ZNet September 16, 2007
Israel critic Norman Finkelstein made national headlines after his tenure was denied by DePaul University. Finkelstein, an author of five books, had received outstanding reviews from his students and peers. His dismissal sparked student protests and sit-ins, and led top academics to rally to his defence. Many questioned whether campuses had fallen victim to powerful pressure groups. In this interview with George McLeod, Norman Finkelstein discusses the Israel lobby, his writings and what makes the Israel issue unusually sensitive in the US. McLeod: What is unique about the Israel/Palestine issue that makes it so controversial and sensitive? Finkelstein: There is nothing unusual about the Israel/Palestine issue, apart from the fact that there is a lobby here that prevents any kind of rational debate and discussion about what goes on there. The conflict itself is not particularly unusual. And its main features are fairly well-known, especially outside the US. There is no other field where a gang of hoodlums use their money and their brass knuckles to prevent tenure appointments, and that´s very odd. There are other politicised fields like Cuba studies or China studies – but these kinds of jihads and witch hunts – they just don´t go on in other fields. In Israel/Palestine academia, in the past few years, you have the Juan Cole case at Yale, you have the Joseph Massad case, you have the Nadi Abuel-El-Haj case, you have my case, and you have the Rashid Khalidi case. But you take other fields that are politicised, like China studies and Cuba studies where there is a lobby at work, they just don’t engage in these sorts of mafia tactics. McLeod: There are many lobby groups in the US with significant resources at their disposal that have not been accused of stifling debate. What makes the Israel lobby different? Finkelstein: The Israel lobby has money. Money is important because it can be used to threaten to withhold donor contributions or alumni contributions, and the lobby has a lot of clout in the media, so they can drag your name through the mud. McLeod: Does your case suggest that the Israel lobby is growing stronger and that debate over Israel is narrowing? Finkelstein: Actually, there is more debate on Israel/Palestine than ever. In terms of its strength, the Israel lobby is beginning to fall apart. The case for Israel is becoming indefensible. Israel´s human rights record, the actual historical record, and the diplomatic record, are becoming better known. And the more the facts are becoming part of mainstream discourse, the more the lobby has a difficult time defending what is indefensible. McLeod: How can the lobby be falling apart if it controls such significant resources? Finkelstein: The lobby is strong, but it is weaker than ever. They had several debacles this last year. There was the Jimmy Carter book, which ended up as number one on the New York Times best-seller list and there is the Walt & Mearsheimer book – these are all signs of the weakening power of the lobby. McLeod: Did the lobby have a role in your tenure dispute? Finkelstein: Of course. McLeod: On a practical level, what was the lobby doing regarding your tenure bid? Finkelstein: The university doesn´t deny that [it was pressured]. The university has repeatedly said there was intense outside pressure. They claim to have resisted it, but they don´t deny that it had been exerted. McLeod: Why were you singled out over other academics that criticise Israel? Finkelstein: I am more active. Most other critics confine their criticisms to academic venues such as conferences and academic journals – but I am pretty active. I speak to a lot to audiences; I make my presence known in the political arena. McLeod: Does the fact that you lost your tenure bid suggest that academic freedom is in decline? Finkelstein: No, I wouldn´t say that – I was a bit of an odd case because I was both an academic and highly political. Most academics are not involved in politics, except in the very narrow world of academia. So the standards of academia remain the same as they have been. McLeod: One of your most controversial positions has been your contention that pro-Israel groups and individuals are using the holocaust for political purposes. Could you discuss your views on this? Finkelstein: I´ve written a whole book on that topic – The Holocaust Industry, which basically tries to document and show how the Nazi holocaust has been used since the June 1967 war as a political weapon to suppress criticism of Israel. I argue that it takes basically two forms. First is the claim of Holocaust uniqueness, which is that no people in the world have ever suffered the ways Jews have. The purpose of this doctrine, which has no intellectual or MORAL foundation, is to basically immunize Israel from criticism.That is, if Jews suffered uniquely during the Holocaust, then they should not be held to the same moral standards as others. The second aspect of this Holocaust dogma is the claim that all the gentiles want to kill the Jews – the thesis of