Interview with Norman Finkelstein

July 16, 2010

In News

Norman Finkelstein is one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals writing about the Israel-Palestine conflict. He is the author of many books on the topic, most recently Beyond Chutzpah, an exhaustive account of Israel’s human rights record, and This Time We Went Too Far (reviewed in NLP), an analysis of the Gaza massacre and its consequences. I met him in his Brooklyn apartment to discuss, inter alia, the intellectual climate in the US after the flotilla attack, the merits of various strategies for opposing the occupation, and Tony Blair.

Part 1 of the discussion follows.

What, at root, is this conflict about?

The basic conflict can be understood in very conventional terms of people enduring and trying to resist an occupation. I don’t think it requires much more profundity in order to understand why Palestinians are opposed to their current condition, and I think Israel is behaving like most occupying powers behave – specifically, it is very hard to evict them. It wasn’t easy to get the French out of Algeria, it wasn’t easy to get the Russians out of Afghanistan, it wasn’t easy to get the Americans out of Vietnam and it’s not easy to get the Israelis out of the occupied Palestinian territories, but I don’t think one has to search for very profound reasons. There are surely other layers, but the fundamental fact is that the Palestinians are not only deprived of their basic human rights but they’re slowly, inexorably, being dispossessed of their homeland by the Israeli juggernaut.

A recent exchange between Zeev Sternhell and Gabriel Piterberg in the New Left Review discussed, among other things, the applicability of the ‘settler-colonial’ model to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Do you think that’s a useful framework to use?

I think those models are pitched at such a high level of abstraction that they can be made to fit anything. Yes, they are settlers, and yes they have colonised. Those two facts the Israelis don’t deny: during the Mandate period they referred to themselves as the ‘Jewish Colonization Association’, so they don’t deny that they colonised, and they don’t deny that they were settlers. So at that level of abstraction, very few honest Israelis would dissent. I think the important point, which will require some elaboration, is that there are two components to Zionism: it was the outgrowth of an imperialist project, part of late 19th century European imperialism, but it also was an expression of Eastern European nationalism. So it has components of conventional imperialism, and components of conventional nationalism, and I think unless you understand both you don’t really grasp Zionism.

Romantic nationalism?

Yeah, it’s a conventional form of romantic nationalism. If you read the works of Hans Kohn, who was the foremost historian of nationalism in the 1940s and 50s, it’s pretty clear that Zionism fits in squarely as a fairly typical form of romantic nationalism, ‘blood and soil’ nationalism (‘Blut und Boden’).

Any other useful historical analogies you can think of?

I’ve found from my own work that actually the comparison with the dispossession of the Native Americans in North America works pretty well. Some years ago I sat down and started to read about what happened to the Cherokee Indians in the United States, and if you follow the steps in their dispossession, and then overlay the Israel-Palestine conflict, the correspondence and correlation is pretty impressive.

How useful is the apartheid analogy in conveying the realities of Israel’s occupation policy?

I see no reason to be a quibbler on these points. So many mainstream Israelis now make the comparison, and so many mainstream South Africans make the comparison. The former Israeli Attorney-General Michael Ben-Yair, the former Israeli Ministers of Education Yossi Sarid and Shulamit Aloni, John Dugard, Desmond Tutu, repeated Ha’aretz editorials, B’Tselem, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel… all reputable, knowledgeable sources and, most importantly, sources which are either careful in their use of language, or – in the case of South Africans – who would be very far from wanting to trivialize their experience. When you have such an overwhelming number of serious, respected scholars and activists making this comparison, I see no reason to dissent. On the other hand, of course, there are differences – the main one being that although in theory apartheid wanted to completely separate the races, in practice they knew they could never do without black labour. In the case of Israel they don’t want to preserve Palestinian or Arab labour, they really want to make a homogeneous state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. They would want it to be homogeneous, not only in theory but in practice – except for guest workers, like the role Turkish workers play in much of Europe where they’re deprived of their rights.

Often you hear “’Israel’ is doing this…” and “’Israel’ is doing that…”, but why do you think ‘Israel’ wants to maintain the occupation in the first place? Israeli analyst Shir Hiver of the Alternative Information Centre in Jerusalem has rejected explanations for the occupation that rely purely on a traditional ‘who benefits?’ economic analysis. Do you think the reasons for the occupation are material, ideological or both?

