The Making of Norman Finkelstein - Reality Asserts Itself (pt 6/8)

This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on January 16, 2015. Dr. Finkelstein says there was no way that considerations of his livelihood ever entered into his calculus about whether or not to say something or not say something.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, and we’re continuing our series of interviews with Norman Finkelstein. Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: So, as everybody knows who’s watching this series, Norman is an academic and author. He’s a well-known critic of Israeli policy, as he describes it. And as well he’s–most recent book is Method and Madness: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Assaults on Gaza. So you write the book The Holocaust Industry. You get fired at Hunter College.

FINKELSTEIN: I’m let go.

JAY: You’re let go. You are isolated in terms of the American Jewish community, the preponderance of it–certainly not all, ’cause not all the American Jewish community is monolithic on this issue, far from it, as you’re an example. But you do get a job at DePaul. And as you’re at DePaul, the echo or the reverberations or the noise around The Holocaust Industry starts to grow, and it becomes really a global phenomenon, which you said earlier you didn’t expect. Now, you’re there from 2001 to 2007. You kind of last there for six years. What is it like for you there as you’re becoming a global star here as a result of how well-known the book becomes?

FINKELSTEIN: Well, first of all let’s be clear I didn’t want to be there. I ran out of job prospects in New York. I’m a homebody. I tend to be very conservative in my lifestyle. I loved home. I lived near the beach near Coney Island, which is a beach for working-class people, I know, not for rich people. And I was very unhappy to have to leave. So I had no choice.

JAY: And where is DePaul?

FINKELSTEIN: DePaul’s in Chicago. I stumbled upon the job. It was really just an accident. Once I got the job, it was very difficult for DePaul to get rid of me, because Depaul claims to be a student-centered school. It used to have the claim to fame of, in U.S. News & World Report, of being the school where students are happiest. And it also had what’s called a mission of insentient mission, which is social concern with a social concern [sic]. So I was extremely, I think it’s fair to say–no point in false modesty–I was extremely popular with the students. And I was acting out the social mission. I was devoting myself to oppressed people, poor people, and so forth. So I seemed to fit the bill on all counts. So, even though each year they would do something vicious to try to get rid of me–salary cuts, all sorts of–.

JAY: But when they first hired you, are they just not aware what the Holocaust Industry book is?

FINKELSTEIN: They didn’t really care, because I was just hired to replace somebody for a semester. So they just figured, okay, he’ll be here for a semester; who cares, really, who he is? That was the last minute. It was in the summer. The chair of the department–I remember that a couple of my friends took me to her backyard. They said that we need somebody for this semester. Can you hire Norm? She didn’t really know, she didn’t really care. I mean, it’s a third-tier school. So she just hired me from a backyard. I remember she was sitting in the backyard on a beach chair. We need somebody. She’s the chair. She’s in charge of the schedule. We need somebody–they need somebody to fill a spot. They hired me. The problem was how to get rid of me. Once I had my foot in the door and the students liked me, they didn’t know how to get rid of me. So just to give give you one example, after the first year, the whole hysteria starts up. Finkelstein’s teaching at DePaul, got to get rid of Finkelstein. And the students, they didn’t want me to go. So they had a sit-in in the president’s office. The president took me into his office. It was not the current president. It was–Father Minogue was his name. The current president never let me into his office. I never met him. I never saw him. I don’t even know what he looks like, frankly. But that time it was Father Minogue. He took me into his office and he said to me that there’s a real problem with rehiring you for another year. And I said to him, look, if the issue is that DePaul is going to take a big hit financially because of me, in my opinion–it’s my opinion you have the right to get rid of me, because I’ve always been of the view nobody should have to bear the burden of my politics. My politics are my problem, and DePaul, as an institution which was servicing working-class kids, they should not have to take a financial hit because of me. So if that’s the issue, I’m ready to go. I know there’s a compensatory issue or countervailing issue of academic freedom, but I’d say between the two I’m willing to accept DePaul shouldn’t have to take the hit, even though it violates some principle of academic freedom. That was my judgment call. I said, but if the issue is my politics, statements that I’ve made, allegations that have been made about I said this and that, I said, look, I’m willing to go through with you statement by statement. You quote them, and let’s go through what was my reasoning, because, I said, you’ll be very surprised. People don’t understand my personality. They think I’m reckless. Not at all. I think through everything. I am very careful what I say, and I’m not going to say something which in my view cannot be defended on rational grounds. So I said, if it’s the second, then I’ll–let’s have a discussion. And I remember his words were that he called the chair in and he said, quote, we’re going to take a hit–that was his words–we’re going to take a hit, but I’m keeping you. However, there are two things to say. We have to try to find the right balance. He was taking–at that point it was only my first or second year, so there was no danger of me getting tenured. So he figured, another year, who knows what’s going to happen in a year? He can get hit by a truck, a brick can fall in his head, or maybe he’ll get–he’ll find another job. So it was really just a year. But on the other hand, he took a chance which nobody else was willing to take. And it may sound strange coming from the–I actually respect DePaul for that, ’cause they kept me for six years in the middle of this hysteria.

