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We interviewed Norman Finkelstein, the noted scholar of the Israel/Palestine conflict, in Brooklyn on April 8 and followed up with email exchanges. The following text contains both oral and written responses to our questions.
PART 1: SANDERS
Q. You’ve been canvassing for Bernie Sanders. Tell us why you’re so excited.
I’ve witnessed three great social movements in my lifetime, the Civil Rights Movement, the Antiwar Movement and this is the third. Bernie’s campaign took the Occupy movement, which was localized, and he elevated it to the national level. I don’t know what will come next. I doubt anyone knows. But it’s exhilarating to be part of it.
If you asked me one year ago whether young people would come out in these numbers, I would have laughed. My impression was that they were hooked on internet chatter and antidepressants. But the young folks in the campaign are so serious, so intelligent; they remind me of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) folks from the early 1960s. I went on a bus ride to Massachusetts to campaign for Bernie. I was one of five in the alte kaker brigade. The rest were young people. It struck me that on the way home, there were no drugs, no one smoking marijuana, no alcohol. We got home at midnight or 1 am. It was a kind of moral austerity. Like, this is serious stuff, we’re not going to diminish it.
I have to say, it made me feel proud, for once, to be an American. On the other hand, these young people have good reason to be serious. They’re struggling for their future. If nothing comes of this, it’s really a black hole for them, a futureless future. They’re attending colleges with astronomical tuitions, coming out strapped with astronomical debt, then they have to pay astronomical interest rates, and—the worst is—there are no jobs out there. So they have a real (as we used to say) material interest in the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Q. If Bernie loses, something could still come of this?
Hopefully, the young folks will figure out the next step. It’s telling how easily and intelligently they made the transition from the Occupy movement. Occupy had a lot of cultist elements. That open mic thing—I felt as if I was at a Moonie wedding. And the consensus politics, it just didn’t work. When Bernie keeps being asked, reasonably, how do you expect to push a radical program through Congress, he keeps saying the same thing, I can’t do anything on my own, there’s got to be millions of people in the streets. He never says, organize within the Democratic Party. He just says, organize, organize, organize. How can anyone calling themselves radical disagree with this message?
This is the opportunity of a lifetime. Bernie has a national platform. Day in and day out, he’s hammering away at Wall Street, he’s naming Goldman Sachs, he’s indicting the Walton family—one family—for hoarding more wealth than 40 percent of our society. He says it over and over again. To the point that even his supporters are complaining. But Bernie grasps that he must keep repeating the message if it’s going to get traction. His devout supporters might have heard his stump speech a thousand times already, but most people hear it just once. For them, it’s not tedious, it’s a revelation. Still, you’d never know what he’s saying from the mainstream media. You wouldn’t know that he’s saying that one tenth of one percent owns more wealth than 90 percent. That’s a simple statement, he keeps repeating it. But the New York Times never reports it. However, it also never disputes it. It’s just whited out. Instead, when Sanders started campaigning in New York, the Times ran a puff piece on Goldman Sachs, saying how cool and hip the place was because its chief information officer was a gay Latino. For all anyone knows, so was Dracula; but he’s still a vampire.
Hillary keeps saying, “We have to build on Obama.” But what did Obama actually do that we are supposed to build on? Did he reduce college tuition or student debt? Did he create real 9 to 5, 40-hour-per-week jobs at a decent wage? Did he reduce income inequality? If his term of office was such a resounding success—which power-hungry grovelers like Paul Krugman now proclaim—can you tell me why so many people are rallying behind Trump and Sanders? Have you ever in your lifetime seen such mass disaffection from the political establishment and the system it represents?
Q. Do you see real economic reform flowing from the campaign?
Not in the short term. The one percent is tenacious; a lot is at stake for them. Former NYC mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg might be reduced to owning only ten homes. Even if Bernie did win the nomination, the political establishment, and the billionaires who control it, will try to destroy him. The “deep state” (as Egyptians call it) will do everything they can to wreck him, so as to teach the people a lesson, Don’t mess with the system. The Republican establishment would prefer Hillary to win if Trump is nominated and the Democratic establishment would prefer Trump to win if Sanders is nominated. The apparatchiks in both parties are trembling because power is slipping from them. “How did this happen?” To them, the party has been hijacked. Their vehicle to power has been hijacked. The serfs are stealing their fiefdom from under their feet. The whole top is united because the whole bottom is shaking the rafters. Each party would rather lose one election than lose control of their respective apparatus.
Q. Isn’t it possible the Democratic Party will blow up just like the Republicans?
A lot depends on Sanders. A pivotal moment in my own generation’s political memory is the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Hubert Humphrey was the nominee, he was Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president. A lot of people blamed the antiwar protests and so-called riots outside the convention, and the ensuing disaffection from the Democratic Party, for causing Humphrey’s defeat and ushering Richard Nixon into power. Now, there’s a real question: if Sanders were to say, we want one million people outside the Democratic convention making their feelings felt, that could be quite dramatic. But he’s going to be under a lot of pressure not to repeat the ‘68 convention.
Q. Can you imagine Bernie campaigning for Hillary Clinton?
Yeah, it’s hard to conceive. Noam Chomsky has said that of course he’ll vote for Clinton if she’s the Democratic nominee. Because, although the policy differences between the candidates might be tiny, when you wield so much power, even a tiny difference translates into life and death for many people. That’s a compelling argument. Trump has also released ugly latent impulses that, even as they exist in many if not all of us, should be kept bottled up, and he’s legitimized street violence and hooliganism. Will these arguments persuade me? I can’t yet say. But I doubt they’ll persuade most young people. They don’t feel a stake in a Clinton victory; it just represents more of the same.
