Norman Finkelstein on His Book ‘Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom’ (Audio and Transcript)
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Norman G. Finkelstein, who’s written an incredible book published by the University of California Press: Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom. And I went to hear Norman Finkelstein speak the other night at the University of Southern California, where I happen to teach. And he was in a conversation with Sandy Tolan, a well-known NPR producer, director, writer, and who is a professor in the journalism school. And it was a large crowd in an auditorium, and what struck me as so odd–and this is, let me just say, this book is an incredibly well-documented, 400-page book, published by probably the most, one of the most important presses in the country–and you know, I saw the usual students and professors there. But what startled me, there seemed to be about six police officers, about four in plain clothes and a couple in full uniform. And then I wondered, what was this all about? And what it’s all about is the third rail that is Israel, and its relation to the Palestinians. And Norman Finkelstein, despite having a PhD from Princeton and being clearly a very accomplished scholar, has presented a point of view which evidently has made him kind of a non-person. What was the controversy there? What is the controversy about your work, really? Because your talk, whether one agreed with every point or not, struck me as a rather traditional, competent, scholarly analysis of a major issue.
Norman Finkelstein: I think it’s, there’s always an element of being self-serving when you respond to a question like that. Because I’m going to present a picture that depicts me as an innocent victim, and any listener who doesn’t know me and doesn’t know my past, and doesn’t know my reputation, will take that depiction with a grain of salt or maybe even a boulder of salt. And so I always feel ill at ease answering questions of that kind. I’ll just try to be as brief and factual as I can. I received my PhD from Princeton in 1988 from the politics department. And I was never able to get full-time work, what would be called a tenure-track job, which at some point is supposed to culminate in getting tenure, until 2000, when I was on a tenure-track job at a rather modest institution, DePaul University in Chicago. And unfortunately by the time my tenure year came up, a quite massive campaign had been launched to derail my tenure, and that proved to be successful. And since that unsuccessful tenure bid, that is to say, the past 11 years, I have been unemployed. I worked for three weeks teaching in Turkey, but apart from that I’ve not had any gainful employment. I’ve written I think something like 10 books, which have been translated into more than 50 foreign editions, some of which, not many, but a few of which were quite successful commercially. And a few of which received, you might call academic accolades. Then the question is, how do we account for all of that? And here again, the problem of self-serving sets in. I would say in my opinion, what accounts for it is I’m quite effective at what I do. If I had been ineffective in defending the rights of Palestinians, I think I probably would have gotten a pass in academia, because the forces of evil, they wouldn’t really care. But during the, you’d say during the 2000s, I was reaching quite large crowds; I would say reaching the mainstream. And because of my mastery of the facts–and also I didn’t take what you might call radical positions; I wasn’t advocating one state, I wasn’t advocating armed resistance; I was taking a pretty mainstream position, but being persuasive in the way I argued the case–there was a feeling that it was time to cut me down to size and to attempt to discredit me academically, and discredit me as a scholar by saying, you see this guy Finkelstein, he couldn’t even get tenure at DePaul University in Chicago.
RS: The reason I’m stressing this is, as I say, it’s the third-rail issue, and it’s not just the academy; it’s the mainstream media and so forth. I personally know this because I was in Gaza at the end of the Six-Day War, and the irony here is that at that time, the labor government in Israel was very clear that if this occupation in both the West Bank and Gaza continued into the future–now, maybe they were being disingenuous in saying this. But I interviewed the famous General Moshe Dayan, and I interviewed others, and they said the idea of occupying a large group of people would contradict the fundamental idea of an enlightened state of Israel, a home for the Jewish people and others. It is not an issue that goes away; the latest demographic reports indicate that–from Israel–that within 10, 20 years there will be a majority of non-Jews in this total, larger Israel, including the occupied lands. So you know, what I guess I’m really pushing at is, yes, you have a message that is, can be disturbing to people, but it’s well documented. And I’m not, you know, being cute here; I really can’t understand the resistance to a well-argued, factually documented–and, as you say, not a far-out position. The other night in your talk you took issue with the boycott movement, because it doesn’t have a clear position of accepting the existence of Israel, I gather was your point. It gets to the whole argument of politically correct, and whether we really have free debate, and open. And on this issue, it seems to me that irrationality dominates, that if you dare suggest that the occupation is unstable and repressive of human beings, which certainly you make a compelling argument, that that’s not a point of view that’s accepted.
