Professor Norman Finkelstein is one of a dying breed of American mavericks that relentlessly defies any attempt at easy categorization. He is the son of Holocaust survivors but an unremitting critic of Holocaust reparation claims; a Jew but is a life-long anti Zionist; and though very much a Leftist, he is often praised by far Right revisionists of the Third Reich, such as Hitler-admiring historian David Irving. He initially made his name by revealing Joan Peter’s massively successful From Time Immemorial (a book heavily promoted by the Israeli lobby, that claimed there were no native Arabs before Zionist immigration into Palestine), as a colossal fraud, and for 10 years he was a Professor of Political Science at New York University.
However, he is best known as the author of four books, the most recent being The Holocaust Industry, which has catapulted him into the spotlight, due to its contention that American Jewry have ruthlessly exploited the Nazi holocaust for political and financial gain. Often lambasted for his intemperate approach, Finkelstein is unlikely to win popularity contests in America for the language he employs, as much as his arguments. Like his close friend and mentor Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein is not one to mince his words. In his eyes the mainstream Jewish organisations are ‘hucksters’, ‘gangsters’ and ‘crooks'; Elie Wiesel (celebrity Holocaust survivor) is the ‘resident clown’ for the Holocaust ‘circus'; reparations claims against Germany for Nazi era slave laborers are ‘blackmail'; and he infamously dismissed Professor Goldhagen’s critically acclaimed Holocaust bestseller ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’ as the ‘pornography of violence’. Small wonder then that he has few friends amongst the American Jewish establishment, with Elian Steinberg (World Jewish Congress Executive Secretary) stating on TV that ‘Finkelstein is full of shit’, and the literary editor of the pro Israeli New Republic describing him as ‘poisonsomething you would find under a rock’.
In its initial hardback edition, The Holocaust Industry was a tremendous success in many nations (selling 130 000 copies in a few weeks on its publication in Germany), but in America its sales were limited to a paltry 12000. This relative failure stateside is attributed at least in part by Finkelstein to a fatwah by the Jewish establishment–he notes indignantly that the New York Times book review was much more hostile toward The Holocaust Industry than it was even to Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’. Now the revised paperback edition has just been released many of these same periodicals are uncharacteristically silent, perhaps thinking they can kill it more effectively through lack of exposure rather than outright aggression. The following is an interview conducted with Norman Finkelstein on 15 October 2001, on the eve of the paperback’s publication.
It is generally considered that growing up Jewish and growing up Zionist are mutually inextricable. What made you break this link?
First of all, I don’t agree that Zionism and growing up in a Jewish household are inextricably linked. It is fair to say that growing up Jewish and having a consciousness about Israel are inextricably linked. As a Jew I felt that I bore a certain amount of responsibility for the policies of Israel because Israel claimed to speak in the name of the Jewish people, and therefore they were using the history and suffering of the Jewish people as a means to justify its policies. However, my family were not Zionists, and therefore I see no special connection between the two.
You stated in a BBC interview that your radical politics have exacted ‘a substantial personal cost’ to yourself. Have you found yourself alienated from mainstream Jewish life?
I wouldn’t say that alienation has been the price because I have managed to find a crowd of people who share my values in my life, which has been quite satisfying to me. I’d say that without wanting to pose a martyr, that I’ve paid a professional price for my views. Most recently I taught at Hunter College, City University of New York, and every semester I was the highest rated professor in my department on student evaluations, I had also published in the last five years, four books and I would say that in every reckoning I had proven myself to be worthy as a professor. Nonetheless, I was always the lowest paid by far, I had the heaviest teaching load, and this past May after 10 years faithful service at slave wages, I was let go and forced–at the ripe old age of 49–to relocate to Chicago to find temporary work.
How have Jewish academics and Middle East specialists reacted to the arguments that you have expanded upon in your books?
The reviews of my first book (Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict), were given the content of the book remarkably favorable. I was quite surprised by the positive reception of the first book. Generally speaking, I don’t have much contact with the mainstream. I don’t publish in mainstream journals, and have never been asked to publish in them. It is also true that my name comes up quite a lot in articles in mainstream publications; my writings on a variety of subjects are quite frequently cited.