First of all, you can never prove these things. Second of all, there could be an elite consensus on the goal but there may not be elite consensus on the motive. So there could be consensus that we want to preserve the occupation, but it may be for different reasons depending on who you’re talking to. So there are some people, plainly, for whom the occupation is a religious thing. There are right-wing religious fanatics in Israel – quite a few, in fact. So there is, for some, a religious component. For some there’s plainly an economic component, to keep some of the most valuable land and to keep the water resources. For some, I’m more and more inclined to believe that it’s a kind of political thing with the Israelis where they never give in unless they’re forced to give in.

Let’s take the example of South Lebanon. Israel was occupying South Lebanon and there were all sorts of theories about why it wouldn’t leave. Now bear in mind that Israel stayed there for a long time, from 1978 to 2000 – that’s not a short period, we’re talking about 22 years. So why did it stay? Well, some people said, like in the West Bank, ‘they wanted the water resources’, ‘they wanted the Litani’, and so on. I think they basically wanted to stay because they were there and they didn’t want to leave until they were ready to leave. They were not going to let anybody dictate the terms of when they stay and when they leave, because they see any imposed withdrawal as a sign of weakness. So once they’re there, they’re staying there, until they’re forced to leave. I know it’s kind of a circular argument, but they see any kind of withdrawal as being weakness, and I think at this point they’re not going to leave, precisely because everybody wants them to leave. They want to show that they can resist any pressure, because if at any point they leave, it’s going to be because they were forced to, and for them that shows weakness.

Do you think the desire to control the West Bank in particular is motivated in any way by genuine security concerns?

No. I don’t want to be flippant, but there’s no evidence of security concerns. Everybody agrees that the notion that the Jordan Valley represents any kind of security value to Israel is nonsense. They even admit it – if you read Shlomo Ben-Ami and the others, they say it’s a complete myth that the Jordan Valley offers any kind of security protection to them. For Christ’s sake, we’re talking now about the main threats being missiles, rockets and nuclear weapons. How can the West Bank be any kind of security barrier against that? It’s just ridiculous. It used to be said ‘we have to keep the West Bank not because of Jordan but because Iraq may invade Jordan’, but Iraq’s out of the picture now. Iraq is not about to send troops into Jordan to attack Israel – that’s not on the drawing board. So what is its purpose? There’s no convincing argument for that sort of claim. Even Hamas now has rockets and they’re claiming they have even longer range rockets. How does keeping land protect you from that?

How much elite opposition to occupation is there within Israel?

Some people speculate that you can find some elite opposition among, say, the industrialists in Israel. Presumably the equivalent of our Silicon Valley high-tech business people, who probably think the occupation’s totally crazy because all they want to do is make money and they figure that the fastest and easiest way to make money is to be at peace with everybody. So I suppose there are economic actors in Israel who oppose the occupation, and you can find statements by them saying that they’d like to end the occupation. But there’s a pretty hard consensus now that Israel is not going to give in to the terms that would allow for genuine Palestinian self-determination. And that’s not just an elite consensus, it’s an Israeli consensus.

And on that topic, current trends on the popular level don’t look positive.

No, they’re over the cliff. It’s South Africa in the ‘70s. They’re digging in their heels, until they start feeling the pain of the occupation. Right now they don’t feel anything – everybody says the Israeli economy is developing at a very fast clip, life’s never been better there. The only thing they don’t like, of course, is the fact that they’re being ostracised.

I’ve heard two tactical conclusions drawn about these trends within Israeli public opinion. Liberal Zionists often say that, given the realities of Israeli popular opinion, our priority should be to avoid alienating the Israeli public further and to try to bring them around, and so we shouldn’t take a hard position because then they’ll feel besieged, and so on. Others say, along the lines of your previous response, that Israelis need to be made to feel the costs of occupation more, through Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and similar campaigns. What’s your response to the first line of argument?

