An Interview with Critical Political Scientist Norman Finkelstein

Israeli Domination and the Workings of Ideology

Norman Finkelstein is one of the leading American critics of Israeli foreign policy. As a political scientist he wrote extensively on the exploitation of the holocaust as an ideological weapon and on the crisis in Palestinian occupied territories. He received his doctorate in 1988 from the Department of Politics at Princeton University.

He has a long history of teaching political theory and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even though he clearly met publishing and teaching standards, he was denied tenure at DePaul University. He is currently an independent scholar.

Some of his influential books are:  Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, A Farewell to Israel: The coming break-up of American Zionism.

Dr. Finkelstein was invited by the Student for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and Muslim Students Association (MSA) at University of California-Davis (UC-Davis) to give a talk on the situation in Palestine, and also to discuss some of the main ideas of his new book This Time We Went Too Far, on May 14th, 2010. We would like to thank the MSA of UC Davis for helping to arrange this interview with Dr. Finkelstein right before the speaking event.

As students interested in and influenced by anti-colonial theory we had some difficulty framing this interview, simply because of the fact that the solutions proposed by Dr. Finkelstein in this interview related to the Zionist colonization of Palestine failed to critically engage with the dominant hegemonic discourse of international law. This meant that the ball stayed in the colonizer’s court, and for the most part we discussed how the colonizer should be pressured into playing the game differently.

We want to make sure that we do not invisibilize Palestinians. The future of Palestine will have to be determined by Palestinians themselves. Outside persons and institutions can support the movement for liberation but should not guide or lead it, or decide the frame of the discourse and the means used by it. Even though we understand the stance of Dr. Finkelstein about the importance of international law, and we realize that the human rights discourse can be used to discuss and expose the occupation, torture, collective violence/punishment, and surveillance that the Palestinians are regularly subjected to by the Israeli State, we also find it necessary to investigate how political power is constituted and exerted by these same institutions of human rights and international law, and how these institutions which appear to be independent actually keep the political power in the hands of a certain social class and exclude others. Due to lack of time we were unable to investigate and discuss fully the relation between power and institutions of law.

 Having said that, there is absolutely no doubt that Dr. Finkelstein is one of the most important voices to speak against Israeli domination and we appreciate his commitment and dedication. We thank him for this interview.  

 Tanzeen Doha: I’ll start with your book- The Holocaust Industry and I’d like to ask you about some of the basic ideas. If you’d like to elaborate on how the Jewish suffering is exploited as an ideological weapon against those who raise voice against Israel. If you could give us a broader framework so we can understand that…

Norman Finkelstein: I think you start by saying that there are two separate questions. There is the historical question, and then there is the political question. Obviously, you have to make a distinction between the historical and the political question. I don’t think rational, sane people dispute there was a Nazi holocaust. Between 5 and 6 million Jews were exterminated during World War II. There are obviously questions about the Nazi holocaust. As a matter of fact, 2 basic questions – when did it start, and why did Hitler do it. Yeah, historians don’t agree at all. There are basic questions that remain, but no rational, sane person denies it happened. But then there is a political question which is- how the Nazi holocaust has been used as a political and ideological weapon to immunize Israel from scrutiny and immunize Israel from criticism. That has a fairly long history, it goes back to 1948. Already Israelis were trying to use the suffering of the Jews as a weapon to discredit the Arabs, claiming that the mufti of Jerusalem, the leader of the Palestinians during the period of British mandate was a Nazi collaborator, and so on. And in recent years, the main weapon of the Israelis and their supporters is to claim that the Nazi holocaust is unique and no suffering in the history of humanity compares to the suffering that Jews endured during World War II. And the main purpose of what became to be called the uniqueness doctrine was to say: Well if Jews suffered uniquely during the Nazi holocaust then they shouldn’t be held to the same moral and legal standards as everybody else. So they say that Israel is the only country in the world that uses house demolition as a legal form of punishment. Or, you were told – remember the holocaust. If you say that Israel is the only country in the world which legalized torture. But then you were told- well, remember the holocaust. The holocaust is constantly invoked to give Israel special moral and legal dispensations. The last comment I would make if I were writing an afterward to the book today is I’d say that the weapon is no longer as effective as it once was. People have grown tired of the exploitation of the holocaust. And they see now- it is just a cheap trick to justify every form of Israeli criminality.