Q. You mention Occupy. What about Black Lives Matter as a factor?
The African-American vote has been the bulwark of reaction in this election. It’s sinking Bernie and buoying Hillary. However inspiring their courage and conviction, and however successful they’ve been in raising public consciousness, I can’t agree with Black Lives Matter activists who say that they’re above or beyond electoral politics. It’s radical posturing, posing and preening. They say that Sanders doesn’t speak to—the new buzzword is intersectionality. Tell me, which is the group of people in America today that stand to benefit most from a jobs program, universal health care and free college education? The buzzword obscures the basic fact that African-Americans are suffering most from our economic system and would benefit most if the Sanders platform were implemented. I was a radical in my youth, and I emphatically remain one. But I have come to see that I was wrong about many things. It’s a regrettable aspect not only of mainstream but also radical history that it focuses on the glamorous, chic, photogenic personalities who are often not the ones who effected real, concrete change. You take the case of the different phases of the Civil Rights Movement. The phase that really changed the face of America wasn’t the Black Power movement. It was the early phase of SNCC, the freedom rides, sit-ins, and voter registration drives, the period from the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott to the passage of the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts. If you look at who were the grassroots heroes, people who were just breathtaking in their courage, intelligence, maturity and earnestness—Bob Moses, Diane Nash, James Forman, James Bevel, Fanny Lou Hamer—most of them nobody has heard of. But everyone knows Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and Angela Davis. (Though I don’t want to be hard on Angela, she’s a uniquely impressive figure.) Everyone knows the Panthers, but who knows SNCC? The Civil Rights Movement was perhaps the most inspirational chapter in American history. But today’s activists are focusing on the wrong phase of it. Like myself, they’ve been seduced by style at the expense of substance.
Q. What about the courage you’ve seen in Palestine?
I personally witnessed a lot of courage during the first intifada. It was a kind of cognitive dissonance. These were nondescript, ordinary people, and yet at the same time each of them in his or her own way was displaying a kind of heroism that I was totally incapable of. I remember sitting in the kitchen of the house where I lived. It had a picture window. Every time a shot was fired outside, I wanted to dive for cover. But everyone else just went about their business as if nothing was happening. Everyone was involved, everyone showed awe-inspiring bravery. A grandmother—if a soldier started abusing a kid—she confronted the soldier, she was not afraid. She would go right up to the soldier and say, God is stronger than you.
The first intifada was not unlike the Civil Rights Movement. The most obvious question when you’re using nonviolence is, Who are you trying to reach with this tactic? That’s actually a complex question. Are you trying to convert the white Southerners, are you trying to reach white Northerners, are you trying to get the Federal government to act? It was quite clear from early on, the Movement realized, white Southerners? Forget it, they’re not going to be shaken by pictures of black (or white) people getting beaten. That’s not going to touch them. They were like the overwhelming majority of Israelis today, who are dug in, morally brutalized. They won’t be moved by pity. There’s no possibility that you’re going to reach Israelis by scenes of Palestinian suffering; on the contrary, they seem to relish it. So, if you choose as your audience, so to speak, the wrong target, you could be wasting your time. But the Civil Rights Movement understood early on, Our target is not white Southerners, our target is Northern whites, liberals and the Federal government. They carry on pretending to be a democracy, so we’re going to embarrass them into doing something about voter disenfranchisement and segregation.
These sorts of questions were not clearly sorted out when it came to the first intifada. It was too short-lived. It’s usually dated from December 1987 to Oslo in September 1993, but the first intifada was already over by 1990. Which was why the Palestinians cheered Saddam Hussein and the Scud missiles he fired at Israel. They were back trying to be liberated by someone from above or outside them. The whole idea of the first intifada was, We’re going to emancipate ourselves. But it was already over by the time of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when they were looking to him as a savior.
Q. What about Sanders’s stance on Israel/Palestine?
Initially I avoided reading his statements. I knew they would make me cringe. I don’t think even he believed a lot of what he was saying. His brother Larry is in the Green Party in the UK, he supports BDS. Bernie must know what’s going on is egregiously wrong. And actually, his recent statements have not been terrible. The formal policy statement he issued at the time of the AIPAC convention (which he didn’t attend) wasn’t bad. He explicitly called for lifting the blockade of Gaza. If Gazans organized a mass, nonviolent demonstration to breach the blockade, they could have Bernie on their side. The UN Human Rights Council report on Operation Protective Edge (2014) was horrible, it was a disgrace, but there was one redeeming paragraph. It did call for lifting the blockade immediately and unconditionally. That’s now been joined by Bernie’s unequivocal endorsement. It signals that the possibility exists of winning over him and his mass constituency, as well as large swaths of international public opinion, to end the illegal and inhuman blockade. His call during the New York debate with Hillary for an evenhanded US policy that recognized Palestinian humanity was unprecedented in a Democratic primary. Despite all the local pressures, and everything that was riding on the New York primary, he didn’t back down. Incidentally, the 74-year-old Jew from Brooklyn lost the Jewish vote in the primary, but everywhere he’s been sweeping the Muslim vote. Who could have predicted that?! It has to touch you—I am Jewish—when Bernie keeps winning the Muslim vote. Ask yourself, Would American Jews in their majority vote for a Muslim? Never. Impossible. But Muslim Americans are rallying behind Sanders, even as he supports recognition of Israel and its right to live in peace. Why? Because he comes across as a fair and decent guy. That’s so moving, so wonderful, so inspiring. It gives hope that a better world is possible.
