In conversation with Dr. Norman Finkelstein

April 17, 2014

In Blog


A Notorious Academic & the Historic Defeat of Palestine

Posted by: Dean Forrester in DiplomacyMiddle EastWorld Affairs 25 days ago Comments Off 258 Views

In conversation with  Dr. Norman Finkelstein.

“Palestine has never been so alone.” No words have chilled a lecture theater quite like these. Not one to mince his words, Dr. Norman Finkelstein asserted this dark truth to a crowd full of hopeful activists at a London University this month. In an interview afterwards, he explained to me Palestine’s uniquely dire circumstances in John Kerry’s ironically named peace talks. Pacification Talks seems more appropriate.  “Unfortunately almost everyone is ignoring them. Activists are ignoring them,” stressed Dr. Finkelstein about the media’s poor coverage of the talks, “they just think it’s just more of the same. But it’s not more of the same. These are ruthless politicians and they don’t like no for an answer. Kerry is not going to invest so much time, so much energy. His prestige is at stake, his reputation is at steak and he just suffered two major setbacks in Syria and Ukraine.”

Of course, previous statesmen have toiled their entire careers trying to bring about a solution but according to Norman, this venture possess a great deal more significance. “I think, unlike his predecessors, President Clinton and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he has a good opportunity. Because of the current constellations or configuration of political forces, he has a good chance of inflicting a historic defeat on the Palestinians to force them to accept Israel’s bottom line demands.”

Dr. Norman Finkelstein giving a talk on John Kerry's Peace deal, 12 March 2014. [Credit: Virginia Grieco]

According to Dr. Finkelstein, these demands from Israel are, “basically keeping 10% of the West Bank which would be the critical water resources, some of the most arable land, East Jerusalem and would fragment the rest of the west bank into pieces. Basically leave the Palestinians nothing.” Essentially, the current disproportionate situation will be entrenched in international law and the Palestinian cause will lose its most potent weapon – the illegality of Israel’s action. The pathetic scraps of land to be left to Palestinians are an insult to international law and the Palestinian people and conceding this would be a large defeat in itself. But for a variety of reasons, explained Norman, this will be truly historic. The actors involved the attitudes around it and the deal itself will mean Palestine will suffer such a catastrophic blow it could end the struggle. 

Part of this enormous tragedy is the acceptance around it. The Palestinians themselves are drained. Effectively forgotten about. “There hopes have been dashed so many times,” explained Norman, “there were great hopes in the times of the first Intifada, then there were hopes at the times at the Oslo and they got literally nothing for it. It’s not that they got just incremental change or slight change, they got nothing.”

The West Bank separation wal (2011) source

The West Bank separation wall (2011)

It is a similar sort of fatigue which has caused the international community to stop caring so much about Palestine. There are, understandably, more pressing issues. After decades, of what is often perceived as “more of the same,” many, including politicians are simply tired of it. “When people think of the Middle East they think don’t think of Palestine. They think of Syria first, Iraq second, Egypt third. Then they think Afghanistan is in the Middle East and they think of Pakistan. They don’t think about Palestine anymore.” This hasn’t gone unnoticed.

There is now a looming coalition of political vultures circling over the apathetic Palestine, determined to enforce Kerry’s peace deal. Aside from the likes of Angela Merkel, Barack Obama is now contributing to the progression of the deal where, initially, he left Kerry alone. Exacerbated by the bizarre and narcissistic effects of the ‘legacy years,’ Obama is now, according to Dr. Finkelstein, trying to take credit. The culmination of a force like this will surely have the capability to inflict such a heinous injury in the face of history. All while Israeli settlement expansion continues.

The fact there is such little media coverage of these critical talks is testament to the significance that Dr. Finkelstein has warned of. But when information is gleaned about them, resistance still shimmers through the prophetic darkness. Like the recent clash between West Bank Palestinians and a small contingent Israeli troops, who wereperforming a raid. Confrontations like these are apparently becoming more common, suggesting that the some of the Palestinian population is still charged with resistance. This seems to be reflected into the Palestinians governmental representatives as well. According toNabil Abu Rudeina, a spokesman for the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, “Israel’s settlement activity caused the negotiations to fail and led them to an impasse.”

