Interview With Norman Finkelstein
by M. Junaid Levesque-Alam
Norman Finkelstein is one of the world’s most outspoken and tenacious scholars on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and a fierce critic of the way Israel’s supporters try to wield the memory of anti-Semitism as a baton to beat up on those who criticize the country’s well-documented atrocities.
Author of “Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History,” along with “Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict” and other books, Finkelstein was hailed by a leading authority of Holocaust studies, the late Raul Hilberg, for his “acuity of vision and analytical power,” and by prominent Israeli-British historian Avi Shlaim as “as a very able, very erudite and original scholar.”
In 2007, Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University because of an intimidation campaign spearheaded by Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, whose book, “The Case for Israel,” was pilloried by Finkelstein as blatant plagiarism of an earlier work, Joan Peters’ “From Time Immemorial,” which, in turn, was long ago exposed as a hoax.
In our hour-long phone interview on Sept. 14th, Finkelstein discussed a broad range of topics, including Gaza, the paralysis gripping the Arab world, and the reach and the limits of the Israeli lobby. He reflected on his teaching career (“I’ll almost certainly never teach again”), his pursuit of self- improvement, and the “battery of humorless lawyers” who vet his printed works, which frequently combine painstaking research with searing polemics. He also talked about his raging battles with Alan Dershowitz, who once mangled Finkelstein’s words to claim that he called his mother, a Holocaust survivor, a Nazi collaborator. Finally, acknowledging the consequences of his intellectual activism (“You speak out, you pay a price”), Finkelstein spoke about the meaning and impact of his scholarship.
Below is an edited transcript of our interview, presented as four parts.
Part One: Gaza, Diplomacy, and Arab Paralysis
Levesque-Alam: I wanted to start off talking about developments in the Gaza Strip. Taking a cursory glance at [Egyptian weekly] al-Ahram last week, it was clear that the subject on everyone’s mind, aside from the humanitarian cost being paid by residents in Gaza, is whether there is any real overarching Israeli policy or plan here. What do you think Israel is really hoping to achieve with its siege of Gaza?
Finkelstein: After Salvador Allende was elected, the US said it was going to make the Chilean economy scream. The U.S tormented Nicaragua to unseat the Sandinistas. You tell the people that if you keep reelecting this government we’re going to keep strangling you, while if you elect our government we will allow you a marginal existence but still better than before.
Levesque-Alam: In that vein, there appear to be two related observations. Once, again turning to Al-Ahram, there was an analysis by Khalid Amayreh, saying that, “the very legitimacy of the PA now depends on the continuation of the talks, regardless of whether progress is made or not. Needless to say, this posture is more than good news for Israel since it allows the Jewish state to keep on building settlements in the West Bank and create more irreversible facts in East Jerusalem, all under the rubric of the peace process.”
My question is, number one, do you see Fatah as fulfilling any role other than peace talks for the sake of peace talks, and two, do you think facts are being created on the ground in such a way that the two-state solution is not even a viable option anymore?
Finkelstein: I don’t get involved in internal Palestinian politics. Those are choices Palestinians have to make. This much however can be said. You cannot win from diplomacy what you haven’t won on the battlefield. I don’t necessarily mean an exchange of lethal weapons; mobilizing public opinion is also a potent force. A good versus a bad diplomat will make some difference. Abba Eban made some difference; I don’t want to discount it. But negotiations are the most trivial aspect of politics. What counts in politics is your ability to organize, mobilize, and bring to bear superior force—and again force doesn’t necessarily mean lethal force; there is also the force of public opinion. The so-called Palestinian leadership has not invested anytime in trying to organize its constituency either in the Occupied Territories or abroad. Nothing is going to change without such organization—it’s just silliness; for the Palestinian leadership, lucrative silliness.
Levesque-Alam: Do you see any parallels with Hezbollah and Lebanon and the way that—
Finkelstein: The comparison is striking. Hezbollah organized. Hezbollah prepared. Hezbollah analyzed and understood its enemy. Its judgment was not 100% accurate, but certainly that’s where it invested its energy, with very impressive results. When you read detailed accounts of the 2006 Lebanon war, you realize just how astonishing was its defeat of the Israeli military. Hezbollah fired about 5,000 missiles altogether at Israel or in Lebanon (anti-tank missiles); Israel delivered or fired 162,000 weapons at Lebanon (about 4,800 per day). Israel fielded about 30,000 troops; Hezbollah’s fighters numbered about 2,000 and there were about 4,000 village militia. Israel never even faced the crack Hezbollah forces which were stationed on the Litani waiting for an Israeli invasion that never happened.