PART 2: PALESTINE
Q. What wouldn’t you have predicted about where we’re at today in the conflict, ten years ago?
There are multiple dimensions to this question, each of which has witnessed significant shifts: the Palestinians, the region, the international community, and the Jewish diaspora. Some of these changes could have been anticipated, others came as a complete surprise.
On the Palestinian front, the salient development has been the successful conversion of the West Bank into a mini-Jordan. The Israelis made a calculation in 1993. Why can’t we create a little Jordan in the occupied Palestinian territories? We’ll just pay off enough VIPs in the PLO, and the US or Jordan will train the security services. The PLO will then do all the torture, they’ll do all the dirty work, and we’ll be relieved of the two biggest headaches inflicted on us by the first intifada: the public relations catastrophe, caused by media images of soldiers with Uzis beating children with stones, and the burden of having to mobilise the reserves to suppress a mass uprising.
The Oslo accord was designed to rid Israel of these two headaches. Number one, we’ll let Palestinians do all the dirty work. These liberals and human rights groups won’t be on our backs anymore because we won’t be doing the torture. It worked. I can’t think of a single report in the past decade by a major human rights organization, such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch (HRW), on the West Bank. Occasionally, local Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations issue reports. But, however valuable, they’re not high-profile; they don’t garner media attention. It’s Arabs torturing Arabs, so who cares? And now, when there’s an Israeli massacre in Gaza, the PA represses demonstrations in the West Bank, so far fewer Israeli soldiers are required, and they don’t need to call up the reservists. The PA protects Israel’s rear. It’s the same right now with the so-called third intifada. It’s the PA that’s repressing the rebellion at Israel’s bidding.
Here’s another telling detail. The magnitude of the devastation Israel wreaked in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge beggars the imagination. In Operation Cast Lead (2008-9), 6,300 homes were destroyed. But, do you know how many homes were destroyed in Protective Edge? 19,000. 350 kids were killed in Cast Lead, 550 in Protective Edge. But here’s the thing. As many as 300 human rights reports were issued after Cast Lead, documenting Israel’s carnage. But after Protective Edge, there was dead silence. The only major human rights organization that published reports on Protective Edge was Amnesty, and Amnesty’s reports were horrible. The silence was partly because nothing came of the human rights reports after Cast Lead. The US, acting in cahoots with the PA, impeded any action. The reports just collected dust, so the organizations ceased caring. It was also because the international community has grown inured to Israeli atrocities and Israel’s lunatic prime minister. But the biggest reason was the cowardice—or, if you prefer, prudence—of the human rights community after Richard Goldstone’s crucifixion. I can’t prove it, I want to emphasize that, but in my opinion, based on a lot of circumstantial evidence, Israel dug up dirt on Goldstone and forced him to capitulate. So, first it was Goldstone. The next victim was Christian Tomuschat, a German jurist. He got kicked off one of the Human Rights Council follow-up committees on Cast Lead by the Israel lobby. Then it was William Schabas, a prominent fixture in the human rights community. He got ousted from the UN Human Rights Council investigation into Protective Edge by the Israel lobby. It was obvious that you’d better not have any skeletons in your closet if you go after Israel. Human Rights Watch published five substantial reports after Cast Lead, some of them quite good—such as Rain of Fire, on the white phosphorus. But it said practically nothing on Protective Edge, even as that operation was by far the most destructive. The human rights organizations, they just sat it out or, in the case of Amnesty, regressed to churning out apologetics. The UN Human Rights Council was an even bigger disaster. Mary McGowan Davis, this New York state judge who replaced Schabas, was a veritable horror story.
The only chink in Israel’s armor after Protective Edge was Breaking the Silence. Otherwise, Israel had intimidated everyone into passivity. There was nothing you could quote against the official Israeli—I know it’s called narrative, I call it propaganda. I couldn’t cite anything. Human rights organizations are still scrupulously correct in the collection of facts. Where all the distortion sets in is the legal interpretation of the facts. That’s where you see the hand of people like HRW’s Ken Roth. He used to—I don’t know if it’s true anymore—personally edit the HRW reports on Israel/Palestine—they were the only ones he personally edited—because that’s when you get into the law. You are allowed to describe ghastly things, but then in the legal section, maybe you can say that it was indiscriminate, maybe you can say that it was disproportionate, but the one thing you stay away from, is saying that an attack was deliberate, as in the deliberate targeting of civilians. So, in the Human Rights Council report, they’re describing over and over and over again deliberate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, but you’ll never see that in the legal conclusion. That’s where Mary McGowan Davis entered the picture. She shamelessly whitewashed Israeli atrocities, just as HRW’s legal expert did back in 2006, in its reports on Israel’s use of cluster submunitions in south Lebanon.
Except for pointing up the discrepancy between the factual findings and the legal interpretations in the Human Rights Council and Amnesty reports, there wasn’t much I could say about Israeli atrocities during Protective Edge. There was no documentation from “neutral” human rights organizations that I could cite. I could quote Palestinian human rights organizations, which are, of course, reputable and reliable but, unfortunately and unfairly, they lack credibility among the broad public. The only thing I had left and what I constantly resorted to in a new book I’m writing on Gaza, was Breaking the Silence. It’s an unimpeachable source and its eyewitness testimonies demolished the official propaganda. If Israel can silence Breaking the Silence, if Israel can break Breaking the Silence, then the next time it’s just going to be Israel’s word against the Palestinians. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. I notice some “radical” Palestinians in the West have been given to disparaging Breaking the Silence. That’s unfathomable idiocy.
So, Israel’s calculation in 1993 turned out to be more successful than anyone could have conceived. The PA security services started out as a rinky-dink operation. Now, they’re a very professional organization, trained by the CIA and by Jordan. Maybe, if a mass Palestinian uprising erupted, the PA security services would collapse. But, for now, they have proven very effective. This level of collaboration and cooperation between the PA and Israel—would I have predicted it? No. The PA sabotaged the Goldstone report, it prayed for Israel’s victory in Protective Edge, it has acted as a conveyor belt for Israel’s torture regime.
The next dimension is the regional one. I would not have predicted that, while Israel was massacring Gazans during Protective Edge, Egypt would openly support Israel, Saudi Arabia would openly support Israel, the Arab League would openly support Israel. The Arab League met once during Protective Edge, and it supported el-Sisi’s cynical cease-fire proposal. If Israel was able to carry out an unprecedented massacre in Gaza, it was partly because it had not just the tacit but the vocal backing of so many Arab states. As for Western public opinion, the Holocaust blackmail still works at the state level but not among ordinary people. Fully seven decades have elapsed since the end of World War 2, while the Holocaust has been used like a shmatte—a multipurpose rag. It’s been drained of its emotional resonance; it no longer has the capacity to silence Europeans, at any rate, the younger generation.
On the other hand, I was perhaps the first one to take notice of the shifting currents among American Jewry. I used to lecture at about 40 colleges a year. It became clear from speaking to these audiences that Israel was losing the battle for public opinion. In 2007, I gave a public lecture on this topic at the Judson Memorial Church near NYU. I said that young American Jews are not going to defend Israel’s criminal conduct. Israel dropped as many as four million cluster submunitions on south Lebanon in 2006 in the last 72 hours of the war, when it was already over. It dropped white phosphorus, which reaches a temperature of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, on hospitals and a school during Cast Lead. If you’re a young American Jew, you’re probably liberal and idealistic, you’re not going to defend that sort of stuff. You may not come out swinging against Israel, but you’re going to lower your head in embarrassment and shame. I was slowly registering this metamorphosis. Something’s happening here. Younger Jews are changing. Some older Jews too—but not the majority.
Q. What about the intifada of knives?
It’s a misnomer to call it an intifada. When the first intifada was expiring, there were all these stabbings, in Jerusalem and elsewhere. They were not a sign of hope, but a manifestation of despair. This so-called third intifada, it began with stabbings; it began on a note of hopelessness, which is what an impulsive, random stabbing is. The first intifada began spontaneously, but within days all the mass organizations got involved, they formed the Unified National Command of all the political parties (except Hamas at the beginning). They were distributing leaflets every week. It was professionally done. There were bulletins telling you what to do. This day’s a strike day, this day we should be doing this, this day we should be doing that. It may have begun spontaneously. But there was a network of mass organizations ready to jump in. There is no organization now.
That points to one of the myths propagated by the BDS leadership. It claims to represent nearly 200 Palestinian civil-society organizations. If there were 20—forget about 200, just 20—such organizations with a real constituency in Palestine, would the third intifada eight months later still have no organizational form? If the organizations BDS claims to represent actually exist, they would have jumped into the void, just as the mass organizations did in the first intifada. And in the first intifada, everyone deferred to them, because they belonged to them. That’s civil society. In fact, the salient feature of this so-called third intifada is that it is organization-less. Have you ever heard of a genuine people’s uprising that consisted entirely of random knifings and running down people in the street? The truth is,“Palestinian civil society” is an illusion. It’s just foreign-financed NGOs—one or two-person outfits—dotting Ramallah’s privileged landscape.
In general, there’s a lot of romanticizing of “oppressed people.” We see it here in the US. Who would have predicted that African-Americans would sink the most radical presidential candidate in living memory? In my youth, black people were said to be the “Vanguard of The Revolution,” but in this election cycle they turned out to be the vanguard of reaction. Look at John Lewis. He was a genuine hero of the Civil Rights Movement, no question about it. But now he’s a pathetic flunkey for the racist Clinton machine. He grotesquely maligned Bernie’s record in the Civil Rights Movement and delivered up a clean bill of health for the Clintons. Likewise, because the Palestinians have been romanticized, it hasn’t sunk in that at this moment—I’m not going to predict tomorrow, I learned that from the Sanders campaign—Palestinians are a defeated people. The causes and symptoms of this include a cynicism about politics after so much sacrifice and hope yielded the bitter fruits of continued occupation and more settlements; a collaborationist leadership; the daily struggle for survival; the rejection of collective struggle in favor of every man for himself; the absence of popular organizations. I don’t know who in the West dreamt it up, but one clever tactic was to take any Palestinian who had talent, any Palestinian who was articulate, any Palestinian who might be radicalized, and give them an NGO in Ramallah, give them a computer terminal and give them an office, double or triple their salary, and then make it plain that if you get too far out of line, you’ll be out in the cold. It worked like a charm. The types of folks who once staffed the mass, popular organizations now sit in a Ramallah office writing quarterly reports on the Palestinian economy, even as the Palestinian economy is non-existent. This critical sector of future leaders has been pacified.
Q. But maybe, if Palestinians in the occupied territories are a defeated people, BDS is something that’s happening in the diaspora, which is undefeated.
Defeated people, for the moment. I don’t know what will come next. Look how wrong I was about young people in the US! The ruling elite in the West is very smart. It makes errors, obviously, but one shouldn’t underestimate its cleverness. One reason white South Africa abolished Apartheid was because it looked at the United States in the post-Civil Rights era and it dawned on them that you can get rid of the formal, legal discrimination and still control the economy. That was what happened here in the US. There was no redistribution of wealth between blacks and whites, except the creation of a new, post-Civil Rights era black bourgeoisie. Palestine is a tiny place. It was overwhelmed by the big powers that calculated and conspired how to neutralize it. The Europeans supply the largesse to keep the PA afloat while the CIA torturers train the security services. It would have taken superhuman fortitude to resist the temptation and the torture. I can’t say I’m shocked at the defeat that was inflicted. But we should be honest that the situation is hopeless, for now. It doesn’t mean we should give up. I’m not giving up. But we also shouldn’t nurture illusions. When the bubble bursts, it just breeds yet more despondency and despair.
