An Interview with Norman Finkelstein: “I’m Not Betraying the Legacy of My Parents in Order to Make Myself Palatable.”
Norman Finkelstein is among the leading scholars on the Israel-Palestine conflict in the United States. His work primarily focuses on the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Nazi Holocaust. For decades, he has advocated for a two state solution on the June 1967 borders, a “just solution to the refugee question,” an end to the Israeli settlements in Palestine, the deconstruction of the border wall, the right to clean water, and an end to the occupation, the Gaza blockade, and the use of force against the Palestinians.
About eleven years ago, after a debate with Alan Dershowitz on Democracy Now!, in which Finkelstein discredited Dershowitz’s book, The Case for Israel, Dershowitz launched a smear campaign against Finkelstein, complete with wholesale lies. Many believe this resulted in the denial of Finkelstein’s tenure around that time at DePaul University, a move that Dershowitz petitioned the university to make.
Despite his widely acknowledged expertise and accomplishments, and praise from his students and readers, Finkelstein remains without a job today. His books are rarely reviewed.
Finkelstein spoke at an event organized by Brattleboro Common Sense in Brattleboro, Vermont, on the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, current possibilities for social movement groups, and the current tragedies playing out, particularly at the border wall, in Gaza. Following the event, we sat down and discussed his life, his work, public support for Israel in the US, the rise of Bernie Sanders, teaching, and more.
The interview has been shortened here, with bracketed ellipses indicating parts that have been omitted. Some of the language in the questions has been changed for context and clarity. It will appear in two parts in CounterPunch, this being the first. The full interview will be published on matthewvernonwhalan.com.
Part I Personal Background, Obama’s Legacy, Trump and Netanyahu, the United Nations
Matthew Vernon Whalan: Let’s start with your early background – how you got interested in politics, academics, even just reading in general.
Norman Finkelstein: My parents passed through the Nazi Holocaust. Their entire families on both sides were exterminated during the war. Both my parents were in the Warsaw Ghetto until the uprising was suppressed in April 1943. They were then deported to Majdanek Concentration Camp. My father ended up in Auschwitz and in the Auschwitz Death March. My mother was in two slave labor camps. After the war they were in a displaced peoples camp in Austria, and they came over to the US in 1948 or 49’. Both of them were staunch supporters of the Soviet Union, but not because they were communists or even because they were politically engaged – they were not. They supported the Soviet Union because the Soviet Union defeated the Nazis, and they looked at the whole world through the prism of the Nazi Holocaust, and so they felt a real sense of debt to the Soviet Union and the Red Army, to Stalin – in particular to Stalin – and I guess you would call them the last Stalinists until their deaths in 1995. You were not allowed, in their presence, to say even a single word critical of Stalin.
My home was very intensely political, and the salient event was the war in Vietnam, and my mother in particular was – I wouldn’t even say passionate – I would say hysterical, in her hatred toward what the US was doing to the people of Vietnam. And my mother’s moral indignation certainly colored the way I perceive politics […]
And so I attended the [anti-Vietnam War] demonstrations, and then I got into college. The war was still an active issue in my college years – a very active issue – because I went to school 71’-74’. The Paris Peace Treatise was 73’.
But I have to say I wasn’t as active as others because I felt I wanted to study, to prepare myself for what I thought would be the revolution. When I graduated college, I went to work for a radical newspaper – a Maoist newspaper – called The Guardian. And I always knew I would stay the course. So I never felt this need, at that age, to give my all to it, because I knew I was going to give my life to it. That’s how it turned out. Virtually everybody I know from that era went on to fairly conventional lives, and I’m the only one who stuck it out […]
MVW: Let’s get into the political side. We sort of talked about this this morning, when we were talking about the debate on Democracy Now! with Alan Dershowitz. One thing that was so revealing about that was that, for a lot of people, I think, it’s eye-opening to see that what’s being debated is not the solution but the problem. It’s the facts themselves that are being debated. The same tactic is used, say, in climate change denial. The debate on the issue is not over what to do, but rather over what is real […]
NF: What’s interesting about people like Dershowitz is that it tells you something about our intellectual culture – so I have this debate with him; I completely discredit him; I completely expose him; he himself knows he was discredited and exposed, so he goes on this Jihad against me to get me denied tenure. But the fact that he was publicly exposed, publicly discredited – it did not affect his reputation one jot. When Israel comes up in the news, they still go to him.
