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
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
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
McLeod: There are many lobby groups in the
McLeod: Does your case suggest that the
Finkelstein: Actually, there is more debate on Israel/Palestine than ever.
In terms of its strength, the
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 Walk & 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
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
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
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
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
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
I don’t think it determined
McLeod: You also exposed serious problems with the popular book From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters, which argued that
Finkelstein: Very simple answer, I read it.
McLeod: But you were not the only one. It was a popular book.
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
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
Number three, the Israel/Palestine conflict does have a noteworthy feature – it is the longest running occupation in modern history. So, had
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.