Episode 2 of our “Alternative Voices” interview series, where we talk to people who give us a different perspective on all manner of topics.
Our guest this week is Norman Finkelstein, a scholar of the Israel/Palestine issue and the author of several books including The Holocaust Industry and This Time We Went Too Far: Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion. We spoke with Norman about his unique family background, his battles with American academia and the future of the Palestinian people.
Download from Soundcloud
Greg McInerney: Hi guys, this is Greg McInerney here for the MeltingPress.com, this is episode two of our Alternative Voices series. Today we’re joined by Norman Finkelstein who is a scholar of the Israel/Palestine Issue. Norman thanks so much for joining us today.
Norman Finkelstein: My pleasure.
GM: Norman you were raised in NYC a place I know you have great affinity for, in a family you described as “lower middle class”. How did your childhood and upbringing influence the person you’ve become today?
NF: Well it’s hard to imagine the person today without that childhood and upbringing so using the word influence doesn’t quite catch it. It made me who I am. My parents were both survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, they were in the Warsaw ghetto from September 1939 until April 1943. When the ghetto uprising was put down the survivors of the ghetto, several tens of thousands were deported to Majdanek concentration camp. So both my parents deported to Majdanek. My mother then went from Majdanek to two slave labour camps and was liberated by the Russians. My father went to Auschwitz and several other concentration camps. He was in the Auschwitz death march. He was liberated by the Americans. Then they were both in a DP, displaced people camp in Linz, Austria, where they married and came to the U.S. Our household was always something of an anomaly. First on the sheer physical level, we had no relatives. My mother was the only survivor on her side of the family during the war and my father was the only survivor on his side of the family. Everybody else was exterminated. So we had no grandparents, no aunts, no uncles, no cousins. We were as my late mother used to say, just five people in the world. And that was obviously an anomaly, everybody else had grandparents and family members but I would not say that was the outstanding anomaly because you don’t really miss what you didn’t have. So since we didn’t have a family, there was no real sense of loss, at least in my case. What was the anomaly was that my parents just had altogether different values. We’re talking about the post McCarthy era but still the United States was strongly anti communist and my parents were strong supporters of the Soviet Union and until the last days of their lives actually, strong supporters of Stalin. Our family was focused on news, politics, that was the subject matter of dinner discussion, living room conversation. It’s what we watched on television and these issues were not academic and they weren’t just objective issues, topics of discussion. My parents were passionate about issues of war and issues of discrimination and I think I could say in the case of my mother it went beyond passion, you could say it verged on and maybe spilled over into hysteria. The very subject of war wasn’t even a subject matter. You couldn’t discuss war. War was just not a discussable subject. If you start to rationally discuss war, so far as my late mother was concerned, you were not normal or you hadn’t a clue what war was about. You can’t sit around and have a debate about war. You can’t sit around and discuss it as if you’re making a rational argument on why one plus one equals two. The subject of war warranted, demanded your complete and total outrage. You had to be outraged by war and anything short of it, so far as my late mother was concerned, meant that either you weren’t normal or you hadn’t a clue what you were talking about.
GM: This outrage that you describe is something that definitely characterises your work to date I think. Why in particular did you focus this outrage on the Palestinian issue. I know you were involved in say the anti Vietnam movement for example , why did you decide to focus your life’s work on Palestine in particular?
NF: I didn’t decide that, fate decided that. Israel and Palestine was not on my radar until the June 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. I was involved in many other things, of course I had some interest in the subject as I was a person of the left and by the mid seventies, 1970s for sure, the Israel/Palestine conflict was above the radar, but it wasn’t what you would call a main area of concern for me, a focus of my political engagement. I’m not a quitter and don’t believe that one should frivolously go from one cause to the other. I committed myself to it and to this day I’ll see it through to the end because in the course of political commitment, you make friendships, you make personal commitments, not just political ones. The people, I know many Palestinians, I have a few I would call close friends, and I am constitutionally incapable of betrayal. I can’t say to somebody “ok Moussa, I’m bored with this cause, I’m moving on,” because he doesn’t have the choice of quote unquote being bored and moving on, he lives in Hebron. That reality is imposed on him and I don’t see why I should have the privilege of simply shedding it and moving on. That’s just not my moral calculus. So when I’m asked why did I make it my life’s work, I didn’t make it my life’s work. It made me and if it ended tomorrow or if it had ended 20 years ago, I would have moved on to something else.
GM: You came to the issue through academia one could say. Your post-doctoral thesis, was of course, for our listeners that don’t know Norman wrote a critique of a book by a woman called Joan Peters which was basically an explanation of this canard that you hear often that the Palestinians were not indigenous people and that they were Jordanians, Egyptians, Syrians, just basically refugees. When this happened, when you found this clear fraud in what was a widely acclaimed book was it thrilling at the time or were you scared of what maybe the consequences of tackling it would be?
NF: No, it was definitely thrilling. There was a very famous Marxist economist, a friend of mine, I liked him very much, his name was Paul Sweezy. He was probably the greatest American Marxist economist, and you would rank him up there in the world. Not there were all that many. There was Ernest Mandel, there was Sweezy, a couple of French, but Sweezy I think was the best because he was classically trained. He was a Harvard economist. He went to Harvard undergrad and grad and was the top in his class, and it was a very impressive class. Paul Samuelson was in his class, Robert Heilbroner was in his class, Robert Solow was his graduate student. I suspect none of these names mean anything to you but they were the luminaries of the economics profession and Sweezy was at the top and at some point during WWII he became a Marxist, no during the great depression, he went to study in the UK with another famous Marxist economist named Harold Laski and Sweezy then became a Marxist but he was a Marxist who was classically trained and so he was really top of the game. He was a very impressive guy and a wonderful human being. In any case, he once said to me “discovering a fraud is every scholar’s eureka”. It was my eureka. It was a thrilling experience. Actually, since you mentioned CounterPunch, the founder of CounterPunch is Alex Cockburn, Alex was the one who first printed my findings. Nobody wanted to publish them, except for a tiny tiny Chicago based leftist newspaper called In These Times. Alex reproduced significant chunks of my findings in his column in The Nation magazine at the time and he reproduced it over a couple of installments. He was quite influential back then, his influence declined significantly in later years but at the time he was very influential and that stirred the pot. So I am indebted to Alex for that. It was very exciting at the time. I tend to be very conscientious when it comes to details and I also, I believe in understanding arguments. I don’t believe in just, I was never one who believed in saying “well Marx said, Marx said.” I always used to think to myself “who in the hell cares what marx said” I wan’t to know how he reasoned his argument. It’s just totally irrelevant what a person says. The only relevant thing is what how they reason through to reach their conclusion. The conclusion only has merit so long as you understand the argument that produced the conclusion. So I’ve always been one who struggled with the reasoning, the argument, that’s important to me, to understand. I have to admit a lot of the time I don’t understand the argument. It’s very frustrating to me when I know that the argument can be understood so reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or the famous first chapter of Marx’s Das Kapital, I know that a good mind can penetrate this and it was very frustrating when I wasn’t able to. If i can’t penetrate it then I can’t claim the argument as my own, I’ll never say I quote unquote read it because I don’t understand it. It’s just as much as to say I didn’t read it.
GM: That approach sounds very familiar to someone that we both know, Professor Noam Chomsky, who was an enormous influence on your career and indeed helped you throughout the Joan Peters affair. How did Noam Chomsky’s work give you this ability to critique and to forensically research?
NF: The best in Chomsky, the best in him is when he so to speak goes at an argument and takes it apart and he has my favourite example, it’s a little bit obscure, but if you look at his book which he co authored with Edward Herman called Manufacturing Consent, there is an appendix to that book where he looks at a study on the Vietnam War that was produced by this organisation called Freedom House, which we used to call back then, House Of Bondage. Chomsky, he looks at an argument like facets of a diamond, he looks at one facet, demolishes the argument, and then he’ll say let’s say for arguments sake that this is true, let’s look at the other argument and he goes at it from multiple angles, and by the end there’s just nothing left. It’s just been shattered and that’s kind of how I like it, I like to go at an argument from multiple angles, and show however way you look at it, whatever ever assumptions you make, this argument is complete, total, unadulterated nonsense. And that I got from Chomsky, he could be…what’s the word…I’m not going to say vicious…
GM: Barbed maybe?
NF: I prefer something like what I used to be accused of being mono-maniacal. Joan Peters, the author to whom you referred, of the hoax, she said I had an Idéfix with her book. It was like Captain Ahab and Moby Dick but i like to go at an argument with the full mental force and see what comes of it, what’s left at the end and usually there is nothing left at the end because most of the arguments which try to turn reality on its head make something that’s false true, they have to be nonsense. Then it becomes a kind of intellectual game, an intellectual puzzle actually. How did somebody manage to construct this edifice of complete and total nonsense and that it passed as being legitimate. So for example right now I’m working with a friend of mine, Abid Querishi, on the 1996 International Court of Justice advisory opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons under international law and you would think on its face, prima facie, if any weapon should be illegal under international law, it just has to be nuclear weapons. How could any other weapon be illegal and nuclear weapons be legal? So to take the two classic cases, in 1899 the dum-dum bullet was declared illegal under international law. The dum-dum bullet is a bullet which once it penetrates you the lead casing expands, and it was declared illegal because it caused, the expression back then was “unnecessary suffering”’ So you have to ask yourself a very simple question. How can it be that one dum-dum bullet can illegal under international law, but a hundred megaton bomb which can incinerate a continent is not illegal? Or as you well know the biological and chemical weapons, the ones Bashar Al Assad notoriously used, biological and chemical weapons are illegal under international law, they’re what’s called WMD, weapons of mass destruction. So once again you have to ask the obvious question. How can lesser WMD be illegal but greater WMD, namely nuclear weapons, how can they not be illegal? The standard category is chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, they are called WMD. How can chemical and biological weapons be illegal and nuclear weapons be legal? It’s those kinds of, in my opinion, manifest absurdities that are for me, are most interesting to try to take apart and that’s what I’m right now doing, because the International Court of Justice in 1996 refused to rule that nuclear weapons were illegal under international law and to me that’s a manifest absurdity. If nuclear weapons are not illegal then there’s only one possible conclusion, no weapon is illegal. If nuclear weapons are not illegal then no weapon can be illegal but we have in our legal system of international law this absurdity that a dum-dum bullet is illegal but a hundred megaton bomb is not illegal. That’s the kind of stuff I kind of like to do, to figure out how could this conclusion have been reached and credibly believed. This was the fifteen most distinguished judges in the world on the international court of justice, eight, a majority refused to acknowledge that nuclear weapons are illegal under all circumstances in international law. So I’ve been going through it with my friend Abid trying to see how did they reason this, how could they have come to such a conclusion. It’s just manifestly bizarre that conclusion. And that’s what I kind of like to do, how do people kind of come to conclusions with apparently credible manifestly absurd.
GM: And Professor Noam Chomsky was quick to warn you went down this line of pointing out absurdities that it was going to harshly impact on your career and he has been proven correct. Perhaps yourself and Noam Chomsky are possibly the two academics who put most at risk in the search of justice but maybe Noam was lucky that he had his field of linguistics that was separate to his politics that he was able to fall back on but you had no such luck. Could you tell us about your travails through academia so far?
NF: First of all I know Professor Chomsky quite well, I’m sure he would be the first to say that he didn’t put anything at risk in his career because Professor Chomsky is a certifiable genius, that’s a fact. A person like him comes along once in several lifetimes. You could say he was a natural successor in the second half of the 20th century to Bertrand Russell in the first half of the 20th Century, so you could say you come across one or two in a century. Certainly as we’re now into the second decade of the 21st Century, there is nobody who even remotely fits in his shoes. So he’s a certifiable genius and the nature of our academic system is that it makes exceptions for geniuses and Professor Chomsky, no university would care less what he says about politics or anything else, if you can get him on the faculty you take him. By the way, you’ll be surprised to learn I think that was not true for Bertrand Russell, Russell had a lot of trouble finding work and most of the time he had to do kinds of work that were not let’s just say, befitting his scholarly attainments. But Chomsky, no University in its right mind would turn him down whatever he said politically. So where he made the huge sacrifice was in terms of time, the economies of time, the more time he invested in politics the less time he was able to invest in his professional pursuits, which were and remain very important to him, but I belong to an altogether different category. I’m a person, I don’t say this with any attempt at false modesty, I’m a person of modest abilities and attainments, I happen to be conscientious but that gets me in the famous Thomas Edison category. That gets me in the 99% of perspiration but I never had the 1% of inspiration and so I was expendable. No university is going to take me on because there are many people with comparable competence behind me on the line, and they’ll just take somebody else and so since taking me on board would mean exposing yourself to all sorts of unpleasant things; all sorts of backroom lobbying, threats to cut off alumni contributions and all sorts of blacklisting, universities decided I just wasn’t worth the trouble because I just wasn’t of a calibre, academically or intellectually that would make me worth the trouble. Chomsky’s worth the trouble. And every university in the United States and the world that matters knows that. On balance, I wasn’t worth the trouble because there was always a long line of candidates of comparable if not greater competence than me, behind me and so I lost.
GM: But certainly it’s a campaign waged against you by Alan Dershowitz in particular. That was pretty unprecedented was it not?
NF: Alan Dershowitz is a maniac that’s what is unprecedented. He’s a very strange character. Maybe it’s better left ‘til he dies to explore the dark recesses of that mind.
GM: Do you think, like Russell who you mentioned who had difficulty channeling his work through academia. Do you think there is sufficient space outside of universities for you to continue your work?
NF: No, it no longer it exists. There was a time when you had so to speak, free-floating intellectuals who made their money off of writing for magazines and journals but nowadays that doesn’t exist anymore. Everyone, even authors, high paid authors, they’re still affiliated with a university, they teach writing workshops or something, some seminar. Nowadays it’s very rare to find anyone who makes his or her full living just from writing and speaking, that doesn’t exist. To my experience that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s also for me personally it’s not a very fulfilling experience. There’s nothing that really replaces the classroom, I enjoyed teaching a lot, it was exciting to be having an impact on young people during a critical period in their life’s journey, mainly the ages 18 to 22 when people are just embarking on life’s journey; making choices about what they’re going to do with their lives. What can be quite intense, focused and possess a lot of emotional and intellectual depth. It’s a real honour to be able to intervene in a young person’s life at that point. They’ve just separated themselves from their parents in the physical sense, many of them go off to college. They haven’t yet been burdened with the exigencies of material existence, getting a job, paying bills things like that, although nowadays of course it’s different because of student debt but at least for a long period, there was that period of 18 to 22, that window in life where you just basically focused on learning as much as you can, trying to make sense of the world, figuring out the world around you and most importantly deciding what you’re going to do to try to make a meaningful mark in life and there’s nothing that can replace that, that’s a tremendous opportunity, it’s an honour and it’s unforgettable. Just yesterday I met a student on the train coming home from the city, and she’s 38 now and she had me as a professor in 2001 and she just starts rattling off “Do you remember the french in the class who used to kid? And do you remember the student who worked for the MTA with the dreadlocks.” She remembered every single detail of the class and that’s very special. I was deprived of that, and I won’t pretend that I’m not bitter, I’m very bitter.
GM: You’re also quite critical of the same students reading habits, or maybe their lack of reading habits. How do you square those two things, your admiration for the inquisitive mind of the student but also seemingly the trend of people our age these days not to care too much for scholarship and the written word?
NF: I did my best to make people excited by what they were reading, but I did it on the presumption that they didn’t do the reading assignment. I would assign the work, I assumed they didn’t read it. A lot of it was very very difficult, you know reading John Stuart Mill. His sentences go on for, literally, about fifteen lines, they have half a dozen semi colons, a dozen colons, three dozen dashes and the subject and the verb don’t come until the very end. It’s very tough. So I just assumed they didn’t do the reading but I tried to in class, because my style is I don’t lecture, I read passages, or I should say I have the students read passages from a book and then we analyse so to speak, we parse the passages. I tried to excite them with the words and the way an argument is constructed but on the assumption, on the premise that they didn’t actually do the reading.
GM: Do you think that your book in 2000, The Holocaust Industry was perhaps the most detrimental to your supposed reputation that was apparently tarnished by what was a perfectly brilliant book in my opinion?
NF: If I think about the books I’ve written, I never quite remember, I mean this literally and I can’t the understand the phenomenon. I can’t actually remember writing them. I don’t remember the exact process of sitting down and composing them. I have no memory of it. I know I wrote The Holocaust Industry in a very short period of time; it couldn’t have been more than three months because it was fairly soon after my parents passed away. My parents passed away in 1995 and I went through a long period of mourning, longer than most people. It lasted, I think into three years. I didn’t get out of it and I was basically in automatic pilot. I continued to teach but I was emotionally dysfunctional. I didn’t get out of it until the Goldhagen affair when I read Goldhagen’s trash, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and that was the first time I remember getting mentally engaged in something and then The Holocaust Industry gave me a chance to unburden myself of all the nonsense that was being said about the Nazi Holocaust by these circus clowns like Elie Wiesel. And so I wrote it very very quickly, I just let everything out. I happen to have known a lot, as I grew up in a Holocaust family and I knew that everything was said was crap. Nobody cared about the Holocaust when I was growing up. Nobody cared about the survivors. If you were a survivor when I was growing up, it was considered an embarrassment because the Jews as it was said back then went like sheep to slaughter or if you survived it must have been because you were a collaborator, you did something dirty. So a holocaust survivor when I was growing up was something you were supposed to be ashamed of. I was supposed to be ashamed of my parents. In my neighbourhood they were called greenhorns, my parents, that meant they were fresh off the boat and then on top of being fresh off the boat, they went through the Holocaust, that was a shame, that was an embarrassment. and then all of this suddenly everyone’s in love with Holocaust survivors and everyone claims they’re a Holocaust survivor. You walk down the streets of Brooklyn, every third person “I’m a Holocaust survivor.” My mother used to say “Well, if everyone who claims to be a Holocaust survivor is one, who the hell did Hitler kill?” Everyone’s a Holocaust survivor. The whole thing just became a comedy.
GM: I actually wrote an article just vaguely referencing this just yesterday. I think the purpose of the way the Israelis use the Holocaust is to kind of keep evil and human suffering in a constant historical vacuum. We’re not allowed to as you do in your work apply the heinous your parents went through to today’s political scene. We have to keep referring back to something as a singular historical event. Can you explain how Israel is basically using the Holocaust as a justification committing its own crimes?
NF: Israel claims that nobody in the history of humanity suffered the way the Jews suffered and therefore they shouldn’t be held to the same standards as everybody else. That’s the basic purpose of what’s called the Holocaust uniqueness doctrine, the notion that the Holocaust is somehow unique in human history and what the Jews suffered is unique, therefore Jews shouldn’t be held to the same moral/legal standard as anyone else. But the Israelis are always using the Holocaust as a comparative tool, all of its enemies are Hitler in disguise; Ahmadinejad is Hitler, Iraq was Hitler, Gamal Abdel Nasser in the fifties was Hitler on the Nile, the Palestinians are Nazis. They are always making the comparison. It’s just that when you use that comparison with them that it becomes an outrage. But is there a day that doesn’t pass when Netanyahu doesn’t emote that we’re on the verge of another Holocaust, that the Iranians are Hitler in disguise, or in sheeps clothes? They’re always using the Nazi Holocaust, they just don’t let anyone else use it against them but they are the main purveyors of Holocaust analogies.
GM: And perhaps a fact that’s even stranger than that is the US’s treatment of the Holocaust. I think it was Peter Novick, someone you’ve had disagreements with in the past, he points out that the copious amount of Holocaust remembrance in the United States and there isn’t a single museum or much place given to the genocide of the Native American people. In the United States it’s even stranger because there isn’t even that proximity to the actual crime.
NF: Yeah in the U.S. it’s weird, but that’s just the cultural power of Jews. Jews are very wealthy, they are by far in a way the wealthiest religious ethnic group in the United States and they are very well placed in the arts and media and like any ethnic group they’re self aggrandising. So they use their influence just like growing up, that’s what white people did. That’s why everyone is the movies look like white bread. Any ethnic group when it has that kind of cultural power is going to use it to aggrandise itself and Jews occupy critical places, for example in Hollywood so it’s not surprising that you have this ceaseless production of Holocaust films with of course the caveat that they only began when it was useful for American Jews. There was a just a handful of films on the Nazi Holocaust in the United States before it became a politically useful weapon for American Jews. and once it became a politically useful weapon, it just became this kind of eternal navel-gazing and solipsism. Jews just couldn’t get enough of the Holocaust. It’s really kind of sick frankly.
GM: The first book of yours I read Norman, This Time We Went Too Far: Truth And Consequences Of The Gaza Invasion, which dealt the invasion of Gaza by Israeli forces in late 2008. How has the situation changed since then, it seems although less violent at the moment, the diplomatic efforts we’ve seen with John Kerry, Abbas and Netanyahu, they seem to be even less enthusiastic than under Bush. Has there ever been a lower point in enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause than right now?
NF: Well first of all, the situation in Gaza is horrendous now. There was several, I think it was about a dozen human rights organisations put out a statement two or three days ago describing the situation in Gaza. It’s absolutely horrendous but nobody cares unfortunately. So in terms of Gaza itself the situation is certainly as bad as it was on the eve of the Israeli massacre in Gaza in December 2008. On the broader question I don’t really agree with you, I think there is a better than a 50/50 chance the Kerry juggernaut is going to succeed and the Palestine cause will be defeated. I think for reasons, for which you did in my opinion correctly allude. The Palestine question no longer occupies the political and moral salience that it once did. There are many reasons for that, obviously Syria and other places have a greater salience than the Palestine question. The fact that the Palestinian people have essentially given up, so there is no longer any significant civil resistance among the Palestinians. The fact that the Arab world has now broken down in internecine conflict and a number of countries which theoretically were publicly identified with the Palestinians, like Saudi Arabia, are now quietly and not so quietly aligning themselves with Israel against Iran, for all sorts of reasons. For the first time since the Palestine question emerged on the global scene which is basically the time of the Balfour Declaration, you could say roughly a century ago, for the first time in this century the Palestinian question has been reduced to its rather puny geographical limits, basically it’s a provincial struggle at this point. It’s been emptied of its moral and political, i don’t want to say content, it’s moral and political elan. It’s no longer symbolic of anything bigger, which the Palestine struggle was, say in the 1970s, it represented an idea, something bigger than itself so to speak. Now its not bigger than itself, now you might even say it’s smaller than itself. It’s chief representative is basically a mongoloid hunchback, Abbas, with his terrifyingly imbecilic side kick, Saeb Erekat, these people are not going to inspire the way say Che Guevara did.
GM: Or even Yasser Arafat in comparison…
NF: Sure, by comparison yes. as long as we include ‘by comparison’. And so the Palestine struggle is now ripe to be defeated. It’s a better than 50/50 chance that Kerry colluding with the EU and the Israelis will inflict the historic defeat and the conflict will be over.
GM: And is their plan, the EU, the US and Netanyahu, is their plan to continue letting Israelis gobble up as much of the West Bank as they can until eventually, say there is just kind of two Bantustans of the West Bank and Gaza for the Palestinians to have some semblance of vague autonomy?
NF: I think they’ll redraw the border, the border will be the wall that Israel has been building. The rest of the West bank, once the border has been redrawn. is clearly not viable, there’s nothing there. Once Israel appropriates East Jerusalem, appropriates the critical water resources, appropriates a lot of the best and most arable land, there’s nothing left. At some point there’ll be some kind of arrangement made with Jordan with maybe some local autonomy for the Palestinians.
GM: We often hear of South Africa as a parallel drawn particularly by people like the BDS movement [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], they like to draw comparisons with apartheid but I think one comparison they missed is that South Africa had enormous help from the Soviet Union throughout its struggle for liberation. Do you think, not that the Soviet Union was any kind of ideal partner, but the fact that there was a rival superpower to the U.S. at the time allowed a certain level of funding and support that the Palestinians just don’t have?
NF: South Africa was and is a formidable industrial economy. It had a large working class. That large working class spawned a resistance movement, which was a classical workers movement led by a communist party, where the communist party had a huge amount of influence. They built a significant mass struggle of resistance, that was the core, you can’t imagine the South African struggle without first the ANC and other resistance movements and then later in the 1980s, the United Democratic Front. So the core of it was a mass mostly, not entirely, mass non violent resistance movement rooted in the working class of a substantial industrialised economy and when you put those things together, it means that South Africa was vulnerable. There’s no basis for a comparison with the Palestinians, there’s no industrial working class. there is no Israeli economy vulnerable to this industrial working class. There is no resistance anymore. There’s nothing, there are pockets of local resistance, a village here and a village there, but otherwise the Palestinian people have given up. So the comparison has no basis at all at this point.
GM: You’ve been quite critical of the BDS movement in general, describing it as a “cult”. They claim to have seen recent successes in academic boycotts and industrial boycotts. Does the BDS movement’s scope simply not broad enough to have any kind of impact whatsoever?
NF: The BDS movement operates like a cult, mainly they create this internal reality for themselves, and they then project this reality with a certain amount of confidence that has no connection whatever with reality. So take the most recent case, the BDS had some success for example in forcing Scarlett Johansson to separate herself from Oxfam. So you can have a thousand conscientious people working on Facebook and other social media you hound Johansson to the point that she’s forced to do something. Ok fine, and if you think that’s a significant victory it at least correlates with reality. Something happened that was, simply put. there was cause and effect; You had a thousand people on Facebook, dedicated palestinian activists, you hound her wherever she goes, and she eventually severs her ties with Oxfam, or Oxfam severs its ties with her, I can’t remember which way it went. But then, in recent months, there’s been an uptick in European pressures on Israel. So there are the Dutch, the Germans and so forth, the EU in general as a group statement, have been exerting all of these pressures on Israel regarding its settlements in the West Bank. Can anyone possibly believe, unless you function in a cult, can anyone possibly believe that the recent statements from, for example, Chancellor Merkel in Germany, now Angela Merkel is a very tough nut to crack, this woman is serious business, she’s the German version of Margaret Thatcher. Does anyone possibly believe that a thousand Facebook activists convinced or converted Angela Merkel to BDS? How can people believe things like that, unless you function in a cult? I listened the other day to one of the BDS gurus boast about how BDS has now reached a qualitative new stage and he cites the actions in Germany. How can anyone else in his or her right senses and lucid state of mind believe that all of these recent activities from the EU, from Merkel, from the Dutch, from everyone, that the momentum is coming from a thousand facebook activists? It’s certainly not coming because of a mass civil resistance in Palestine. That’s not a factor. It can’t be coming because of a sudden public awakening in the west, an awakening to the sufferings of Palestinians, there’s nothing happening in the west. I live here, there aren’t demonstrations anymore, there aren’t big public meetings anymore. So the obvious question is where is the momentum coming from? What is the cause? Clearly there is an effect, there are European governments taking all of these initiatives. What is the cause? Is the cause a thousand BDS Facebook activists or is the cause the Kerry juggernaut. That Kerry has now lined up the European powers which have over the past several decades wearied of the Israel-Palestine conflict, want to see it come to an end and are on board with the Kerry plan and as they say every other day, the EU, they keep saying to the Israelis and Palestinians “You better negotiate seriously with Kerry or we’re pulling the plugs on you.” Now where is that coming from? Is it coming from Omar Barghouti? Or is it coming from John Kerry? It’s such a complete total disconnect from reality when you hear people making claims for the success of their BDS which has nothing to do with their BDS and has everything to do with Kerry’s plans to deliver the final defeat on the palestinian people.
GM: And BDS they’re quite ambiguous about their, they don’t do as you do and Professor Chomsky and other people, use international law as an important tool in serving the justice of the Palestinian people with things like Resolution 242. The BDS movement is completely ambiguous about of all of this stuff and it doesn’t commit itself to a two state solution. It would prefer completely pie in the sky one state solution.
NF: Anyone has the right to advocate any position, nobody can deny a person the right to advocate. The issue is not the advocacy, the issue is the reasoning. In BDS says and claims and argues and maintains that it’s grounded or likes to stay anchored in international law, then how can you both claim to be anchored in international law and also claim to be agnostic on whether Israel is a state? Under international law Israel is a member state of the United Nations and therefore has the same rights and obligations as any other state. That’s a foundation, that’s just the bedrock of international law. You can’t one and the same time claim that your positions are anchored to international law and yet on one of the two critical questions, mainly one question is the status of the Palestinians under international law but since it’s called the Israel-Palestine conflict, the other critical question is the status of Israel under international law. You can’t claim to be agnostic on the claim of one of the critical parties to the conflict, that doesn’t make any sense at all. The second point to made is BDS is a tactic, anyone can use the tactic, Palestinians can advocate boycotts and sanctions against Israel, it can use that tactic. But others can also use that tactic. and right now what’s happened is that Kerry and the EU have appropriated the tactic of BDS to impose a historic defeat on the Palestinians. So Kerry goes around saying to Israel, “if you don’t agree to this plan, you’re going to be hit with BDS,” and the Europeans say to Israel “if you don’t seriously negotiate Kerry’s plan, we’re going to boycott or impose boycotts on the illegal settlements and any affiliates with the settlements.” But the point is that’s a tactic, the critical question is to what end? A tactic to what end? And that tactic now, is being used, is being put to the end of inflicting a historic defeat on the Palestinians. So you have this really kind of bizarre political context where BDS is acclaiming all of it’s victories, totally blind to the fact that these victories are being put to the end of inflicting a historic defeat to end on the Palestinians. You really have to marvel at it. It’s so completely insane what’s happening. BDS is acclaiming victoires which will now be used in order to defeat and inflict an historic defeat on the Palestinians. That’s what happens when you’re in a cult; a complete detachment from reality, you don’t see what’s happening. Omar Barghouti believes that he has broken the Merkel nut, you know cracked the Merkel nut. Angela Merkel, who fashions herself as some sort of commando whose assignment in life is to get into Hitler’s bunker and kill the fuhrer, she’s a complete lunatic on these questions and now she’s been putting a lot of pressure on Israel, it’s true. BDS think that it’s because of them. They don’t seem to grasp, let’s put it nicely, that there’s a qualitative distance between Scarlett Johansson and Angela Merkel. They don’t seem there is a difference there. There is some connecting links that you have to fill in before you get Scarlett Johansson to capitulate. and you get Angela Merkel to capitulate. There are some links that they don’t seem to grasp. They think today Scarlett Johansson, tomorrow Angela Merkel. You’re laughing but that’s it! They made this leap and they think it was because of BDS. That a thousand Facebook activists could cause Chancellor Angela Merkel to capitulate. It’s funny.
GM: Thanks a lot Norman.
NF: We’ll be in touch, thank you so much.
GM: We appreciate it, take care. That was Norman Finkelstein, you can check out his work at normanfinkelstein.com and that was episode two of our Alternative Voices series stay tuned for episode three.
The Melting Press is looking for volunteers to contribute, if you’re interested in writing about anything from politics to sport, economics to film we want to hear from you, submissions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org