While researching your second book (The Rise and Fall of Palestine: The Intifadah Years), you lived with Palestinian families in the Occupied Territories. How do you regard this time in retrospect?
First of all, it’s not looking back, I still go fairly frequently, I was there in June and I stay in close touch with the families of whom I write in the book. When I first went it was a moral test of the values that are meaningful to me, and I wanted to see if I could bridge the chasm between a Jew and a Palestinian based upon our common humanity and our shared commitment to justice and decency. To that extent I would say that it was a satisfying experience, because I think that we developed close and meaningful relationships.
Were conditions in the territories as bad as you had anticipated?
I would say that the situation there is horrible. Whenever I go I almost literally count the minutes before I leave. I can’t stand it there because you feel that you are watching people endure a living death for no justifiable reason people are suffering and they’re wasting away a life. It’s very hard to bear, because it is impossible to rationalise to oneself why you should have a meaningful and satisfying life, and these people have to endure a meaningless and horrifying life. It is impossible to rationalise, unless you consider yourself a superior human being and deserve better, than maybe it would be a tolerable situation. When you recognise your common humanity and realise that for reasons for nothing to do with anything these people have ever done that they should have to suffer this way.. it’s really hard.
Did you ever experience any hostility because of your background (as an American Jew)?
Quite the contrary. The first couple of years, I was treated like royalty and people were gracious and wonderful, by the third year no one could care less that I was Jewish. It was not even a topic of discussion. Even this summer I spent time in Gaza, where the people knew I was Jewish, and they didn’t care. It’s not an issue; the issue is whether you are for or against the occupation.
‘Image and Reality of the Israel Palestine Conflict’ is a radical reinterpretation of Israeli-Arab history, turning on its head the standard Western notion of Israel being the constant victim of Arab aggression. How have historians reacted to the arguments contained within it?
As I said earlier it does get frequently cited. The chapter on Joan Peters–the hoax about Palestine being empty on the eve of Jewish colonization–is considered a standard text, everybody cites it. The chapter on Benny Morris and the Palestinian refugee question (in which Finkelstein dismisses Morris’ claims that there was no overall plan by the Zionists to expel the Arabs from Palestine), is considered the definitive critique on the Morris book, and nowadays most scholarship agrees that I’m closer to the truth than Morris. The last chapters on the `67 and `73 wars…they’re pretty much ignored.
Regarding your most recent work, The Holocaust Industry, can you explain who the Holocaust Industry (according to your interpretation) are and what their goals might be?
The Holocaust Industry, is as I conceive in the book, is institutions, organisations and individuals who have put to use Jewish suffering for political and financial gain. Throughout the little book, I am not at all shy of naming names, so large numbers of organisations and individuals are cited for their activities in the exploitation of the Nazi holocaust. It is hard to say the main ones, but the mainstream Jewish organisations and individuals such as Elie Wiesel, they feature prominently in the book.
Do you believe the ‘Holocaust Industry’ were responsible for the poor sales of the book in the US in comparison with its spectacular success elsewhere?
First of all, I do name names and a lot of these individuals and organisations have a huge vested interest in the Nazi holocaust. It’s a political weapon, but it’s also plainly a financial weapon, and it’s unsurprising that the book would die an early death in the United States. Given those facts, it would be shocking were it otherwise.
Do you believe these people were involved in your dismissal from New York University?
I think it works much more subtly in our system. Sometimes phone calls are made, no doubt about it, but I think things work through a crystallising of a consensus–in the sense of ‘this guy is more trouble than he is worth, and so it is time to let him go’. I think this is what happened at Hunter College, that yes I had an excellent teaching record, yes I had an excellent publication record, but it’s also true that ‘a lot of people are complaining about him and we do get all these phone calls and there are faculty members who are very uncomfortable with him because he is just not professional’ and so on and so forth. Finally, a consensus crystallises that it is time to let him go.
A spokesman for the World Jewish Congress suggested that you should be grateful to organisations such as themselves, for the compensation that your parents received. Is there not some truth in that were it not for the awareness raising campaigns of these bodies, Holocaust survivors would not have been compensated at all?
