This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on January 18, 2015. Dr. Finkelstein discusses the “complicated question” of Israel’s right to regulate the ethnic balance of the state and Palestinian’s right of return.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay. We’re continuing our series of interviews with Norman Finkelstein. Thanks for joining us again.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN, POLITICAL SCIENTIST, ACTIVIST, AND AUTHOR: Thank you.
JAY: So Norman’s whole biography is down below here. And just quickly, his latest book is Method in Madness: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Assaults on Gaza. So we’re going to just quickly pick up the story, and then kind of get into some current issues. So you’re–essentially, your contract is not renewed at DePaul. You don’t get tenure. It amounts, essentially, to–.
FINKELSTEIN: I was denied tenure.
JAY: Denied tenure.
FINKELSTEIN: And then we had an out-of-court settlement. My lawyer, Lynne Bernabei, she said, look, Norm, if it went to court, you would win. She said, I have no doubt about that. But ten-year cases take a long time. It can take four or five or six years. And you’re the person who knows your case the most, so you’re going to have to be writing up the briefs, the facts, and everything. It’ll consume six years of your life. The other choice is just get an out-of-court settlement and move on in your life.
JAY: So, in terms of moving on, you have not now, as of today, been able to get a job anywhere outside of your teaching once a week now, once a month for a week–.
FINKELSTEIN: For one week.
JAY: –in Turkey.
JAY: Now, you are one of the more foremost academics. You have–in terms of studying Israeli issues, Israeli-Palestine issues, in terms of your level of knowledge and so on, whether people agree or disagree with you, this is McCarthyite House of Un-American Activities level of isolation, that you can’t get a job at an institution here.
FINKELSTEIN: I would say the picture is not quite like that. Let me just explain it as I see it. First of all, it’s not only I couldn’t get a job in academia; I couldn’t get any job, period. I couldn’t get a job in the post office. I mean, you might think that’s an exaggeration, but I can assure you it’s not. The problem was for some people it was for ideological purposes, but for a lot of people they’re just administrators. You know, nowadays, because you administer your program, a person walks in the room, they ask you what’s your name, and you say, my name is Norman Finkelstein. The person is sitting down, and immediately they’re going like this as you’re talking to them: how do you spell your name? And then they’re Googling you. And then it comes up, the Google. And then you get “Norman Finkelstein, Holocaust denier”, 40,000 websites. So the administrator–it’s not the politics–do you want somebody who has a reputation for being a Holocaust denier?
JAY: But there are people that run departments that know better.
FINKELSTEIN: They do know better, but that’s my whole point. You’re an administrator. The question is, when people start to complain, when they start having to endure the ordeal that DePaul endured–I endured an ordeal at DePaul, but it wasn’t a pretty picture for them either. This is a third-tier university. It’s like Main Street in Hooterville being hit by a tsunami. They didn’t know what the hell is going on now. And so any administrator, they look after their institution. That’s their job. So I’ll give you an example–not the rarefied ivory tower. I applied to teach as a volunteer, as a volunteer at a charter school in East Harlem. No. Why? Because she knows some kid–what does a kid do when he comes home the first day of class? He Google’s the teacher’s name: “Holocaust denier”. Mommy, mommy, come here, look at my teacher, look, he’s all over the web, a million websites. The parents eyes like this. Oh my God, my son is being taught by a Holocaust denier. Starts complaining to the principal. Does any principal want to have to deal with that? So it’s not–.
JAY: I mean, of course what you’re saying is true, but–.
FINKELSTEIN: It’s not just ideological animus. You know, it’s also just being an administrator and how the system functions.
JAY: Yeah, I think you’re being–I mean, it’s realistic, but I also think you’re being a little forgiving, in the sense that there are some department heads at some universities, and it’s kind of cowardice that they don’t take a [incompr.]
FINKELSTEIN: Well, there’s cowardice, but you have to be inside academia to understand its operations, because from the outside–the outside and inside have very little correlation with each other. I’ll give you an example. I live in New York, okay? Columbia University, NYU, big institutions, their faculties, most of their faculties are actually further left than me on these issues. Now I ask you a question: it’s been seven years. Seven years.
JAY: Since DePaul.
FINKELSTEIN: Columbia has a Center for Palestine studies, the first one in the United States, run by a very prominent professor, okay, a director of it. I don’t know if he’s officially director. But okay. NYU has the Kevorkian Center. And all of these bigshot leftist pro-Palestine one-staters are on the faculty. Now, I ask you a question. In the seven years–it’s an hour from my house–no, even less–has any of them ever invited me, ever invited me to give–not to teach for a semester–to give a lecture? A lecture. A lecture. Seven years. Nothing. Nothing. I have a friend–I love her–I’ll be honest with you–at Harvard. Okay? I won’t tell you her name. And she’s in one of these programs. She sends me every week the list of speakers they have. Now, finally, my innards begin to writhe. I said, has it ever occurred to you to invite me? Has it ever occurred to you? Because academics, it’s you wash my hand, I wash–you know, one hand washes the other. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. I have nothing to offer. I can’t get you a good book review. I can’t get you invited to a conference. I have nothing to offer you. I have nothing. I can’t–even a blurb from me kills a book. I’m serious. So they didn’t do anything for me. I don’t care about the other side. Okay, that’s their cause. That’s what you expect. I’m talking about my side. Nothing.
