Norman Finkelstein is an outspoken and controversial scholar of the Israel/Palestine conflict and one of Israel’s most consistent and trenchant critics. Along with prominent Israeli historian Benny Morris, he has recently announced a partnership with Byline, a crowdfunding platform for independent journalism. He intends to use his journalism to raise $100,000, which he will donate to the Al-Awda hospital in Gaza. You can support his journalism and crowdfunding campaign here. Nick Mutch read advance copies of Norman’s work on Amnesty International’s Gaza war reports, and spoke with him on the phone from New York about his new project.
Nick Mutch (“NM”): Your latest article is extremely critical of Amnesty International’s reports on Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli assault on Gaza last summer. In particular, you attack a false equivalence between “Unlawful and Deadly: Rocket and Mortar Attacks by Palestinian Armed Groups” and “Families Under the Rubble – Israeli Attacks on Inhabited Homes.” Could you elaborate on this?
Norman G. Finkelstein (“NGF”): I plunged into the Amnesty reports with a lot of hope and expectation because I vividly recalled their report “22 Days of Death and Destruction,” which came out after Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9. I was anticipating a rigorous, honest, legally unflinching account of what happened. In the battle for public opinion, we need organizations like Amnesty that command moral authority, as a counterweight to Israel’s well-oiled propaganda apparatus.
But I am a footnote reader, and couldn’t help noticing as I turned the pages how many times they were citing sources such as the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It used official propaganda outlets as authoritative sources, whereas the findings of respected Gaza-based human rights organizations such as al-Mezan went unmentioned. It crept up on me that the Amnesty reports were just Israeli propaganda, or the best face one could put on the horror Israel inflicted on Gaza.
Israel destroyed or made uninhabitable 18,000 homes. In “Families Under the Rubble,” Amnesty suggests that in each and every case, Israel was actually targeting militants but used “disproportionate force.” That is the perfect alibi for Israel. Everyone familiar with international humanitarian law (laws of war) knows that it is impossible to prove disproportionality. It’s a meaningless concept. How can you estimate how many civilian lives are “worth” a particular military objective? It’s a classic case of comparing apples and oranges.
Were there really 18,000 Hamas militants in those 18,000 homes? Look at the testimonies by Israeli combatants published by Breaking the Silence. They show that Israel did two things in Gaza. Number one, when troops went in, they were told, or construed the rules of engagement to be, everything that moves, you shoot to kill, period. In other words, there are no civilians in the designated war zones. Number two, every home you pass as you enter and leave, you demolish. The D-9 armored bulldozers were operating nonstop, flattening homes, day in and day out. What did any of this have to do with targeting militants?
NM: You say in your article that “Amnesty is reverting to former apologetics” but have also argued that public opinion in the rest of the world is turning against Israel. How do you account for this paradox?
NGF: Amazingly, despite media whitewashing and the formidable power of the Israel lobby, popular opposition to Israeli policy continues to grow. More and more people have penetrated the cloud of lies and are able to see the truth. Once Israel’s supporters realized they had lost the battle for public opinion in liberal sectors such as college campuses and human rights organizations, they took off their kid gloves. They started accusing everyone remotely critical of Israeli policy as being anti-Semitic and exerting all sorts of pressures behind closed doors. In the case of college campuses, where articulate opinion overwhelmingly opposes Israeli policy, Jewish alumni have been mobilized to threaten a withholding of contributions.
Or, consider Amnesty’s advisory council in the United Kingdom, which recentlysupported this new anti-anti-Semitism campaign. They capitulated to an absurd campaign. Have you looked at the statistics on this? According to all reliable polls such as Pew, anti-Semitism in the U.K. falls below 10 percent. On the other hand, 60 percent of the U.K. population harbors a negative opinion of Roma/Gypsies and 40 percent of Muslims. There was a big to-do the other day about Nazis demonstrating in the U.K. Do you know how many Nazis actually showed up? Twenty. But The Guardian still ran a big headline about a stupid British poll reporting alarming rates of anti-Semitism in the U.K. There’s more prejudice against fat, short, and ugly people. I can assure you, if you ask any U.K. man whether he’d rather be Jewish or bald, he’ll take Jewish.