Levesque-Alam: On a related note, there was an article by journalist Jonathan Cook, where he was describing some ways in which the Israeli government encourages the creation of collaborators among the Palestinians. He says that in view of the occupation and the siege and the scarcity of medical supplies and nutritional supplies, that Israel obviously denies a broad swath of Palestinians the chance to do more than subsist. And he says, “According to the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights, the Shin Bet [Israeli internal secret police] is exploiting the distress of these families to pressure them to agree to collaborate in return for an exit permit.”
Finkelstein: Although the pressure to collaborate did not (to my knowledge) in the past reach to life-and-death issues, Israel has always resorted to similar tactics. If you won a scholarship to study abroad the Shin Bet would ask you whether you would be willing to spy for them. If you said “no,” they would deny you an exit permit and you couldn’t study abroad. This is what happened to my close friend Musa Abu Hashhash after he won a scholarship in the 1980s to Manchester University in England. He had to turn down the scholarship.
Levesque-Alam: The breaking of the Gaza siege was one of the most recent striking examples of resistance by, really, a handful of activists. But it also set into sharp relief the official impotence of the Arab regimes and the surrounding Arab world to affect change all this time, where, you know, here this handful of activists is able to make at least a symbolic gesture.
To what do you attribute this sort of ongoing paralysis? Is this really a continuation of policy by the Arab regimes to just provide lip-service to the Palestinians without taking concrete action?
Finkelstein: Why should one expect more from the Saudis? The Arab regimes are completely in thrall to the United States. They would of course prefer to settle the Israel-Palestine conflict in terms of the international consensus. The Arab League has repeatedly put forth perfectly reasonable proposals to end the conflict in line with the whole of the international community. But they are not going to do more than express a preference. They’re unpopular, corrupt, and therefore dependent on the United States.
Part Two: The Israel Lobby’s Limits, the Relevance of Zionism, and Jewish-Muslim Relations
Levesque-Alam: Turning to more domestic reflections on Israel and the role of Zionism—the publication of the Walt/Mearsheimer book on the pro-Israeli lobby really gave that kind of critique of Israel and the lobby an official or “prestigious” face, and some people have said more political space has opened up to discuss the subject.
But on the other hand, at the latest AIPAC convention, there were 300 congressmen and 3 presidential candidates onhand to pay their respects, if you will, to this lobbying arm. Do you think political space has really opened up to discuss this subject without one being smeared as an anti-Semitic?
Finkelstein: You have to make a distinction between the popular level and the electoral level. At the popular level it’s quite a big difference now as compared to say a decade ago in terms of the ability to criticize Israeli policy and to reach people. It’s not difficult at all now on the popular level. If you have public meetings and so forth there’s a very receptive, or potentially receptive, audience out there. Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine Peace not Apartheid showed this. The Israel lobby called him an anti-Semite, Holocaust-denier, supporter of Nazis and supporter of terrorism. His book still wound up at the top of the bestseller list. But the electoral level is not just about votes, it’s crucially also about money; those with lots of money get a better hearing. At the electoral level it remains quite difficult. We haven’t yet been able to translate popular feeling into an electoral mandate. That’s not unusual. You have in the United States, for example, overwhelming popular support for gun control. But at the electoral level, because of a well-organized lobby, you’re not able to translate the popular feeling into an electoral mandate. That’s also true of health care and myriad other issues.
Levesque-Alam: Some Muslims, in my view, anyway, have what I would categorize as a somewhat unhealthy obsession over the power and mystique of the Israeli lobby. But there does seem to me to be a valid concern that if these lobbying arms are pushing for certain policies, say, war in Iran, and this actually takes place, don’t you think it would create a kind of dynamic where America becomes so entrenched in wars in the Muslim world, that Israel ultimately is seen as an indispensable outpost, and through a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, becomes a great ally or unique ally whose role is considered indispensable?
Finkelstein: There is much misunderstanding about the scope and reach of the Israeli lobby. In my opinion the Israel lobby has a significant impact on U.S. policy in the Israel-Palestine conflict. U.S. elites do not derive any advantage from the occupation; they would be perfectly happy if tomorrow Israel announced that it accepts the international consensus and will withdraw to the June 1967 borders. The reason U.S. elites don’t press harder for such a settlement is the lobby.
