Norman Finkelstein is an influential political scientist, activist, and author. His scholarship has focused on the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the politics of the Holocaust. Finkelstein’s work has been praised by Raul Hilberg, considered to be the founder of Holocaust studies, Avi Shlaim, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the Israeli-Arab conflict, and Noam Chomsky, esteemed professor and friend.
Despite this, after a highly publicised feud with Alan Dershowitz (Harvard professor and lawyer to Jeffrey Epstein, amongst others), he was denied tenure in 2007 and was unable to teach for 15 years. Finkelstein publicly dismantled Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel in a debate on Democracy Now!, later turning it into a book, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.
He has used his polemical style and forensic scholarly work to savage influential figures and books (as well as Israeli and US foreign policy). As Avi Schlaim noted, “Professor Finkelstein exposed [From Time Immemorial] as a hoax, and he showed how dishonest the scholarship or spurious scholarship was in the entire book. And he paid the price for his courage, and he has been a marked man, in a sense, in America ever since.”1“Raul Hilberg and Avi Shlaim: Speak out in Defense of the Holocaust Scholarship of Norman Finkelstein.” History News Network, September 5, 2007. https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/38707.
Professor Finkelstein continued to write books which have been translated into 60 foreign editions, and has now returned to teaching.
This is a transcript of a phone interview recorded on May 17th, 2023. It will appear in two parts. Language has been edited for clarity.
Julian Izzo: May 15th was the 75th anniversary of the Nakba. It’s obviously a significant date for Palestinians, but many states – including some European states and the US – chose not to attend the commemoration at the UN. Could you explain what the Nakba was and why it’s being ignored?
Norman Finkelstein: Well, as a date or milestone in Palestinian history, it commemorates the creation of the state of Israel as it impacted the indigenous population of Palestine, which is to say roughly 90% of the population from the area that became the state of Israel was expelled. To use current language, contemporary language, it was an ethnic cleansing, and the political reality of the Palestinians was extinguished on that date – or I should say in that ‘period’, because it would last roughly from November 1947 until roughly around March 1949.
The Palestinians who remained in place in Israel came under military rule which lasted until 1966, and the Palestinians who were expelled ended up – not entirely, but overwhelmingly – in refugee camps in neighbouring Arab countries. So that’s the what you might call a Wikipedia description of what happened, although they probably wouldn’t use the term ‘ethnic cleansing’, even though I think that’s an accurate phrase to describe what happened.
As to the recent ignoring of the Palestinian Nakba, I can’t say that’s all too surprising, because the salience of the Palestinian issue has been significantly reduced on the international agenda, and for many reasons the struggle is currently in a moribund state. There doesn’t exist among Palestinians any longer – at any rate in the West Bank there doesn’t exist any organised resistance and any organised leadership.
As the American abolitionist Fredrick Douglass famously said, “Power never concedes anything without a demand. It never has and it never will,” and if the Palestinians aren’t any longer in the position to exert a demand on the powers that be, it’s not surprising that states which respond to power would now ignore a date which in the past commanded the attention of the United Nations, broadly speaking, and even the European Union – obviously not the United States, but even in the European Union there was some deference paid to the Palestinian cause. That’s no longer the case.
JI: And it’s also particularly surprising since last year was the bloodiest in two decades for Palestinians.
NF: Right. But blood in itself – as you are of course aware, all around the world there are states committing all sorts of massacres and all sorts of human rights crimes against their populations, whether it’s Modi’s India or it was Bolsonaro’s Brazil, and in-between. But the question is whether your, so to speak, martyrdom – there’s sufficient force behind it to impose that reality on the international community, otherwise it goes by unnoticed.
And the Palestinians’ cause, both because of internal decay and also because of vast changes in the regional situation – not the least of which is the emergence of human rights catastrophes next to which the Palestinian catastrophe pales, whether it’s the implosion of Lybia, the catastrophe in Iraq, the catastrophe in Syria, the catastrophe in Yemen… so there are the humanitarian catastrophes in the region, and then there has been a dramatic shift in regional politics which have left the Palestinians out in the cold.
JI: And especially Yemen. I rarely hear it spoken of anymore.
NF: Well, no, actually. Yemen, I think, has had some salience on the international agenda because of the awkwardness of some of the Western states to be supporting Saudi Arabia at the same time that Saudi Arabia is committing a monstrous human rights crime in Yemen. And also more recently because the Chinese-brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia has resulted in some negotiations between the Saudis and Yemen, which might point to a resolution.
JI: Since you brought up China as a negotiator – and a successful one in this case – turning a bit to the Russia situation, could you give your take on the proposed peace plan by China?
