brazil, Turkey, Egypt and numerous other nations around the world.

That is not to say that most Gazans were wealthy or even that the wealthy among them had been satisfied with their relatively affluent existence. According to the latest UN-sponsored World Happiness Report, Palestinians were indeed one of the gloomiest populations globally, ranking 99th out of 137 nationalities. Which leads to the second question: Why were they so unhappy before Oct. 7?

Finkelstein, a Marxist, replies that Palestinian sourness was due to their living in a crowded open-air prison under appalling material conditions. But that’s quite unpersuasive. El Salvador’s quality of life, for instance, was markedly worse than the Palestinians and yet Salvadorans were significantly happier, according to UN data. External material factors, it seems, can only account for so much when it comes to the riddle of human happiness.

There is a spiritual dimension to our experience of joy. The nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who spent his life contemplating the nature of sorrow, astutely pointed out that the world in which each of us lives is shaped by the way in which we look at it. That is why identical external events affect individuals differently; even in similar circumstances, each person inhabits a unique universe of their own.

“All the pride and pleasure of the world, mirrored in the dull consciousness of a fool, are poor indeed compared with the imagination of Cervantes writing Don Quixote in a miserable prison,” Schopenhauer remarked memorably. The inner universe of Palestinian psychology, not the outside world, brought about the 7th of October.

Following their worldwide street celebrations of that day, Palestinians and their supporters are now posting lamentations of their lost paradise on the Gaza Strip after Israel’s retaliation. It is as though many of them believed their previous affluence was divinely ordained—as though they had been oblivious to how good life had been. Instead of appreciating their general wellbeing, and rather than building upon the constructive possibilities of the Abraham Accords, they stewed in anger over Israel’s continued existence, plotting cruelties of unimaginable barbarity.

Schopenhauer again: “A man never feels the loss of things which it never occurs to him to ask for; he is just as happy without them; whilst another, who may have a hundred times as much, feels miserable because he has not got the one thing he wants.” In the case of Gazans, despite being materially better off than many other populations on earth, the crucial missing element in their quest for happiness has been conquering their hated Jewish neighbors across the fence, once and for all. As a consequence of their failure to do so, they have ungratefully indulged their otherwise decent lives while nursing revenge fantasies and willingly risking it all in pursuit of that one elusive thing.

Finkelstein, presenting himself as their friend, keeps encouraging them in this self-destructive Quixotic adventure. Like many in the pro-Palestinian movement, he exhibits an irrational inclination to catastrophize—a cognitive distortion that prompts people to make giants out of windmills, or in Finkelstein’s case, a concentration camp out of an area ranked highly on the human development index. It is this widespread irrationalism at the rotten bottom of his side’s political thinking that, ironically and fatefully, does so very much to perpetuate Palestinian miseries.

And, as old Schopenhauer would have us note, even if the Gaza Strip really had been the inferno that Finkelstein depicts, it still wouldn’t follow that such unpleasant external conditions necessarily inspire most men to think and behave as grotesquely as the Palestinians did on October 7th—or, for that matter, to cheer it on as Finkelstein did, no less cruelly.

Jonah Cohen is communications director for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA.org).

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