The American scholar Norman Finkelstein talks to Elias Stoakes about Hezbollah, Israeli fears of the Arab revolutions and the criticism he receives from various quarters.
After interviewing the "controversial" historian Ilan Papp√© for Counterfire, I emailed a link to the interview to the American scholar Norman Finkelstein, without serious hope of a reply. However, I received a response and persuaded Finkelstein to give me an interview via email exchange.
Finkelstein is famous amongst Palestinian sympathisers chiefly for his celebrated demolition acts of established narratives in the Israel-Palestine conflict: by a stroke of his pen, the bestselling book "From Time Immemorial" by Joan Peters was exposed as a work of popular fiction. Major scholars agreed with his verdict: Oxford Professor Avi Shlaim described Peters' publication (and its artful narrative that suggests there really is 'no such thing as Palestinians') accurately as 'preposterous and worthless'.
Finkelstein's more recent books have been both praised and fiercely attacked. A notable example is "The Holocaust Industry", an international bestseller that documented, amongst other matters, how ostensible Jewish “charities” and other bodies have made money in Holocaust claims from Europe that have never helped actual survivors, and have instead helped the organisations themselves get rich.
Finkelstein's later publication "Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-semitism and the abuses of history" concerned Palestinian human rights abuses and criticised popular apologists for Israel who cite anti-semitism as the true wellspring of criticism of the Jewish state. The book laid out in forensic detail a persuasive account of the documented human rights record regarding Palestinian mistreatment.
One of the 'apologists' attacked was Alan M. Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University, by way of a furious critique of his book "The Case for Israel”.
Although he denies this, many see Dershowitz as instrumental in Finkelstein losing his tenure as Professor at DePaul University in Chicago, following the publication of “Beyond Chutzpah”. Whatever the debate on that issue, Dershowitz exposed himself later in a truly breathtaking low blow: he fiddled with a quote by Finkelstein about his mother (a Holocaust survivor) suggesting that Finkelstein himself suspected that she survived because she was a Capo (a Jewish informant in the death camps). Please view the undeniable evidence here.
Dershowitz’s obscene defamation aside, Finkelstein has been described as ‘strident’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘obsessively anti-Israel’, by commentators from both left and right. He remains a demonised figure: his support for Hezbollah and other groups have made him a figure of ambivalence to natural allies, and is, of course, referred to as "evidence" of his alleged pro-terrorist leanings by rival scholars.
Mr Finkelstein, looking at the present situation in Gaza and the occupied territories, what hope do you have for a realistic and 'just' peace settlement - even in the next thirty years?
It all depends on whether the people in the Occupied Territories find the inner strength and courage to duplicate what's been done in neighboring Arab-Muslim states. So far Palestinians are just watching, but from conversations I've had they appear to be hopeful. If mass demonstrations break out, Israel might be forced to withdraw to the June 1967 border. Certainly, Israel will have trouble firing on nonviolent demonstrators without looking like Gaddafi.
The present triumphant scenes in Cairo have got a lot of people in Israel worried about the Muslim Brotherhood gaining ascendancy in Egypt. A friend in Israel, a Zionist, told me that the current leadership in Egypt have begun to cut off gas supplies to Israel, an apparent act of "aggression". Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood are a force for good in supporting Palestinians, or are they counter-productive in that they will destabilise the region (to borrow a much-abused term)?
I do not believe that Israel fears the Muslim Brotherhood because it is Muslim. It is just as fearful of a secularist such as el-Baradei coming to power. Israel dreads the prospect that a new government will respect the will of the people and will be committed to preserving the dignity of Egypt. This has always been Israel's biggest fear. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, frequently said that the biggest disaster for Israel would be if an Arab Ataturk came to power and restored the spirits of the people.
You famously said that in Lebanon 'Hezbollah are the hope' (in terms of standing up to American political influence and Israeli aggression). This elicited much condemnation from the usual quarters. Can you expand on this statement - how do Hezbollah offer 'hope', and to whom?
Hezbollah demands that the ordinary principles of international law be applied to Israel as well. Israel must stop treating neighboring countries as long- or short-term parking lots. It must stop indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure. This is Hezbollah's message and I agree with it. When Ehud Barak recently threatened, "Maybe we'll have to occupy Lebanon again," Sayyed Nasrallah said the next day, "Maybe we''ll have to occupy the northern Galilee." What's good for the goose is good for the gander.
You must know that you are more or less hated by the Israeli Likud/right-wing establishment and their supporters, and indeed have been accused, inevitably, of being an enemy of Israel and an 'enabler of terrorism'. This is probably water off a duck's back to you. Nonetheless, what is your response?