NF: Well, I was actually surprised by the peace plan because even though it’s uniformly depicted in the West as being pro-Russian, if you actually read the peace plan, it’s not really a ‘peace plan’, it’s what you would call a ‘framework’ for settling the conflict. Basically, it’s a collection of principles which would have to underlay any resolution of the conflict. And the first principle is maintaining the territorial integrity of states, which means – if you read that principle, I recall it’s the first principle.
NF: It’s in fact saying that the Russian annexation of Luhansk and Donetsk are unacceptable. So the depiction of this plan as being pro-Russian, it’s just an outright lie. The second principle calls for there not to be regional alliances that threaten the security of states, and that of course refers to the NATO alliance. So that you would predict from China, but in fact the very first principle squarely is aligned against Russia.
JI: And I think there is a misunderstanding of China, in the sense that they do place such an emphasis on sovereignty – also for their own interests – but at this point, you know, respectfully, who cares? If we can put an end to killings, the fact that there might be some self-interest is obvious in any proposal.
NF: Of course. China – look, China is not a benign actor on the world stage. It’s the global superpower – ‘a’ and very soon ‘the’ global superpower, so it’s not a benign actor, and of course it’s concerned about US meddling in Tibet and all of the non-Han Chinese provinces. So of course they’re going to emphasise that. It’s also true to say that the Chinese Communist Party has always put emphasis on what they call ‘non-interference in the internal matters of states’. That’s been a constant in Chinese foreign policy, the non-interference principle.
The question is exactly what you say. If the principles are reasonable, whatever interest might lurk behind them becomes beside the point. For whatever reason China is enunciating these principles – and I for sure have no doubt that self-interest is at stake for China – it doesn’t really make a difference, if the principles themselves are reasonable.
JI: And touching on the international order more generally, the calls to try Putin in the International Criminal Court, that just seems, well, 1), hard to implement, and 2), not helping the peace process at all, in fact backing Russia into a corner.
NF: I think it’s a complete irrelevance. Putin is not going to be arrested, he’s not going to be prosecuted by the ICC, and the ICC has just done one thing to its credit: up until now it was known in the non-European world as the ‘International Caucasian Court’, so now it’s finally prosecuted a Caucasian. Congratulations. Apart from that, it’s a crock of shit. It’s not a criminal court – or it’s not an international criminal court, it’s a European-American court to prosecute the world for crimes that have been committed by a factor of a hundred or more by the Europeans and the Americans. Karim Khan is a sack of shit, exactly as you would predict, because all of the Chief Prosecutors at the International Court have been sacks of shit. Bensouda, and then before her [Luis Moreno Ocampo]. A real creep. Corrupt, so corrupt.
JI: And all of the prosecuted heads of state have been African.
NF: Oh, they’re all African. The first one now will be Putin, if it gets to the stage of prosecution. I don’t know if it will. Right now it’s at what’s called the ‘investigatory’ stage.
JI: And since you’ve mentioned Bensouda, your 2019 book ‘I Accuse’ was about her non-prosecution of the potential or actual crimes committed by Israel during the Flotilla incident.
NF: Right. There were two separate cases, the Mavi Marmara of May 31st, 2010, and then there was another attempted prosecution. They’re never going to happen because the US – it controls the court, even though it’s not officially a member of the court.
JI: Just to tag onto that, the US sanctioned Bensouda, they put her on a restricted individuals list.
NF: Yeah, because of the threat from prosecution of Americans for crimes in Afghanistan.
JI: Exactly. So it just shows the extent to which control is exerted on the ICC. But turning a little bit towards writing and your influences, I’ve heard you speak a lot about [Rosa] Luxemburg. Having read a bit of her work, and the fact that she’s always talking about injecting emotion into writing, has that been an influence for you, to always take–
NF: Absolutely not.
JI: Oh, ok.
NF: No, absolutely not because, first of all, I don’t read German or Polish, which are the main languages in which she wrote, so I can only experience her prose second-hand, though even second-hand there are aspects of her prose which I find deeply moving and I much prefer, actually, to the other great figures of the era, be it Lenin or Trotsky. Rosa had what you might call a rich internal life, and I think she had a humanistic sensibility that wasn’t always there in Lenin and Trotsky. They were more hard-nosed.
When you read Rosa, she has an extremely rich correspondence with her circle of friends, and you don’t find that kind of correspondence in Trotsky or Lenin. I don’t actually think they were capable of it, and I don’t think they were even capable of the kind of rich friendships that Rosa had.