JAY: So, after this meeting at DePaul, it’s not like you pull back at all or keep your head down at all; you’re actually out there more and more. You’re invited to speak all over the world, up-and-down North America. You’re getting into debates with some of the leading defenders of Israeli policy. You’re becoming, probably, certainly in the English-speaking world, one of the best-known critics of Israeli policy. And so how did this affect your relations? As you go in your relationship with DePaul, this is becoming more and more an issue for them.

FINKELSTEIN: Well, I happen to think that these are speculations, but I think they’re speculations which have some basis, some significant basis, in fact. I think that’s what actually caused the real problem for me at DePaul. Some people will think it’s my politics. It’s not really true, because in academia nowadays, I’m actually, from the point of view of large segments of academia, I’m actually conservative. I still support the two-state settlement. Academics are now saying one-state settlement. I’m pretty–I stick to international law on all issues, on issues of terrorism, on everything. What international law says, that’s me. So, actually, as I said, from point of view of politics per se, I’m actually pretty conservative.

JAY: But you’re out there–. Let’s just–just let me add–

FINKELSTEIN: Well, that’s the point. That’s [crosstalk]

JAY: –let me add one thing.


JAY: This is now 2001, 2007. This is post-9/11, Bush years, and the whole post-9/11 atmosphere.

FINKELSTEIN: No, there’s also another critical factor, which is now forgotten. It was also the Second Intifada. And there was–it evoked a huge reaction, the Israeli repression during those years. And so exactly what you say is true. I was out there. And, again, I don’t want to sound boastful, but it’s a factual matter: I never missed a class. I used to figure my classes to be at 3:15, and around 3:30 I would fly out to a school, I would speak, take the first plane out at 6 a.m. I’m in my class at 9 a.m. I was keeping an absolutely frenzied schedule, frenetic schedule, but I was out there. And wherever I went, because I had a certain amount of notoriety, and also because it was the middle of the Second Intifada, and also because there’s a big Palestine Solidarity Network in American universities and Canadian universities and European universities and colleges, I had huge crowds. qq I was getting 300 people, 500 people, 1,000 people everywhere. I mean, literally everywhere was standing room only. I was–and I did my homework. I did not give rhetorical speeches. Not at all. They were very methodical. It was the Chomsky style. I learned it in his lap–or his knees, as the expression has it. And it was the Chomsky [style (?)]. I prepared, I had all the facts, and I was convincing. And so I was becoming effective. And that was the problem. It was not my politics; it was that I was reaching a broad audience and I was effective.

JAY: Yeah, it wasn’t rhetoric. You were doing research and giving people the results of your research.

FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, and I was becoming a problem.

JAY: But you had to know that when you go to DePaul, this might be the last place you can teach. It obviously didn’t seem to hold you back. Did it not give you second thought?

FINKELSTEIN: No. I know, again, it’s my character. No, it would never–I know it sounds arrogant. I’m human. I have 10,000 flaws, as Gandhi used to say, like everybody else. I have 10,000 flaws. But those considerations do not deter me. They do not, because I internalized deeply my parents’ suffering and their feeling that, as my late mother used to say, the whole world abandoned them. The whole world abandoned them. And so there was no way that considerations of livelihood ever entered into my calculus about whether or not I will say something or not say something. That never happened. Of course, of course to some extent I was self-pitying, because, like you said, it was inevitable that that was going to happen, the backlash. So why am I complaining? You knew what was going to happen. And then, when it happened, you were sitting around pitying yourself–I don’t have a job, I love to teach, I’ll never be in a classroom again. Yeah, that part was inconsistent in me, because I wanted, so to speak, to have my cake and eat it. I want to be able to say the truth as I understood it. But then, when I suffered the inevitable consequences, I was angry and very self-pitying about it. So there I would say there was and continuous to be an inconsistency in my character.