These organisations frankly, bring to mind an insight of my late mother, that it is no accident that Jews invented the word “chutzpah”. They steal, and I do use the word with intent, 95% of the monies earmarked for victims of Nazi persecution, and then throw you a few crumbs while telling you to be grateful. It is very hard to sink much lower than to turn the colossal suffering of the Jewish people during World War Two into an extortion racket. I really think that not even Julius Streicher (leading anti Semitic publisher in 1930’s Germany) were he editing Der Stuermer today, could have conjured up the image of Jews huckstering their dead, but that’s exactly what this gang of wretched crooks have done. They have disgraced the memory of the Jewish people’s suffering on the one hand by turning it into an extortion racket. If there were any doubt left, I would point to the recent London Times article headlined ‘Swiss Holocaust cash revealed to be a myth’, that is all the claims against the Swiss banks were a fantastic concoction of the Holocaust hustlers. But then after turning Jewish suffering into an extortion racket.to then deny the actual victims these monies extorted..it is very difficult to imagine sinking any lower on a moral level than that. If they were all put behind bars, it wouldn’t be yet, in my opinion, be a just punishment.
Many of the same adjectives crop up in the hostile reviews of The Holocaust Industry, such as ‘bitter’, ‘angry’, ‘shrill’, and ‘polemical’. Do you think this is because you are breaking a hereto untouchable taboo?
Only one of the many reviews I have read, made the comment that the book was very funny, and I think that there is a certain amount of humour in the book. I didn’t note personally any intimation of a rant or shrillness. You find humour there and irony there, but I should point out that the book went through several editors who were quite exacting and wherever it did go over the top, they pulled me back. I think a lot of reviews stem from the fact that most people (including myself), tend to defer to authority, and the first reviews the word that was constantly used was ‘rant’ and before you knew it everyone began to pick up on that, and so that became the drum beat theme of the negative reviews. Therefore, I don’t think it is so much that I broke a taboo; I think the initial negative reviews set a tone for what followed.
One extraordinary fact that I learned in your book was that former President Reagan, and his UN ambassador Jean KirkPatrick, received the Simon Wiesenthal Center humanitarian of the year award (for their staunch support of Israel) despite providing political, financial and military support to extreme Right terrorist groups in Central America. Do you agree that it is an incredible perversion of history that the racism and violence of the Nazi holocaust, is now used to justify turning a blind eye to racism and violence?
Well that is what you would expect from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. This is really a gang of heartless and immoral crooks, whose hallmark is that they will do anything for a dollar. As I point out in the book, the guy who runs their headquarters in Los Angeles, runs it as a family business, and in the mid 1990’s they were collectively raking in $525 000 a year.
Do you think The Holocaust Industry would have been published were you not the Jewish son of Holocaust survivors?
(Laughs) No, I have no doubt about that. First of all, it just got barely published as the son of Holocaust survivorsIf I weren’t, there would be no chance at all.I would have been buried alive. Just the other day I was speaking to someone who I cannot name for this interview, who met with a high government official in Germany who we both know. My friend asked him about the questions raised in my book concerning the number of surviving slave labourers, and whether the German government knew that the numbers had been grossly inflated to justify the extortion of huge amounts of money. His response was that ‘of course we knew what he was saying was true’, but a decision was made early on to go on with the blackmail because ‘we were afraid of a huge anti Semitic reaction being unleashed in Germany’, and the attitude was Germany was rich enough to pay the ransom. But, if you go to Germany and try to say the things that I did, the so called ‘Left’ become absolutely hysterical as they have this huge vested interest in being professional anti anti-Semites and semophiles. It’s this huge identity that they have carved out for themselves, and when I go out there and say that of course be anti Nazis but a lot of what is being done in the name of anti anti-Semitism, is in fact a gross falsification of history .and unless exposed will do huge damage to the Jewish people, these people go berserk. It is one of the peculiarities of this whole industry, in that it has created an alignment between the Left in Germany and the Right-wing Jewish establishment in the US. They sing the praises of people like Israel Singer (disgraced executive V.P. of the World Jewish Congress), a complete and total hoodlum – something that crawled out of the sewer.and they sing the praises of him! You would think he was Demetrios the way they talk about him.
