Interview with Prof. Norman Finkelstein

Prof. Norman Finkelstein

Christopher Brown, a grassroots radical journalist, conducted the following interview with Prof. Norman Finkelstein:

Christopher Brown: Prof. Finkelstein, in your estimation why does it seem that when someone challenges Israel on its policies towards the Palestinians they are accused of anti-Semitism?

Norman Finkelstein: I think the answer is that in the past, if you take the 1960s, 1970s and early 80s, the scholarly record and the documentary record, it seemed to be supporting Israel’s position. And so Israelis and their supporters didn’t typically charge anti-Semitism. What they did was tell you to look at the record, look at the history and see that it supports their claims. Beginning in the late 1980s and 1990s the work of important Israeli historians as well as the documentary record of human rights organizations, Israel’s record did not look as good as it once did. And it turned out that many of the things that people thought were the case when they came to Israel actually turned out not to be the case. Thus Israel’s position both historically and in terms of its current human rights record, as that position became more indefensible - it was then that the charges of anti-Semitism began to be hurled with reckless abandon. Because there was no other way to respond to the charges of what Israel has done and is doing. It’s wrong.

CB: We often hear in this county that the mainstream media is objective in its coverage regarding Israel/Palestine. But recently, when Israel fired more than 300 tank shells a day for over a week into populated civilian areas of Gaza, which caused death and injury to women and children, the corporate media remained silent. In this same time span, a suicide bombing occurred in Tel Aviv and the coverage of the event dominated the news cycle, in some places for three days. Could you speak about this phenomenon?

NF: Well, I think, to begin with, I don’t think that anyone believes that American coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict is evenhanded. I don’t even think that journalists and editors who are responsible for that coverage believe it. The coverage in the American media of the Israel/Palestine conflict is, frankly, useless. I don’t read it at all, I’ll be perfectly honest, I stopped reading it. I don’t read the editorials, I don’t read the op-eds, and I don’t read the news columns. You learn absolutely nothing from it. The best sources are; European sources, Israeli sources, and human rights organizations. But, you won’t learn anything about the Israel/Palestine conflict from the American media that you can’t learn by simply going to the official Israeli foreign affairs website. As far as the disparity in coverage, I think the record is pretty clear, if you look at what human rights organizations have to say. At this point, the figures are about 3,500 Palestinians have been killed and 1,000 Israelis since the beginning of the second Intifada till today. On both sides, the Palestinian side and the Israeli side, about two-thirds on each side have been civilians, innocent bystanders. And so, on the record of killings of civilians and innocent bystanders, Israel’s record is about three times as bad as the Palestinian record. Some times people make the claim that Palestinians purposely target Israeli civilians, whereas the Palestinian civilians killed by Israel are collateral damage or accidents and so forth. But no human rights organizations take those claims seriously. B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights organization, puts it: “When so many civilians are killed intent is irrelevant.” Israel is still responsible. And the principle is pretty straightforward for any rational person; If Hamas blows up a bus in Tel Aviv and says; “Well we didn’t really mean to kill the passengers, we wanted just to destroy the bus” people would laugh. So shouldn’t we also laugh if Israel drops a one-ton bomb in a densely populated neighborhood in Gaza, and didn’t want to kill innocent civilians it only wanted to kill a terrorist leader? Which by the way is also illegal, but let’s leave that aside. The claim is ludicrous. When you are firing indiscriminately into crowds, when your aiming at the heads of people at the heads of children and so on and so forth, the claim that this is collateral damage or unintentional is an absurd claim, as human rights organizations have pointed out.

CB: Your latest book, BEYOND CHUTZPAH, deals with the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history. It takes books like Joan Peters’ FROM TIME IMMEMORIAL and Alan Dershowitz’s THE CASE FOR ISRAEL to task as academic hoaxes. Could you talk more about this and about the difficulties of getting your own book published and the reception it has received since publication?

NF: I can’t say the work I do takes very little intelligence. But I have to be honest about these sorts of things. The kind of work I do doesn’t take much intelligence, it just takes application because the sorts of frauds that I expose are so transparent, they’re so silly, and so preposterous, that any seventh grader can do it. And it takes, usually, in the case of Peters or Dershowitz it took just a few months to assemble the data in readable form and complete the manuscript. The challenge always has been is getting the findings publicly acknowledged. In the case of the Dershowitz book, Prof. Dershowitz himself launched a major campaign to block publication of the book, hired what is reputed to be the most powerful law firm in the country, Cravath, Swain and Moore, went to the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger to block publication of the book from coming out on the University of California Press, and as it happened his efforts proved unsuccessful. But I have to admit, that there were some close calls, and it seemed the book wouldn’t come out because of the pressure he was exerting. But that’s only half the story. Because once the book came out it was completely ignored. Now you would think that if a book documents that the senior most professor at Harvard Law School has plagiarized from a hoax (FROM TIME IMMEMORIAL), that he falsified records, mangled documents, put forth preposterous claims in a book which became a national best seller, and it’s on the topic of the Israel/Palestine conflict, you would think reviewers would be interested. Leaving apart the whole scandal surrounding it, and his efforts to block publication of the book, notwithstanding the fact that he’s a senior most professor at Harvard Law School, he plagiarized a hoax, engaged in fabrication, falsification and mangling of sources, the book bears on the Israel/Palestine conflict, a huge scandal surrounded its publication, the book didn’t receive a single mainstream review in the United States. It’s as if the book never came out.

