Question: How do you get along with your pro-Israel students?
Finkelstein: Very well because they know I am not anti-Israel in the great scheme of things. I only care about what is just. I never defined myself as an anti-Zionist, because for me Zionism is not the issue. The issue is justice.
The entire interview follows:
Norman Finkelstein born in Brooklyn is the son of Maryla Husyt Finkelstein, survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Maidanek concentration camp, and Zacharias Finkelstein, survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz concentration camp. He dedicated his first book to his parents in which he wrote: “May I never forgive or forget what was done to them.” He received his doctorate from the Department of Politics, Princeton University, for a thesis on the theory of Zionism. He is the author of four books: Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso, 1995), The Rise and Fall of Palestine (University of Minnesota, 1996), with Ruth Bettina Birn, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (Henry Holt,1998) and The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (Verso, 2000). His writings have appeared in journals such as the London Review of Books, Index on Censorship, Journal of Palestine Studies, New Left Review, Middle East Report, Christian Science Monitor and Al Ahram Weekly. Currently he teaches political science at DePaul University in Chicago.
Professor Noam Chomsky has written following about Norman G. Finkelstein: “Finkelstein is the author of a number of outstanding books and a great many articles. His Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict is one of the most outstanding books on the topic. Just to illustrate my own opinion, when it appeared I recommended it as one of the three best books of the year on political and international affairs, in a year-end survey of opinion by the London Guardian; and when asked to list a single book as a source, this is the one I select. The companion volume Rise and Fall of Palestine is also excellent, and his two studies on the Holocaust and the ways it has been interpreted and studied are fine and valuable as well. He is a person of great intelligence and insight, as well as unusual integrity, and his work is truly outstanding.”
DF: Truth seems to be one of the most important things in life and commensurate with its importance is the difficultly involved in attaining it. What motivates the perseverance necessary to sustain your achievements in understanding the exploitation of the Nazi Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
NGF: I guess it is a personal revulsion of lies. A lot of people will when they recognize a particular situation as being full of falsehood will not want to get involved, and dismiss it, saying what value is there in lies. But I feel if it is all lies it has to be documented, and it is not enough to dismiss it. Just a personal quirk, I don’t like when people get away with lies. Lies do harm. The thing about a lie is that if you don’t stop it, it will gain momentum of its own and before you know it becomes received wisdom.
DF: In your book The Rise and Fall of Palestine you write that your sense of moral duty comes from a gut intuition. Why should anyone take serious gut feelings as the bases for ethical judgments, maybe the gut feeling of the bloodthirsty guttersnipes is correct?
NGF: First a gut intuition is not an argument. On the other hand certain things can’t be proven. Rousseau said that we are all born with a natural impulse for pity and it is our sense of pity which drives us to make moral judgments.
DF: Hume the empiricist said that as well.
NGF: When you see someone suffering and something in your heart reaches out to him or her, is that something intellectual? Not really. But I agree you can’t use it as an argument. Either you see it as wrong to murder innocent people or you don’t.
DF: But I am curious. How do you expect people to cooperate in making peace if nobody agrees on which ethical system is correct?
NGF: People may not agree on the same ethical system. But they can come to the same ethical judgments. Some ethical issues like abortion divide society 50-50. But the kinds of ethical judgments we are asked to make in most conflicts are not controversial. It is not controversial in the world that the murder of innocent people is wrong. How the consensus is formed is complicated. If we are dealing with borderline issues like abortion it is difficult to come to a consensus. But this one (Israel-Palestine conflict) is not a borderline case. My whole point is that for 30 years there has been a consensus in the world 154 to 3, 160 to 4 (re. UN votes for Resolution 242), that’s not borderline.
DF: You have criticized American apathy regarding the suffering in the Muslim world and of other peoples. Do you think this is the result of people not caring in what is right or wrong?
NGF: There are many reasons. I think people are occupied with the basic tasks of making a living and raising families. A society which cultivates individual aggrandizement at the expense of concern for others, normal human egoism, an ethic that says if you didn’t make it’s your own fault. I think it is a combination of many circumstances. I don’t fault the people for that because they have the burden of family and work and therefore it is difficult to be involved in the political process. But I can also understand those who say “life is not going to go on merrily while your government (USA) inflicts murder and mayhem on us (Muslim world). No, you will pay a price too”.
DF: Do you think it is reasonable to expect people to rally around peaceful solutions when millions are engaged in appreciation of violence whether though TV, professional sports or Hollywood movies?
NGF: We had a good showing for humanity on the eve of the U.S. attack on Iraq. The demonstrations were 10 million worldwide; they were largely representative of popular sentiments. There was no country in Europe where more than 11% of the population supported unilateral U.S. attack without a U.N. resolution. So our expectations of humanity ought not to be too low. This is not an uninformed public anymore. There has been a very striking change over the last 10 years. I don’t get sloganeering anymore. I spoke at very many campuses before the invasion and found that many were intelligently informed.
DF: But Joseph Conrad seems to offer a valueable observation when he describes Western Civilzation as veneer, where most present themselves as civilized and decent , when in fact they are not. The true nature only surfacing when the outer restrains are lifted, like Nazi Germany or in the Congo in the late 19th century.. So when 10 million point the finger, albeit some with a well informed finger, and say Bush is not acting in a humane way, wouldn’t Conrad look at them skeptically and respond saying your no better, you just don’t have the opportunity to actualize it?
NGF: Aristotle once wrote that with law humans are the best of all living creatures, but without law we sink to the worst. One can point to many examples of human iniquity – the Nazi extermination and the Congo are cases in point – but one can also point to examples which inspires the kind of awe recalling Shakespeare’s “What a piece of work is man.”
DF: In the Holocaust Industry you quote some specific examples of you Mother’s philosophies. Would you say that your Mother was a greater influence than your Father?
NGF: I got my morals from my Mother. My Father’s presence was very shadowy because he gave up all of his time, really his whole life, to earn a living for his family. But my Mother was a constant presence and plus she was intellectually lively. She liked to talk politics and argue. Actually, as I grew older, she resented that Professor Chomsky had begun to dominate as my main influence. She had a deep sense of involvement in what was happening in the world.
DF: Would you say that a Mother as a Mother alone is a very powerful position?
NGF: I think behind every great person there is a strong woman, whether a Mother or Grandmother. Chomsky and Said are good example of this.
DF: Do you think that women are giving up their position of power by not engaging in raising families?
NGF: That’s a personal choice. Some women don’t want the derivative glories, the glories that come from achievements which their children accomplished. They want the glories of their own achievements. My brothers and I had at the time of my mother’s death achieved a significant level of success, yet my Mother still said she had done nothing with her life.
DF: Was your mother correct in suggesting that Professor Chomsky had an equally powerful influence on you.
NGF: Yes. From Professor Chomsky I got my method of reasoning.
YMF: Noam Chomsky has been described as on of the greatest intellectuals today and of the 20th century. It seems that you have a good rapport with him. Could you describe some of his greatest attributes whether in scholarship or personal character traits?
NGF: Basically to free yourself from ideological controls and go where reasoning and the facts take you, which is easy to say but difficult to practice. Another interesting aspect of Professor Chomsky is that his writing rises above the jargon of the times. Books which were written in the 1960s read like they were written yesterday. Regarding his personal character traits the most outstanding is that he is absolutely faithful, which is something very few people possess… Professor Chomsky will never betray you, never, it is impossible.
DF: Like Moses.
NGF: Another trait is that he spends up to five hours a day answering emails. Anyone who writes him gets a response. He takes quite seriously his role as an intellectual and values the questions of so called ordinary people.
DF: You recently debated Alan Dershowitz on Democracy Now; do you think he represents one of the main archetypes of the evil of America?
NGF: If he is, then he is a representation of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. You want to believe that there is something profound in evil. But evil has no depth. Look at Adolf Eichman; he could have been a vacuum salesman. Yes Dershowitz is evil, a vacuum salesman at Harvard.
DF: You say that the Palestine-Israel conflict is simple. If so what makes it seem so complicated?
NGF: There was a time when mainstream historiography used to be Israeli propaganda. But now the factual record is no longer in dispute. The mainstream sources are pretty accurate and they tend to agree. There are very few factual disagreements any longer.
DF: It seems the issue is complicated by the fact that people, particularly Jewish people, have substituted religion and the fervor that commonly goes along with it for Zionism, on one hand.. On the other they are worried that State of Israel might dissolve after which will follow another Holocaust.
NGF: This is not about the Nazi Holocaust. This is about one county occupying another. The Holocaust fear is being exploited as a means to try to confuse the issue.
DF: The fate of Rachel Carrie seems to be a good example of the senseless brutality of the IDF. Why couldn’t a non-violent protester, who by definition does not pose a threat to security, just be arrested and put in prison? But to be run over by a bulldozer seems to be clearly a brutal act. Can you elaborate?
NGF: You said it better than I could. She wasn’t armed and wouldn’t have physically resisted at all never mind inflicting any sort of injury on those who would have arrested her. The Israelis will answer how can a Palestinian go onto a bus and blowup innocent children. The answer is the situation is spiraling into a tribal war tit for tat. I don’t think it is useful to focus on that anymore because it has gotten ugly on both sides. But we must focus on the roots of the conflict. Is it that this whole Arab world hates Jews or is the root of the conflict that people are living under an oppressive occupation for 35 years and they want to end it. I think the evidence points to the second.
DF: There are, unfortunately, so many other conflicts in the world like Chechnya. Why does this conflict take priority for you?
NGF: Any moral actor wants to participate wHere he/she will be most effective and where he/she bares the most responsibility. As an American citizen I have about zero responsibility for what is going on in Chechnya. All right some because the U.S. is turning a blind eye because they want Putin. But it happens to be I can be effective here because I have certain immunities. I am Jewish and my parents are Holocaust survivors, so when you confront me you have a more difficult time because you have to argue the facts. With others you could say, “your an anti-Semite”or “your a Holocaust”denier. You can’t do that with me, you have to argue the facts.
DF: How do you get along with your pro-Israel students?
NGF: Very well because they know I am not anti-Israel in the great scheme of things. I only care about what is just. I never defined myself as an anti-Zionist, because for me Zionism is not the issue. The issue is justice. Before this I was involved in the war in Vietnam. If I am against a war in Vietnam, I am against what Israel is doing in Palestine. I just loathe occupiers. It makes not a whit of difference whether they are Jewish or American. If I have compunction – and I do- it is for the combatants, whose blood is shed. They are young, in the springtime of their lives. Most do not want to be where they are; they want to be home. If anyone has to be in the line of fire, how much would I prefer that it be the wretched politicians who sent them or the blow dried, gym- fit pundits. Academics and journalists who beat the drums of war from afar. Nonetheless, I won’t defend cocky marauders and conquering vandals, lawless ubermenschen riding roughshod over the lives of innocents. Nazi soldiers were also in the springtime of their lives…
DF: What kind of recourse will you take against the student newspaper at University of Toronto called “The Newspaper Independent Weekly” who slandered you by quoting saying ” I feel safe with Hamas”?
NGF: I do what I always do: write a letter, write a follow-up letter, and hope that the editors will respond to the facts and act from a sense of decency. Fortunately, many members of the audience immediately understood this to be a misrepresentation of what I said and also wrote letters. This is as it should be. The best guardian against the corruptions of power is an educated and committed populace.