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Zimmerman: Interview with Norman Finkelstein

June 30, 2011

*note: This interview is somewhat out of date.  It took place last summer in Dr. Finkelstein’s apartment in Brooklyn, New York shortly after the Israeli Defense Force’s assault on the Turkish humanitarian flotilla and before the Arab Spring.  I felt it was of significance as another flotilla (with a Canadian boat and an American boat) is currently heading towards the Gaza Strip.  This was originally published in the YU FreePress, a York University-based alternative bi-monthly newspaper.

Compiled by J. Zimmerman

Norman Finkelstein is an American political scientist and an author and commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has published many books that have been deemed controversial such as The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, and his latest This Time We Went too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion. Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University, which he has attributed to bias against his views. His mother survived the Warsaw Ghetto, the Majdanek concentration camp, and two slave labour camps, while his father survived the Warsaw Ghetto and the Auschwitz concentration camp. Finkelstein has cited the ordeals of his parents as being the reasons why he speaks out to condemn the policies of the state of Israel and Zionist ideology. I managed to conduct an interview with Norman Finkelstein in his home in Brooklyn, New York in the summer of 2010.

Could you introduce for our audience what your last publications were? The Holocaust Industry and what exactly is meant when you say the ‘Holocaust Industry?’

The Holocaust Industry is a little old now. It came out literally one decade ago. …It was mostly as the subtitle says; it was personal reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering. I wasn’t pretending to write a scholarly tome. …Mostly it was about the misuses of the Nazi Holocaust. It’s being used as a political weapon to immunize Israel from criticism of its policies and at the time it was also being used as a financial weapon to extract what were called ‘Holocaust compensation for needy Holocaust victims.’ And I think I was able to document that that was simply a shake-down racket, an extortion racket by some Jewish organizations which made false claims against the Swiss Banks and then false claims against Germany in order to extract monies which they said would be earmarked for Holocaust victims but which actually never reached the victims of the Nazi Holocaust but were kept by these crooked organizations.

And after that I wrote the book–I can’t remember the sequence of the books but I think the next major book was Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History and basically I focused there on what’s called ‘the new anti-Semitism,’ trying to show that the new anti-Semitism was neither new nor was it about anti-Semitism. Israel periodically orchestrates these public relations campaigns, or I should say Israel supporters–Israel and its supporters orchestrate these public relations extravaganzas about a new anti-Semitism whenever Israel comes under international pressure to settle the conflict with the Palestinians diplomatically, or whenever Israel commits some sort of horrendous human rights violation, or sequence of violations, they start playing the anti-Semitism card.

Sort of like the attack on the Turkish flotilla that happened recently?

Well, the attack on the Turkish flotilla, they didn’t really play the anti-Semitism card very much, but they did at least in the initial phase is what they did during the initial attack on Gaza which is that they controlled all news dissemination for the most important days, namely the first week of the attack. In the case of Gaza they sealed off Gaza to any foreign journalists. In the case of the Flotilla bloodbath, what they did was they imprisoned all the witnesses, took all of their photographic evidence, and then simply bombarded the media with a monopoly on visual images and testimony as to what happened.

Your latest book, that’s already hit the bookshelves?

Well it hasn’t hit the bookshelves because it’s only available online. It’s not going to be available through bookstores. The actual title is This Time We Went too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion and mostly that’s about trying to give an accurate depiction of why Israel attacked Gaza between Dec. 27 2008 and Jan. 18 2009. Why Israel attacked, what actually happened during the Israel massacre of Gaza, and then the aftermath, the political repercussions, most importantly the breakup of American, and actually Jewish support for Israel.

Would you say that the Jewish support for Israel’s more divided than some people think?

I think Jewish support for Israel is drying up now, in particular among the younger generations. If you go to the Israel Day parades it consists mostly in the United States, at any rate, it consists mostly of Orthodox Jews and senior citizens. Orthodox Jews are only 10% of total American Jewry and so it’s only a tiny component of American Jewry which is any longer willing to rally or publicly commit itself to Israel.

Could you give us some reflections on the [political situation in Canada]? As I’m sure you know our Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a big-time Israel supporter. Do you see any alternatives in Liberal’s Michael Ignatieff, the NDP’s Jack Layton, or anybody else?

I follow the Canadian scene fairly closely. I have a lot of Canadian friends and they forward me quite a lot of the material on what’s happening in Canada. As in most places, not just in Canada, though in Canada it’s more pronounced, there is a very large discrepancy, or I should say gulf, between public opinion and the opinion of the governing party, or the dominant political parties in Canada. If you actually look at public opinion Israel’s standing in Canada is not very good. The last public opinion poll that was taken “whether Israel has played a more negative or positive role in the world today” the Canadian opinion went against Israel. Actually I was quite surprised because if you look at the countries where the influence of the pro-Israel lobby is strongest in places like France, Canada and elsewhere (and Germany) where the lobby is strongest actually, public opinion is not strongly supporting Israel and that’s true in Canada as well.

Do you think it might be because a lot of these pro-Israel organizations, their tactics are becoming more noticeable? Groups like B’Nai Brith Canada and other ones?