CB: Prof. Finkelstein, Israel is the only country that sanctions certain forms of torture to extract information from “alleged” resistance fighters. They have stated that The Wall is necessary for Israeli security. Yet, rather than building it along the “Green Line” they have built more than 80% of the wall in occupied Palestine displacing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, land, and neighbors. In addition, Israel has also placed more than 300,000 of its own citizens onto Palestinian land, which is a clear violation of the 4th Geneva Convention of which Israel is a signatory which states that no occupying power shall transport it’s own citizens onto the land which it is occupying. Dr. Finkelstein, why does the West sit by and allow these gross violations of human rights to go on?

NF: Well, let’s first get the facts exactly right. We don’t want to be accused of distorting and mis-representing, since the facts are damning on their own. Israel is the only country in the world, which had legalized torture up until 1999. In 1999 The Israeli High Court, effectively de-legitimized torture, or some aspects of in its ruling. They still allow, for example, what’s called “the necessity defense”. And they indirectly allowed for sleep deprivation. But most forms of torture that had been sanctioned earlier were now declared illegal. That doesn’t mean that torture has stopped. The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel put out a report in 2002 entitled: BACK TO ROUTINE OF TORTURE, which indicates that the torture has resumed. But it is no longer officially legal as it had been and it was the only country in the World that had legalized it. On the question of displacement of the Palestinian population, it’s not hundreds of thousands who have been displaced by the Wall. But the figure is that…I think, I haven’t looked at the most recent numbers, but hundreds of thousands will be affected directly and indirectly by the construction of the Wall. On the question of why the West sanctions this, you know we have to be honest about these things, probably a majority of countries practice torture in one form or another. The issue here is the fact that Israel gets a free ride. Which is to say, the pretense is that Israel is still the one democratic country in The Middle East and that the Wall is being built for protection from terrorist attacks and so on. And that’s all lies. Israel’s human rights record is abysmal. The Wall has nothing to do with fighting terrorism. The Wall is a land grab, as all human rights organizations have stated already as far back as a couple of years ago. The only ones, to my knowledge, the only one in the World that is denying it was a land grab, was Israel’s High Court in its consecutive decisions on the Wall. But soon enough, one of Israel’s ministers acknowledges that the Wall was being built to establish new borders for Israel. It’s a land grab. It has nothing at all to do with terrorism. If you want to fight terrorism you build a Wall along your borders, that’s fine. But the Wall is being built to incorporate the main settlement blocs in to Israel. It has nothing to do with terrorism.

CB: Finally, Prof. Finkelstein, could you speak about the formation of the Zionist ideology and how it has been interpreted on the ground as Palestine continues to get chopped up to suit the ethnocentric colonialist system in Israel?

NF: Israel is a self-declared Jewish State and its ideology is to create a Jewish State. A State for the Jews. And it doesn’t want a non-Jewish presence in that State, it’s gratuitous, it’s superfluous, it’s a nuisance, and so, Israel has been trying, since the beginning, to carve out a State, which is overwhelmingly, if not homogeneously Jewish, in an area which was and parts of it still are, overwhelmingly non-Jewish. And that’s been Israel’s struggle. That’s been the struggle of Zionism from the beginning, and the struggle of Israel’s since the past fifty or sixty years. How do you create a Jewish State in an area that is overwhelmingly non-Jewish? And in the early years the assumption was sooner or later we can either buy them out and send them off somewhere else, or if we can’t buy them out, we can push them out. Since the late 1960s the buy out option is plainly untenable. The Palestinians won’t be bought out. And the push out option is less and less tenable because international law and pressures of international public opinion won’t allow for a mass expulsion. So given that you can’t buy them out, you can’t push them out, the only other option is to confine them in smaller and smaller parcels of land, and keep as much of the land as you can for the Jewish State which is what Israel is currently doing. And I think they’re hoping that Palestinians will reach such a state of despair that, quietly, they’ll leave. That’s pretty much what happened in Lebanon. The Lebanese government banned Palestinian men from a large number of professions, I think it went up to something like 80 if my memory serves, and slowly but surely without any fanfare, Palestinian men left. And the official Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon, I believe it is, supposedly half a million, the actual numbers are close to 200,000. Because, one way or another, by hook or by crook, Palestinian refugees found a way to get to Europe and elsewhere. And I suspect that Israel is hoping that that will happen with the Palestinians who they have confined in these, I hate the word “cantons”, conjures up some notion of Switzerland and William Tell. They’re not cantons, they’re Indian reservations, with the difference being that Indians have US citizenship.

CB: Finally Prof. Finkelstein, what do you see for the future both Israelis and Palestinians in regards to this conflict?

NF: I see no future. I think it’s totally bleak. Probably hopeless. But there is no certainty that it is hopeless and there is no certainty that it’s over. And unless there is a certainty, we should continue struggling.

Christopher Brown is a grassroots radical journalist currently residing in Arizona. In 2007, he will return to Palestine where he spent three years working with the Palestinian people for self-determination. He maintains a blog at www.cbgonzo.blogspot.com.

Prof. Norman G. Finkelstein teaches political theory at DePaul University in Chicago. Born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1953, he is the son of survivors of the Holocaust. Prof. Finkelstein is the author of five books: Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history (University of California Press, August 2005); The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering (Verso: 2000; expanded second edition, 2003); Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso: 1999; expanded second edition, 2003); A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen thesis and historical truth (with Ruth Bettina Birn) (Henry Holt: 1998); The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A personal account of the intifada years (University of Minnesota: 1996). Prof. Finkelstein has appeared on numerous radio and television programs around the World discussing the Israel/Palestine conflict. His website is www.normanfinkelstein.com.