Another matter that puts you at odds with the Jewish establishment, is your rejection of the uniqueness of Jewish persecution compared to the suffering of other peoples. What is the position of groups like the World Jewish Congress on financial reparations for the Indo-Chinese, Black slavery, the slaughter of the American Indians etc?
They don’t say anything, well I shouldn’t say they don’t say anythingDuring the US Congressional hearings on the Holocaust compensation, Maxine Waters (US Congresswoman) raised the issue with the special US envoy on Holocaust compensation, and of course he responded in exactly the way you would expect–he said you can’t compare and it is not the same thing, and that is the standard view of these organisations. Nothing compares to the Jews. Everything that the Jews endure, everything that the Jews achieve, is special, because we’re the ‘chosen people’, so don’t compare us with garbage like the Tasmanian savages (the entire indigenous population of Tasmania were exterminated under British colonial rule), or don’t compare us with the Gypsies. I mean God forbid those uncivilised savages be compared with us. You have to understand that the great tragedy of the Second World War, was not that Jews per se were killed, but such a cultured people were killed–if you kill uncultured people, who cares?
What is your position on the comparison between Israel and the Occupied Territories and South Africa under apartheid (as raised during the recent UN convention on racism in Durban)?
I don’t think the comparison with South Africa is exactly precise for a number of reasons. Israel proper–pre June `67 Israel, is a fairly lively democracy, Palestinian Arabs do enjoy rights of citizenship (as) second class citizens, it is probably similar to the situation to Blacks in the American South before the civil rights movement. The difference is that in the US South, Blacks did not have the right to vote, but that question is due to numbers, where American Blacks were the majority in several states in the South and that is why they were disenfranchised, whereas Israel’s unstated official policy is that they will tolerate a minority of approximately 15%, so long as the Arabs remain around this percentage its OK to give them the right to vote because it won’t affect the Jewish majority. In addition to the second-class citizenship of the Israeli Arabs, there is also the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and that too is not really comparable to South Africa because I think it is much worse.
Dr David Rabeeya (Iraqi born American rabbi), talks of a caste system in Israeli society, where the Arabs are clearly at the bottom, but also the non European Jews are considered to be of lesser value. He claims that the wholesale importation of Russian Jews was to ensure the demographic majority of secular European Jews over their Sephardic countrymen for generations to come.
There is some truth to that, because a large percentage of the so-called ‘Russian Jews’ are not Jewish. In recent years, it has been more than 50%, and the reason why is because the Israeli establishment likes the blue eyed, blonde haired Aryan types as a racial group. The Russians look right even if they are not Jewish, and they preserve the Ashkenazi elite’s dominance.
You argue in The Holocaust Industry that if it were no longer in America’s interest to support Israel, the Jewish elites would quickly forget about the Jewish state. Is this really tenably considering the huge emotional attachment American Jewry has to Israel?
Generations of Americans Jews have not been brought up on Zionism. Before 1967, Israel barely figured at all in American Jewish life, as anyone who goes back and reads the publications of the US Jews before then will tell you. Even nowadays people are not Zionist by conviction, they are Zionist because it is useful for their political and more recently financial self-interest. The guiding light is what serves their self-interest, not ideological commitment.
Raul Hillberg (leading Holocaust academic) says that he hopes you will expand on your work in The Holocaust Industry. Are you currently working on anything?
No. I suffered the blow of losing my job so I have to make ends meet to survive.
Did you not receive a substantial sum from the spectacular success of The Holocaust Industry in Germany and elsewhere?
No, that is science fiction. You don’t receive substantial sums. I received a $5000 advance for the book, and in total I have received about $50 000. You are not going to get rich out of this…I mean $50 000 is the average annual salary in the United States, I have never made more than $22,000 in a year, so it is about two years salary. OK, I am not a kid anymore, but I expect to be living more than two more years.
I noticed that the publication of the paperback of The Holocaust Industry has been delayed in the UK
(Interrupts) No, no it’s been published but I don’t expect it to get any kind of publicity. It’s not a bad paperbackthere is a lot of new material in it.
You dismiss entirely Professor Daniel Goldhagen’s argument that the German public were collectively responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis, yet you seem to hold the Jewish people collectively responsible for the policies of Israel. Is this not a case of double standards?