Judging by opinion polls, Israel has bigger problems than me. It is among the most hated countries on the planet. It should stop acting like a lunatic state. Once it carries on like a normal country, I will be happily redirect my energies elsewhere.
Do you unequivocally condemn Palestinian attacks against innocent civilians?
It is impossible to justify terrorism, which is the targeting of civilians to achieve a political goal. But it's also difficult to make categorical statements of the kind you suggest. I do believe that Hezbollah has the right to target Israeli civilians if Israel persists in targeting civilians until Israel ceases its terrorist acts.
Martin Indyk once called you a spokesman for Hamas. As a group Hamas have been accused of committing war crimes and torturing Palestinians; and, of course, they have fired missiles at Israeli citizens, threatening innocent children in Southern Israel. Their charter openly appears to reject ideas of peace with Israel, to encourage violence against Jews, and so on. Do you support Hamas, and it is it really a morally legitimate thing to do?
Hamas has made many statements expressing a willingness to settle the conflict on the June 1967 border. As the British Economist recently wrote, it's easy enough to test whether they are serious: just call their bluff. Israel does not want to test their intentions because it knows that they are sincere, and Israel does not want to withdraw to the 1967 border.
Do Hamas use women and children as Human shields? This is the perennial justification for civilian deaths after assaults by the Israeli Defence Forces in Palestine. Are you prepared to admit that this goes on, and what evidence is there for it?
None of the human rights organizations that investigated what happened during the Israeli invasion of Gaza - Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Goldstone Report - could find evidence that Hamas engaged in human shielding.
In the documentary "American Radical" your friend and co-thinker, Noam Chomsky, reveals that he advised you to try to focus less on exposing Alan Dershowitz in your book "Beyond Chutzpah", and to attempt to concentrate on a more general attack on the propaganda and deceit peddled by the many apologists for the Israeli establishment's crimes. Taking on Dershowitz has lead to him to try and sabotage your career, and famously accuse your mother of being a capo, amongst many other repulsive actions. What is your response to the idea that this has drawn attention away from the Palestinians in a way that has aided Dershowitz and his crew, and has diverted focus from the facts that need to be aired about Palestinian suffering?
I devote approximately 200 pages of “Beyond Chutzpah” to Israel's human rights record. The personal issue of Dershowitz's plagiarism occupies some 20 pages in an appendix.
In "Beyond Chutzpah", you document how after the ban on torture passed by Israeli courts around the turn of the century, torture and gross mistreatment of Palestinians (including minors) still goes on. Do you still see this as the case?
Israel continues to torture Palestinian detainees but on a reduced scale. They have farmed out most of the torture to their collaborators in the "Palestinian" "Authority." The "P" "A's" human rights record is quite horrendous, which is why it enjoys so much support in Israel and the West. [Presumably Finkelstein suggests this is not because the West enjoys torture in itself, but because it is expedient to get others to torture for them].
Changing topic, to what degree do you perceive Israel's attacks against neighbours and the Palestinians (I'm thinking of the 1982 and 2006 Lebanon wars, the crushing of both Intifadas, especially Operation Cast Lead and so on) as being intentionally disproportionate?
In past wars Israel set itself two goals: to inflict a battlefield defeat on its enemies and simultaneously to terrorize the civilian population in order to accelerate the victory. The Gaza invasion of 2008-9 was different. Hamas was not a significant fighting force, so defeating it wouldn't impress anyone. The invasion of Gaza had no battlefield component. The central fact about the Gaza invasion was that it was not a war: it was an outright massacre.
Is Israel more or less a large-scale US military base?
It's highly dependent on the U.S. but it's still a nation-state like any other member of the international system and the United Nations, and therefore has the same rights and obligations as any other state.
What is the best-case scenario for a peaceful settlement between Palestinians and Israelis? How can activists bring this about?
The most important challenge is to keep clarifying the documentary record on what's really happening there and which side is blocking a diplomatic settlement. Each of the various tactics that have been tried to get Israel to budge - nonviolent resistance, legal accountability, BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] - has had some measure of success.
Why do you think that you are still labelled a radical, 'far-left' or 'fringe' voice in Israeli-Palestinian conflict discourse? You, after all, promote the 'international consensus' on the conflict's resolution?
I suspect it's because I have become pretty effective so I must be marginalised.
Benny Morris accused you of selectively quoting him, is this true?
Every quote is selective. The question is whether it accurately represents the thrust of an argument. People will have to judge this for themselves.
Finally, when are you speaking next in the UK?
Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.