Interview with Norman Finkelstein

Interview by Jotam Confino.

There is another side to Norman Finkelstein, apart from the notorious YouTube clips and public feuds with world known scholars, such as Alan Dershowitz and Benny Morris. As I was preparing my interview with Prof. Finkelstein, I carefully went through his books, interviews and lectures online. I quickly found what motivated him to commit academic suicide, a term Noam Chomsky used when he warned Prof. Finkelstein what would happen if he started a fight with Alan Dershowitz. Being the son of holocaust survivors, it seems as if justice and truth were core values in his upbringing. Those are not only the values that he uses prolifically when describing the purpose of his books. They are also, undoubtedly, the main reasons for his career choice, namely writing about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. I asked Prof. Finkelstein, to what extent it is even possible to claim the truth, when debating the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We start off with two basic premises. Premise number one is that we are setting out to search for something called truth. There is something called truth, and that is what we are trying to reach, but on the other hand, we all have to recognize that we are imperfect vessels and that we will never reach truth. We also have to be open to the fact that we think is the truth, might not be. It’s as simple as that. With that in mind, it seems that we have enough basic scholarly research to establish some facts, and you might say that by the process of elimination, certain things are no longer plausible explanations. There is always the possibility that our explanation at some point in the future date will be shown to be false”.

Prof. Finkelstein frequently uses the work of Benny Morris as references in his books, but Morris himself has criticized Prof. Finkelstein for misusing his work, by selectively picking out facts and constructing his own narrative about the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. A criticism that Prof. Finkelstein throws back at Morris:

“First of all, Morris does his work. He is a conscientious searcher of archives and he comes up with lots of interesting information. In my opinion, he was the most conscientious of those who researched the archives on 1948. He did a lot of research, no doubt about that. He is what Noam Chomsky once referred to, as a good clerk. He goes into the archives, comes up with interesting information, but in terms of reconceptualization of what happened, there is nothing there. That’s okay. We should recognize his achievements, but we shouldn’t get carried away. He is a good clerk, and a good clerk is better than a bad clerk. Most academics don’t even clerk. They just talk nonsense. So I grant him that, for sure. Secondly, what you described is not unusual. I spent some time going through the Human Rights reports on Operation Protective Edge, and there is this huge gap between their factual findings and their legal interpretations. The latter, as far as I could tell, are not connected with what their research found”.

So, finding the facts and then delivering them truthfully is where Morris went wrong?

“There is a certain selectivity in the facts that he takes from the archive, and which then forms his picture of what happened. That’s true of everybody, we all have an agenda. There is a famous expression, which is that you are entitled to your opinion but not to your facts. The problem with Morris is that he changes his opinion, but there are no new facts. How is it that on the basis of the same facts you suddenly conclude the reverse. In his case it’s literally the reverse, he has just inverted the whole reality, he starts off by saying that Zionists are coming to disposes the indigenous population. The idea of transfer is inbuilt and inevitable in Zionism, and then he said that the fear of territorial dispossession was the chief motor of Arab antagonism to Zionism. Now he just turned the whole thing upside down. Suddenly it was the Arabs who wanted to expel the Jews, and the Jews were resisting”.

No topic is more debated today than truth. President Trump is currently waging a war against the liberal media, simply referring to them as “fake news”. Prof. Finkelstein agrees with Trump in his criticism of the media, but he is not a fan of Trump or his version of the truth:

“The whole talk about facts makes me want to comment on the fake news and alternative facts. This is not a new phenomenon at all. I’m not particularly outraged by Trump’s lies, because they are simplistic and easy to expose. They don’t really cause much damage. In my opinion, the real purveyors of fake news and lies, I agree with Trump, are the media. I will give you an example. During the last month of the election campaign, the media went berserk in its attacks on Trump. It was kind of surreal. In the last month of the election, The New York Times was writing about how Obama turned around the economy, how he has reduced inequality. This was people like Paul Krugman, who called Bernie Sanders’ economics voodoo. I was thinking to myself, it really is like Pravda in the Stalin era. I really thought these lies were more disgusting that anything Trump has said. If the economy were so good, can you explain to me why Trump won? Why did Bernie have such a resonance? A majority of Americans supported either Trump or Bernie. The entire corporate media across the US supported Hillary. Trump got the endorsement of only one newspaper in the whole US. The entire political elite class and the Wall Street billionaire class supported Hillary. There has never been an election in the US where a person was elected, but was opposed by the entire corporate elite, political elite and media elite. The masses ignored the media, which I think was a wise thing”.