NF: Well, Israel has a very efficient, competent, well-financed propaganda machinery. And for the longest time, it was quite effective in depicting Israel as not the aggressor, but the victim of aggression; not the practitioner of terrorism, but the victim of terrorism. And that point of view was dominant, I would say, until fairly recently. The atrocities committed by Israel, the magnitude of the massacres and the fact that they are, at this point, almost, virtually–they’re not continuous, but they’re continual. They recur approximately once every two years: Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, operation Protective Edge, 2014, and now there’s considerable talk about launching another attack on Lebanon to decapitate Hezbollah. And there’s talk simultaneously of engaging in an attack on Iran. Israel has, I would say, has gone over the cliff; it’s become a lunatic state, and it’s almost become a Dracula-like state that needs to, needs its blood; there’s a kind of a blood lust that permeates, that pervades in that society at this point. And so however efficient, however competent, and however financially solvent this propaganda operation is, I think it’s being, it’s proven to be less and less effective over time, among the population in general, but among American Jews in particular, and in particular among the younger generation of American Jews, who have grown estranged from Israel, estranged from its population, estranged from its leadership, and estranged from, in particular, its world view. For example, American Jews in the first election of Barack Obama, about 80 percent of American Jews voted for Obama; in the second election, it was slightly less, because Obama’s popularity had diminished somewhat. So it was about 70 percent. Jews are firmly on the moderate to liberal end of the political spectrum. And there couldn’t be a more loathsome, repellent creature among liberal American Jews than a figure like Donald Trump. But Donald Trump’s biggest cheerleader in the world is Benjamin Netanyahu. And it’s not just limited to Benjamin Netanyahu; it’s the population of Israel. If you look at the public opinion polls in Israel, the Israeli population is very fond of Donald Trump. You can imagine this puts American Jews, in particular young American Jews, in a very strained position. Because the idol of the Jewish state is, by the reckoning of most liberals, among whom Jews are prominently represented, is an anathema. The estrangement between American Jews, in particular among Jews in Israel, has now reached a point such that I think American Jewry, they would draw a line if Israel’s physical, literal existence were at stake. But short of that, so long as Israel’s literal, physical safety were preserved, American Jewry, I think, over time, the process has already begun. I wouldn’t say it’s yet in an advanced state, but I would say it’s significantly past the point of inception. Not yet past the point of no return. American Jewry are going to gradually dissociate itself from the state of Israel and its population.
RS: [Omission for station break] The effort to marginalize you is what I really object to. Because one can disagree with a writer, but your writing is really formidable and well documented. And I want to quote one of your supporters, who cannot be easily marginalized, Alice Walker, who won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The Color Purple. And she endorsed your most recent book, which is Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom. And what Alice Walker says is, quote, “This is the voice I listen for, when I want to learn the deepest reality about Jews, Zionists, Israelis, and Palestinians. Norman Finkelstein is surely one of the forty honest humans the Scripture alludes to who can save ‘Sodom’ (our Earth) by pointing out, again and again, the sometimes soul-shriveling but unavoidable Truth. There is no one like him today, but in my bones I know this incredible warrior for Humanity and Justice is an archetype that has always been. And will always be. Small comfort in these dark times, perhaps, but a comfort I am deeply grateful for.” Now, those are very powerful words. And I do want to point out, you know, this notion that you are a warrior for truth–let’s just talk a little bit about your own background. You are the child of Holocaust survivors. You’re not someone who can be easily dismissed as indifferent to the suffering of Jewish people historically. So could you just take us on that trajectory a bit, how you developed this interest, and how you ended up at this place now.