Daniel Goldhagen Hitler´s Willing Executioners. And therefore, all gentiles are latently or flagrantly anti-Semitic, so their criticism of Israel cannot be credited. McLeod: And what sort of response did the book receive? Finkelstein: When the book came out, it was the object of a vicious attack. A lot of name calling, a lot of ad homonem attacks on me. But now, I think a large part of what I wrote back then has become mainstream. And the Holocaust Industry has even been the object of ridicule by mainstream figures – not my book but the industry itself. So, for example the wife of the former executive director of the US Holocaust museum in Washington, Tova Reich just published a satirical novel on the Holocaust Industry and it was quite well reviewed. McLeod: Why was the book so rigorously attacked? Finkelstein: Because nobody was saying it at the time, but things have changed. For example, take my position of the money that was being extorted from Europe for what was called needy Holocaust victims. The fact that the victims never actually got the money has become commonplace. McLeod: What do you think about the recently-released book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt? Finkelstein: Parts of it I agree with, parts of it I don´t. For example, I don´t think there´s any evidence that the is lobby was a crucial factor in the decision for the US to go to war in Iraq and I don´t think that there is evidence that US policy in the Middle East in general is shaped by the lobby. However, I do think that the lobby is a crucial factor in determining US policy towards the Palestinians. I don´t think it determined US policy in Iran, in Turkey or in Iraq. But on the Israel-Palestine conflict – the building of settlements and the colonisation of Palestine, I think it is a crucial factor. McLeod: You also exposed serious problems with the popular book From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters, which argued that Palestine was almost empty of inhabitants prior to the arrival of western migrants. The book had received excellent reviews and was a best-seller. How did you come to realise there were problems with the book? Finkelstein: Very simple answer, I read it. McLeod: But you were not the only one. It was a popular book. Finkelstein: I am not sure how many people read it back then – I am not sure how many people actually read books now. For example, I am not sure how many people who claim to have read Hitler´s Executioners actually read it – I doubt people actually read Joan Peters. I mean most of these books are unreadable – they´re completely illiterate. People don´t know that because they don´t read them. McLeod: Do you mean the footnotes, or literally the book? Finkelstein: I don´t think they read the book. Nobody reads footnotes. The fact that it sold well tells you nothing – these books are good for a coffee table. There is a famous line by Christopher Hitchens. Someone asked him: “Did you read this book?” To which he answered “Let´s put it this way. I reviewed it.” Anyone who actually reads the kinds of books that I expose and has a mind capable of rationally assimilating information can´t help but notice that books like Peters´ are incomprehensible and are completely absurd. McLeod: Alan Dershowirz has argued that Israel received a disproportionate amount of criticism. Do you think other countries with worse human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia and Myanmar, should be receiving more criticism? Finkelstein: Well there are a number of issues. First, as a matter of language, Dershowitz doesn´t argue anything because Dershowitz doesn´t know anything. He´s a complete ignoramus, so I don´t agree with the formulation that Dershowitz argues. Maybe Dershowitz shouts, but argues? No. He doesn´t know anything. On the question of proportionality. If you look at the reports of human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, there have not been a significantly larger number of reports on Israel/Palestine than on other noteworthy places such as Darfur. The numbers have been tabulated; you can go and check with them, it´s simply untrue. Number three, the Israel/Palestine conflict does have a noteworthy feature – it is the longest running occupation in modern history. So, had Israel resolved it 40 years ago, perhaps it wouldn´t receive so much attention. But the fact that it has been ongoing for 40 years, which is probably longer than the lifetime of most people living on the planet – most people are under 40 years old – means it was going on before most people were born. Therefore, it´s not surprising that it would be the object of so much attention. McLeod: Does the failure of your tenure bid make you regret your vocal stance on this issue? Finkelstein: No, I´m just glad it´s over. McLeod: What are your plans for the future? Finkelstein: I don´t know, it´s too soon to tell. I am glad that the DePaul nightmare is over and I will surely miss my students, but otherwise, I want to get on with doing serious work and put that chapter very far behind me.