PART 3: POLITICS
Q. You said that Breaking the Silence is effective, and sure enough, all the Israeli leaders at the New Israel Fund conference last December were attacking Breaking the Silence. But the same is happening with BDS. You cannot go to a speech by a leader on this issue without them attacking BDS. They’re not wasting their words. And so people of conscience hear that and say, Go BDS.
In fact, BDS has proven to be a bonanza for Israel. First, if you look at the genesis of Israel’s current BDS hysteria, it’s illuminating to pinpoint exactly when it began. It started right after Netanyahu was defeated on the Iran issue. Netanyahu and his cronies thrive on conjuring up enemies who allegedly want to destroy Israel. So they manufactured this hysteria about Iran, but it didn’t work because the West wanted to cut a deal. I wasn’t surprised it didn’t work. I’ve said many times, when it comes to critical US foreign policy interests, the Israel lobby is impotent. On Iran, the lobby couldn’t even count on the African-American senator from New Jersey, Cory Booker, who was a darling of the lobby and one of the founders of Yale’s Jewish society. When Iran was off the agenda, Netanyahu needed a new Great Satan that was bent on Israel’s destruction. So he grasped at BDS. It became the new pretext for Israel to play victim.
Second, Israel was getting nervous as international public opinion turned against it. What did it do? It claimed that all criticism of Israel was at heart BDS, and that BDS was about destroying Israel. By inflating the threat posed by BDS; and by redefining BDS to encompass all opposition to it, including European Union and church initiatives wholly divorced from BDS; and by subsuming under the rubric of BDS the campaigns in the West that only targeted the settlements and the occupation—by exaggerating the reach and potency of BDS, Israel could delegitimize even its most tepid but also most ominous critics. It could now allege that even they were really, whatever they might avow, seeking Israel’s destruction. The irony is, while Netanyahu wails that BDS wants to delegitimize Israel, in fact, he is manipulating BDS to delegitimize principled criticism of the occupation and settlements.
Third, once Israel began to lose Western public opinion, it had one strategy: change the subject. If it talked about human rights, it couldn’t win. It’s not going to win on human rights, it’s not going to win on the occupation. So, whenever you talk about human rights, Israel wants to talk about anti-Semitism. Whenever you talk about the occupation, it wants to talk about double standards—What about Darfur, What about Syria? Keep changing the subject. That’s its strategy. Now with BDS, it’s been really brilliant. You have to give credit where credit is due. Nobody talks about the blockade of Gaza anymore, it’s all about BDS: Is BDS anti-Semitic? Does BDS want to destroy Israel? It gets to play the victim card again. It has succeeded in changing the subject. But it must also be said that BDS made it very easy for Israel, by refusing to recognize its legality as a state within the pre-June 1967 borders. BDS enabled Israel to wrap itself in the cloak of victimhood. When the New York Times opens its columns to debates on Zionism, Mondoweiss says it’s a historic breakthrough. But the Israelis actually relish it. Let’s talk about Zionism. Let’s talk about BDS. Let’s talk about everything, everything—except what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.
Q. Wait. In October 2012, you asserted we can’t discuss Zionism because for Americans it might as well be a hairspray. But that’s exactly what we’re discussing now.
You’re confusing an intra-Jewish debate with broad public opinion. If there’s a new recipe for knishes in Sao Paulo, it’s a front-page story in the New York Times.
Q. But you were the one who said American Jews are a critical constituency. So this is a conversation inside the Jewish community about Zionism, and about time.
If you want to reach a broad public, you have to focus on things like Israel’s human rights record, the occupation, the settlements and the blockade, which a lot of liberal Jewish opinion also opposes. But if you switch the conversation to Zionism and anti-Zionism, a lot of Jews get queasy. What exactly does anti-Zionism mean? If it denotes the dissolution of Israel, it’s a nonstarter for the vast majority of Jews, and public opinion generally. Such a conversation also doesn’t go anywhere. The difference between Zionism and Apartheid—which clearly became a term of opprobrium—is that there was never a quarrel about what Apartheid signified. Everyone understood it meant separate and effectively unequal development. It had a clear, unambiguous meaning. So the debate was not subtle. It was actually pretty straightforward, and in the West no one tried to defend Apartheid on ideological grounds, because it was so antithetical to the dominant ethos of the post-Civil Rights era, which had just repudiated the separate-and-unequal doctrine. But Zionism doesn’t have a clear-cut definition, that’s why both Chomsky and Netanyahu can call themselves Zionists. It’s a much more elastic term. Historically, it contained within it many competing currents, some of which were not awful, although the dominant tendency, which won out, was obviously noxious. So, once you get into a conversation about Zionism, you’re talking about an elusive phenomenon, which might be useful to parse in a graduate school seminar, but I don’t think it has much to do with politics. It’s just a distraction, which is why Israel loves to talk about it.
Q. You spoke about a world consensus supporting the two-state solution, back in 2012. Well, there’s been a shift in that consensus. Tom Friedman even says, get ready for the era of one state.