And when you read, for example, Rosa’s Junius Pamphlet on World War I, she gives expression to the tragedy of the deaths of all those young men who were being destroyed, their lives destroyed in a literal sense by the war. And the passages are very eloquent, they are deeply moving. You don’t find that in Lenin or Trotsky at all, at all. She’s also as rigorous a thinker as Lenin and Trotsky, but she had an edge over them, I feel. At least to my sensibilities.
JI: One of the few, at the time, real pacifists against World War I, eventually being imprisoned–
NF: I wouldn’t call her a pacifist. She never called herself a pacifist. She was anti-militarist, but I would not describe her as a pacifist. She was every bit a revolutionary as everybody else in that crowd. I mean, if you know the history, it was the leaders of the German [Social] Democratic Party, people like August Bebel, Liebknecht, and others who – and Kautsky – who were kind of terrified of her revolutionary passion.
August Bebel once commented, “Every time I hear Rosa speak, I look down at my boots to see whether they’re drenched with blood.” And she was nicknamed – she didn’t like it, but she was nicknamed ‘Red Rosa’ in German society. So depicting her as a pacifist I think is not accurate. But, as I said, recognising the necessities and inevitability of blood flowing in a revolution, nonetheless she had an acute humanistic sensibility which I don’t think you will find in the others.
JI: Sure, I take your point, also because during the Spartacist Uprising she did write strongly in favour of armed struggle.
NF: Yeah. She recognised, as a historical – remember, the frame of reference of that whole generation was the French Revolution, the ‘great’, the ‘glorious’ French Revolution. And everybody was acutely aware that one component of that revolution was that a lot of blood was spilt.
JI: Another author that I keep noticing throughout your work is John Stuart Mill. I’ve seen you refer to him in at least three or four books that I’ve read. So could you talk about your interest in him, why he’s so relevant to you?
NF: Well, he came at a crucial point in my life when the illusions of Maoism were dispelled. They weren’t all illusions, but there were certainly a large number of illusions, and I was now ready for the idea that I didn’t – and Marxism and Leninism didn’t – contain a monopoly on truth, and that we have to be more humble about the extent to which what we believe to be true actually is true.
It was at that point in my life when I read Mill’s On Liberty and I had to acknowledge the cogency of his arguments, and I had to also acknowledge that a lot of the way I acquitted myself intellectually was arrogant and it caused me to make a fool of myself. Fortunately, I exercised no power so nobody suffered on account of my commitments, convictions, and beliefs. But even as nobody suffered on my account, there was still the fact that I had made a fool of myself. I believed things which were flat-out false.
At that humbling moment in my life, that’s when I opened Mill’s On Liberty and tried for the remainder of my life to absorb a lot of its lessons.
JI: And do you think that’s also had an influence on how meticulous you are in your – for example, even just your footnoting, the importance that you put on exposing different sides of the question in your teaching – has On Liberty had that kind of an influence?
NF: Yes, no question. No question about it that I keep the precepts of On Liberty in mind when I teach and when I go about trying to make an argument.
JI: And for a non-academic audience sometimes things like citations, minor clarifications, seem a bit disconnected from the real world and difficult to appreciate. Could you tell me why they’re so important?
NF: Well, the obvious answer is so readers can tell whether you’re telling the truth. When you free yourself from those constraints it makes it difficult for a reader to track down your sources. Number one, I think you become more dishonest. The writer becomes more dishonest because when you have the constraints of footnotes, citations, references, you realise that you better not make any mistakes because people may track it down and make you look foolish in the court of academic opinion. And secondly, if you don’t have those footnotes, references, citations, why should anyone believe you? Why should anyone believe anything you’re saying?
Now, you may have a very good track record which would make you more credible. For example, in many of Professor [Noam] Chomsky’s books – I don’t want to say ‘many’, actually. Even in his interview books, which are mostly what he’s published in recent years, most of the claims are footnoted and cited. But sometimes he might have a freer style and he’s still believed because he has the track record of meticulousness. But if you don’t have the track record and you don’t have the references, why should anyone believe a word you’re saying?
JI: And I suppose you’d give a similar answer to why you’ve focused so much on primary documents – checking primary documents, citing, analysing them. It’s the same answer, I suppose, because then you’re showing that you’ve gone to the origin and you’re not taking other people’s word for it.
NF: Well, I think every document is assimilated by a different mind and people see different things in the document. Now, some people outright distort them, but then there are others who just – their eyes hone in on things other people wouldn’t notice. It wouldn’t register for them. So it’s important to read the original document not only because it may be subject to distortion, but because you’ll see something in it because of your mental make-up that others won’t.
Click here for part two of this interview.