FINKELSTEIN: Because I have nothing to offer them.
JAY: No, that’s–no, they invite people to speak that can help them with this and that.
FINKELSTEIN: No, that’s not really true.
JAY: Come on, I get invited to speak.
FINKELSTEIN: Okay. You know what, Paul? You have a point. You have a point. A lot of people resented me, even at DePaul, because they felt I was acting like a prima donna. I didn’t want to play by the rules, but I still wanted to get tenure. Like you said, I knew what was going to happen, and I’m still speaking my mind and saying I support Hezbollah, saying with this, that, and the other. And, well, if he’s going to carry on like that–we had to jump through the hoops. We had to sell our souls. I mean, how do you get a job like that? How do you get a job like that at Harvard or at NYU or at Columbia and you call yourself a leftist? Believe me, you cut a lot of corners. You don’t get a job otherwise. And it was this feeling towards me that he wants to have all the benefits of an academic without paying the price.
JAY: Which means staying within certain limits.
FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, well, staying within certain limits, carrying on in a certain way. And I didn’t. You know. And that’s why I say there’s an aspect of me which is–you know, we can call it not hypocritical, but contradictory, that I want to be able to say and think as I do, but I then pity myself when the moment of truth comes and I have to pay the consequences. So there is a resentment towards me. And I’ll tell you another thing, and I’m not afraid to say it. I think I’m better than a lot of them. I know more. I work hard. They’re going to wine-and-cheese conferences, and the wine-and-cheese parties, ridiculous conferences. You’re always plotting conspiracies about this and that, ’cause that’s academic life, it’s so petty. You know? What did I do? I mean, my time wasn’t squandered on that. I just sat home and worked. I worked very hard. You know. And I’m not going to pretend to otherwise. I worked very hard.
JAY: Do you think some of this isolation is personal?
FINKELSTEIN: Yeah. I’ve rubbed people the wrong way. I’m aware of that. You know the expression take no prisoners. If you’re a lousy scholar, I say it. I don’t care if it’s left, right, or center.
JAY: And a lot of the debates you’ve been having in the recent times have been with people on the left of you, in a sense.
FINKELSTEIN: That’s correct.
JAY: I asked you off-camera, just how do I introduce you, how I describe you, and do I say you’re a critic of Zionism or anti-Zionism, anti-Zionist, and you say you actually don’t talk about Zionism.
JAY: What does that mean?
FINKELSTEIN: Well, first of all, I have a material stake in Zionism, because I wrote–my doctoral thesis was From the Jewish Question to the Jewish State: An Essay in the Theory of Zionism. And since I got nothing else out of that experience–I didn’t get a job out of it, and the only thing I have left for my whole wretched experience in graduate school was my thesis and my thesis on Zionism. But I’m categorically opposed to talking about Zionism, because I don’t think it means anything to this generation. I want to reach people. You have to find the language that can reach mainstream people. That’s my goal. People understand the language of human rights. People understand the language of international law. If you say it’s wrong for a state to discriminate against any of its citizens, people understand that. If you say it’s wrong for a state to occupy another people’s country, people understand that. When you say you’re anti-Zionist, you know, for most people Zionism, Zionism is some sort of body deodorant. You know, nobody knows what Zionism is.
JAY: Well, so, is it wrong to have a Jewish state?
FINKELSTEIN: It depends on what you mean by a Jewish state.
JAY: A state whose–.
FINKELSTEIN: England has an Anglican church, but if you ask most Brits who are not Anglican, you ask a typical Muslim in England, or you ask a Jew in England, the fact that there is a state church doesn’t really impinge on them as individuals in that state. Most will say no, they couldn’t care less. But once you start having pronounced features of a Jewish state, then it becomes a real problem.
JAY: But there’s also a difference.
FINKELSTEIN: A pronounced legal–.
JAY: But hang on for a second. In England, the Christian character of the state, it’s not an ethnicity. It goes back to religious cultural traditions. It doesn’t mean anyone who’s a Christian can come immigrate to England. There’s not really any status or privileges that go with that.
FINKELSTEIN: Well, as I said, the moment–.
JAY: But hang on. Hang on. But in the Israeli state, if they’re going to keep the demographics–.
FINKELSTEIN: I totally agree. I totally agree with that. Once status and privilege starts entering in the picture, you have a problem. But we have to be careful about the nature of the problem. I live in the United States. Okay? Technically we’re a secular society. But our day of Sabbath is Sunday. It’s the Sunday and it’s not Saturday, which is the Jewish day of Sabbath, and it’s not Friday, which is the Muslim day of Sabbath. It’s Sunday because it was a Christian country. Everybody acknowledges, unless you’re going to be really blind, we have a national holiday. It’s Christmas. It’s not Hannuah. It’s not Ede. It’s Christmas.