But when we come to broad regional issues such as Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, it’s not the lobby that’s the driving force. It’s U.S. policy. You can say U.S. policy is misguided and you can say that once U.S. policy has been decided, the lobby plays a useful role in drumming up public support. But the notion that somehow Cheney and Rumsfeld were duped or coerced by the lobby into waging a war in Iraq contrary to the U.S. “national interest” is neither on its face credible nor supported by the available documentary record.
Levesque-Alam: In an interview I did with you about four years ago for Left Hook, I asked you about your description of Zionism as a response to and a reciprocation of Gentile anti-Semitism. And I asked you about the sustainability and appeal of Zionism, and you said, “it’s an interesting question that would require a subtle answer,” and you went on to catalogue some positives like the revival and preservation of the Hebrew language and then of course some of the negatives.
Given that you’ve been working on a new book on American Zionism, do you have new insights about the viability of Zionism and the future trajectory or trajectories that are available—
Finkelstein: If we are serious about trying to resolve the conflict, we should not get sidetracked by abstract ideological questions. We should take Zionism as an ideology out of the debate. Rather, we should focus on political issues. The right question is not, “Are you now or have you ever been a Zionist.” The questions should be, “Do you support the demolition of homes and torture?” “Do you support Jewish-only roads and Jewish-only settlements?” “Do you support a political settlement embraced by the entire world apart from the U.S., Israel and some South Sea atolls?”
Levesque-Alam: From a “pragmatic” Israeli viewpoint, or at least what would be considered pragmatic by Israeli leaders, given that the country’s leadership places so many eggs in one basket, basically onboard with the American “war on terror”, what kind of long-term options does Israel have to create a secure Jewish existence and a lasting peace with neighbors? Does this basically involve adhering to international law and the international consensus, or are there specifics beyond that?
Finkelstein: The possibility exists for a reasonable settlement with the Palestinians along the June 1967 borders and a “just resolution” of the refugee question. But if Israel continues to conceive itself as, and play the part of, an outpost of the U.S. in the Arab-Muslim world, even if the Israel-Palestine conflict were resolved, it’s not going to change anything fundamental, because Israel will still be on a collision course with forces in the Arab-Muslim world seeking genuine independence.
Levesque-Alam: From a personal perspective, it’s been hard for me not to notice that in the U.S. context, those leading the pack of the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim invective, more often than not, seem to be Jewish academics and Jewish scholars. And proponents of the Clash thesis, or intense advocates of American war aims, or those called neoconservatives, are more often than not Jewish intellectuals.
This represents an historical reversal where before the creation of Israel, many Jewish academics took a sympathetic view of Islam and had fresh in their minds the experience of Western anti-Semitism and intolerance. But now many are lined up behind Western arguments and justifications for war and occupation that ring eerily familiar.
In your experience, has there been any ongoing debate in the American Jewish community—
Finkelstein: I don’t have any meaningful experience in the American Jewish community—
Levesque-Alam: Do you think there’s a debate between American Jewish academics?
Finkelstein: Like all intellectuals, Jewish intellectuals gravitate toward power and privilege. You don’t have to read Professor Chomsky to know this. Just read Julien Benda’s Treason of the Intellectuals. The foreign policy of the two major political parties doesn’t significantly differ. So it is not surprising that Jewish publicists would be prominent all along the mainstream political spectrum. Jewish publicists were also prominent during the McCarthy era and Cold War debates. When Commentary magazine joined the anti-communist witch-hunt and lined up with the U.S. during the Cold War, was it because of Israel? The fact that Israel is a “Jewish” state is perhaps a supplementary (bonus) factor for Jewish intellectuals, but it’s obviously not the primary one. It might also be noted that Jews such as Chomsky, Amy Goodman, Howard Zinn and Naomi Klein are also prominent in the marginal left supporting Palestinian rights.
Levesque-Alam: Do you think anything can be done from a Muslim perspective, Muslims in the United States, to encourage alliances and friendships between progressive Jewish and progressive Muslim voices?
Finkelstein: The new generation of Arabs and Muslims in the United States is smart, committed and reasonable. I am very optimistic on this score. Maybe the older generation is still given to conspiracy theories but not the folks I meet on college campuses. They are an impressive bunch. I recently went on speaking tour in the United Kingdom sponsored by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS). Ten universities in different cities in five days. When it was over I told them I’d never go on another FOSIS tour. “Why?,” they wondered. “Because you’re too efficient!” (I was exhausted.)
Part Three: On Teaching, Not Being a Movie Star, and Humorless Lawyers
Levesque-Alam: Turning to more personal matters, since DePaul University had denied you tenure last year, when pressure was brought to bear by Dershowitz and like-minded forces, what’s preoccupied you? Given the high marks you received from students at DePaul, do you have any plans to teach anywhere else?
