The pragmatic radical

Rónán Burtenshaw speaks to arch critic of Israel, Dr. Norman Finkelstein, thirty years after he first entered the political arena.

Q. You have spoken about the role your mother, a Holocaust survivor, played in your early political development. Could you elaborate on this, and also speak to some of the other political influences in your early life?

A. The foundational influences were my parents, my late mother in particular. Both of my parents passed through the Nazi Holocaust. They were in the Warsaw Ghetto from September 1939 to April 1943. After the ghetto uprising was put down they estimate that there were about 20-30,000 survivors in the ghetto, all of whom were deported to Majdanek concentration camp. Both of my parents were deported there. My father ended up in Auschwitz on the death march. My mother ended up in two slave-labour camps. She was liberated by the Russians, my father by the Americans. Every single member on both sides of my family were exterminated, except for my mother and father.

We had no relatives, and my parents had very strong opinions on topics which nobody around me even grasped. My parents were very deeply committed to Stalin and the Soviet Union, because they saw the whole world through the prism of the Nazi Holocaust. As far as they were concerned, it was the Soviet Red Army that defeated the Nazis, and that’s all they cared about. To grow up in a home where you could not criticise Stalin – in a Jewish neighbourhood in Brooklyn – was weird.

Also, my parents were not just passionately against war like, say, a pacifist. They were hysterically against war. We would watch the news from Vietnam in the evening, which was the leading news story in my formative years, and when the scenes from the battlefield came on my mother would turn her head. She would say: “Tell me when it’s over.” She physically could not look at it.

By the time I got to college, I had become a Maoist. “Mao Tse-Tung, live like him: dare to struggle, dare to win.” Maybe it was naive, certainly there were errors. But we were committed not just to correcting this or that problem in society but to radically transforming it. We didn’t want to just mend it, we wanted a revolution. I know exactly when it lasted until: the day when Mao Tse-Tung died. He had four followers, the Gang of Four, came to power. Believe it or not, I remember the names: Jiang Qing, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen. When they were overthrown with relative ease within weeks of Mao’s death, I was wise enough to recognise that there must have been something fundamentally wrong there.

I had a breakdown. I was in bed for three weeks, totally shattered. The whole world came caving in on me. And then I was a radical in search of an ideology. I wasn’t going to have anything to do with Marxism-Leninism any more. It was too much in denial, consistently fabricating arguments to justify things that couldn’t be justified. I was pretty skilful at justifying the unjustifiable, mostly because I read so much. I could always find a fact here or a fact there to support my opinion.

After that collapse of my personal worldview, around the late 70s, I discovered Professor Chomsky. The appeal of Chomsky was that you were able to construct a radical view of the world that was firmly grounded in facts. You didn’t need any kind of ideology – as in, if somebody disagrees with you, he or she is a bourgeois or a petty-bourgeois. In Professor Chomsky’s style, if somebody disagreed with you, you had to answer them factually. You couldn’t just label them. And I found that an appealing style. We were going to deal with facts and reason, and it’s going to be ideology-free. I didn’t want to have anything to do with ideologies any more. I wanted to be a radical without the ideology.

Q. Do you still consider yourself to not have an ideology? A metanarrative or cohesive worldview?

A. Let’s put it this way: I don't think you can radically change the world unless there is some cohesive vision of where you want to go. If there are lots of little groups, and no cohesive worldview, how do we organise in order to achieve a coherent alternative to what exists? Marxism provided that cohesive view such that we were able to unite. I recognise that it doesn't exist now – counter-systemic movements are very fragmented. I recognise that no person or group has come up with something convincing about a common goal. But I don’t believe that we can hope for systemic change unless we come up with something like that.

But ideology for me has a special connotation. It’s using rhetoric rather than facts in order to confront your opponents. It’s a substitute for reason. That, I don’t want to have anything to do with. But in terms of a comprehensive alternative to what we have, to the capitalist system, I think we need that. The other side is very well organised. And they have so many hundreds of years of history behind them. I don’t see how we can try to displace that without having a comparable degree of organisation and cohesion.

