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Norman Finkelstein on Bernie Sanders, Gaza, and the Mainstream Treatment

Photo by سام زقوت | CC BY 2.0

This is Part Two of an abridged version of an interview with Norman Finkelstein, one of the leading scholars on the Israel-Palestine conflict in the United States. Part One can be found here. The uncut version of the interview can be found here on matthewvwhalan.com

MVW: We talked a bit this morning about Bernie Sanders, and some of his foreign policy positions in the past, and also I think a lot of supporters of the Palestinians feel like he’s not strong enough on the issue, and –

NF: He isn’t.

MVW: Right, and so I generally agree – I think – with your support for Bernie, but I’m more interested in why he’s so weak on foreign policy, since it can’t be explained by the same sorts of financial networks as other elected officials.

NF: He didn’t count on big campaign contributions so, you know, Bernie does want to be effective. He does want to be a true politician. He cares about getting things done. He has to work with the people in the Democratic Party and sometimes even the Republican Party. So, I think going too astray on Israel-Palestine will cost him in terms of political effectiveness. […] I mean, look, he doesn’t know a lot about foreign policy. He says a lot of dumb things.

MVW: Yes, he does […]

NF: But he’s no dummy. His brother is very smart and I’m sure they’re in touch. They know, so to speak, what a progressive Jew is supposed to think. So, I think it’s just political calculation […] Whenever you press him on Israel-Palestine he gets very hot under the collar. I think he gets hot under the collar because he knows he’s being hypocritical.

MVW: Right, like you spoke today about this term ‘disproportionate force’ that’s used to describe Israel, and that’s as far as he’ll go. You use the example that if you shoot a child in the back who’s running away, and that’s disproportionate force, what would have been the ‘proportionate’ amount of force to use toward the child? Most of these public figures are not even willing to go as far as using that term, but that term is pretty much Bernie’s safety net when it comes to criticizing Israel – ‘disproportionate force.’

NF: Right, that’s the word he uses, because it’s the most meaningless and innocuous. But I thought he was not bad. During the primary […] it was hard not to be moved by the fact – and I’m sure Bernie was moved by the fact that he was winning the Arab vote. Who would have thought? The Jewish candidate. And you know Arabs, Muslims, they’re saturated with these conspiracy theories about Jews. It just comes with the turf. He won the Arab vote in Detroit. He won it in Michigan. And there was a point where he had a woman with the Hijab on stage with him. You know. He was making all sorts of really human gestures, which were really touching, and I felt like – well, the guy’s a good egg. For all of his compromises and all of his sellouts, I wasn’t too keen on the way Alexander Cockburn used to go after him […]

If you want to draw up a list of terrible things about Bernie, it is a long list. I mean, I would want Bernie to win the nomination just so that I could live long enough to see the debates between him and Trump.

(laughter)

It would be pure theater. Pure Theater! I assure you it would be the highest rated TV Show in American history. Everybody would be there – and they’d be there just for the laughs.

MVW: And could you talk a bit more about the idea you brought up today about pressuring Bernie Sanders to make a trip to Gaza?

NF: I think he would bring the cameras with him. That’s what we need. And I think Bernie is capable of that human gesture, which is what we need. And I know that if he sees the situation he will come out emphatically to lift the blockade. And that’s what’s needed right now […] Most popular politician in America – that would have a very big impact on public opinion. It needs to be done quick, and I think he can do it. Whether or not he’ll do it, I think it’s – of course he will resist it, because he will anticipate the damage it can do to his presidential campaign. But on the other hand, there might be ways of cushioning it so that it won’t cause such damage.

MVW: […] I’m not sure that if he took a stronger stance against Israel that he would lose any of his base at all.

NF: No, he won’t […] About 40 percent of the Democratic Party base is ready for it, especially if it’s put forth in humanitarian terms. The blockade is inhuman and has to be lifted. The water is contaminated. It’s wrong. I think it won’t hurt. But it has to be done right. I’m not the right person. I can make the connections but then somebody has to organize it in a way that will not cause him harm. You know, Hamas is very sensitive to that. As you’re probably aware, there are no flags at the demonstrations, they have been very open about having to defer to the democratic mode. On every press statement they issue, there’s an organizing committee, and Hamas knows that if they come down too hard, the mass demonstrations will fizzle out, and they have to keep people together. So, they’re willing to play a backseat role and I think it can be done right […]

MVW: Have you spent much time in Palestine?

NF: I did in the beginning. 88’-95’ I would go every summer for a couple of weeks.

MVW: And what was your experience like on the ground there? Most of your work is concerned with the facts and not as much with the personal experience.

NF: I would go back to the same families every year – see what remained the same, what changed, what got worse, watch the kids grow up, but now there’s no connection anymore.

MVW: How come?

NF: I don’t know – I’m disappointed. Sometimes I worry it’s that they get these reports back there that Norman is a traitor because I don’t support BDS, and that the BDS crowd poisoned my relationships with them. I sometimes wonder if that happened. It’s a disappointment.

MVW: […] Chomsky often talks about how if he starts to become too accepted in the mainstream, he’ll start to wonder what he’s doing wrong. I wonder what your feelings are about that, particularly since you talk a lot about the realm of possibility – how far it’s possible to take a movement, an audience, an issue, before you start to lose people, and the importance of constantly calculating that – and yet you have been kind of locked out of the mainstream in spite of those calculations.

NF: That’s true. My objectives remain quite reasonable and moderate, but I will not make the facts more palatable. I could say that Israel is using ‘disproportionate force,’ and that would make me a critic of Israel. But I don’t think that expression – or ‘indiscriminate force’ – I don’t think those expressions accurately capture what’s happening. And I’m not going to water down the facts to make it more palatable. If you say they’re using disproportionate force, the implication is that they’re entitled to use proportionate force. If you say they’re using indiscriminate force, the implication is that they have the right to use discriminate force. I don’t think they’re entitled to use any force. I don’t think you have a right to confine people to a concentration camp […] and if you want me, as the son of survivors of concentration camps, to now say that if the Nazi guards had used discriminate and proportionate force then it was okay to keep my father in Auschwitz and my mother Majdanek – no, I’m not going there. You lose me. I’m not betraying the legacy of my parents in order to make myself palatable. So that puts me outside.

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Matthew Vernon Whalan is a writer currently living in Vermont.

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