Finkelstein Interview (English)

March 7, 2010

In News

English Version (click here for German).

By Arn Strohmeyer, peace activist, Bremen, Germany

Dr. Finkelstein, in Germany it has become increasingly difficult for Jewish intellectuals to publicly voice criticism of Israeli policy, as self-declared friends of Israel try to pressure organizations and venues into disinviting these speakers under the guise of fighting anti-Semitism. Recent targets include Israeli historian Ilan Pappe and Israeli human rights lawyer Felicia Langer. These past few days we’ve witnessed a smear campaign against you which compelled you to cancel a lecture tour to Munich and Berlin. What’s your impression of the current political climate in Germany, and where, do you think, things are headed?

Finkelstein: My impression from afar is that Chancellor Merkel’s hysterical support for Israel and incessant invocation of the Nazi holocaust have further poisoned an already toxic atmosphere and has emboldened the likes of Henryk Broder to go on the offensive. It should be emphasized however that we are talking about a vocal and aggressive minority. To judge by polling data, the overwhelming majority of Germans are critical of Israeli policy and do not believe the Nazi holocaust imposes a special responsibility on Germans towards Israel.

You have been under attack for comparing Israeli policy with Hitler’s National Socialism. For Germans such a comparison is not easy to contemplate, let alone accept, because of their historical guilt toward the Jewish people. Do you really consider the comparison appropriate?

Finkelstein: At one point such comparisons were necessary to jolt people from their complacency. But nowadays it is sufficient to quote mainstream human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in order to convey the magnitude of the brutality and illegality of Israeli policies.

Some people argue that Germans don’t have the right to criticize Israel in any way. Chancellor Angela Merkel and other high-ranking officials keep emphasizing that, for reasons of state, Germany must always act in solidarity with Israel, and this stance has been prevalent ever since the two countries established diplomatic relations. Germany ignores, or even justifies, Israeli human rights violations against the Palestinians. Indeed Germany maintains close military ties with Israel, and German weaponry was used in Israel’s 2008-2009 war on Gaza. Isn’t it dangerous for Germany to subordinate its own foreign affairs to Israeli security policy and to allow itself to be dragged into Israel’s wars? And doesn’t Germany also have a historic responsibility toward the Palestinians?

Finkelstein: One central lesson of the Nazi holocaust ought to be that truth and justice should stand above subservience to a state. Amnesty International has called for a total arms embargo on Israel because it is a consistent violator of human rights. By supplying weapons to Israel, Germany has betrayed fundamental principles of human rights and international law. It is ironic that Germany should use the Nazi holocaust to justify its criminal policy.

You’ve called the government of George W. Bush a “gangster regime.” What’s your opinion of the Obama administration? He has expressed a willingness to improve U.S. relations with the Islamic world, and raised people’s hopes for a solution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Was that only rhetoric?

Finkelstein: Nearly all of Obama’s foreign policy team are holdovers from the Clinton and Bush administrations so it would be surprising if the Obama administration acted differently from its predecessors. Rather the contrary, the brilliant journalist Allan Nairn recently pointed out on Democracy Now! that Obama has probably killed more innocent civilians during his first year in office than George Bush.

It seems Israel still intends to attack Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reported to have asked Russia for support of such a plan during his recent trip to Moscow. What would an Israeli attack on Iran mean for the region and the world? Does Iran really pose a threat to Israel, the only nuclear power in the region?

Finkelstein: I do not believe Israel will attack Iran unless it gets a green light from the Obama administration, and right now that seems unlikely. There is no evidence that Iran has embarked on a nuclear weapons program and no evidence that even if it acquired such weapons Israel would be threatened. The Iranian leadership has been slowly but steadily acquiring regional strength; it does not want to be annihilated in a nuclear conflagration. In any case, the best solution is to turn the Middle East into a WMD (weapons of mass destruction)-free zone. It can hardly be doubted that if Israel agreed to such a proposal, Iran would be forced to quickly follow.

Politically, Israel is moving towards the extreme right, and it seems Israel is relying on the superiority of its weaponry rather than pursuing peace. Do you nonetheless see grounds for hope?

Finkelstein: Israel has always relied on the superiority of its weaponry and has never sought peace except after it suffered a setback on the battlefield. It agreed to peace with Egypt in 1978 because it suffered a major military setback during the October 1973 war. The main hope for peace right now is the gradual awakening of public opinion to the fact that Israel has become a menace to world peace. In this respect the massacre Israel inflicted on Gaza a year ago marked a turning-point. It became clear to many people that what Israel did was both immoral and indefensible.

How do you explain the seeming reluctance by the European Union to pressure Israel into making peace with its neighbors? It seems we are supposed to believe that the failure to pursue peace is somehow “pro-Israel.”

Finkelstein: The EU does not want to tangle with the U.S. over the Palestinians. They have no real motive to defend the Palestinians, and every reason to want to avoid a conflict with the U.S. In fact, the EU’s voting record in the UN General Assembly is generally quite good. But when it comes to acting on its avowed principles, it stays silent.

Do you think the United Nations and the international community have dealt adequately with the Goldstone Report on Gaza?

Finkelstein: Because of American backing for Israel and the cowardice of the EU, it is unlikely that the Goldstone report will have significant legal consequences. But it has certainly caused Israel big headaches because it has roused world opinion. Israel cannot answer Goldstone’s devastating findings because its usual slanders – anti-Semite, self-hating Jew, Holocaust denier – don’t work against him. As Haaretz’s Gideon Levy put it, Goldstone is “propaganda-proof.”

The Goldstone Report accuses Israel of “war crimes.” You’ve used the word “Holocaust” to describe what happened. Do you really consider this an appropriate analogy?

Finkelstein: I do not recall drawing the analogy though it’s possible that I did use the word to highlight the obscenity of invoking the Jewish people’s historic suffering in order to justify the high-tech inferno in Gaza. However, I do not normally use the word “Holocaust” to describe what happened. Rather, I stick closely to the findings of respected mainstream human rights organizations and scholars, who have referred to Israel’s war crimes and possible (or certain) crimes against humanity during its assault on Gaza.

Do you think Israel first has to come to grips with its past and depose of its Zionist myths before a real peace can be achieved in the Middle East?

Finkelstein: Israel will agree to a settlement of the conflict when it is compelled to. Such compulsion can take many forms including the “force of public opinion” and non-violent civil disobedience.

Israel tends to justify its actions by invoking the Holocaust. At the same time, it disregards moral considerations and international law. How can this be stopped? Would you consider an international boycott of Israeli goods and products a legitimate and effective course of action, and would you regard German participation in such an endeavour appropriate?

Finkelstein: I support any tactic that is morally justifiable and likely to achieve the desired goal. It’s pointless to speak in broad abstractions. Each initiative has to be evaluated on its own individual merits. The initiatives most likely to succeed are the ones that mainstream human rights organizations have proposed such as the arms embargo.

Dr. Finkelstein, thank you for your time.


Political scientist Norman G. Finkelstein is the author of five books, including The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering and Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. His new book, “This Time We Went Too Far”: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion, is forthcoming from OR Books, New York, at the end of March. In 2009, a new documentary on Finkelstein, titled American Radical, was released. His website is