The global consensus has not weakened a jot. Look at the critical venues, the UN General Assembly, the International Court of Justice, human rights organizations—what might be called the political horizon of progressive public opinion. If you look at all these venues, there’s no indication of a crack in the consensus. The only venue where one state is taken seriously is the humanities faculty of academia, among tenured radicals. When they’re not convening conferences on “The Black Body” and “Transgressing Transgenders” (or is it “Transgendered Transgressions”?), they circulate petitions supporting one state in Palestine. (God forbid any of them should get involved in the Bernie Sanders campaign; he’s so passé.) I also can’t attach significance to what Tom Friedman says. His pronouncements are politically inconsequential. He just says it and moves on. That’s not serious politics. We are involved in a protracted, uphill battle, we don’t tweet or write a disposable column and then it’s on to something else. That’s not serious, it’s not serious. We have to think through what we’re saying, what are the consequences, implications, repercussions, ramifications. Thomas Friedman just gets up in the morning, he sits in front of the computer screen, and the first question that pops into his head is, How do I get the buzz going about me? He’s hooked on “like” and “share.” That’s his raison d’etre.
Q. Secretary of State John Kerry and US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, also said we want to avoid the one-state reality.
Tzipi Livni also says it: If we don’t solve the conflict, we’ll have to deal with BDS/one state. They use BDS/one state as scare tactics to get Netanyahu to withdraw to the Wall. If you don’t withdraw now, we’ll have to deal with BDS/one state later. Incidentally, I was clearly wrong about the Kerry peace process. I thought the US was going to exert enough pressure on Israel to get a deal. No, the Israelis are very dug in, I was mistaken. The self-styled radical intellectual, Perry Anderson—he’s the leading Bolshevik in UCLA’s faculty cafeteria—speaks highly of BDS. He says it’s “the one campaign against the status quo with a real edge.” But Anderson also concedes, “after a decade of actions, its practical impact has been close to zero.” Facts are stubborn things, as Lenin used to say. “Close to zero.” When I read a posting on Mondoweiss by a BDS leader that said Israel is facing “imminent collapse” due to BDS, I had to wonder about his grip on reality. Israel is exploiting BDS. It’s doing with BDS exactly what it does with Hamas “missiles.” There are no Hamas missiles. It’s a complete fabrication. They’re enhanced fireworks. According to UN figures, Hamas fired 5000 missiles and 2000 mortar shells during Protective Edge. Israel’s official number is that Iron Dome deflected 740 of the Hamas missiles. That still leaves 4200 missiles that weren’t disabled. But, according to Israeli reports, only one Israeli house was destroyed during Protective Edge. You can perhaps argue that so few Israeli civilians were killed because Israel has a sophisticated early warning/shelter system. But houses don’t take cover in shelters. How can it be that only one house was destroyed? Because they weren’t missiles, they’re enhanced fireworks or, as one expert put it, “bottle rockets.” And Israel is not the only party that perpetuates this fiction. Hamas also perpetuates it. It said, You see, armed resistance does work, look at how afraid they are of our missiles. Now, both Israeli leaders and BDS leaders pretend that Israel is facing an imminent catastrophe because of BDS. It’s a mutually convenient fiction.
I’m right now writing a history of Israel’s massacres in Gaza. The biggest personal revelation while doing the research has been, everything we’re told about the conflict is a fantasy. There are no Hamas missiles. Iron Dome is also a fantasy; it probably saved zero lives. MIT missile specialist Theodore Postol put its effectiveness at five percent. That means it successfully intercepted all of 40 Hamas rockets. “Terror tunnels” is also a fantasy. The UN Human Rights Council report pointed out that, although Hamas militants did cross into Israel via the tunnels, they never once targeted Israeli civilians, only IDF combatants. In fact, Israelis themselves have conceded this. It finally sunk in on Hamas: Israel only cares if you kill or capture combatants. Israel’s a Sparta-like society, which mourns first and foremost the death of its fallen soldiers. I know BDS activists won’t like me for saying it, but in my opinion BDS is just one more of those hasbara contrivances, like the Iranian “existential” threat, Hamas missiles, terror tunnels and Iron Dome.
Q. What are the eventualities in your view?
Next year, 2017, marks a double anniversary. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and it’s the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war and ensuing occupation. Which anniversary activists hone in on will be indicative of their politics. If you hone in on Balfour, then you want to undo Israel. The Balfour Declaration culminated in Israel’s creation. If you hone in on the 50th anniversary, then you want to undo the occupation, and find some kind of—as the current terminology has it—“just” solution of the refugee question. You have to choose: which anniversary are you going to focus on?
I’m focusing on the 50th anniversary. Why? Well, in 50 years, Palestinians haven’t been able to force an Israeli withdrawal from one square inch of the occupied territories, even as the whole international community considers the occupation illegal. That’s a mantra: The settlements are illegal, or in the US terminology, “unhelpful.” (Where they dreamt up that locution, only God knows. Someone in the State Department must have taught kindergarten. “That’s very unhelpful, Johnny.”) So they haven’t been able to “liberate” a square inch of Palestine even though all of international opinion formally stands behind them. How, then, can Palestinians hope to undo a reality that’s been entrenched not for a half-century but a full century, and commands complete international legitimacy? It doesn’t make logical sense. How can you hope to turn back the clock a full century and undo Israel, if you can’t undo a reality that’s endured for half as long and enjoys zero legitimacy?