The sceptic optimist

Most Israelis would agree that they live in a democracy. However, this is not the judgement of Prof. Finkelstein. He raises a simple question, which is often forgotten when describing Israel as the only real democracy in the Middle East.

“If during 70% percent of your existence, half of the population under your control had inferior or no rights, how can that be a democracy? It may have been a plausible description up until 1967, but after that, it simply cannot be describe as such”.

You have once said that politics is about reaching the masses, and getting people to act on what they already know is wrong. Given the current situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, when will they reach a common understanding of what is wrong and what is right?

“When the occupation begins to hurt, and there is a recognition that we need to end it. Right now, the Israelis have a cost free occupation. The Palestinians do the dirty work, the torture and the jailing, the Europeans pay the bills, and the Americans give them political protection. So why should they care?”.

Would mass resistance give Palestinians what they want?

“During the first Intifada the leadership emerged from the people. Their formal leadership was exiled in Tunis at the time, and it was from the mass organization that they produced  a new leadership. But ultimately nothing came of mass resistance. They lost any hope in collective action; there is no mass organization there anymore. That’s what makes me hopeless. So long as I see people in motion, you know there are possibilities, but with the Palestinians, there is no resistance any more. They have given up. I would say the financial corruption is the most significant factor”.

Although pessimistic in his view of the current situation between Israel and the Palestinians, he is more optimistic about the possibilities of a real change in the US. Even though it could go both ways with President Trump, the way to change what he refers to as an elitist system, will always start from a mass resistance.

“I see possible danger with Trump. If his economic plans don’t produce, he is going to lose his base and do what any person in his position would do, which is starting a war. It could be a war with China, because he is very erratic. On the other hand, we could see that there are real possibilities now in the US. There is a lot of resistance, discontent, rejection of the elites and the policies they put forth. I was not happy Trump won, but I was very happy to get rid of the Obama’s and Hillary’s of this world. They are still there of course, you can’t stop these people. Obama’s reputation is still good, and because of political correctness and him being black, we are all supposed to say what a genius he is. He still hasn’t been exposed, unfortunately”.

In one of his lectures on John Stuart Mill, Prof. Finkelstein predicted that the next step in human development would be equality for animals. This prediction encapsulates one of Prof. Finkelstein’s values, namely justice. It should therefore come as no surprise that his thoughts on the future of human beings recall those of Immanuel Kant. Perpetual peace is possible, according to Prof. Finkelstein:

“I don’t find that a remote possibility. There is an increasing awareness about how small our planet is. I don’t find the prospect of the abolition of war inconceivable. I think other issues like abolishing gross inequality is a problem, and of course, power is the toughest one there is. The power lust is very tough. The ego, you see it everywhere in such petty ways. In academia for example. In that sense, I’m not optimistic about taming the ego”.

But you are optimistic about people not slaughtering each other?

“Yes, I don’t find that part so far-fetched, but I’m not optimistic about the problems of power and ego, and the corruption that attends them. I’m much less idealistic about that. I have seen too much”.

Prof. Norman G. Finkelstein received his doctorate in 1988 from the Department of Politics at Princeton University, and is the author of ten books that have been translated into 50 foreign editions. The interview was conducted by Jotam Confino, the editor of Republic Paper. Jotam has written extensively about the Middle East in the Danish media. He holds a BA in International Relations and an M.A in Security & Diplomacy. 

11 Comments on Interview with Norman Finkelstein

  1. Klaus Bloemker // March 31, 2017 at 11:23 pm // Reply

    Norman critizises Benny Morris. Fair enough. But he has never addressed the question whether Israel is Judaism/Jewishness gone astray – or whether the ‘Jewish state’ is actually the true manifestation of Judaism/Jewishness.