TD:  What’s your take on that claim about the uniqueness of the holocaust and how should scholars look at that?

NF: There is a huge literature that’s devoted to try to prove the uniqueness of the Nazi holocaust. And, as an intellectual endeavor it’s completely pointless because everybody who studied history knows that the ABC of history is comparing and contrasting. That’s what history is about. If you are in high school you write essays- compare and contrast the French and the Russian revolutions. Compare and contrast the French and the British monarchies. History is about comparing and contrasting. And the moment somebody comes along and says that you are not allowed to compare which is what the holocaust industry says—do not compare, and if you dare compare you become a holocaust denier. You are not dealing with history. It’s no longer history. Whatever it is it’s not history. And morally, the idea is just completely repugnant. This morning there was an interview on Al Jazeera on the Nazi holocaust. And of course, people start calling in, and start saying it didn’t really happen. And of course, there is always from Saudi Arabia. You know those callers. And then somebody says which always happens because they do these shows all the time, well, it did happen, but what about the Palestinian holocaust? I said, you know, why do you have to drag in the Palestinian holocaust? What’s happening to Palestinians is awful enough, that you don’t have to compare it with the Nazi holocaust. Ok, the Nazi used gas chambers. Israel dropped white phosphorus, a substance that reaches 15 hundred degrees Fahrenheit, 810 degrees Celsius. It dropped white phosphorus on Al-Quds University, on El-Wafa hospital, on a school, a humanitarian warehouse, during the massacre in Gaza. Why do you need to compare? They are both horrible in and of themselves, and I don’t see how morally you could compare and say something like- its worse to drag a girl into a gas chamber than to drop white phosphorus on her. How do you compare those things? I mean morally the whole idea is crazy. So, I don’t see the point of it.


TD: You have consistently exposed other scholars who have used various arguments and claims about the legitimacy of Israel. Your dissertation work was focused on that... and that was From Time Immemorial. And then there was another book that you critique- The Case for Israel. Why did you feel that it was necessary to confront other scholars who were trying to do that? And in doing so, you paid a price, related to academic freedom, scholarship and acceptability by the mainstream media and establishment.

NF: You know there are two kinds of scholarships. There is one where people do original research. And I will admit that I don’t do much original research. I do some. I don’t want to completely discredit myself. But I do some. But then there is another kind of research I happen to think is important, which is to expose lies. In my field when somebody establishes under the pretense of scholarship a claim, then it becomes in academia a debate. So one person says, there were Palestinians in Palestine. Another person says there wasn’t. There weren’t any Palestinians in Palestine—Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial. And then it becomes a legitimate debate- whether or not there were. So it becomes a question. And I think it’s important to expose the lies so these falsehoods don’t become part of the legitimate spectrum of debate. Otherwise, people take this stuff seriously because it’s got footnotes and it seems to have all the trappings of scholarship and so I think it is important to expose these people. Some people say I don’t do serious scholarship. Ok, I don’t really care. My concern is that we have a clear picture of what happened, and what’s happening. And that when people like Joan Peters, or Alan Dershowitz, Benny Morris… when they start to cloud the picture you need someone with a blow-dryer to blow away the clouds. And that’s what I do. And then people can judge for themselves whether it’s valuable or not. And I have people who think what I do is valuable, and that’s all I care about.

TD: I guess my follow up question would be- the role of the intellectual, in terms of your work as a person who has taken a very serious stance. What should be the role of the intellectual from your perspective?

NF: I don’t attach such grandiose titles to myself like intellectual. I know serious intellectuals. My closest friend for the last quarter century is Noam Chomsky. He is an intellectual. He is serious. I do some relatively modest things. I don’t really care if it’s intellectual or not. It’s not my preoccupation. I am more concerned- whether or not I am accurate. Whether or not my mental feet are firmly planted on the ground of reality. Because I don’t think lies serve any useful purpose. When I was your age I was involved in a lot of politics which proved to be wrong. It proved to be false. I wasn’t firmly grounded in reality. And when it turned out I was wrong it was deeply embarrassing for me. I don’t want to be embarrassed again. I found it humiliating. My main concern is what I am doing is accurate, it’s factually correct, and when I get up before an audience I am not lying. You want to nurture the idealism of young people. You don’t want to fill them with lies, which subsequently they discover to be lies, and then they become disillusioned. So I don’t want to be part of that.

TD: Your recent endeavor in Gandhi’s collected works… I saw your interview with Amy Goodman in Democracy Now where you talked quite a bit about it. We want to ask you about the uses of Gandhi’s strategies. And the other follow up question would be: Arundhati Roy recently went into the Red Corridor, the Eastern side of India, and studied the Maoist struggle there, and she categorized the Maoist struggle, and she called them- Gandhians with guns… There was a big controversy, and she mentioned that Gandhi’s strategies would work when you have a clear audience. That when you are completely marginalized like the Maoists in India, that it’s very difficult to use those specific strategies. So I guess, in a way I am framing my question in that way for Palestinians. How are you thinking about this whole issue?

NF: First of all, Gandhi is an interesting fellow. It’s well worth reading. Most of Gandhi is not about politics as we understand it. As he understood it, it was politics. Because Gandhi was very emphatic on the idea that there was no personal vs. the political in politics. There was no private vs. public. He liked to say- he was an open book. And he was an open book. You can’t accuse Gandhi of being dishonest. May be he was dishonest to himself. We all have a wonderful capacity for self-deception. But there was no conscious deception by Gandhi. He talked very openly about the most private aspects of his life. He was just very forthright about it. But by our conventional understanding of politics most of Gandhi is not about politics. Most of Gandhi is about diet, about health, about his weight, about cures for constipation and impotence. That was who Gandhi was. If you read his actual collected works most of the time he is just talking about home cures. Because he lived in an ashram. And when people got sick, he said you have to do this, you have to do that… that was Gandhi. Nonetheless, there is a lot of Gandhi that’s very interesting politically. Now, on this specific question you ask, I have actually written at great length on Gandhi. I have not yet published it. Basically, there are two ways to look at Gandhi. One way, he is trying to convert everyone to his beliefs. So he will say something like during WWII he says if you practice nonviolence consistently you can even melt Hitler’s heart. And that’s the word he used. He uses it over and over again. You can even melt Hitler’s heart. So, that Gandhi has as his audience even the most extreme enemies of his… Then there is the second Gandhi. The second Gandhi is not directed against his enemies. The second Gandhi is directed against people who basically know what he is saying is right who don’t do anything about it. They are just passive. So, there Gandhi says, the purpose of nonviolence, now I’m using his expression, the purpose of nonviolence is to quicken the conscience of people, to get them to act on what they already know is wrong. There are lots of people that know that what the Israelis are doing to Palestinians is wrong. If you read the public opinion polls Israel doesn’t do very well around the world. The problem is people don’t act on their knowledge that Israel is wrong. The purpose of nonviolent resistance is to activate the conscience of people and turn them from passive observers to active opponents of wrong. I happen to think the second Gandhi is a workable strategy. The first Gandhi- melting Hitler’s heart, or melting Sharon’s heart... no that’s not really in my opinion a credible strategy. But I do think it’s correct to say that public opinion, especially what you’d call enlightened public opinion, human rights organizations, the international court of justice, the UN general assembly. Public opinion is on the side of the Palestinians. Problem is they don’t do anything about it. I think nonviolent resistance if it’s practiced in a consistent way by the Palestinians can force public opinion to act. That part of Gandhi’s strategy is credible. Many people have sent me the Arundhati Roy article to read. I have to admit I have not yet read it. I think the expression- Gandhi with guns… Gandhi was very complicated on the issue of violence and nonviolence. Most people haven’t a clue what Gandhi really felt in that topic. Time doesn’t allow me now to go into it. But I think Gandhi with guns is not a plausible interpretation of Gandhi. It is true that Gandhi said- if you don’t have the moral strength to die nonviolently then you should use guns. That he is very clear on. But if you use guns even though he says it is better than doing nothing, you wouldn’t call it Gandhian. No, that’s a little bit of a stretch.

Lena Meari: I want to follow up on that question. I am a little bit surprised with your optimism of international law, the U.N, and public opinion because everyone knows that they are founded upon power relations, and it’s not a neutral formation. They are part and parcel of power relations. Also thinking of this as that’s what’s targeted by the Gandhian nonviolent resistance…

NF: I think that’s half and half true. The law is the product of power. But the law is also the outcome of people’s struggles to free themselves from the constraints of power. If it were just the product of power we would still all be living in a system of slavery. If it were just the outcome of power, you as a woman would not be going to college. If it were just the outcome of power, black people would not be attending UC Davis. The fact that nonwhite people are even attending college is the product of huge struggles by people to bend power and to enable those without power to exercise some power. Go back to what the graduating class of UC Berkeley and Davis looked like in the 1950s. It was all white men. The world has changed very dramatically. In our lifetime it changed dramatically because of the struggles of ordinary people to make the law grant people rights. We shouldn’t overlook that. We should be very careful about categorizing the law as being only an instrument of power. It’s also been an instrument of emancipation. It’s been both. There are laws that protect the rights of women, protect the rights of minorities. And have enabled minorities, women, and other groups to exercise rights which in my day they didn’t have. The second point is: I think it’s a little bit extreme to say that the law is just against the Palestinians, or only for power. If that were the case, Israel would now not have embarked on a campaign to revise international law. Israel is now saying we have to change the Geneva conventions, we have to change international law, because international law works against countries like Israel. Israel condemned the Goldstone report. Israel condemned the international court of justice decision on the wall that Israel’s been building on the West Bank. Israel’s always attacking the law. Israel’s always attacking the human rights organizations. If it were true that they were only or merely or simply instruments of power, they should be on the side of Israel. Let’s take the basic issues. On borders, the international court of justice ruled that Israel has no title to any of the West Bank or Gaza. That’s a victory for the Palestinians. On East Jerusalem, the international court of justice ruled that East Jerusalem is occupied Palestinian territory and Israel has no title to it. That’s a victory for the Palestinians. On settlements the international court of justice ruled, all the settlements are illegal under international law. On the question of the refugees, human rights watch and Amnesty International both stated under international law the Palestinian refugees and succeeding generations that have maintained genuine links with the land- they have the right to return. So in fact, in all the critical questions baring on the Israel/Palestine conflict the law has come out on the side of the Palestinians and against Israel. That’s why Israel is always denouncing the law, and always saying that international law and human rights organizations are against them. So I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the law is simply an instrument of power. In fact, it’s been remarkable the extent to which the law is supporting the rights of Palestinians, but nobody does anything about it.

LM: I think the argument is not as simple as the law is part of power. But the workings of power are changed now, and that’s how international law and law is used in a very different way. So it’s true that 50 years ago just whites only went to universities, but now we have all of this institutionalized racism that is so within , and workings of power are changing, and within this also the way of how law and power are coexisting is changing.

