You can tell everything you need to know about Norman Finkelstein’s incisive, passionate, and articulate manner by reading the brutal censure of President Obama he offers. When I suggested that Obama was handling the Israel-Palestine conflict better than his predecessors, Finkelstein responded, “President Obama is a stupefying narcissist devoid of any principles whatsoever. On the Israel-Palestine conflict, he has been every bit as wretched as his predecessors.” This is a man who spares no blows in defence of his chosen cause.
One of his most famous moments occurred when a student at Waterloo University broke into tears upon meeting him, telling him how deeply offensive his views were to those who died under Nazi rule. Rather than backing down, he told her that he had no sympathy for her “crocodile tears” reminding her that, as much as he hated bringing up the Holocaust, his parents had lived through the concentration camps too, and he “found nothing in their suffering and their martyrdom to justify the torture, the brutalisation, and the demolition of homes.”
He continues his bitter tirade against Obama by telling me what he believes to be the true story behind his election. “When rich financiers who decide these elections had their behind the scenes meetings with the candidates, they thought to themselves, well he has a nice smile, he’s African American, and underneath it, he’s a total cynic. We can work with this guy.”
There is only one major difference, he tells me, between Obama and his predecessor. “Bush, if you study him as a character, actually believed what he was saying. What he was saying was very simple-minded as he had the mentality of a fraternity member: here are the bad guys, here are the good guys, here is the home team, here is the visiting team, we cheer for the home team. He actually believed what he was saying.” On the other hand, “Obama doesn’t believe a word he’s saying, he’s a total cynic and in thrall to power.”
The topic of conversation reverts to the Israel-Palestine conflict. While he is a trenchant critic of Israel, he never hides his scorn for the tactics of those whose actions he thinks are counterproductive to producing a working settlement. He refers to the Campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) as a “hypocritical, dishonest cult.” Finkelstein is remarkably critical of the 1993 Oslo accord, which was the first time Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation recognized each other’s legitimacy, and also started moves towards the peace process. In fact, he tells me, the idea that there is any kind of peace process is simply a way to continue legitimizing Israeli occupation. After signing the agreement, he claims, “Israel had no intention of withdrawing from the occupied territories, it was the opposite. When the First Intifada broke out in 1987 in the occupied territories, it turned into a public relations disaster for Israel, and was a significant drain on their army, because several hundred thousand troops primed to fight wars of aggression were now bogged down in police work, chasing little kids who were throwing stones down the Kasbah. The Israelis reached a conclusion from the First Intifada; they had to normalise and rationalise the occupation, like the British did in India.”
Considering the lack of progress towards resolving the conflict, I ask him if he sees a resolution in future. My attempt to make him put a timescale on peace earns me a witty admonishment. “In 1916, Lenin lamented the fact that he would never see a revolution in Russia. World War One came and shuffled the deck. He was a shrewd political tactician, with a fantastic political eye, yet even he couldn’t see a few years in the future – far be it from me to make these kinds of predictions.
“However, if and when the Palestinians decide to engage again in massive civil resistance to the Israeli occupation instead of being, as they have been in the last few years, passive and quiescent things may change. Then again, I’m not really hopeful, because I don’t think anything short of a massive popular movement will make them [Israel] budge.”
This leads onto the deeper question of the proper role of non-violence in protest and resistance movements. “In some places, such as during south Lebanon in 1978, I don’t think non-violence would have been effective because no-one cares what happens in south Lebanon, and Israel can continue to get away with its murder and mayhem. In south India, where the government is dispossessing huge populations, I don’t think non-violence is going to work there either, because nobody knows what is going on, and nobody cares, so the army can just go in, commit massive atrocities and it doesn’t raise a single column in a US or British newspaper. The Israel-Palestine conflict is different, it is right in the public eye, it’s in the media’s eye so in the face of a non-violent resistance Israel would have much difficulty using violence to try and suppress it. In Palestine, nonviolence is a viable option, but only because it’s in the public consciousness.”
He asks rhetorically, “Has then the Arab Spring made progress on the Palestine situation more likely?” He also has strong views on this issue. “The Arab Spring and what preceded it in Turkey, that is the emergence of governments which identify ideologically with Palestine, and despite how pragmatic, or, one might say, ridden with corruption these governments are, they won’t tolerate Israel carrying on like a gangster state. When Israel invaded Gaza again in November 2012, they [Palestine] made it very clear to Obama that they have their own red lines, and Israel will not be able to carry on as they did in 2008-9, when there was a protracted massacre in Gaza.”
I ask when the world is full of conflict, what is it about the Israel-Palestine conflict that has consumed his undivided attention. “The only reason that it consumed my entire adult life is because it didn’t end. If it had, I would have gone and invested myself in some other cause or injustice. But I’m not a quitter and I don’t think it’s a moral thing to suddenly get bored with a conflict because it’s no longer trendy or creating headlines.
“You should have the moral backbone to stick with your cause regardless of how popular it is. I owe it to my friends over there in the occupied territories to stick with it until there is resolution.” Whether you admire Finkelstein or see him as some kind of attention-seeking demagogue, you cannot deny that he has one of the strongest moral backbones of any intellectual of our age.