“Obama’s a white guy who happens to be black. That’s the essence of Obama. There’s nothing that distinguishes his term in office from his white predecessors. He’s a centre-right politician.” Norman Finkelstein is diagnosing the United States’s political ailments in a typically polemical and provocative manner. The main problem (and one that recurs time and again in our conversation) is that an entrance into politics seems to entail a departure from moral and ethical principles. Does one have to recalibrate their moral compass in order to reach the top of the polticial pile? “Yes,” he quips. “That’s why I would never go into politics. I cling too much to principles.”
Few can deny that. After all, it is Finkelstein’s relentless commitment to the guiding principles of truth, logic and honesty that have rendered him the American Jewish community’s problem-child for the past three decades. Denounced as a marginal ideologue by critics and ostracised in academic circles, the doctoral graduate from Princeton has become a pariah for his iconoclastic attacks on the “Holocaust Industry” and public support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Rather than enjoy a career in the upper echelons of Ivy League Colleges like fellow scholar and long-time adversary Alan Dershowitz, Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust survivors, was denied tenure at DePaul University in 2007 and now shuttles back and forth between his teaching position in Turkey and home in Ocean Parkway, New York.
Yet, like it or not, Finkelstein refuses to be silenced. His once-radical ideas have found their way into mainstream opinion, ranging from his critique of Jewish obsession with the Holocaust to his intransigent condemnation of Israel’s apparent occupation of the West Bank and continued commitment of “war crimes.” It’s a tireless and unrelenting effort that takes the professor all over the world. Here, Finkelstein gave a talk in front of a packed Peter Chalk that attempted to skewer the idea that antisemitism lurks behind contemporary criticism of Israel’s role in the interminable conflict with Palestine. The talk centred on a recent YouGov report that concluded almost half of Britons hold antisemitic views, a discovery that coincides with a general rise in antisemitism attacks and, the line runs, constitutes what Finkelstein terms a wave of “new, new antisemitism”.
Finkelstein, as you would expect, disagrees. Picking apart the evidence like Sherlock Holmes on Ritalin, the academic, who thrived under the tutelage of Noam Chomsky, suggests this trend is merely a rouse used to quench and deflect criticism of Israel’s atrocious massacring of Palestinians. Finkelstein criticised the illogical leap some commentators make that holding a prejudiced opinion translates to discrimination. Far from closing doors, being Jewish, in Finkelstein’s controversial view, facilitates access to privileged positions that are more readily shut off to, say, a fat, bald or ugly person.
It was a compelling and provocative analysis, and one that is well worth watching, not least because of the forensic dissection of the statistics. The refrain “so I looked at the data…” was repeated countless times during the talk, and attests to Finkelstein’s commitment to go to the source and challenge, interrogate and cross-examine the stats in order to delve beneath surface appearances and uncover other conclusions in spite of the critical consensus or what people may think. “I don’t think you can get around the details,” Finkelstein told Exetera in an interview after his two-hour talk. “I think it’s very hard to have a clear understanding of the subject without paging through the documentary records.”
And after paging through innumerable words and papers on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Finkelstein is adamant that Israel repeatedly violates international law and believes calls for a peace process to be grossly misplaced. “There’s never been a peace process. There’s only ever been an annexation process. The peace process as a façade, a fig leaf, used to cover up the annexation process.” Finkelstein firmly believes such rhetoric is all part of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ploy to weave a narrative of beleaguered victimisation while simultaneously terrorising neighbouring Palestine and Gaza. Does the absence of many Democrats at Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress, in which the Israeli Prime Minster warned against a nuclear deal between the US and Iran, represent a passive-agressive refusal to engage with such Israeli tactics? “They’re not distancing themselves from Israel,” Finkelstein retorts. “They’re distancing themselves from this loudmouth, obnoxious, Jewish supremacist megalomaniac. It’s different.”
Pushed further, Finkelstein attempts to dispel the enduring myth that Israeli puppeteers have the power to orchestrate US foreign policy. “Look, the US recognises Iran as an important regional partner. Even a superpower needs other powers. There are important mutual interests between the US and Iran. Everybody in Iran is hurting from the sanctions. There’s a mutual interest in resolving [the conflicts] and I don’t think Israel will have any say whatsoever and will just have to swallow the bitter pill.”