In my opinion the best exposition of this is Rosa Luxemburg’s essay The Russian Revolution. She wrote it while she was in prison in 1919. She’s hearing about all of the repression in the Soviet Union and she has these lyrical paragraphs where she says, “Ok, we’re all socialists, we know what our goal is but, in the course of trying to achieve our goal 10,000 questions keep coming up. We don’t have any of the answers because we have no experience.” So, she argues that you have freedom of expression and contesting ideas because there’s no blueprint for this. We don't have the experience. 

Q. You've been described as a “forensic scholar”. I've also seen you talk about how you focus on what is behind a book, rather than the content of the book itself. Would you describe yourself as a deconstructionist?

A. No, because those terms are stupid. They don't mean anything! I do like 'forensic scholar', I do treat books as a kind of criminal act and try to solve the crime.

Once I got into this Israel-Palestine thing, I became hyper-focused. I got involved in June 1982 – thirty years ago. I became a small-scale celebrity when I exposed a purportedly scholarly book by Joan Peters as a hoax. From there on in I reached a conclusion that the most useful thing I could do is to master the facts in almost fanatical fashion, because the Israeli propaganda machine was so effective and overwhelming. It commanded so much authority and there was so much paper produced each day that the only way you could counter it is by devoting yourself almost fanatically to trying to track down every fact, every figure and every date.

My general opinion of life is that everybody has something to offer to this world, some gift, something in which they shine. And I have my little talent. What I do is very narrow but I know that I do it well. I have a good eye for fraud and fakery, I have patience to track down every source. I look at most books I read as an intellectual mystery: how is this argument constructed? Let me look at the logical links, the evidence. I'm pretty old-fashioned, I'm not interested in the conclusion.

When I was reading, for example, Marx's Capital – I've read volume one three times and the other two twice each – I copied out every paragraph and then I commented. In columns: one paragraph, one comment, one paragraph, one comment. I wanted to know the logic behind the argument. It's not the greatest talent in the world. It's not going to win me nine medals at the Olympics. But it's a little talent and I invest in it – recognising that it is both useful and very narrow.

Q. You have been critical of the Palestinian solidarity campaign's 'Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions' (BDS) movement, of its goals as opposed to its tactics. Could you describe your criticism briefly?

A. As a matter of principle, of course, people are going to support things like boycotts, divestments and sanctions as a means of trying to put pressure on any country when it is engaging in human rights abuses. Countries should be held accountable for any human rights abuses, no matter what the magnitude.

But I’ve been reading a lot of Gandhi over the past few years. His collected works are quite extensive; they run to 98 volumes at 500 pages per volume. So, it’s a lot. I have read 47 of the volumes, or about 25,000 pages. One of the things that was important was his notion of politics. It’s very different to the one I grew up in. I grew up in the Marxist-Leninist tradition, where there were a handful of people who knew the truth – the truth was Marxism-Leninism – and everybody out there were ignorant masses. They suffered from things like false consciousness and commodity fetishism. Our job was to bring light to the darkness and enlighten people about the realities of the world. Or, as Marx put it in Capital, if appearances corresponded to reality, we wouldn't need science.

His point was that what appears to be is very different from what actually is, and it’s the job of politics to show people what the reality is and free them from the illusion of appearances. Gandhi had a very different view of politics. He believed that everybody knows that there are all sorts of things wrong with the world. The problem is not people’s ignorance, the problem is getting people to act on what they know. That’s the challenge of politics.

I bet that everyone in this room knows that there is something seriously wrong with how wealth is distributed in our societies. But most people will ventilate about it, will wax indignant about it, but don't do much about it. So, Gandhi’s strategy was using forms of non-violent resistance to, as he put it, quicken the dead conscience of the public into life. To get people to act. His basic premise, which I more and more think is right, is that unless people are willing to get themselves arrested, get their skulls broken or get killed people won’t act.

So, what does this have to do with BDS? The premise of Gandhi's argument is that people will act if they agree with your goal. If they don’t, you can have your skull cracked, you can fast until the death and people won’t do anything. So, if I was to ask you, are you pro-choice or pro-life? [Burtenshaw: I'm pro-choice] Let’s say, behind the camera, there are four people and they’re pro-life. They say that they are going to go on a fast until the death in order to get abortion banned. Would that action of theirs move you? No, of course not. Many people who are pro-choice will say I hope that they do fast until death!