I think both are appropriate. You don’t want to isolate people into a corner where they feel like they have no other option but to strike out. So you have to show that you’re reasonable, that you’re proposing a reasonable settlement of the conflict that is in accordance with international law and one which protects the rights and the dignity of all sides. But on the other hand you have to make them feel that this can’t go on, because right now they still think it can go on. Even on a military level, the attitude of the Israelis is not that there has been a shift in power in the Middle East, or that a shift in power is occurring. Their attitude is that ‘we’ve made mistakes, we’ve made errors militarily. All we have to do is correct the mistakes and correct the errors and it will be back to post-June 1967. And if the Arabs get out of line then we just do what we did in ’67 when we delivered a couple of hard blows, and we’ll defeat them.’ It hasn’t yet sunk in at any level that this can’t continue, and so they have to be made to feel the hard way that they can’t go on. But we must always throw out the life preserver: this is not about destroying Israel, this is not about sweeping anyone into the sea, it’s about guaranteeing and defending everybody’s rights and human dignity.

So how do American and British citizens go about accomplishing that, tactically? What are your views on the BDS movement, for example?

First of all, people are getting a little too cult-like about BDS. You always know a movement is growing insular when it starts using these in-group abbreviations (‘BDS’). In my day it was ‘DOP’ – ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’. You have these little abbreviations to show that you’re part of the ‘in-group’ and you’re cool and you know what’s going on. So we should really steer away from that, because this is not about our egos, which are sometimes oversized. It’s about trying to achieve an important, humane goal.

There are now basically three strands, as I see it, of resistance to what Israel is doing. One strand is the legal one: trying to hold Israel accountable according to international law. That took its most salient form in the Goldstone Report, but there have been a lot of initiatives around it, like the use of universal jurisdiction in the UK to threaten lawsuits against Israeli officials and personnel who come to the country. That to me is an extremely valuable tool in trying to organise people in the sense of leaning on the law to say that what we’re demanding is simply what the law is demanding. But in terms of application it’s very elitist, because it’s just a very narrow group of lawyers who can ever really bring to bear the force of law.

Another strand is the nonviolent civil resistance, which includes what goes on in places like Bil’in, the internationalists who go over there, and also things like the flotilla. Those are all part of the nonviolent civil resistance component – I won’t say ‘strategy’ because I don’t think any of these different approaches are in conflict – of opposition to the occupation.

The third component is BDS. This has, I think, two aspects to it: one aspect that targets Israel globally, saying anything and everything that has to do with Israel has to be boycotted, and a second that says we should focus on those aspects of what Israel does that are illegal under international law. So for example, what the Methodist Church in Britain just did: it did not pass a resolution saying we should boycott all Israeli products, even though there were some people pushing for that. It passed a resolution saying we should boycott Israeli goods that come from the settlements, because the settlements are illegal under international law. And then there are the initiatives of, say, Amnesty International that call for a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel because the transfer of weapons to persistent human rights abusers is illegal under international law. Then there’s the targeting of Caterpillar because Caterpillar is involved in demolition of homes, which is illegal under international law, and so on.

So there’s one subset of BDS that focuses not on Israel globally but on aspects of Israeli policy that violate international law. There’s another subset that says everything having to do with Israel should be boycotted – its academic institutions, all of its products, and so on and so forth. Personally, I think that the first subset – namely targeting those aspects of Israeli policy that violate international law – has a much better chance of success because people understand international law. When you start targeting everything having to do with Israel it begins to pose questions of motive – ‘OK, now, what exactly are we opposed to here? Are we opposed to the occupation or are we opposed to Israel completely?’ And the global targeting is, I think, deliberately obfuscatory on that issue.

And how would you respond to the argument that things like cultural boycotts – ‘global’ BDS, in your terminology – do function to make Israelis ‘feel the cost’ of occupation?

That’s true, and I’m not dogmatic: I’m long past the days when I had a party line I had to prove. I think that’s true, and I think those are successes, and I’m glad when people say they’ll boycott. But frankly, I don’t really trust a lot of the people involved. I don’t think they’re honest. They use these very vague formulations, such that you don’t exactly know what they’re against. I like Uri Avnery on some days and dislike him on others, but here I think he’s right: you never get a clear sense with these people about what exactly they’re opposed to.

I guess they’d respond that they’re trying to build as broad a movement as possible, and so as far as they can, they try to avoid specifying their preferences for a final settlement so that people who disagree about that can still unite to achieve more immediate goals.

Yes, but it also turns a lot of people away because they want clear answers before they’re willing to join in. You know, they say they oppose “Zionists” – “Zionism” is the epithet du jour – but what does that mean? You’re against Richard Goldstone? You’re against Noam Chomsky? I don’t know what it means. Richard Goldstone is the enemy? I don’t see that.

Part 2 of the discussion will be published shortly.