But, Finkelstein concedes, there’s little desire on behalf of the Palestinian authorities to resolve the conflict either – not least because figureheads like Nabil Shaath continue to be made “very rich men off the occupation. They all get to be VIPS, quoted in the New York Times… What incentive do they have to end occupation? They’re doing just fine.” Here, Finkelstein addresses the cancerous problem with a local and global politics that seeks to dominate and impose ideologies on citizens rather than gage popular opinion and act on its behalf. It’s a dilemma that has pervaded history and, you will have gathered, apparently afflicts Obama’s tenure in Office. “I’m not niave about political leaderships anymore,” Finkelstein continues. “If you’re the leader of a movement, with the possible exception of Vladimir Lenin, there’s a large element of coveting power. Most of the leaders you know didn’t covert wealth; they covert power. However cynical you are, for any struggle to succeed, the leader has to have some residue of idealism to be committed to the cause… The Palestinian leadership has none of these things.”
Indeed, if Finkelstein is virulent in his criticism of Israel’s conduct and that of Netanyahu in particular, he is no less scathing in his condemnation of the Palestinian leaders. “People say that the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have all the corruptions of the post-state leadership – but they didn’t get the state yet! They’ve reached levels of corruption before their struggle succeeded. And there’s no idealism left. As a Palestinian, could you believe in [Mahmoud] Abbas? He’s half-way between and imbecile and a thug.” Finkelstein may loudly criticise the leadership abilities of the PLO, yet his sustained silence on the violent acts committed under its command is deafening. (Finkelstein, though, would no doubt point to a disproportionate balance sheet that marks 230 Gazan Palestinian deaths against one Israeli fatality following the destruction caused by Operation Protective Edge in July last year.)
Against this debilitating backdrop of ostensibly corrupt leadership and mutual intransigence, it’s hard to see what the international community can do to help resolve the conflict. Pro-Palestinian supporters have in the past promoted Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as a means of non-violent intervention – something Finkelstein previously dismissed as “silly, leftist posturing” akin to a “cult”. Questioned on whether he stands by these comments, Finkelstein praises the “interesting evolution in the BDS movement” and its “tireless, resourceful and well-organised” efforts that have resulted in “many important victories” and “prove what a phalanx of committed people can do,” yet nonetheless maintains that the movement is, on the whole, counter-productive. Any “real impact” it makes, Finkelstein argues, is undermined and curtailed by a tragic irony: “Every BDS victory has been at the cost of the platform. Show me one BDS movement that doesn’t recognise Israel now. Even Stanford said ‘we accept Israel’s right to repudiation’ – this is a complete repudiation of BDS. BDS is supposed to make no position!”
Amid all this international impotence, blood continues to be spilt and the body count continues to rise in both Israel and, to a greater extent, Palestine and Gaza. The war of attrition cannot swell for much longer and something has to give. Finkelstein, however, thinks that the PA lacks the political will or nous to organise its disparate factions and steer the state to victory. “You know the famous Langston Hughes poem ‘A Raisin in the Sun?’ – the last line: ‘Or does it explode?’ Yes, there will be an explosion, but unless there’s a leadership to canalize and organise this explosion in a politically productive direction it’s just going to fizzle out.”
Palestine, it seems, has, like so many other states, been infected by a crisis of leadership for some time. And according to a dejected Finkelstein the disease is terminal: “There’s no longer a collective will. There’s a lot of cycnicism about politics. I think the Palestinians have lost the will to resist. I don’t fault them. People in Gaza now want to leave. In the West Bank it’s every man for himself. People are looking out for themselves.” Finkelstein believes his ban from entering Israel will never be lifted because “I don’t think the conflict is going to be resolved. I’ve never said that but I’ll say it: I’m not optimistic. The Israelis and the Americans – they succeeded. It was quite an effective strategy, they thought it through, they had experience with it, there were some novel elements in it.”
But what about Hamas, the militant group for which Finkelstein recently acted as public cheerleader? Once again, Finkelstein argues, sparks of hope were quickly extinguished by a destructive desire for power: “Once they got elected they started the play the dirty game of politics. The first thing it did was fill all the positions of Gaza with its people. Once you get elected you got to represent everybody – you cant do that. They just carried on like a sect and tried to advance the interests of Hamas. And they lost of support in Gaza because of that. I don’t agree with them – I think this whole thing of ‘armed resistance’ is a fantasy. The idea that the only kind of resistance is armed resistance, and that the Gaza armed resistance is succeeding, is just a complete and total fantasy.”
Whether you think Finkelstein himself lives in a world of total fantasy or otherwise, you can’t help but admire his relentless commitment to a cause that has, in his words, “taken up my whole adult life.”