NF: I don’t disagree with that. If you were to ask me whether the situation now is perfect, and whether there is no discrimination in our society, and whether white males still don’t in fact dominate and control our society. Of course, I’d say no. I am not blind to reality. But I also think we shouldn’t be blind to the changes. We shouldn’t be blind to the significant improvement. When I was your age, the most a woman could hope for in our society, the maximum position was to be a school teacher. That was the most prestigious position a woman could aspire to. Obviously the world has changed in dramatic ways. Is it true women still face no discrimination in corporate world, in business world, in academic world? Of course, they face discrimination. But to deny the changes, I mean it’s just becoming so dogmatic in one’s beliefs and to simply be oblivious to how significantly the world has changed. I am not even talking about in a century. I am talking about the very brief span of my own lifetime to see how dramatically it’s changed. You know just things like, how handicapped people are treated now in our society. I just was touring with a fellow named Jody McIntyre, wheel-chair bound. And you go into a plane. And they are just running back and forth to make sure this person feels good. They have special people to wheel you. Special people to do this, do that. And that’s all the law. I mean people fought so hard to make our society sensitive to those who were not as equipped as the rest of us. To make their way in the world. Now, none of that just happened. Those were real struggles to change. Now is it perfect? Of course not. Is it even near perfect? Of course not. But to be blind to the changes. It’s just to me… Look, when I was growing up black people were still lynched in the United States. In 1940s when people were lynched in the South, it wasn’t like in the dark, at night. It was carnivals. The workers would let out early, women packed the picnic baskets, they would go down to the camp grounds, and then the lynching would occur. After the lynching, they would sell the body parts of the person that was lynched. They would auction off the liver, the heart, you now. That’s what America was like. You have to acknowledge the fact. I am no Obama fan, very far from it. The fact that our country elected an African-American president in such a short span of time. It’s been way too dogmatic to just talk about law as being power and how now power has taken more subtle forms. Yes, it has. I am not going to deny that. And that those, the people who have wealth, are still able to exercise a huge amount of control, in fact all control over our society. Yeah. I have no problem with seeing that. But I am not going to be blind to the other part. Let’s take a simple case. You know in the 1960s in the US, here in this area, you were not allowed to sit around a table to do politics on campus. You were not allowed. You could not do politics on campus. And the whole free speech movement in Berkeley, all that it was about was the right to take this table and put it out and talk politics. You were not allowed to do it. I have to admit college campuses have changed a lot since then. Also, all rights, they were won with very hard struggle. And it’s doing a disservice to the memory of those who struggled so hard and gave so much. It’s a thrilling chapter in American history- the civil rights movement. I mean these people would go out in the scariest parts of the Deep South and lot of them got killed and they were your age. 19, 20, lot of them were kids... 16, 17. I have been reading a lot about the civil rights movement. That was very scary stuff. I don’t think I would have it in me to do it. And that’s what changed our society. So it’s a kind of disrespect to the memory of what they did to say that nothing has changed and power has taken new forms. Yes, it has taken new forms. But things have changed. The main thing that’s changed- if you talk about African Americans in the South. The main thing that’s changed is the fear. Black people were terrified of white people. I mean, terrified. And that’s a crucial component of human dignity to no longer have to fear another person, to tremble at the mere sight of them. And that struggle to overcome the fear, that was a very heroic, glorious and thrilling chapter in history. And I would be very, very careful about any way diminishing what those young people did.

this time we went too far

LM: In This Time We Went Too Far- your last book you argue that Gaza marked a turning point in public opinion. I am trying to understand why. What kind of evidence the Western public opinion needs in order to change their position? I am relating this to the issue of the vocabulary of human rights, international law. With the Goldstone Report do we have a different vocabulary that made this turn? Is there a specific language?

NF: The Gaza massacre was both a turning point and a climax. It was clear that public opinion was seriously declining in its support for Israel over the last 10 years if you follow the polls.

TD: Outside of Israel you mean?

NF: Yes, outside Israel. Support was declining. But Gaza... the title of my book- “They went too Far”- that quote comes from Israeli columnist Gideon Levy, and he says, "this time we went too far," meaning it was just completely indefensible. Because the peculiarity or the uniqueness of Gaza was, it was the first one of Israel’s protracted military engagements that had no battlefield component. All the other preceding conflicts, you know 67 was basically a battlefield… 73 there was a war, 82 there was an element of war and it was also targeting of civilians and so forth. And Israel’s’ various engagements in Lebanon, it always had a military component and a civilian component. Gaza had no military component. It was just a 22 day massacre. And they had gone too far. And it registered with public opinion. You see it everywhere. I mean support for Israel has dried up in college campuses. There is nothing there anymore. It was interesting because I was in UC Irvine a few days ago. And Irvine is supposed to be a tensed campus. All of the pro-Israel people so to speak, they are just community people. It’s not students. It’s people 60 and over. I gave a talk outside, and I saw them. I said, “Folks, this is not bingo night at the senior citizen house”. There were no students. It’s very hard to find any student support any longer for Israel. It’s completely dried up. Again, we should be attentive to changes. Does that mean the struggle is over? Of course, not. But Gaza was a turning point in public opinion. And Israel is having a very hard time. Remember, every other conflict Israel had, it’s over, it’s forgotten in a few months. Who even remembers Lebanon, 2006 July/August? People hardly remember it happened. But it’s very interesting Gaza now a year and a half later, and Israel still can't burry the ghost of Gaza. Every single day there is another attack on Goldstone. Literally, every single day there is another attack on Goldstone. Just yesterday the Kadima Party, the centrist party, they put forth a new legislation which says any organization that contributes to any report critical of Israel should now be criminalized. I mean, they have gone bizerk. And that’s Gaza. It’s Gaza and Goldstone, Gaza and Goldstone. And it is a remarkable fact that they can’t shake loose of it. I mean you follow the papers. Every single day. Now, you have to ask yourself- why is that? Gaza is already a year and half ago. And yet, it remains so fresh in people’s minds. Something changed. Again, as I said we should be sensitive, because that’s what politics is about. Taking advantage of new opportunities. And to be oblivious to those new opportunities we can never take advantage of them.