NF: My parents were real survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. At some point, when the, what I call the Holocaust Industry started up, everybody started to claim to be a Holocaust survivor; you couldn’t walk the streets of New York without one of every three people walking up to you and saying, “I’m a Holocaust survivor.” Which I found, frankly, deeply offensive. To have endured what my parents did, a handful survived. And it’s a grotesque misappropriation of that suffering to claim that you’re a Holocaust survivor. Henry Kissinger is a Holocaust survivor because in 1934 he fled Germany and came to the United States–no, buddy. You’re not a Holocaust survivor. You escaped the Holocaust; you didn’t survive it. And that’s a very big difference. The many hundreds of thousands of Jews who found refuge in the Soviet Union when Poland was divided in 1939–they did not endure the Holocaust; they escaped it. My parents were in the Warsaw ghetto until 1943, when the uprising, the Warsaw ghetto uprising was repressed; there were about 20 to 30,000 survivors of the uprising, and they were deported to Majdanek concentration camp. Both my father and mother were deported there; my father ended up in Auschwitz, and he was in the Auschwitz death march. He was liberated by the Americans. My mother was, ended up in, after Majdanek she was in two slave labor camps, and she was liberated by the Russians. After the war they were in a DP camp, displaced people’s camp, inLinz, Austria. And then they both came, they had married in Linz and they came to the United States. Every single member on both sides of the family was exterminated. My mother’s father, her mother, her two sisters, her brother. On my father’s side, the same; I think he had one sister and one brother, if I’m not mistaken. Everybody was exterminated, and my parents, each of them was alone in the world. And then we grew up as a family of five. My mother was a Jewish mother, then, times ten; she was always very worried and cautious and concerned if any of us, meaning my brothers and I, stepped out of the straight and narrow. And if ever I said I’m going to attend a demonstration, and she was always fearful that we were going to get killed in the demonstration. She would say, “Remember, we’re only five people in the world,” “Remember, we’re only five people in the world.” It was a kind of psychological terrorism, I have to say, but on the other hand I understood it. And that experience, my parents’ experience, pervaded our household, literally until my parents’ deaths. They never let go of what happened, and frankly, I don’t think they wanted to let go of what happened. It was a kind of respect and honor to the dead that you preserve the memory, and you don’t forget. The Jewish communists had a slogan, “Never to forgive, never to forget.” And my parents adopted that, maybe not consciously, that credo, but certainly that was the credo by which they lived: “Never to forgive, never to forget.” And my mother referred to the experience that she endured, she referred to it as martyrs and martyrdom. As much to honor her memory, I guess it is to honor the memory of the people who have suffered in Gaza. I was very adamant, even as I published the book Gaza in a university press, that I wanted the word martyrdom in the subtitle. People of Gaza are martyrs. They are being punished, they are being crucified, they are being murdered, they are being tortured, for no crime. And that’s just a fact. My mother was once asked, I used to speak with her in the late 1980s and early 1990s, during what was called the First Intifada, I spoke with her at a number of public presentations. She spoke on the Nazis and the Jews, and I spoke on Israel and the Palestinians. And the symmetry was intentional. And as you can imagine, the audiences were thrilled at what my mother had to say, and they were appalled at what I had to say. And once, a member of the audience summoned up the courage to ask my mother, what do you think about what your son is saying? And she said, well, so far as I can tell, the only crime the Palestinians have committed was that they were born in Palestine. And that’s true as a general statement of the Palestinians, and it’s certainly true about the people of Gaza. Their only crime–when I speak about the people of Gaza, that can be somewhat misleading, because the tendency of an audience is to conjure up a fairly equal distribution of a population from children all the way to adulthood, and then senior citizens. But Gaza is not properly depicted that way; the population of Gaza, over half of Gaza, is children under the age of 18. And these children of Gaza, who as we speak now are being systematically and methodically poisoned by the state of Israel–that sounds like an incendiary, and you might even call it defamatory and libelous statement, but it also happens to be a factually correct statement. Ninety-seven percent of the drinking water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption. And as Sara Roy, the leading scholar in the world on Gaza’s economy–she’s at Harvard University, and her parents too, as a point of information, both her parents were survivors of Auschwitz concentration camp. As Sara Roy wrote in the preface to her new edition of her book on Gaza’s economy, she says that every morning the parents in Gaza have to bear witness to the fact that because 97 percent of the drinking water is now contaminated, their children are being poisoned–systematically, methodically, knowingly–by Israel, which has imposed this medieval blockade, this criminal, immoral, illegal siege of Gaza, not allowing in vital parts to their needed, to, for the water sewage system; not allowing for the electricity in Gaza–I guess now Gazans have about four hours of electricity each day, which means hospitals can’t perform operations, which means the water can’t be purified. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to invoke the memory of my late parents, who referred to their own suffering as a martyrdom, and to now import that label for the people of Gaza. That they are martyrs; they are being systematically ground under by a state for no other reason than the fact that they were born in Gaza.