NM: Have you ever personally experienced anti-Semitism?
NGF: I grew up in a Jewish environment, from grade school through college. It was near-homogeneously Jewish. The non-Jews in the school didn’t exist because the top classes were, from first seat to last, filled by Jews. I knew a few non-Jews in passing, but we didn’t mingle. My generation didn’t fuss about anti-Semitism, we calculated how to conquer the world. In fact, many of them did. A large number ended up in the top tier of their respective fields, departmental chairs at Ivy League universities, professors at Harvard Medical School, heads of large corporations, top hedge fund managers, senators. They were very smart, for sure; you can’t get that far in the world, starting from the bottom, unless you’ve got smarts. But they were also very ambitious, probably to a fault. They weren’t then, and I doubt they are now, very nice people. They wouldn’t allow anything, neither sentimentality nor principles, to stand in their way as they ascended the ladder of success. Anti-Semitism wasn’t even on our radar, because we believed — rightly, as it turned out — that, if we worked hard enough, all the doors to power and privilege would be open to us.
NM: In the past you have been very critical of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, referring to them as a “cult” and “historically criminal.” What are your major differences with them?
NGF: Ninety-five percent of BDS in action, as opposed to the formal BDS platform, I agree with. The tactic of using various nonviolent instruments such as boycotts, divestment and sanctions is, of course, correct. It is pointless trying to convince Israelis through rational and moral arguments. You can no more convince them of the justice of the Palestinian struggle than you could have convinced whites in the American South of the justice of the Civil Rights Movement. Any critical commentary on BDS must begin by acknowledging the tenacity, ingenuity and intelligence of grassroots BDS activists, who have scored an impressive number of victories.
My difference with BDS is that you can’t win over a broad public without taking a clear stance on Israel’s right as a state to exist within its internationally recognized borders. BDS formally refuses to take such a position; it claims to be agnostic on Israel’s existence. That’s a nonstarter if you want to reach a broad public.
BDS says it’s anchored in international law, but under international law Israel is a state. That’s why it is a member state of the United Nations. You can’t both claim rights for Palestinians under international law, yet deny the rights of others. You can’t pick and choose with the law. You have to take as a package what international law stipulates regarding both parties to the conflict, not just attend to your own side. If you demand that your rights be respected, then you have a reciprocal obligation to respect the rights of others. Virtually every BDS victory has been achieved despite the BDS platform.
The various resolutions on U.S. college campuses endorsing divestment target the occupation and explicitly recognize Israel. If BDS signifies its official platform (as its leaders proclaim), then it’s hard to fathom why these resolutions should be reckoned BDS victories. They effectively ratify the two-state settlement whereas the BDS platform falls silent on it, and many BDS leaders and activists strongly oppose it.
In addition, BDS is fostering the unrealistic expectation that, acting alone and notwithstanding the absence of mass popular resistance in the occupied territories, it can liberate Palestine. A leader of the BDS movement recently proclaimed, “BDS may well prove to be the most powerful form of popular Palestinian resistance ever.” Really? Have more Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza actively participated in BDS than actively participated in the 1936-39 Arab Revolt or during the first intifada? This leader appears to be confusing foreign-funded NGOs dotting Ramallah’s plush landscape with the Palestinian people. Another BDS leader just declared, “For us in Gaza, the remaining window of hope is through boycotting Israel and isolating it completely, until the residents of the refugee camps in Gaza, who compose the majority of the population here, can return to the towns and villages from which they were ethnically cleansed in 1948.”
It’s odd to hear these folks, on the one hand, berate imperialist-colonialist-racist-Zionist-white-liberal westerners for ignoring Palestinian “agency” yet, on the other hand, they expect Palestine to be liberated, not in the first place by its own people, but by pressures exerted from without. These pronouncements, and many others like them emanating from the BDS leadership, amount to delusion piled on illusion interlarded with megalomania. The African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral once said, “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” In my opinion, this sage counsel is worth heeding.
NM: Many on the student left in the U.K. have overwhelmingly supported the BDS movement. What is your opinion of students’ embrace of this movement?
