The Sceptic Optimist: Interview with Norman Finkelstein

Professor Norman G. Finkelstein. (Photo: File)

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 popfulation 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”.

(This article was first published in the Republic Paper and was contributed to the Palestine Chronicle by Jotam Confino.)

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  1. Norman Finkelstein did help in many ways by exposing Israeli practices and Hasbara. However, he did a great disservice to the Palestinian struggle by publicly attacking the BDS movement in 2012. BDS activists are still waiting for a full public apology for his unwarranted attacks on the BDS movement. “Check Under the Olive Tree” radio show interview with me about the subject, “Solidarity / The ostracization of Norman Finkelstein”:

  2. thank you Palestine Chronicle for republishing this excellent interview. especially since it appears the Republic Paper has taken it off line.

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