Finkelstein: I’ll almost certainly never teach again. This chapter in my life is over. The first course I taught at the college level was in 1974. I started teaching consistently at the college level in 1988. Because I never had a regular position, I had very heavy teaching loads. Altogether I probably had about 7,000 students. It was a good run, but now it’s over, and I don’t know what’s next. If tomorrow a brick were to fall on my head, I still had a good life and so I have no right to complain. I did what I wanted with my life. I can’t carry on like a child. I knew what I did would have consequences; if it didn’t have consequences, everyone would do it. You speak out, you pay a price.
Levesque-Alam: I noticed on your website a rather prominent logo for the film “American Radical” in which you’re the main feature. Can you tell me about that film, is it still slated to come out in 2008?
Finkelstein: It’s still going to take some time. The filmmakers are decent and competent. I am not convinced that my life is of significant enough interest that it can hold an audience for an hour. The fate of the film is important to the filmmakers and I respect this. But my life is what I’ve done, what I’ve sought to accomplish, whether or not I’ve stayed true to my principles and the memory of my late parents’ martyrdom. My struggle each day is to make myself a better person. I have tried to learn from the example of Gandhi: the recognition of being a very flawed person, constantly committing blunders, yet still continuing along the path of Truth—he called it Truth, but truth was for him a much bigger category than the conventional one; it denoted conscience, purity of motive, and so forth. I struggle to make myself worthy of the support I get from people and worthy of the expectations that people have invested in me. I desperately want to be a better person, not a bigger star.
Levesque-Alam: In the context of what you mentioned, of flaws and mistakes, do you think that among them might be the tone—some people have said that even despite the outstanding scholarship, maybe the tone is too abrasive—do you think that if you could, you would go back in time and take a take a different tone and stylistic approach in some of your scholarly work?
Finkelstein: There’s some misapprehension about my modus operandi. Some people think the words flow uninterruptedly from my brain to the computer screen to the printed page. That’s not how it works. Many, many people scrutinize my manuscripts: editors, friends, comrades, experts. In recent years, all of my manuscripts have also been carefully vetted by a battery of usually humorless libel lawyers. Probably 80% of the time when something in my manuscript is flagged, and someone says, “Too much!” or “Take this out!” it goes. I’m not Shakespeare. I am not committed to every period and comma.
It’s also hard to get the right balance. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having passion and even vitriol when the circumstances warrant it. Professor Chomsky’s most memorable phrase is when he described Jeanne Kirkpatrick as the Reagan’s administration’s “chief sadist in residence” (Turning the Tide). I am not at heart an academic. I have little interest in academia. I never attended an academic conference, never delivered an academic paper. I don’t write primarily for academic journals. I became an academic because of a happy intersection. I like to teach and to do rigorous scholarship. By coincidence those are also the main criteria for an academic career. So I found myself in the ivory tower. But teaching and scholarship were not for me means in order to succeed in the academic world, it was just a coincidence.
Part Four: Alan Dershowitz, Bar Mitzvahs, and Accomplishments
Levesque-Alam: My final question here: the other way you reach out is through your website. I noticed you take a sort of remarkable position, where you host e-mails of the most vitriolic and hateful elements who attack you. How are you able to put up with that kind of attack? I mean in one film clip, I believe you said that your mother was worried that you’ve become maybe too consumed, in a sense, by the issues you’re passionate about.
Do you find it hard to strike a balance or maintain a level of calm in the face of the kind of attacks—for instance, in one case, Alan Dershowitz chopped up a quote to claim you called your mother a Nazi collaborator. How do you deal with that kind of stuff?
Finkelstein: Knowing my late mother, if I didn’t take the first train to Cambridge and throttle Dershowitz—I’m being quite literal here—if I didn’t throttle him, she probably would have never spoken to me again.
My mother was very solicitous about my health and safety. She was a Jewish mother. But what Dershowitz said crossed the line. It’s hard to fathom the magnitude of that slander: to say that somebody who passed through the Nazi holocaust, and every single member of her family was exterminated, and her entire life, from the day she was “liberated” till her death, she grieved over the loss of her family—that now some sick sack of shit would come along, after her death and when she is no longer around to defend herself, and proclaim that my mother collaborated—or I believe she collaborated—with the murderers of her family…
So it did require immense self-control—or maybe you want to call it cowardice—for me to do nothing about it.
