On Israel: An Interview with Norman Finkelstein

By Jon Bailes & Cihan Aksan
October 18, 2008

Norman G. Finkelstein taught for many years on political theory and the Israel-Palestine conflict. He was controversially denied tenure at DePaul University in June 2007, and placed on administrative leave for the 2007-2008 academic year, amid outside pressure from, among others, pro-Zionist academic Alan Dershovitz and the Israel lobby. On September 5, 2007 Finkelstein finally announced his resignation. He is currently an independent scholar.

Finkelstein is the author of five books which have been translated into more than 40 foreign editions, including Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history (University of California Press, 2005; expanded paperback edition, 2008), The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering (Verso, 2000; expanded paperback edition, 2003) and Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Verso, 1995; expanded paperback edition, 2003). He has just completed a new book entitled A Farewell to Israel: The coming break-up of American Zionism, to be published in 2009. SoN editors Jon Bailes and Cihan Aksan conducted the following interview via email in November 2008.

Norman Finkelstein
Photo: Courtesy of www.normanfinkelstein.com

State of Nature: Over the years there have been vitriolic attacks on you as a person and a scholar. Do you feel persecuted?

Norman Finkelstein: It comes with the territory. I focus on my work. If I let myself get distracted by the insults and slanders I wouldn’t get anything substantive done.

SoN: Would you say that US academia is now closed off to progressive scholars?

NF: Academia is a pretty open place. I was not driven from my post because of my opinions, but because I was politically active. By the standards of the ivory tower, my views on the Israel-Palestine conflict are pretty tame: I don’t oppose the two-state settlement, I don’t extenuate Palestinian terrorism, and I do not define myself as anti-Zionist.

SoN: Has US foreign policy, especially since 9/11, such as flagrantly ignoring international law and using pre-emptive strikes (without international reprisal), made it even easier for Israel to justify its actions?

NF: September 11 was a godsend for Israel. It could now conjoin its merciless persecution of the Palestinians with Bush’s War against Terror. But my impression is that it wasn’t altogether successful. Many people seemed to understand that Israel wasn’t fighting Palestinian terror but instead terrorizing Palestinians.

SoN: British and then American support for Israel has always been to a major degree a strategic ploy to effectively maintain a satellite state in the Middle East. Given that Israel in turn has always relied on these relationships and remained in thrall to them, to what extent can Zionism be called a success?

NF: Insofar as Zionism sought to create a Jewish state in Palestine it must be reckoned a success. Insofar as it sought to revive the Hebrew language, it must also be reckoned a success. Insofar as it sought to solve the “Jewish question,” i.e., the problem of anti-Semitism, it must be reckoned not just a failure but a catastrophe: Israel is the main cause of anti-Semitism in the world today.

SoN: Going forward, what does the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, amongst other things, indicate in terms of the position Barack Obama intends to take on the Israel-Palestine conflict?

NF: Zero. Emanuel is a pro-Israel hack but so is every member of Obama’s entourage. It has little to do with ethnic ties. Israel serves US interests and the Israel lobby makes sure the US supports the occupation. Emanuel is a cipher.

SoN: You argue at length the distinction between Israeli territorial conquests being by design or by chance. Is this important simply as a matter of historical accuracy, because either way the continued occupation is illegitimate, or does the resolution of this issue actually have an impact on Israel’s claims?

NF: It’s important to understand that Israel policy doesn’t spring from chance and serendipity but rather from planning and intent. To believe otherwise is to underestimate the difficulty of the challenges we must confront in order to undo the occupation.

SoN: You often show to great effect similarities between Israeli rhetoric and that of Nazi Germany. Putting aside the content of such comparisons, do you think this is a useful strategy for getting a wider audience to engage with more critical analyses of Israel? Is there a strategic intention behind it at all?

NF: The comparison was useful when everyone believed in the myth of Israel’s “liberal occupation” and “purity of arms.” Nowadays such a comparison is unnecessary. One can simply cite mainstream human rights publications or articles in Haaretz to get a full taste of the horrors.

SoN: One of the most striking comparisons you make in this sense is the way Zionism reflects the anti-Semitic discourse of national ethnic uniformity as a basis for its aims. Is this part of the very core of Zionist ideology that can never be compromised, or indeed separated from Israel as a nation?

NF: In Mein Kampf, Hitler rails against the Jews and ascribes to them every imaginable vice and crime. The one exception is the Zionists, for whom Hitler shows some regard, because they agreed with him that a Jew can never be a German.

SoN: In 2002 you wrote that, ‘although registering support for Sharon’s brutal repression, Israelis have supported in roughly equal numbers withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza’. In your experience, how would you describe Israeli public opinion on Palestine now?

NF: Most Israelis would probably support a PARTIAL withdrawal from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a token Palestinian presence in occupied East Jerusalem, and a token resolution of the Palestinian refugee question. It’s still some distance to go before Israeli public opinion aligns itself with the rest of the world, which supports a FULL Israeli withdrawal from the whole of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem, and a resolution of the refugee question based on the right to return and compensation.

SoN: You argue that ‘Israel, like all conquering powers, only understands the language of force’ and that ‘Israel will withdraw from the Occupied Territories only if Palestinians (and their supporters) can summon sufficient force to change the calculus of costs for Israel’. At the same time, however, ‘in the face of terrorist attacks [Israeli] “national morale” surges as the society closes ranks’. Historically ‘the language of force’ has been military, but what possibly successful forms of force are at the Palestinians’ disposal?

NF: In my opinion, the non-violent civil resistance championed by Gandhi can work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Of course, the Israeli repression will initially be brutal, but if we do our job here in publicizing the reasonableness of Palestinian demands, I think Israel can be isolated and forced to desist.

SoN: You have expressed solidarity with Hezbollah. What do you think makes them particularly effective as a political organisation?

NF: They are organized, disciplined, committed and they use reason, not slogans. These are the core ingredients of any successful political movement.

SoN: Your comparisons between South African apartheid and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict highlight the massive difference in international pressure in the two situations. Is Palestinian resistance hopeless without this external backing?

NF: In the absence of external support, Israel will crush them however organized they are. Just as Israel relies on the US for its crimes, Palestinians cannot achieve their emancipation without the support of the world’s people. Of course, they must also get their act together.

Jon Bailes is co-editor and webmaster of State Of Nature. He is currently writing a PhD thesis on ideology theory at the Centre for European Studies, University College London, and has an MA in European Thought from the same department. He is co-author of Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism (London: Pluto, 2012).

Cihan Aksan is co-editor of State Of Nature. She was born in Turkey but left after the 1980 military coup and lived and studied for many years in England. She has an MA in Continental Philosophy from the University of Warwick, and is now an independent writer. She is co-author of Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism (London: Pluto, 2012).