    • Interesting point Klaus. In his book, “Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of antisemitism and the abuse of history” Prof. Finkelstein addresses whether Jews can use history to justify the massive immigration and later the take over of Palestine. It could be interesting for you to go to his contact page and ask him this question. He is usually very good at responding. Let us know if you decide to ask him and what the answer is.

  2. Interesting point Klaus. In his book, “Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of antisemitism and the abuse of history” Prof. Finkelstein addresses whether Jews can use history to justify the massive immigration and later the take over of Palestine. It could be interesting for you to go to his contact page and ask him this question. He is usually very good at responding. Let us know if you decide to ask him and what the answer is.

    • Klaus Bloemker // April 1, 2017 at 3:39 pm // Reply

      Norman had this announcement on his website:
      Feb 16, 2017 -Norman Finkelstein in Princeton University: IS ZIONISM SEPARABLE FROM JUDAISM?

      There is no recording of this lecture and I asked him twice what had become of it. – He did not respond. It’s sort of puzzling. Was the lecture canceled?

      • We will email him now and ask what happened to the lecture. It’s an interesting topic that keeps dividing people, so hopefully he will give his take on it.

      • Norman just replied to us, and said that the Princeton lecture wasn’t recorded, unfortunately. Also, he hasn’t written on this topic, but it’s definitely worth researching. We will try to find a scholar on this topic and ask for an interview.

  3. Klaus Bloemker // April 1, 2017 at 10:08 pm // Reply

    Norman says: The question whether Israel as the ‘Jewish state’ is the true manifestation of Judaism and Jewishness (Jewish religion and Jewish culture) – or not – is ‘worth researching’.

    But does it need to be ‘researched’? All mayor Jewish organizations support Israel. If Israel were Judaism and Jewishness gone astray – they wouldn’t support Israel. Israel must therefore be the true manifestaion of Judaism/Jewishness.

    Israel is a success story of Jewishness, ‘the chosen people’. Only someone like Norman Finkelstein (and some other Jews) contest that.

    • We are not so sure it’s as simple as that Klaus. Many Jews in Israel, actually almost half the population, do not consider themselves religious. Moreover, a lot of Jews don’t even consider themselves Jewish because of Judaism, but rather see Jews as any other nationality/race. But it is certainly true that Israel for many people is the manifestation of Judaism. The Pew Research Center has made some interesting surveys about Jews in Israel that you can check out:

      http://www.pewforum.org/2016/03/08/israels-religiously-divided-society/

      • Klaus Bloemker // April 2, 2017 at 10:11 am //

        Thank you for the link. Very interesting.

        By the way, I went to Norman’s lecture on ‘Bertrand Russell and academic freedom’ , January 16 at the Max Planck Institute in Halle. I admire his razor-sharp intellect and his honesty.

        Best regards
        Klaus Bloemker, Frankfurt am Main

  4. You are more than welcome, we are happy you found it useful.

    Yes, Prof. Finkelstein is without a doubt a sharp intellectual. We interviewed him in Copenhagen after a lecture, and enjoyed his company as well as his insight.

    Thanks for the comments, Klaus.

    Best wishes.

  5. The relationship between Judaism and Zionism is one where ancient religious mythology is deployed to justify current political ambition. Nowhere else in modern political life do we accept such a basis for territorial claims. Moreover, Zionism gives a false account of Judaism, since Judaism holds that the “ingathering” of the Jews to Zion (the site of the Temple) can happen only with the coming of Moshiakh (the Jewish Messiah) and world peace at the instigation of God. Clearly, this has not yet happened. Indeed, the whole 1,700-year rift between Judaism and the breakaway movement from Judaism, that is Christianity, is about Judaism’s rejection of St.Paul’s claim that Jesus was the Messiah. Other subsequent Jewish claimants to the identity of Moshiakh were consistently rejected as false by rigorous rabbinic authorities, who firmly resisted the messianic hysteria that such claimants aroused in their congregations. This far, in authentic Judaism, Jews have only a future claim to “ingather” in Zion, and not by forceful dispossession of indigenous inhabitants. Students of theology should be monitoring the process by which Zionism now pressures the rabbis to authorise the “ingathering” regardless of God and the Moshiakh, and the rabbinic response.

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