Even the attitudes of the younger generation of Israeli’s are changing as well. A brave cohort of Israeli youths sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu declaring their opposition to the military draft on the grounds of “the occupation of the Palestinian territories by the army.”

Just keep holding Mr. Kerry, it's nearly over. [Credit: U.S. State Department]

Just keep holding Mr. Kerry, it’s nearly over.
[Credit: U.S. State Department]

This may be promising for the time being but it would be foolish to be blindly optimistic. The coverage of this struggle is pitifully thin and these disturbingly powerful circumstances around the deal aren’t likely to evaporate soon. But it would be even more foolish to surrender to these odds. 

Despite articulating such grave concerns Norman is certainly not about to do this. “I don’t think in politics, if you’re serious, you don’t abandon the cause because it’s no longer fashionable or it’s no longer fun or because you’re bored. You made a commitment, you owe it to the people who made the commitment and who are generous to you in that period. I went over I met people they kept me at their homes they made sacrifices for me, they did, real ones. You don’t just walk away.”

Though dedicating so much time towards the Palestinian cause, he also said, “I honestly couldn’t care less about Palestine or Israel. I care about justice, what’s fair. Those are important terms in my mind. But Palestine, Israel, Palestinians, Israelis, no – it doesn’t mean anything to me. I care about people. I don’t really care about nationalities, ethnicities, it has nothing to do with my way of thinking. I’m not pro-palestine and I’m not anti-Israel. I’m pro-justice, I’m anti-injustice, that’s where it begins, that’s where it ends, and there is no intermediate links. There’s no Palestine in between, there is no Israel in between. It’s just justice and injustice. That’s it.”

While talking to the amicable and buoyant scholar, it was hard not to notice the bleak tones of the Palestinian cause echoing through his own journey. His rigorous pursuit of justice has cost him dearly, like a ten-year ban from Israel. “The politically correct thing is to say that there people suffering much more than me and that’s factually correct, it’s not just politically correct. On the other hand, you know what, I lost my work, I’ve been unemployed for seven years it hasn’t been easy and I’m not going to deny that either. That other people are suffering 10,000 times? Yes, that’s factually correct. Have I lived, relative to 95% of humanity, a charmed life? Absolutely correct. I would have been dead in Africa probably about 40 years ago. But am I angry about a lot of things? Yeah I’ve been out of work.”

Because of Dr. Finkelstein’s habit of exposing plagiarizers, like Joan Peters, he gave the same critical treatment to Harvard Law Professor, Alan Dershowitz over his book The Case for Israel. But instead receiving credit and gratification for attempting to enforce the honest and noble precedent in the scholarly world, Dr. Finkelstein’s career was completely scuppered. As for retribution, Finkelstein was pessimistic.

“People don’t care, I’m unimportant. Dershowitz is a Harvard professor, he’s an important person and the fact that he might have, in the course of his important career, wrecked the lives of folks who are not important, is unimportant. That’s just the way the world works. Ask me that one single Harvard faculty, one, say one word of criticism as this guy systematically violated every principle of the tenure process by intervening and wrecking my prospects of tenure. Will anyone say one word? No. Why? My university was third-rate. It was De-Paul.”

Many have used the word ‘controversial’ to describe him. This is understandable when looking at some of the receptions the author has received before but I disagree with the label. It is a whimsical resignation for any writer to describe him as such. He is a man who only has spoken the truth and stated fact. He has guarded his principles of upholding justice closely. The only controversy comes from those who distort and slander him.

He is simply one of the few who, despite their surroundings, planted themselves firmly on the right side of history. No one has phrased it more aptly than the late Raul Hilberg, one of the few to defend Norman in his tenure battle:

“It takes an enormous amount of academic courage to speak the truth when no one else is out there to support him… Those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he will be among those who will have triumphed, albeit, it so seems, at great cost.”


Dean Forrester is the Editor-in-Chief of The International Citizen. With an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism and a passion for writing, he studies International Politics at King’s College London.