Einstein once said: "Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth." Among the few scholars who dared to question the authority of the biased US intellectual community’s vision of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict is political scientist and writer Norman Finkelstein.
Finkelstein was born in 1953 to Jewish parents who survived the holocaust. His mother’s memories of the atrocities she had witnessed, and her routine outrage at the perpetrators of any crime against humanity, instilled in him genuine sympathy with all human suffering — irrespective of race, color and faith — and a deep longing for justice.
Finkelstein finished his undergraduate studies at Binghamton University, and earned his Master’s and PhD degrees from Princeton University. Soon after, he became a vocal critic of Israel’s brutal policies, and a staunch supporter of the rights of Palestinians.
He authored a number of books on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Holocaust, such as “Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict,” “The Rise and Fall of Palestine: A Personal Account of the Intifada Years,” “Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History” and, most recently, “This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion.” His books have been translated into more than 40 foreign editions.
“The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering,” first published in 2000, is Finkelstein’s most provocative and controversial book. Using thorough investigation, an outstanding ability to dissect the subject and connect the scattered dots, plus his brilliant sarcasm, he disdainfully denounces the holocaust industry for using the memory of a brutal genocide to serve present-day ideological and material purposes.
When it came out, the book was described by The Guardian as "the most explosive book of the year." The book opened the gates of hell for Finkelstein who was ostracized by Israel and many Jewish organizations in the US.
In 2003, he triggered another heated debate when he described the then recently published book “The Case for Israel,” authored by the pro-Israel scholar and Professor of Law at Harvard University, Alan Dershowitz, as "a collection of fraud, falsification, plagiarism, and nonsense."
Dershowitz denied the accusations and threatened libel action over Finkelstein’s claims. Another controversy ensued concerning the definition of plagiarism and proper methods of citation in academic studies.
Finkelstein’s daring, sharp and confrontational views, which in most cases contradict the mainstream in the American intellectual community, did not come without a price. In June 2007, he was denied tenure at De Paul University, allegedly because his "personal and reputation demeaning attacks" on a number of scholars — including Dershowitz — were inconsistent with De Paul’s "Vincentian" values. The incident did cast serious doubt across the United States on the integrity of academic institutions, and their immunity to political pressure.
Daily News Egypt interviewed Norman Finkelstein about his insights on recent developments in the Middle East.
Daily News Egypt: Let me first delve into the repercussions of the Gaza aid flotilla confrontation. Many aid ships are expected to head to Gaza in the coming months. What kind of change can this "aid offensive" lead to in light of Israel’s determination to block their entrance into Gaza?
Norman Finkelstein: I think things are becoming now a little bit confusing, and there needs to be clarity on exactly what goals people are trying to accomplish. And there needs to be, I think, a common plan. There are many individual initiatives being set up, and it is unclear whether the goal is to break the siege of Gaza, or different organizations and different states using the Gaza siege for their own separate agendas. And I don’t think that’s helpful.
The goal obviously has to be to fully end the siege of Gaza, to allow for — as several human rights organizations have said — Gazans to live a normal and dignified life, to allow them to enter and leave Gaza as they want, the ability to have exports to restore the economy, and just to have a normal life to the extent that it is possible. That’s the goal. But I’m not confident that goal can be reached in the form of so many different initiatives, so many different flotillas, and the fact that it is becoming unclear whether it is the interests of the people of Gaza that are served, or whether it is different states and different organizations using Gaza for their own agendas.
When you say "states with different agendas," are you referring to the Turkish role?
I think the Turkish initiative was very authentic, but one of the problems with success is that everybody wants to imitate it. And they want to imitate it not necessarily for the same original motives.
You said that Israel is "acting like a lunatic state," certainly in light of Israel’s blunders in Lebanon (2006), Gaza (2008/09), the assassination of Al-Mabhouh in Dubai (2010) and most recently the attack on the aid flotilla. How can the international community best deal with such a lunatic state?
I think the main challenge is to simply enforce the law. And there are many aspects of the law which have gone unenforced. First, Amnesty International has said that there should be a comprehensive arms embargo imposed on Israel and Hamas, because they said Israel is a consistent violator of human rights, and under international law and domestic American law, it is illegal to transfer weapons to a country which is a consistent violator of human rights. So that’s one law which should be enforced.
Secondly, there is the issue that remains pending, namely the resolution of the United Nations for an independent investigation of the crimes that were committed in Gaza [during the 2008/9 Israeli offense]. That law too should be enforced.
And, more generally, it has now been 43 years since Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank, and in my opinion, it is no longer a legal occupation under international law. It is no longer what is technically called a "belligerent occupation." It has become an illegal occupation, because the fundamental characteristic of a belligerent occupation is that it is supposed to be transitional until the end of war hostilities.
Israel has no intention of ending this occupation. Israel is intending to annex crucial parts of the West Bank, and effectively control the whole of it, so it is no longer a belligerent occupation. It is an illegal occupation. And so the law should be enforced there, and Israel should be forced to leave the occupied territories.
And then there is one other outstanding issue, and that’s the issue of the nuclear weapons, and there, I think again, we should follow what the international community has said. Since 1995, the IAEA has called for the Middle East to be turned into a "weapons of mass destruction free zone," and I think that should be enforced as well.
Don’t miss Part 2 of this special interview with Norman Finkelstein to be published tomorrow in our Thursday July 29, 2010 issue.
Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and freelance writer based in Cairo. He is a regular columnist in Daily News Egypt and can be reached at: nael_shama@ yahoo.com.