Collective responsibility is not a term that is devoid of any meaning, whether or not it’s true depends on the circumstances. In the case of Germany you were dealing with a fascist, terrorist state in which the population had relatively speaking no say in the making of policy and no say in the crimes committed. In other circumstances depending on which a collectivity influences policy and shapes criminal actions, it does bear a responsibility, so you have to examine each individual case for how much collective responsibility is applicable.
Following the tragedy on September 11, Left-wing writer Christopher Hitchens, criticised people like yourself and Noam Chomsky for their ‘masochistic’ response to the ‘Islamic fascism’ practised by Bin Laden and his followers. What do you think an appropriate response would be to the destruction of the World Trade Center?
(Incredulously) Well, my views are so conventional it is hard to understand why Christopher Hitchens would point to me at all, and frankly what Noam Chomsky had to say on the topic was interesting in its insights, but his general view was utterly banal. You have to look to the social and political roots of what happened, because if we were just dealing with a bunch of lunatics on the loose, then the whole question would be just a psychiatric and security question. We would bring to psychiatrists to explain what is the source of this lunacy, and we would rely on our security services to correct the problem. But plainly, no one really believes this is strictly a psychiatric or a policing problem, because there has been massive social and political commentary trying to explain it. The moment you have massive social and political commentary trying to explain a phenomenon, then you know we are no longer dealing with a strictly psychiatric question. When there were the Jim Jones mass suicides there was no such commentary, as everyone knew they are a socially and politically marginal cult, but nobody in their right mind would say the Bin Laden phenomenon is something marginal. Everyone understands that this is rooted in a deeper problem.
The next question is what are the sources of the problem? If you are a mainstream conservative the usual answer is that the fundamental source of the problem can be located in the Arab–Islamic world loathing of modernity, freedom and all the virtues of enlightenment and capitalist industry that the US stands for. If you are off the mainstream, or on the Left end of the political system, you say the main source of the problem is US foreign policy in the Middle East which has evoked hatred among Arab-Islamic society because of US crimes in Iraq, the US backed Israel crimes against the Palestinians, and so forth. (Angrily) My point is that everyone, from whatever end of the political spectrum, tries to locate the Bin Laden phenomenon in some deeper social and political current, so for Mr. Hitchens to come along and say that to explain (the attacks) is a form of rationalisation–this is sheer idiocy! There is literally not a single person, apart from Mr. Hitchens who tries to explain it in a deeper social and political current, we may disagree on what this current is, but we all realise that this is not Jim Jones, or the Branch Dravidians.
What do you think of America’s moral authority to spearhead a crusade against terrorism?
If you understand terrorism to mean the targeting of civilian populations in order to achieve political goals, then plainly the US qualifies as the main terrorist government in the world today, if only because of the sheer force it has at its disposal. I am not claiming that another government were it to be in the position of the US would act better, but given the predominant material and political weight of the US today, means that they are going to be the main terrorist state in the World today, and I think that’s true.
I think I can safely assume that you are not a supporter of George Bush, so did you vote for Ralph Nader or Al Gore in the last election?
I voted for Nader, and I have no doubts at all that it was the right thing to do because the Nader candidacy was extremely energising and a terrific phenomenon in American life, and I hope he continues.
What do you think of the prospects for the Green Party to become a genuine Third Force in US Politics?
I think we are now heading for very dismal time. It seems like Bush is launching a perpetual war. We endured the nightmare of the destruction of Iraq, but at least that had a beginning and an end. This current ‘war’ does not seem to have an end, and I think it is even conceivable that it going to endure the remainder of my lifetime and in this political climate it is very speculative to make any meaningful predictions for the future.
How democratic is America given the enormous financial and media powers with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo?
There are contradictory tendencies in American society. There’s a huge range of activities that one can engage in that mark it as a quite free society. It’s also true to say that the powers that be have so much control over how people think that there are fewer and fewer people make use of the rights and information available to them. So I think that both are true. The amount of control exercised by the ruling elites over the decisions, choices, lifestyles, and so forth of American society mean that many of the rights and information that is available are not accessed. I can say what I wantthe worst that is going to happen to me is that I lose my job. I am not going to get shot or put in a psychiatric hospital..though it is also true to say that if a movement developed which actually tried to use on a mass level the rights available, I suspect there would be substantial repression.