Israel is a case of truth in advertising; there’s just so much you can hide and conceal about its policies before people begin to wonder what’s going on. Now it’s true that the Canadian press is awful, but there are alternative sources of information. People can get information through the web and even in the awful mainstream media nonetheless some of the truth creeps in and people’s eyebrows begin to get raised and people begin to wonder ‘well, you know, what’s going on here?’ In the case of Israel it seems to be a relentless succession of quite ghastly crimes and so even in the mainstream some of the truth creeps in.

University campuses are where a lot of the battle takes place as well. At York University there’s ‘Students Against Israeli Apartheid’ as well as many other groups including a ‘Not In Our Name,’ a Jewish group that’s recently started up at York. But we also face off against groups like Hasbara Fellowships and you’ve heard the case of Hasbara Fellowships where they fabricated an anti-Semitic incident? What do you think the motivation of these groups might be?

The motivation is fairly straight forward; they want to change the subject. They don’t want to talk about what Israel is doing; they want to claim that their opponents or their critics are anti-Semitic, or self-hating Jews, or Holocaust deniers. And they want to turn themselves into the victim and Israel and its supporters have, you might say, mastered the art of self-victimization.

If you take the case, for example, of what happened in the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish vessel that was assaulted by Israel. It was quite extraordinary how they managed to turn an Israeli commando raid in the dead of night in international waters on a humanitarian convoy bringing aid to a hungry population in which ten people are executed by Israel, they managed to turn themselves into the victims. They claimed that what actually happened that day was some Israeli commandos were en route to a Hebrew Halloween party, they were carrying these paintball pistols and by some twist of fate they found themselves on this boat, and the people on this boat consisted of…Muslims who wanted to lynch them. If you read the Israeli press that is literally how it’s being depicted, that there were these poor, innocent commandos who somehow, by serendipity, found themselves on the deck of these Muslims praying for martyrdom and that they were tricked, duped into a lynch party. And it’s the same thing at Canadian Universities trying to turn things on their head and turning themselves into the victims.

Could you give us some of your reflection on Michael Ignatieff? And I’m sure you’ve heard about the recent situation within the NDP… [R]ight now Libby Davies, an MP from…British Columbia, got in[to] trouble for encouraging a boycott on Israel and calling the occupation the longest occupation in the world, which is factually true. Can you give us some of your reflections on Ignatieff and the NDP’s behaviour?

Well, Michael Ignatieff is a preposterous fraud; he ran the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard University and basically his role was to serve as an apologist for any and all US crimes. He always pretended to be a profound thinker but his depth of profundity approximated that of a perfectly flat plane. Then he went to Canada with this kind of sense of entitlement that coming from what he thinks is a distinguished family and having a Harvard pedigree that he was entitled to be Prime Minister of Canada. It is a perplexity to me that Canadians have such a low opinion of themselves that they would allow this preposterous carpetbagger to become the Prime Minister of their country. He probably couldn’t even find Canada on a map.

Well, some news with that is that Michael Ignatieff isn’t very popular with the Canadian public. We’re in an awkward situation, you know, people on the Left in Canada because we have Stephen Harper and then we have Michael Ignatieff. And those of us who are activists for Palestinian rights are frustrated right now because of the NDP’s behaviour. Do you have any reflections on why a party that sees itself as a Left wing party and talks about human rights would not take a stance against what’s happening with Israel right now?

In Canada it seems to be a fairly clear cut question of a powerful lobby, which has a lot of money and is well organized. It’s not unusual, in the United States we have powerful lobbies; we have an oil lobby, we have a gun lobby, we have quite a few powerful lobbies which significantly distort American policy and impose policies which are contrary to the best interests of the rest of our society and in the case of Canada it’s pretty much just chasing after money.

And that includes the New Democratic Party?

Yeah, I assume it’s the same motivations because the factual pictures are just not really complicated. The NDP people are quite smart, they have a good history, I think, and surely they know the facts and they know that what Israel’s doing is completely indefensible.

So to conclude, with everything with the situation with the IHH, and the Turkish Flotilla attack, what do you see happening in the near future? What are some reflections on where it’s going on right now?

At the popular level there is clearly a breakup of support for Israel. Its stock is plummeting; it’s become an embarrassment, and those who try to defend what it does open themselves up to ridicule. Internationally Israel is pretty isolated now; it’s going to have to do some pretty significant changes in that blockade because international opinion has been put in several cases, even to the British and the Americans the blockade is no longer sustainable. So that’s going to have to change. And there is a collision occurring now because the Iranians, and the Turks, and boats from the Lebanese port are heading toward Gaza and international opinion is that the blockade is unacceptable, so Israel has a real problem on its hands. The main cause for concern is the regional level, because Israel bungled yet another operation, and is going to be desperate to prove it is still a fighting force, it is still up to snuff, and so it probably feels a great deal of pressure now to do something spectacular. And also since the Hezbollah has said [that] any new war between Israel and Lebanon will be a tit-for-tat war–your city for our city, your airport for our airport, your port for our port–you could see things very easily…getting out of control and I don’t think that we should be indifferent to the fact that Israel is over the cliff. …Now Israel is clearly very worried that the Arab world doesn’t fear it anymore. And so even with this looming Iranian, and Turkish, and Lebanese flotilla, it’s very unclear what Israel will do in order to show the Arab world it’s a substantial fighting force. So, in my opinion, there is some very serious trouble looming.


One Comment leave one →
  1. July 3, 2011 9:30 pm

    Great article, can’t believe you actually got to interview him!

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