JAY: There’s a moment–now, I used to produce this Canadian television show CounterSpin. You were on it several times. I’ve seen, other times, video of you speaking. And you keep your cool and you argue with facts. But there’s one moment where you had an exchange with this young student, and it went viral. I think you were speaking to a bunch of students, and she argued with you, and in the course of arguing she starts to cry, and you were pretty tough, in the sense that you say to her, if I remember correctly, why aren’t you shedding tears for the Palestinians? And there is a lot of hits on you for not being a little more, I don’t know, compassionate or something. When you look back on that moment, ’cause the thing really did go viral and it had some effect, what do you think?

FINKELSTEIN: Well, first of all, I’m a little tired of that video, because wherever I go in the Arab Muslim world, they play it over and over and over again.

JAY: Really? Why in the Arab world?

FINKELSTEIN: Because they like the idea. They interpreted it incorrectly. They thought the girl was Jewish, which she was not, and they interpreted it as me sort of–it’s all over the Arab world. It’s the “crocodile’s tears” speech. They somehow feel vindicated by that speech. Don’t ask me why. I was in Iran in March for two weeks, and I did a lot of TV programs. And every single TV program begins with this video. And they have a Persian translation, which is very dramatic, you know, like somebody’s reading Shakespeare, to the point that I was getting nightmares. And I’m hearing this video over and over and over again. How do I feel about it? I’ll tell you how I feel about it. I don’t recoil at what I said, because it’s how I feel, but that’s not my speaking style,–

JAY: Yeah, that’s what I thought. Yeah.

FINKELSTEIN: –it was so out of character. Anyone who thinks that’s representative of me, they’re in for a very big disappointment, because I’m a very monotonous speaker. I adopted the Chomsky style. I don’t appeal to any emotions. I have more humor than he does. He has a little irony. I have more humor, more undiluted humor than him. But I adopted the Chomsky style. So a lot of people–.

JAY: So why did she get to you?

FINKELSTEIN: Why did she get–.

JAY: Why did that moment, ’cause that’s what I’m saying. It isn’t your style.

FINKELSTEIN: Because I just–it rubbed me the wrong way that this young woman is going to be giving me lessons about how to talk about the Nazi holocaust. I did not go through it, for sure, but I was as close to it as anyone could be through the experience of my parents. And now for this woman to go up there and tell me, lecture me about how I shouldn’t–should or shouldn’t talk about the Nazi holocaust, that just rubbed me the wrong way. Don’t tell me, don’t tell me how to talk about it. I have given a lot of thought to it, and I had a–if I can use the word, a wrenching experience as a child growing up in that home. So I don’t need lessons about how to talk about the Nazi holocaust.

JAY: Okay. You teach at DePaul for six years.

FINKELSTEIN: Two thousand seven, yeah, and then the tenure year came.

JAY: So what happens?

FINKELSTEIN: Oh, the tenure year, all hell broke loose. I’m under a out-of-court settlement where I’m not allowed to disparage DePaul. That’s the terms of the settlement. But as I understand it as it’s been interpreted by the lawyers, including my wonderful, wonderful, wonderful lawyer, Lynne Bernabei, who handled the case, I’m allowed to speak anything that’s factually correct. So, as long as it’s factually correct, I could say it. I would say, without sounding too conspiratorial, there were three members of the department who decided for different reasons–it was they wanted to get rid of me. One of them had been in correspondence for one or two years with Professor Dershowitz at Harvard, and he was smitten by Dershowitz.

JAY: And for people watching this who don’t know, Alan Dershowitz is a very famous American professor who’s very close to the Israeli government.

FINKELSTEIN: Well, he’s emeritus now. He was the senior-most professor of Harvard Law School. But now he’s emeritus. He left in June.

JAY: Very closely associated with various Israeli governments and consults for them in various things.

FINKELSTEIN: Of course. [incompr.] So the year before tenure, he, the chair, whose name I can name because that’s factual, Pat Callahan, he began to prepare the ground to get rid of me. So in the annual evaluation, every professor in the department is subject to an annual evaluation. He ranked me the worst professor in the department, even though–the worst teacher in the department, even though I had the highest student evaluations in the department. He then said my book, which had just come out from University of California Press, Beyond Chutzpah, which was–two-thirds of it was devoted to Professor Dershowitz. He called the book worthless, which is okay, except for one thing: he admits he never read the book. And when he was asked on what basis he determined that this University of California Press book, which had blurbs from the six leading scholars in the world, was worthless, he said he watched the debate between me and Dershowitz on Democracy Now! That was the level that they had sunk. And then the last year–.