Or, to put it in current terms, I earlier used the expression, the political horizon of progressive public opinion. At this moment in time in the US, this horizon is represented by the Sanders campaign. It represents the political limit, beyond which you fall off the cliff and into a cult. If you read Bernie’s statements, he always begins by insisting on Israel’s recognition. He then goes on to say that the Gaza blockade must be lifted, the occupation is illegal, the settlements must go. Do you want to win Bernie Sanders and the constituency he represents to our campaign? I do. I want him to be part of our movement, I think it would be a huge boon to have someone of his current stature as part of our movement. But if you’re going to equivocate on the question of Israel, then you’re going to lose him. Then we’re back in the ghetto. We have a chance to reach broad public opinion. I don’t want to go back to where I was 40 years ago. But I see that happening all the time now. In the 1970s, we used to chant, From the river to the sea,/Palestine will be free. That mindlessness and idiocy has now resurfaced. We’re starting all over again. Some people call it progress. But it’s regress. You think the idea of a secular democratic state came out of nowhere? It was the PLO platform in the 1970s. From the river to the sea,/Palestine will be free. We’re going backwards—and most definitely not into the future.
Q. So you’re being pragmatic?
I’m a political person. I can’t breathe on ideas alone. I want to make the world a better place. That’s what radical politics is about. I want to achieve something before I pass into the non-next world. One of the oddest questions I’ve ever heard is, Are you for one state or two states?, as if it’s a personal preference, like I’ll take one from Column A and one from Column B on a Chinese menu. What, pray tell, does that have to do with politics? I remain a communist: the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all; from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Obviously, these ideals are not now on the historical agenda. So you proceed on the basis not of what you desire, but on the basis of what’s possible, while not contradicting your ultimate ideal. You have to soberly assess and weigh up the current balance of political forces, seek out realistic possibilities, and then effectively and creatively exploit them. Of course, you don’t only look at the surface. You also assess the subterranean, incipient forces at play. But I don’t see a consequential subterranean, incipient force calling for Israel’s elimination. I scrutinize what Sanders says. He keeps saying that recognition of Israel is a prerequisite. There was some regression in his New York Daily News interview. He was asked whether Israel had to be recognized as a Jewish state? He replied a little evasively—“of course…that’s the status quo”—as if to say, Yes, although it’s not necessarily my conviction. That was regrettable. But if you pressed Sanders, it’s doubtful he’d sanction a state in which Arabs were discriminated against. How do you reconcile that with a Jewish state? Well, that’s a conundrum for him—and everyone else who supports a “Jewish, democratic” state. By the way, we’re in fact heading towards a third anniversary. 2017 will also mark the 10th anniversary of the Gaza siege. On that, Bernie’s already on board. Ending the blockade is a winnable goal, if we get our act together. Ending the occupation is a winnable goal in the medium term. Ending Israel as a state with a Jewish majority is not. The advocacy of such a goal just makes an already arduous struggle harder. It’s as if, in the middle of a struggle to organize a trade union in a reactionary company town, you put out leaflets calling for Communist Revolution. That’s what provocateurs do, to wreck the struggle. Do I want to lose Bernie? Do I want to get into an argument with him about Zionism? I’m not going there. It’s self-defeating, pointless and stupid.
Q. If I [Scott Roth] were to distil my disagreement, it’s, How do you know what reality is today? Isn’t it always in flux now?
That’s wishful thinking. The consensus is actually now stronger than ever before. Where do you see flux on Israel’s existence as a state, except among self-styled radical academics? In fact, as a political matter, it hardly makes a difference what BDS says, because there’s no leadership in Palestine and in the absence of a movement there, we’re in a holding pattern. The notion that BDS can liberate Palestine from the outside, it’s also a fantasy. Could the anti-Apartheid sanctions movement have ended Apartheid in the absence of a mass movement inside South Africa? It has to begin there, and right now, there’s nothing. If and when a movement emerges there, it’s going to call for two states. How do I know? Look at the history. The PLO called for one state, that’s the Palestine National Charter. However, the precondition for Arafat speaking at the UN in 1974—the “gun and olive branch” speech—was, he had to support two states. Hamas also wanted to liberate all of Palestine. But when it won the elections in 2006, it was no longer accountable only to its constituency in Palestine. It was now operating on the world stage. So, Hamas started issuing statements effectively calling for two states. The moment Palestinian leaders start acting in the arena of international politics, the exigencies of that reality make themselves felt. If and when a new leadership emerges in Palestine, it will call for two states. The BDS platform will become a historical artifact. I was in the West Bank when Arafat called for two states in 1988 in Algiers. It was a heart-wrenching moment for Palestinians, to relinquish their claim to the whole of Palestine. But they understood, this is what’s on the table. The question was not what they as Palestinians desired, but what was politically feasible.
If I had my way, I would abolish all states. At this point in time, states are totally irrational. The world is a grain of sand spinning on its axis in an infinite universe. All the major challenges currently confronting humanity—climate change, economic inequality and dysfunction—can only be solved on a global level. But how many people support the abolition of states? The fact that it’s a rational solution doesn’t necessarily make it a politically feasible one. But would I support a Palestinian state where Israel keeps the major settlement blocs and everything else (including the crucial water resources) behind the Wall? No. A better settlement can still be won. A consensus has not yet hardened according to which Israel gets to keep everything it wants in the West Bank, leaving Palestinians the junk.
Q. But those in Israeli society who oppose two states don’t care about the international consensus, and their dreams have become real.
But they still face the obstacle, which thus far remains insuperable, of lacking international legitimacy. The international community still does not accept the settlements or the occupation. Have they done much about it? Of course not. I am perfectly aware of that. But it’s a potential weapon. It’s like the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. By 1960, only about 5 percent of schools were desegregated; it had barely any impact on the ground. But it was a weapon. The Civil Rights Movement latched onto that decision and the 14th “equal protection” amendment to the Constitution. The Movement said, All we want is that the Federal and state governments implement the law of the land. They exploited the latent power of the law as a political weapon. The fact that the occupation still lacks legitimacy signals that a Palestinian-led mass, nonviolent movement can use international law as a weapon. Israel has always been very smart about this. Why does anyone remember the Balfour Declaration or the Partition Resolution? Because the Zionists and then Israel made sure they weren’t forgotten. As Abba Eban said, the Partition Resolution was Israel’s birth certificate, its certificate of legitimacy. It certified that Israel was not a bastard child of the international system, but a legitimate offspring. The Zionists understood the power of public opinion and how important the Balfour Declaration, then the Partition Resolution, could be in mobilizing public opinion.
