Finkelstein in Helsinki

November 21, 2009

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein, a documentary by David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier, premiered in Finland at the Lens Politica festival.

Norman Finkelstein is an American researcher who has written extensively on the Israel–Palestine conflict and on the politics of the Nazi holocaust. His books The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History received both high praise and intense criticism. Finkelstein was in Helsinki attending the premier of American Radical, a documentary about his life and career, which was being shown at the Lens Politica film festival.

Could you start by describing your history as a scholar of the Israel – Palestine conflict?

I was active in politics from a fairly young age, mostly on the big issues then in the United States – the war in Vietnam, civil rights and so on. I first became active in the Israel–Palestine conflict in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon. I decided to write my doctoral thesis on the history of Zionism, so I had an intellectual interest in the subject in addition to a political one. Beyond that, I am Jewish: both of my parents were survivors of the Nazi holocaust, so there was also a personal interest, and the three converged.

Are you optimistic that the conflict in Palestine will be resolved?

No, but in one sense it doesn’t matter to me if it is resolved. You don’t do something because you think you will win or lose, but because you feel a sense of moral responsibility. Moral responsibility is not a diffident, political calculation. Of course you think what is the best way to achieve your goals, because you want to succeed, but my involvement is not determined by that, but is determined by the fact that there are people suffering and in need, so I will continue to support them.

The conflict in Palestine has been continuing for decades. In your opinion, what have been the main obstacles to a lasting peace in that region?

When a couple gets divorced, it doesn’t necessarily mean a lasting peace – they still go to court over alimony, fight over custody of the kids. But the divorce is a necessary step in the process. I don’t think in terms of lasting peace. That will take a long time – it took Europe several hundred years. I don’t expect to see a lasting peace but I think an agreement to end the occupation is a necessary step, and the obstacle there is clear: Israel and the United States are blocking a settlement supported by the whole of humankind. The record is clear; you can see it every year in the General Assembly [of the UN]. I don’t have illusions. It’s not going to be like Germany and France. It’s going to take a long time.

Finland’s business relationship with Israel, especially the arms trade, has been long documented. How do you feel about such relationships lending credibility to Israel’s actions?

I don’t like to speak in abstracts. Amnesty International put out a major report on arms transfers to Israel. Amnesty said that under international law it is illegal to transfer weapons to a persistent violator of human rights, which Israel is, and therefore all arms trade with Israel must cease. That’s the law. Now, either you’re a law-abiding state or you’re not, but in that case at least put up your hands and say ‘we are a gangster state’. But don’t pretend to represent higher Western values and then carry on like law breakers. So, what Finland is doing is breaking the law by transferring weapons and arms to a persistent violator of human rights. That, for me, is the issue. This is not about what I feel, but about what the law is. The law is that the settlements are illegal. Period. The law is that the wall that Israel is building is illegal. Period. The law is that the territory that Israel has appropriated is illegal. The closures, the curfews, the economic sieges, the administrative detentions, are all illegal. This is not rhetoric; this is what human-rights reports have stated for the last 30 years. If you look at the reports you can see that all of these actions are Israel’s. It is not a personal question of what Norman Finkelstein thinks or feels, it is about the law, and the first step to resolving the conflict is to enforce the law.

In the film you say that the conflict should not be viewed as a historical issue but as a contemporary political one. What did you mean by that?

People try to make out that the conflict is more profound than it is: a clash of civilisations, a clash of religions, about what the bible says. It is not. It is about one group of people trying to steal another people’s country. I don’t find that so complicated! I don’t believe it requires a degree in rocket science to decipher its mysteries, in the same way that it doesn’t require any profound knowledge to understand why Native Americans fought back. It wasn’t because of a clash of civilisations, or because of anti-Christianism or anti-Europeanism or some such, it was because they were being displaced and dispossessed from their homeland – and so they resisted. It is the same with the Palestinians. Slowly but surely this military–political juggernaut has been displacing them. I was talking with a Palestinian friend of mine and I asked him what made him feel hopeless, and he said it was that every day he wakes up and sees a new settlement. It wasn’t like he felt hopeless because he sees Jews. That wasn’t the problem. It’s very simple.

What motivates you in your work?

I’m not a profound person. Other people have more depth, more moral intensity, like [Noam] Chomsky. I just don’t have that. I wasn’t born with any special gift. That’s part of the reason I feel so much for other people who didn’t enjoy the benefits that I have had in life, because I know that whatever I’ve enjoyed in life is because my circumstances have enabled me to do so. There but for the grace of God. My motivations are pretty straightforward. I really can’t bear to see people suffer. For me, politics is very personal. So there are both political and intellectual elements to it, of course, but I always fix in my mind’s eye people that I personally know who are the victims, and that tells me that I should continue. My friend in Palestine – a wonderful, decent human being who is being ground under by this merciless occupation and merciless country – that is my motivation.

Nick barlow – HT
David Ridgen – Nicolas Rossier