JAY: The debate’s 2006?

FINKELSTEIN: The debate was 2006. Yeah. And then, the last year, Professor Dershowitz entered in a very big way. He sent a 60-page–literally a 60-page dossier on me to every single member of the university and the administration. Sixty pages. And then professors in the law school, everybody started to line up against me. Then Professor Dershowitz took out an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal telling DePaul not to hire me.

JAY: Just for people that don’t know university life, ’cause some of our viewers don’t, at a certain point, a professor gets tenure. If they get a tenured position, it’s very, very difficult then to get rid of that person. You have to do something pretty horrendous.

FINKELSTEIN: Correct. Exactly correct. Then Sean Hannity, the right-wing commentator on Fox News, he did a segment where he quoted me at a rally during the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon. And, again, people think I’m reckless. They’re way off. I can be reckless in private. You know, I mean, I have my humor, but not in public. I’m very responsible. And it was the time when Israel was devastating Lebanon and these congresspeople were saying, we are all Israel now. And I was invited to a rally. I got up and I said, oh, no, we’re not all Israel now; we are now all Hezbollah. And I knew it was going to create a hysteria. I knew there would be people filming me. I thought about it. That’s how I felt. We are all Hezbollah. And it was filmed. Sean Hannity showed it on the program. He picked up his pencil, and he pointed, and he says, DePaul, we are watching you. And then all sorts of dirtiness.

JAY: Now, let me ask you a question.

FINKELSTEIN: No, just let me finish.

JAY: Yeah.

FINKELSTEIN: All sorts of dirtiness started to play itself out in the university. It was really ugly, it was very ugly, to the point that I didn’t sleep at all at the end. I used to come to class. I would be up till around 4 a.m. I’d say, okay, it’s pointless. Let me just go in to school and answer emails. And I would come into class like a stray dog. I’m serious. I didn’t bother washing. I didn’t care about how I was dressed. And the students really rallied behind me. At the end, a number, a number went on a hunger strike in support of me. I would say two-thirds was because they liked me. One-third, they took pity on me. I was destroyed. It was horrible what happened. I mean, that’s just a fact.

JAY: You say you’re not reckless.


JAY: You think through carefully. Why say we’re all Hezbollah and not say we’re all Lebanese?

FINKELSTEIN: Because the Hezbollah was representing the resistance at that moment. It was the Hezbollah resistance that was fighting. And I respect that. I honor that. They were no different than during World War II, when Americans were rallying behind Uncle Joe. You know? There were films, Mission to Moscow. There were all these films in praise of Stalin. I don’t compare the Hezbollah to the communists, but they were tough, they’re ruthless, and they’ve done things lately with Syria which I don’t agree with it all. I can’t accept it. I can understand it; I can’t accept it. Well, at that point I have no problem saying that, because that’s factually correct.

JAY: But there is also some, if you’re reasoning, there’s some–

FINKELSTEIN: But you have a point.

JAY: –some tactical consideration.

FINKELSTEIN: No. I understand what you’re saying. And you know what? It’s a fair statement to make. Maybe I should have said we’re all Lebanon now. There is an argument to be made there. But I’d like to give credit to those who do the fighting, the sacrifice, the dying. The communists and the socialists got it during World War II. Hezbollah is doing the fighting, did the fighting and the dying from 1983 until 2000, when they evicted the Israelis, and then in 2006. I honor that and I respect that. Even though, as I said–you know what Pete Seeger–I remember he said he used to always defend the Soviet Union, defend the Soviet Union. Once he said at one point, but I know that if I were in the Soviet Union, I’d probably be the first one thrown into the Gulag. I understand those contradictions. But at that moment, at that moment, we are all Hezbollah, just like in World War II we are all the Red Army. With the red Army go the heroes. And when I was growing up, it had no influence on me [incompr.] parents, but I discovered Paul Robeson. And when Paul Robeson would sing “with the Red Army go the heroes”, it moved me deeply. It was the Red Army. They defeated the Nazis. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for their sacrifice. I want to honor that and respect that, the coverage, which I don’t have or I don’t think I have. Maybe I do if the circumstances were such that they had to find that coverage of me. But I respect that.

JAY: Okay. We’re going to continue our series of conversations with Norman. Please join us for the next part on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.

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Norman Gary Finkelstein is an American political scientist, activist, former professor, and author. His primary fields of research are the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the politics of the Holocaust. He is a graduate of Binghamton University and received his Ph.D. in political science at Princeton University.” theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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