MVW: But would you say that since then – and not in a correlative way – but since that debate, would you say that the left, in particular, has taken a more critical stance on Israel? […]
NF: It’s impossible, any longer, for any self-respecting leftist to defend the way that Israel carries on. The most they’re willing to defend is Israel’s right to continue to be a Jewish State and opposing the right of return to the Palestinians. On those two issues, elements of the left will draw a line. But apart from that, Israel is completely indefensible.
MVW: That leads well into the next question. You’ve talked a lot about how support for Israel has been bi-partisan for a long time.
NF: In the Congress. Not among the people anymore. If you look at the polls, there’s a huge chasm between Republican Party support for Israel and Democratic Party support for Israel. In the Republican Party it’s like 70 percent, in the Democratic Party it’s about 40 percent, so it’s no longer bi-partisan on the base, but only at the leadership levels and in congressional representation –
MVW: In 2015, the UN releases a report –
NF: The UNCTAD Report.
MVW: In that 2015 report they use the phrase “uninhabitable” to describe what the state of Gaza would be by 2020 if the situation remains the same.
NF: But then in 2017, the UN spokesman said even that was optimistic […] They crossed that threshold. They say when you only have two hours of electricity every day, you’ve crossed the threshold of livability […]
MVW: But soon after that, in 2016, after that 2015 UN prediction about 2020, Obama signed off on what the White House called the largest arms deal ever, a $38 billion arms deal over ten years, going way past the 2020 prediction.
NF: Well, Obama – because he knows who’s got the money, who’s got the power, which is the only thing Obama is concerned with – he gives Israel that deal because that’s going to get him entrées among the people he wants to be among. But Obama’s also – aside from being a groveler and flunky for power – he’s also a narcissist. So, he waits till the end of his second term and then he doesn’t veto the UN resolution on the settlements. Why? One, because it was payback time to Netanyahu – who is really a pretty disgusting racist, the way he treated Obama – I mean, Netanyahu makes it clear: he hates black people.
MVW: Right, even though Obama was more favorable to Israel than even Bush.
NF: He was the best. He’s actually the best Israel has ever had. There wasn’t one UN security council resolution passed against Israel – even Bush passed several – Bush Senior and Junior. So, one reason was it was payback time. The other reason – because you have to understand Obama: he doesn’t have a political bone in his body. He has no interest at all in politics. But he is concerned about his “legacy,” so he wanted to make sure that he could say in his memoir that he gave them the best arms deal in history – so that secures his backers – but he also wants to show that he’s a liberal, a progressive, so he’s going to say I had to abstain in that resolution because the settlements are wrong and we want peace. So it was just for his memoir. He knew the resolution was meaningless. It was November. Trump had already been elected. The Resolution was totally meaningless. But he did that only for his memoirs. He wants to show that he has this enlightened legacy […]
Look, the UN reports are ONLY valuable if and when – until and unless – a mass movement makes use of them. So, right now, the people of Gaza have an opportunity to use those UN reports to publicize why the blockade needs to be lifted. In the absence of any action, any mass resistance, the UN reports just collect dust. And that’s not peculiar to the Israel-Palestine conflict. That’s true of law in general. So take the United States. Brown V. Board of Ed is DECIDED IN 1954 and the US Supreme court SAYS unanimously, as the last sentence reads, ‘separate cannot be equal,’ and so calls for desegregation of the schools. In what’s called ‘Brown II,’ when they have to give a timetable for the desegregation process to unfold, they use the famous expression – what became the famous expression – that the schools had to be desegregated with ‘all deliberate speed.’ So what does that mean? Well, it meant nothing. Ten years later, in 1964, on the eve of the passage of the first Civil Rights Bill, you know what percentage of schools had been desegregated? It’s very enlightening.
MVW: Less than five?
NF: One percent. One percent of African Americans were attending desegregated schools ten years later. So what desegregated the schools? Well, it’s obvious. The Civil Rights Movement is what desegregated the schools. However, when the Civil Rights Movement came along, they were able to use Brown as an ideological weapon in the public to say, Look, the law says that the schools have to be desegregated. So they had the law on their side, but the law by itself – in the absence of the mass movement, the schools would probably still be segregated today.
And it’s the same thing with these UN reports and UN resolutions. They’re valuable insofar as and only until and unless a mass movement makes use of them. So now [mass movements] have a good weapon […] To that extent they’re valuable. Otherwise they just collect dust. It’s useful material for the historian but they have no value politically.