by Joe Robinson
Friday 30th January 2015, 09:33 GMT
For over three decades, Norman Finkelstein has been a leading scholar of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, unyielding in his criticisms of Israel’s human rights record and frequent violations of international law. He is an unfaltering voice for the Palestinian people through their trials and tribulations, and a denouncer of what he characterises as the ‘Holocaust industry’: the hijacking of tragedy for private gain. His criticism of Israeli policy has seen him branded a raging ideologue, a dangerous radical and, perhaps worst, a self-hating Jew. Having grown up in New York, the son of Holocaust survivors, his unrelenting pursuit of justice, which began during his days as a doctoral student at Princeton University, led him to be ostracised from the American academic community, embroiled in a public feud with US jurist Alan Dershowitz and arrested outside the Israeli Embassy in New York.
In spite of his opposition to the abuse of power, Finkelstein condemns the decision to exclude President Putin from the 70th commemoration of the liberation of the Auschwitz by the Red Army. Laughter quickly gave way to scornful incredulity: “Look, there’s no love lost between myself and Putin, but he’s a head of state. Anybody with the slightest knowledge of history knows that it was the Red Army that defeated the Nazis. It was astonishing what happened on the Eastern Front. It’s just slightly insane not to invite Putin.” Finkelstein claims that this was “a very nervy thing to do”, arguing that the liberation of Auschwitz is a “sacred date for the Russian people”. “[T]here’ll be a price paid for that”, he adds ominously.
Finkelstein has long maintained that his approach to the Israeli-Palestine conflict is grounded in international law and thus favours a two-state solution: 1967 borders and what he calls a “just resolution of the refugee question”. How does he envisage getting Israel to adhere to international law? He outlines three approaches – diplomacy, armed resistance and mass nonviolent resistance – and argues that the first two had failed. Diplomacy has, according to him, “marked a severe regression in an attempt to settle the conflict”: the “rotten fruits” of diplomacy have rendered it an “untenable strategy”. The Hamas-proposed alternative of armed resistance has similarly failed – Finkelstein points to the fact that there “has been a huge amount of bloodletting” in the major hostilities between Israel and Gaza, highlighting that 2,200 Palestinians have been killed so far, including over 500 children, and “the entire Gaza Strip laid to waste”. He is more optimistic, however, about the prospects for mass nonviolent resistance, which “makes use of the Palestinians’ biggest assets and also focuses on Israel’s weakest link”, with “the chink in Israel’s armour” being international law. It is, in his words, “the thing they dread the most”.
He is less positive about the prospects for an International Criminal Court investigation into what its chief prosecutor called “the situation in Palestine”, stating, “I’m a pessimist on that.” He describes how even if the Palestinians managed to jump through the “many procedural hoops”, nothing would happen if “the case… [was] brought before the court, there… [was] an indictment and the Israelis were found guilty of having committed war crimes”.
Finkelstein compares this prospective investigation with the one conducted by the International Court of Justice in 2004 that found the wall built by Israel in the West Bank to be illegal. “Does anybody even know what happened?” he asks. He argues that in the same way the ICJ verdict faded into obscurity, any ICC verdict would do the same.
The most important thing he learnt from Noam Chomsky, whom he has considered a close friend and mentor, is the importance of combining “moral indignation with the most exigent intellectual standards”. Chomsky showed him how to reach people “you want to convince, you want to persuade. You’re not doing it to impress – it’s not about ego. It’s serious – it’s about human suffering.”
So what does he think about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe today? His response is decisive: “There’s no significant or serious anti-Semitism anywhere in Europe. This is complete nonsense.” While he says he is “perfectly cognisant” of what he characterises as “social stigmas” held against Jews – that they are “greedy, money-hungry, pushy” – he asserts that other social stigmas are far more powerful. “Do you know much you’re set back in our society if you’re ugly? Do you know how many doors just being good-looking opens up? You bare with the stigmas – it’s called life!”
When he called the Charlie Hebdo cartoons “sadism, not satire”, Finkelstein turned heads. What does he mean by this? He begins his explanation with reference to the values his parents instilled in him. “I think back to what my parents would say. Prof. Chomsky exerted a huge intellectual force on me, but the moral core came from my parents. When people are down and out, when they’re suffering, what would they say about somebody who starts mocking their most deeply held beliefs?” Having established that Muslims are “demonised and vilified”, he questions the cartoonists’ motivations. “They seriously think that those cartoons are going to make Muslims reconsider their convictions? The only point of the cartoon I can possibly see is to mock. Not ‘mock’ to get people to think, but mock to degrade, demean, humiliate and insult people. I don’t see any virtue in that.”
We end on a less serious note: Finkelstein’s love of a certain 1980s popstar. “I think I’m past my Whitney Houston phase!” he explains. “There was something about her life and death that touched me. How could somebody with so much money, talent, and who touched so many people, how could she have died alone, in a bathtub overdose? It seemed wrong. There was something so tragic. It perplexed me to the point that I would go up to African-Americans arbitrarily on the subway and ask them, ‘what do you think happened there?’”
Despite being an eminent scholar, Finkelstein lacks a tenured academic position commensurate with his expertise and experience. He continues to write, though “out of anger, because there are so many lies and I try to set the record straight”. He bemoans the fact that his books “have not had the kind of impact” he wish they had. In his words, “the sorts of people who like what I have to say, they’re not readers”. But as long as conflict rages on in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the issues he writes about will never lose salience.