If you attended Nader’s rallies and speeches as I did, he was delivering a very hard-hitting critique of US capitalism, I mean it is as tough as you can really get and he was able to pull it off. No one prevented him from holding his mass rallies. They prevented him from appearing on TV, they excluded him from appearing on the (presidential candidates) debate, but he was able to organise in constituencies around the country. If it ever became a bigger phenomenon, what would have happened . I don’t know.
The Pro Israeli lobby has had spectacular success in getting its version of events picked up by the media, with even the openly anti Arab / pro Israel polemic ‘Exodus’ on the US school curriculum. Noam Chomsky has even criticised liberal publications such as the New Republic for being openly racist toward Arabs, and Rana Kabbani has said that hating Arabs (and Muslims in particular) is the last acceptable form of racism, would you agree?
I think that they are openly racist in that they say things about Arabs that would not be permitted about other ethnic groups. These people are not pro-Israel, but Israel serves an interest to the US ruling elites and by that fact it serves a useful interest to American Jewish organisations. The moment that Israel ceases to be an interest, Israel will no longer be a concern of these organisations.
You said in your second book that one small Palestinian boy asked you if it was true that Americans believed all Palestinians to be animals, and you didn’t answer not having the heart to tell him it was. Yet you also said that Arabs should reach out to America to try and build a counter consensus to Hollywood demonisations. Is this really plausible given the perceptions in American of Arabs and Muslims?
Nowadays nothing is possible with the events of September 11, a lot of hard work over many years to try to build a counter consensus disappeared in the rubble of the World Trade Center. I am utterly pessimistic about the prospects now, but I did not think it was impossible (before). Israel was suffering quite a number of major public relations disasters, beginning with the Lebanon War, the first Intifadah, and then the second Intifadah. As much as the mainstream media tries to depict the reality in a manner that suits US-Israeli interests, enough of the truth was coming through that Israel was suffering a public relations disaster. There were some prospects, how significant the prospects were we don’t know, because not enough effort was made in trying to exploit those prospects, but after September 11 I don’t think there is much hope.
I get the impression that you think that the West was in some way responsible for the tragedy of September 11.
Lets put it this way. The so-called West, and really we’re talking about the United States, and to a lesser extent its pathetic puppy dog in England, have a real problem on their hands. Regrettably, it’s payback time for the Americans and they have a problem because all the other enemies since the end of World War Two that they pretended to contend with .. were basically fabricated enemies. The Soviet Union was a conservative bureaucracy by the end of World War Two, which apart from the sphere of influence it carved out–mostly for defensive reasons–was plainly in retrospect a stabilising force in international affairs. Then the enemies that the US conjured up as the Soviet Union fell into decline beginning in the early 1980`senemies like Libya, Iraq, narco-terrorists and so forththese were basically enemies created by the United States to–among other things–justify repressive policies around the world, and to inflate its military budget. Now they do have a problem on their hands, and its going to exact a cost from Americans. The American elites can talk about honour and creativity until the cows come home, but it’s not going to be like the Iraq shooting fish in a barrel situation, like they did when they destroyed Iraq in 1991. Frankly, part of me says – even though everything since September 11 has been a nightmare–‘you know what, we deserve the problem on our hands because some things Bin Laden says are true’. One of the things he said on that last tape was that ‘until we live in security, you’re not going to live in security’, and there is a certain amount of rightness in that. Why should Americans go on with their lives as normal, worrying about calories and hair loss, while other people are worrying about where they are going to get their next piece of bread? Why should we go on merrily with our lives while so much of the world is suffering, and suffering incidentally not with us merely as bystanders, but with us as the indirect and direct perpetrators. So that I think that you can summon up all the heroic and self-aggrandizing rhetoric you want, but there is a problem facing all of us now, and maybe it’s about time that the United States starts having to confront the same sort of problems that much of humanity has had to confront on a daily basis for God knows how long.
Don Atapattu lives in Manchester, England.