Dershowitz got very bad PR when he threatened a libel suit against the University of California press for publishing my book Beyond Chutzpah. He was trying to get a rise out of me so I would sue him for libel. Then he could say, “You see! Who’s suing whom for libel now?” He was trying to push me into a corner or provoke me sufficiently that I would, like a panther—which is how the Black Panther [Party] got its name—you keep pushing it back and back and back, and it retreats and retreats and retreats, and finally when it’s in a corner, it leaps out at you.
Levesque-Alam: Does the battle with Dershowitz, on an intellectual or political level, continue even now?
Finkelstein: There’s no “intellectual” battle with Dershowitz. On his part there’s no summoning of facts or elegant use of logic. It’s just bar mitzvah speeches. He doesn’t know anything, I doubt if he’s read more than a half-dozen books on the topic. I don’t entirely fault him. You can’t defend high profile spousal murderers like O.J. Simpson, high profile sexual predators like Jeffrey Epstein, and high profile mass murderers like Radovan Karadzic, yet still have time left over to do serious scholarship. What he does is entertainment; it’s a circus. He’s like Hitchens. No one really cares about the facts Hitchens brings to bear. He could be making one case today and the opposite case tomorrow. Would anybody notice? They’re just interested in the rococo tapestry he weaves around the facts. You don’t walk away saying, “I’ve learned X, Y or Z from Hitchens,” you walk away saying, “Wasn’t that a witty line? Wasn’t that a clever repartee?”
It’s the same thing with Dershowitz—of course, Dershowitz is not witty or clever. You don’t learn anything and you don’t expect to. I live near Coney Island. It’s like the popular sideshow “Shoot the freak.” I haven’t read a journal of intellectual opinion in years. Gandhi’s collected works come to 90 volumes. Most of it consists of letters, quite a few on diet. There’s more moral seriousness in one Gandhi letter to an anonymous correspondent on treating constipation than nearly the whole of our intellectual life.
Levesque-Alam: But do you get the sense that there’s some ongoing—okay if not an intellectual, but verbal—
Finkelstein: Everybody is terrified of Dershowitz because he wields a lot of power and is a very vindictive little man. I wasn’t afraid and, I think, did a pretty solid job of demonstrating he is a preposterous charlatan. So he got his revenge by driving me out of academia, although—in his mind—not enough to compensate for the damage I did to his name.
Levesque-Alam: A genuinely last question here, you just referenced the work that you have done in the fields you have investigated. Do you take a fundamentally positive or negative view of the change that’s possible through scholarship, specifically your scholarship? Do you think a generation or two down the line, people will be able to look back to your work and say, “This was a seminal moment,” or “This was a crucial moment for helping augur in something new, something different, something better,” to the debate and to the perspective on the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Finkelstein: In a generation I will be completely forgotten. That’s fine; not everyone can write for eternity. Most people can derive sufficient satisfaction from the knowledge of being a link in the chain. So I take the best from what preceded me, work this material over trying to improve it a little, and then it’s passed on to the next generation. I’m a link in the chain, another rung in Jacob’s ladder “that keeps going higher and higher.”
Who lives through eternity? Parents have children, the children remember their parents, their children remember their grandparents. How many great grandchildren remember great grandparents? Few of us manage to get what we secretly aspire. We fear death and we want eternity, through children or through books. But at the very best we live for a couple of generations. I recently read an interview with Woody Allen. He said he still wakes up nights dreading death. Life, he said, is a “meaningless little flicker.” In itself, he’s probably right. The only thing that gives life meaning is being part of something bigger than yourself. When you feel part of the bigger cause, you can even conceive yourself sacrificing life for it. “Who is able to deny that all that is pure and good in the world persists because of the silent death of thousands of unknown heroes and heroines!” (Gandhi)
I don’t think much about how I will be remembered. More people than you would guess are interested in a factual, rational presentation of arguments, and don’t need, and don’t want, to be persuaded by verbal pyrotechnics. How else can you account for Chomsky’s impact? Many people actually do want to figure out how the pieces fit together. Who is right and who’s wrong? Who’s telling the truth and who isn’t? Who is on the side of justice, and who is on the side of injustice? Not the verbal sallies, not the clever one-liners, not the witty repartees—but just the facts.
A sufficient number of people have found what I do useful enough that I think I can say I’ve lived a meaningful life.
M. Junaid Levesque-Alam blogs about America and Islam at Crossing the Crescent (http://www.crossingthecrescent.com) and his writings on American Muslim identity have appeared in WireTap Magazine, The Nation (online), The American Muslim, and elsewhere. He works as a communications coordinator for an anti-domestic violence agency in the NYC area.