TD: Would you comment on the importance of the Goldstone report? Why that specific report is important to this discussion?

NF: The main significance of Goldstone Report is Israel as Gideon Levy put it, he said, this time the messenger, meaning Goldstone, this time the messenger is propaganda-proof. Goldstone is Jewish, he says he is a Zionist, he says he loves Israel, he sits in the board of governors in Hebrew university, he’s got honorary degree from Hebrew University, his whole family is involved in the Zionist movement, so Israel can’t use its usual weapons against him. They can’t claim he is an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew and all the rest. And if they can’t use its usual weapons it has a real problem. It has to face the facts. And they can’t dance to the facts. And Israel’s whole routine has been to evade the facts by attacking the messenger. But now they can’t attack the messenger, he’s propaganda-proof. That’s why they are in a complete hysteria over goldstone. I have to say from a personal point of view, I am often attacked. They say: “May be Finkelstein’s facts are right but his style! He has such a belligerent style, rhetorical style, demagogic style. Kind of makes me laugh now. Because Goldstone has a very nice style. And he’s not doing much better than me… May be that should tell you it’s not really about my style. It’s just that now they are saying the things I said and they are getting the same thing that I got.   

LM: How do you frame the Zionist project in Palestine? Is it "settler colonialism"? And how does your framing of this project affect the vision for a just solution?

NF: I try not to use jargon:  "settler colonialism" is not an illuminating phrase; it doesn't mean much to most people.  I prefer to say that the original goal of the Zionist movement was to create a Jewish state in Palestine but Palestine was overwhelmingly non-Jewish.  The only way the Zionists could reconcile their goal with the existing reality was to expel the indigenous population.  The ensuing resistance of the Arabs was the perfectly rational and understandable reaction of people who knew that the Zionist movement could succeed only at their expense.

LM: What do you envision the solution would be to the Palestinian refugee question?

NF: I do not like to answer this question.  It's for Palestinians to decide what to do with their rights.  I am confident a settlement is possible if a reasonable offer is made to them.  I do not believe the refugee issue is the insurmountable goal that it's sometimes made out to be.

TD: According to even Israeli data/statistics, majority of Palestinians resist nonviolently. If this is the case- why are you still emphasizing the need for adopting a Gandhian method? Does this emphasis run the risk of making Palestinian arms struggle illegitimate? And in that case, are you not limiting the Palestinian options?

NF: Nonviolent Palestinian resistance is still marginal to Palestinian society because there is no national leadership mobilizing the population on a national scale.  In addition, such resistance cannot possibly succeed without international support.  So, the basic conditions for its success are still lacking.  But if and when they are in place I believe such a nonviolent movement can succeed in ending the occupation.

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Lena Meari belongs to a Palestinian refugee family from Al-Birweh village which was destroyed in 1948. Born and raised in Haifa she later worked and lived in Jerusalem and Ramallah. She graduated and worked in the Institute of Women Studies at Birzeit University. She is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at the University of California- Davis. She conducted her research on the interrogation encounter between Palestinian political activists and the Shabak (Israeli security service).

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