Non-violence as a tactic can’t work unless the broad public agrees with your goal. Otherwise you’re wasting your time. BDS were asked: “What is your goal regarding Israel?” They say we don’t take a position. No broad public is going to support a movement which doesn’t state clearly and unequivocally that Israel is a state that has the same rights as every other state, and we accept this reality.

Q. Do you think Israel's legitimacy as a state is still as deeply embedded in the public mind as it was ten or twenty years ago?

A. Well, it depends what you mean by that. Public opinion has vastly changed on Israel in terms of its decency. But has it changed to the point that there is a broad public ready to support the dissolution of Israel? No.

But the difference between the cult and the public is that when you go to the public it has not one ear but two ears. So, you go to them and you say: “The occupation is immoral and illegal,” and the public nods their head. It sounds true. And then they hear the other side. Israel makes sure of this; it has a very impressive public relations machinery. The other side says: “Don’t believe a word those other people tell you. They don’t really care about the occupation, they want to destroy Israel.” So now the public go back to the Palestinian side and ask is this true. And then the Palestinian activists say: “We take no position on Israel.” That’s not going to win over the public.

It has nothing to do with the politics of personal preference for me. It’s about how you reach a public. The people in the cult think talking to themselves is the same as talking to a public. But it isn’t. The public hears all sides; that’s one of the problems some people have with a democratic society.

I speak not from theory, and not from sitting in a library with books, but from thirty years’ real-life experience of the conflict: there is no way you’re going to convince a public of a goal if you say you are agnostic on Israel. It’s never going to happen.

None of this is to mention the most hypocritical aspect of this whole matter. I’ve read the publications of the BDS movement. Every publication says: “We support international law.” There isn’t a publication of theirs which doesn’t say that. Well, international law is clear. The international court of justice [ICJ], in its 2004 advisory opinion on the illegal wall Israel has been building, was unambiguous. Look at the very last sentence. It says we look forward to two states in the Middle East, Israel and Palestine. Look at the UN resolutions every year: it always says the two states.

So how can you both claim to be anchoring your positions in international law and ignore half the law? Either you support the law, or you don’t.

Q. In your work you've focused a lot on international law and it's something that a lot of pro-Palestinian activists see as useful to the cause. What 'real world' relevance does international law have – when the invasion of Iraq was so obviously flagrant of it, when the mandate in Libya was breached, when the Balkans conflict defied it, when extraordinary rendition continues and Guantanamo and torture continue? International law seems to be disrespected in conflict situations far too often to be a powerful tool.

A. I agree with everything up to the last thing you said. International law doesn’t get enforced by the powers-that-be unless it serves their interest. But I don’t expect the US to enforce the law unless it preserves or extends their interests. What’s important about international and human rights law is that it has a large amount of authority among the public. It becomes a weapon for mobilising a public.

If a public hears, for instance, that 14 of the 15 judges sitting on the ICJ say that the wall Israel has built in the occupied West Bank is illegal and has to be dismantled, that’s a very powerful weapon.

The Zionists were brilliant at understanding this. We’re now heading towards the centenary of the Balfour declaration. Bear in mind this declaration was just one sentence by a pretty obscure foreign minister. Why would it be that, 100 years later, people remember the Balfour declaration? Because the Zionist movement made sure you remembered it. Because, for them, it was their first international certificate of legitimacy. They knew it would carry a huge amount of weight with a broad public.

Everybody knows that the UN produces hundreds of resolutions each year. Why is it that everyone remembers the partition resolution, 181, of 1947? Because the Zionist movement made sure you remembered it. Abba Eban, the foreign minister at the time, said: “That’s our birth certificate.” It was a signed birth certificate from the international community. They understood the power of these otherwise impotent resolutions and declarations. It’s the power to reach a public. 

(Our interview with Dr. Finkelstein began late because it took him eight hours to reach Ireland from the Netherlands. After this he insisted we note in this article his commitment to put Ryanair out of business, something he described as “a personal jihad”.)

This interview was originally published in the print edition of Trinity News.

Image top: George Voronov.