Q. Balfour was the product of colonial edifices.
Yes. So was the partition of Africa into states. Does that mean all the African states can or should be dismantled?
Q. Would you agree that if the partition plan was voted on in the modern UN—
It would never have passed in today’s United Nations. But I don’t see any evidence of a concerted, even nascent, commitment to undoing partition. You can say, justifiably, that the Israelis cynically exploited the Nazi holocaust in order to justify Israel’s existence as a refuge or safe haven for Jews. But, still, the exploitation succeeded. It has entrenched the legitimacy of a post-Holocaust Jewish state.
Q. Forget the positive action of eliminating or undoing, what about something different, if Israel implodes?
Yes, and if grandma had wheels, she’d be a baby carriage. I don’t see any evidence for your if. To quote Perry Anderson, Israel “has posted growth rates consistently higher than comparators in the OECD. After the longest sustained expansion in the country’s history, from 2003 to 2007, Israel has weathered the financial crisis of 2008 better than any of the economies of Western Europe and North America, and has continued to outperform them since.” Does that sound like a country on the verge of implosion?
Q. There’s a lot of internal contradictions in that society, I [Roth] don’t think it’s a recipe for success.
Every society is riven by internal conflicts. True, Israel has huge inequalities in the distribution of wealth, but the inequality is more acute in the US, and the US isn’t about to implode. Of course, Israel also fabricates Great Satans to mute its internal conflicts.
Q. It could take 30 years.
It’s not possible to predict what will happen 30 years from now. If you said in 1988 that the Soviet empire was going to disintegrate in a year’s time, you’d have been written off as a madman. Syria was for a long time the most robust state in the Middle East. It appeared to be a rock under Hafez el-Assad. If you had said even five years ago, Syria would soon implode, people would have laughed. It’s pointless to predict what will happen three decades from now.
I can’t counsel Palestinians, Hang in there, things might look up in 30 years’ time. I just got this email from the son of an old Palestinian friend: “I am now in the process of searching for a short-term opportunity to travel. I would like to try the feeling of riding a plane and see the sea up close. I became 24 years old and did not see the sea yet because I am forbidden from visiting the Palestinian cities of the coast.” What should I tell him—that he might get to see the ocean when he’s 55? Isn’t it more sensible, isn’t it more humane, to try to end the occupation, so that he can experience a little of life’s offerings before he’s an old man, if even then?
Q. I’m speaking hypothetically.
I have no stake in being dogmatic. What do I gain from it? You, of course, know that I’ve taken political positions in recent years that, on a personal level, have been somewhat costly. I used to live for my teaching. I loved to be in a classroom. Since being denied tenure a decade ago, I’ve been unemployed, except for a nine-month teaching stint in Turkey. Ten years of unemployment, out of a classroom, without a paycheck—it’s not been terrific. But that’s honestly not the part that bothers me the most. If you put a polygraph to my wrist it wouldn’t skip a beat. What bothers me is, I’ve invested about 35 years, my entire adult life, to this cause. It’s pretty much all I read about, it’s a very boring life. I know a lot—I’d better after so many years. But because of political differences, I’m locked out. I’m no longer asked to speak. Even Democracy Now! no longer has me on. A month ago, Mehdi Hasan’s program Up Front contacted me. They wanted me to join a debate on BDS. But the BDS leaders refused to appear on the program. It’s happened more times than I care to remember. One BDS leader told Democracy Now!, “Why debate Finkelstein? He’s not important. We should debate important people.” I used to give 40 talks a year. Now I give maybe four. I know the number because of those 1099 slips I have to submit to my accountant. Three years ago, before the BDS thing exploded, I gave him 40 slips. Last year I gave him four. He said to me, I think there’s a mistake here, how can it be only four? Now I’m debating in my head, Am I going to explain BDS to this accountant? No, forget it. So, I told him, well, you know, I’m getting old and people like fresh faces on the lecture circuit.
It’s frustrating. I no longer have an audience. I basically write for History. So my accumulated knowledge is, politically, going to waste. Gazans themselves don’t need me. They know the truth from real life. They call Hamas rockets “belly dancers,” because they swivel in their trajectory when they go up in the air. Everyone there knows they are a joke. The notion of armed resistance is just a fantasy. Hamas has had three major armed confrontations with Israel during the past eight years: Cast Lead, Pillar of Defense, Protective Edge. Each time Hamas fought with one goal in mind: to lift the blockade. Each operation ended with an Israeli promise to end the siege. But the blockade continues. Armed resistance is just not working. It’s not a question of whether or not Hamas has the right to use violent force. Of course, it has that right. But there’s a difference between whether you have the right—which they do—and whether it’s a politically prudent tactic. If it’s not producing results, then, shouldn’t you reconsider your strategy? But they’re so obstinate. The fixation on armed resistance is a regrettable feature of their political culture. Hamas can’t conceive the idea of nonviolent resistance, even though their own intifada was so successful. It’s strange. That whole glorious period has been effaced from memory. Everyone reckons it a failure, because it culminated in Oslo. It wasn’t a failure, it was a remarkable success.
It’s a tragedy, really, how the most extraordinary chapter in the history of the Palestinian struggle has been forgotten, or dismissed as a failure.