NGF: I can understand the young people who have embraced the BDS platform and the one-state option. In my youth I would have done exactly the same thing. Part of it is the wholesome idealism of young people. One secular state in which everyone enjoys equal rights under the law sounds much more appealing to an enlightened sensibility than two ethnically based states. But part of it is also radical posturing; wanting to be more pure and cutting edge than everyone else, while a “two-state solution” sounds dull as dishwater. I’m not less radical in my older years, but politics has become less about me, my ego and trying to strike a radical pose, and more about wanting to get things done.
I’ve come to agree with Gandhi’s approach to politics. His doctrine was that politics is not about changing public opinion, it is trying to get people to act on what they already know to be wrong. People know there are 10,000 things wrong with the system; the problem is, they rarely do anything about it. One danger of radical politics is you aspire to go beyond the popular sensibility; you prioritize your own conception of right and wrong and you try to separate yourself from the “benighted” public. You’ll end up casting an impressive pose but at the expense of your political efficacy.
NM: Can you tell me a little more about your parents’ influence on you?
NGF: This year marks the 20th anniversary of their deaths. My father died in January 1995, my mother in October 1995. It would be neat if I could put up a plaque to memorialize them at a hospital in Gaza (which is my goal at Byline.com). Of course, I must contemplate the prospect that Israel, in its infinite lunacy, might target the hospital to blow up the plaque. It’s called, “Learning the lessons of the Holocaust.”
Everything I’ve done in my life is a vindication of what my parents endured during World War II, and which clung to them to the end of their lives. I once had dinner with two very decent veterans from WWII and their German-born wives. It came out in conversation that the two wives had married these guys in Germany after the war. Both had belonged to the Hitler Youth. I wasn’t totally put off. Many people joined to make their way in Nazi society; it was like joining the Boy Scouts. They made moral compromises, just like the rest of us have. But at one point, one of the wives said with a bit of a whine “How long are we going to have to live with this Holocaust in Germany?” I thought to myself, “My parents have had to live with it to the end of their lives, so maybe Germans of your generation (she was in her 70s) should have to live with it to the end of their lives.”
NM: Would you be able to provide a particular moment or memory that has stuck with you the most?
NGF: It’s no exaggeration to say the Nazi Holocaust pervaded my home, from the blue number tattoo on my father’s arm to the pictures of my mother’s family hanging on the living room wall, from watching my mother glued to the television set during the Eichmann trial to my mother reacting hysterically to war footage from Vietnam on the nightly news. Every time while cutting a scallion, I go right down to the root, remembering how precious was each vegetable in the “soup” that was ladled out in the concentration camp.
Yesterday I entertained a visitor from the Netherlands who visited Washington Square Park in New York. I told him that was where all the hippies hung out in the 1960s. I then showed him a YouTube video of the Broadway show “Hair.” The best known song from the musical score was “Let the Sun Shine,” which in the video was filmed in Washington Square Park. Why do I bring this up? When my mother listened to that song, which is about hippies worshiping the sun, she invariably broke down in tears. Because, when she used to walk through the streets of the Warsaw ghetto, she thought, “At least let the sun shine, please, at least let the sun shine.”
So for me now, at the ripe age of 61, when I hear the song, I don’t think of hippies, I still think of my mother walking through the Warsaw ghetto, devastated, shattered, her family exterminated, she’s all skin and bones, famished, corpses littering the streets, and she’s just hoping “let the sun shine.”
NM: Did the sun ever shine in her life?
NGF: No. She carried it to her last day. She could never reconcile herself to the fact that her family was exterminated. Her two sisters, her brother, her mother, her father, she was never able to accept it. In fact, even if she could, she didn’t want to let go, she didn’t want to put their deaths behind her. Even at an age where her parents would have already died a natural death — she died at 74, my father at 75 — she carried that memory with her every minute of every day until she died.
NM: Does it put our other problems in perspective?
NGF: I have my ego, I have my pettiness, I suffer from every human frailty and narcissistic affliction. I’m often not able to see the bigger picture. Nihil humani a me alienum puto — nothing human is alien to me — was Marx’s favorite maxim. That’s how we are constructed; you can’t annihilate the ego and just see the bigger picture.
Watch the video below to find out more about Norman Finkelstein’s Byline campaign for the Al-Awda hospital in Gaza: