My interview with Norman Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein is speaking at the University of Birmingham again tonight. So I thought that I would dig this interview I conducted with him for Redbrick out of the archives. I interviewed him in November 2008, and it didn’t get published until January 2009. It’s quite ironic reading the passages about Barack Obama’s Presidency now.

I enjoyed the interview, and think it’s one of the best ones I’ve conducted. My main problem with Finkelstein is the same issue of contention I have with journalists like John Pilger and Noam Chomsky: everything is a bit too black-and-white with them. I think that comes through in the article. Still, it’s an interesting piece and I hope you like it:

Norman Finkelstein was at the University of Birmingham giving a talk called “Israel and Palestine: Roots of Conflict, Prospects for Peace”, arranged by the University’s “Friends of Palestine” society.

He is one of the most controversial academic writers on Middle Eastern politics. Finkelstein’s most famous works, and one of his most controversial, is The Holocaust Industry. Published in 2000, its central thesis is that Israel exploits the memory of the Holocaust to cover up its own human rights crimes.

He no longer holds an academic position of his own. For six years he taught at DePaul University before being denied tenure there in 2007. Although never out the news, what we discussed in the interview seems more relevant than ever, after hostilities broke out once more in the Gaza strip.

How does Finkelstein think we can create “roots for peace”? “The UN General Council proposed a two-state settlement based on the June 1967 borders. All world votes and the same group abstain: Israel, America, Marshall Islands and Australia. There is no debate on how to solve it – it’s the least controversial international dispute.”

Why does this not happen? “For the same reason the British didn’t leave India until after World War Two. For the same reason France didn’t leave Algeria. Power doesn’t concede without a demand. The Israelis have to be forced out.” Can it be done peacefully? “No.”

This seems a little extreme. Both Israelis and Palestinians are limited in their ability to compromise by their extremist elements. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a member of a far-right Orthodox Jewish group in 1995 for merely proposing that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank. Similarly, Hamas, who won the Palestinian Authority elections in 2006, do not even recognise Israel has a right to exist.

We talk about Barack Obama’s victory in the US Elections, which at the time of the interview was only four days old. Finkelstein sees the election as a significant moment. “It is a genuine credit to the American people. The early part of my life [Finkelstein was born in 1953] was not much past the era of black lynchings. Now they have elected an African-American as President. You would be blind to deny something fundamental has changed for the better. I am hardly a flag-waving patriot, but you have to look in honour and respect of what happened.”

Finkelstein, however, continues by saying: “Obama is a typical centre-right Democrat. I have no expectations. His Presidency will be similar to the Clinton era but without the economic prosperity, in a general and literal sense.” He gives the example of appointing Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, a former member of the Clinton administration. Finkelstein then goes one step further. “Barack Obama is a typical wretched opportunist conman”. He must have noticed my eyebrows raise at this comment, because he continues: “He is! I don’t see why we should be politically correct about these things.”

Finkelstein does not think Obama’s election will see a great change in America’s Middle-East policy. “It will probably get worse, because he has to prove to the world he is not a Muslim”. So what does he think of the comments of “Joe the Plumber”, who said that Obama’s election would lead to the death of Israel? “In America the political system is detached from reality. Some of the labels they were giving Obama – calling him a socialist and a communist – I wish they were true!”

On Finkelstein’s personal website is a link to a piece entitled “In Defence of Hezbollah”. In 2006 he met one of their top officials in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s military wing is considered a terrorist organisation by the British government. Why does Finkelstein think they should be defended?

“Because of the same reason the Communist parties helped end the occupation of Axis forces during World War Two. Whatever you might say about Nasrallah, is he really more brutal than Stalin?” That would admittedly take some doing, but Nasrallah did say that it’s alright for all the world’s Jews to live in Israel, “because it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide”, which doesn’t sound like the talk of a reasonable man.

In any case, is comparing ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine to the occupation of Europe by the Nazis a little unfair? “You can use any you like. It is still an occupation. The resistance in Afghanistan versus the Soviets were the same who would turn into Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Nobody minded when gave we them weapons to fight the Red Army.” I am not convinced that comparing Israel to Al-Qaeda is an altogether more flattering comparison.

Norman Finkelstein paints a picture of a world where the only wrongdoers are the United States and Israel. The reality is not that one-sided. The rockets that Hamas are firing into Israel do constitute war crimes. Israel is surrounded by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and countries like Iran, who wish it wiped off the map.

Hamas is a vile group of Islamists who are suppressing dissent in Gaza and lead an increasingly authoritarian rule. But the international community’s shunning of Hamas since their election win in 2006 has only made the situation worse. To use a cricketing analogy, you can only bowl to whoever the opposition send in to bat. The only way to make peace is to somehow negotiate with Hamas.

At the time of writing, a ceasefire has been declared in Gaza. Over 1000 Palestinians have been killed, including 350 children. Israel and its supporters maintain that the firing of rockets into Gaza is justified, after Hamas fired rockets into Israel, and that most of those killed are Hamas operatives. But you cannot fire rockets into an area the size of the Isle of Wight with a population of 1.5 million and then be surprised that the your killing of innocent civilians is condemned worldwide.

Peace in the Middle East is increasingly elusive, and I am sure that many will think I am a fruitcake for even thinking you can negotiate with Hamas. One thing is for certain: rockets are not the answer.

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