RS: Having visited Gaza at the end of the Six-Day War, I just want to remind people, we’re talking about a sliver of land that now has 1.8 million people in it; it’s 25 miles long, five miles wide. It’s the most heavily, one of the most heavily concentrated places in the world. That most of the people, the Palestinians who are there, were forced out of Israel; they were, they are displaced persons, by origin. And of course most of the population of Gaza was born long after these events. The Palestinians were occupied before the Six-Day War, on the West Bank, Jordan was the operative power, and in Gaza it was Egypt. Palestinians had–one can argue about the Six-Day War; I personally, from having covered it at the time, thought that this was not a war that had to take place, and that Israel did use it as a pretext for expansion, or for dealing a blow to Egypt which had a military power, force. But nonetheless, the Palestinians were, even then, very much an occupied people, and Israel simply replaced them. And the irony is that Israel gets along quite well with those occupiers, with Jordan and with Egypt. That is, I mean, it’s not the Palestinians that had attacked Israel at the time of the Six-Day War, and that is forgotten. And the other point–‘cause we’re going to run out of time here, there’s so much in your 400-page book–but the real indictment of this book is, is–and you begin with the opening sentence: “This book is not about Gaza. It is about what has been done to Gaza. It is fashionable nowadays”–I’m quoting from your book–“It is fashionable nowadays to speak of a victim’s agency. But one must be realistic about the constraints imposed on such agency by objective circumstance.” So we are talking about people who have been living in what others have described as the world’s biggest open-air prison. And your book is an indictment, not just of Israel’s attitude towards Gaza, but of the world, and particularly of human rights agencies; the U.N., Amnesty International. And the fact that this narrative can be dictated by the occupier, so that even–and you have this devastating account of the Goldstone Report, which was first an indictment of Israel, and then Goldstone himself, Judge Goldstone backs off, you talk about. So let’s talk a little bit about it, the failure of the worldwide human rights community to apply the standards to Israel and its occupation that they apply elsewhere in the world.
NF: Well, the human rights organizations have historically been very cautious in their criticisms of Israel. There are some good reasons for that, the sensitivity to Jews because of what Jews endured during the Nazi holocaust. And one can honor, I think, that kind of sensitivity. But I think predominantly it’s a kind of negative commentary in the human rights organizations, and it goes something like this: as I already said earlier, Jews are overwhelmingly liberal; Jews are in the United States the, by far, by a wide margin now, they’re the richest religious ethnic group in the United States. They have a lot of money. And Jews tend to give, with their large amounts of money, they give money to Jewish causes. But they also give large amounts of money to liberal causes, things like hospitals, universities. Included under that rubric is going to be human rights organizations. And because Jews are liberal, and they’re very successful academically, they’re very successful professionally, there are going to be large numbers of Jews who are staffing these organizations, human rights organizations. So when you add up all those factors, the wealth of Jews, the professional success of Jews, the predominance of Jews in liberal organizations, the fact that a lot of these institutions are financially dependent on Jews, the bottom line is there has been a–here I wouldn’t use the word sensitivity, I would say there has been a lot of hypocrisy and double standard. That began to change after the first intifada, the first nonviolent mass resistance to the Israeli occupation. And then by the time of Israel’s massacre in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, the human rights organizations were, I could say, I think it’s fair to say they were galvanized by the magnitude of the death and destruction that Israel inflicted on Gaza. And after Operation Cast Lead, there were about 300 human rights reports that were issued on Israel’s destruction and the death it inflicted on Gaza. And the highlight, the culmination, the climax of those reports was the Goldstone Report, the report that was presided over by Richard Goldstone, who was a respected jurist from South Africa. By his own reckoning, he’s a proud Jew; by his own reckoning, he’s a proud Zionist. He sat on the board of directors of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and he issued a devastating report on what Israel had done in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. And the central conclusion of his report was that the objective of Operation Cast Lead was to punish, humiliate, and terrorize the civilian population. Israel, as you can imagine, reacted in sheer hysteria to the conclusion of the Goldstone Report, that this in fact wasn’t a war; this was state terrorism, it was the targeting of a civilian population for political objectives, it was a crime against humanity. Goldstone eventually succumbed to the ruthless and relentless campaign, mostly ad hominem, launched against him. And on April 1st, 2011, about seven years ago this week, in the Washington Post, he recanted his report; he withdrew it, at least he personally withdrew it, his name from endorsement of it. And after that the human rights organizations, it seems that they ran for cover. They saw that if you do what Goldstone did, you’re going to be Goldstoned. Goldstone, who was a respected jurist; he was professionally, you could say pretty close to professionally destroyed by what happened. And so when Operation Protective Edge came along in July, August 2014, at every level it was much more destructive, much more death-inflicting. But notwithstanding that fact, Human Rights Watch was basically missing in action, and Amnesty International, although it weighed in with five reports, these were basically whitewashes, almost dictated by Israeli propaganda. The human rights community has effectively abandoned Gaza, as has most of the world.
RS: I’m going to have to end this here, Norman Finkelstein. The book is Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom. It’s detailed, it makes a powerful argument, check it out. Well, that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producers are Rebecca Mooney and Josh Scheer. Our engineers are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore here at KCRW. And today we had an important assist from Darren Peck at Sports Byline in San Francisco. See you next week.’TIS THE REASON…
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