JAY: Yeah, okay. But hang on. Let me make this point. Let me make this point.
FINKELSTEIN: So every state has a religious or ethnic shadow. Every state has one. The question is how dark that shadow is. And when it starts to create serious issues of privilege and exclusivity, then it becomes a problem. In Israel it’s a big problem.
JAY: Yeah, ’cause there’s a very specific thing. They’re trying to say that people that have a Jewish ethnicity can live here, can immigrate here. Anyone who’s Jewish has an automatic right of return. But Palestinians–.
FINKELSTEIN: Right. And I think that–. I recognize that it’s a problem.
JAY: But the point is that that demographic, that kind of Jewish state, that’s what I think people think when they talk about Zionism.
FINKELSTEIN: Okay. Okay. Look, there are two different issues here. One is the question of Israel as a Jewish state. The second is the issue of Zionism. So on the second issue, which is the one you asked me, I think you can talk about all of these issues–privileging the state, status in the state, discrimination in the state, exclusivity in the state–you can use the normal language of human rights, equality under the law, international–you can discuss all of these issues without talking about Zionism. And so I don’t want to drag into Zionism, only because I think you lose people and it becomes this polarized debate with are you or are you not a Zionist, whereas I think you can have a much–you have a much bigger possibility of reaching people if you ask, are you or are you against a state that discriminates against some of its citizens? Are you or are you not against an exclusivist state? Are you or are you not against a state which grants privileges to one group of people and denies those privileges to other groups of people? And then you can reach people. You can talk to them. I have a lot of experience talking to people. I was out there, as I said, 500 people, big audiences. I know what reaches people and what evokes a yawn. And once it starts to be a debate between the student audience and you over Zionism, about 98 percent of the audience checks out, because it becomes a kind of in-house debate: are you or are you not a Zionist?
JAY: Okay, but I’m not even asking whether you are or you’re not a Zionist; I’m saying are you or are you not in agreement that there should be a Jewish state with the right to defend the demographics of Israel so they maintain a majority Jewish population?
FINKELSTEIN: I would say that that’s a complicated question, because every state has the right, every state has the right to regulate its immigration and emigration. That’s a right that redounds on any state in our state system. Now, let’s take a question of–let’s take a question. I’ll give you an example. Let’s take the question of Tibet. Okay? The Chinese, Han Chinese, they want to bring in large numbers of Han Chinese in order to dilute the Tibetan population, eventually outnumber them, and then it will no longer be Tibet, or it won’t be a Tibetan Tibet. It will just be another Han Chinese province.
JAY: And do you think this is a comparable situation?
FINKELSTEIN: Well, I’m saying do the Tibetans have the right to say, we reject this massive immigration because it’s going to change the ethnic character of our Tibet? The answer, in my opinion, is yeah, yes. The Indonesians tried to do the same thing to–.
JAY: But does that apply to Israel?
FINKELSTEIN: I would say clearly it applies to the occupied territories, that if you look at Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which says you can’t transfer populations from the occupier country to the occupied territory, one of the reasons, if you read the commentary on the Fourth Geneva Convention–it’s called the /pɪktɛt/ commentary–one of the reasons they say is because an occupied territory has the right to maintain its racial demographic.
JAY: So Palestinians have a right to say no settlements.
JAY: But I’m asking you, does the–you know what I’m asking you.
FINKELSTEIN: I understand what you’re asking me, and I think it’s a tough question on what rights does a state have to regulate the ethnic balance of a state. In my opinion, it’s a tough question.
JAY: ‘Cause then you could argue the United States could want more white people and start having–.
FINKELSTEIN: Right. The United States did that for a very long time.
JAY: And to a large extent, a lot of these countries still do.
FINKELSTEIN: It discriminated against South Europeans, Italians. And of course it discriminated against Jews in its various immigration laws in the early part of the century, the 1924 immigration law. Yeah, the United States did that. Now our policy is it discriminates on the basis of job qualifications. If you have a professional capacity which is useful, then you get some sort of priority in our immigration and you’re not allowed to discriminate again on the basis of religion.
JAY: But why is it a complicated question? You’ve got a state that’s essentially given birth to as an occupier state. You have ethnic cleansing of the local population. Then you have, okay, Jews from anywhere can come, but Palestinians and descendents of those who actually lived here can’t come back. Why is that complicated? There’s something wrong with that if you’re going to call yourself a modern democratic state.
FINKELSTEIN: Well, because, as I said, it’s not inconsistent between the principle of being a modern democratic state on the one hand and a state having the right to regulate its immigration policies. That’s a right that states have.
JAY: Well, I’m not arguing that, but we’re arguing whether it can be–any modern democratic state should be based on race.
FINKELSTEIN: Look, I don’t–listen, I don’t want to get into an argument about this, because the bottom line: we agree. And there’s no point now in me trying to split hairs. Under international law, the Palestinians have a right of return. Human Rights Watch, in the year 2000, Amnesty International in 2001, each of the major human rights organizations–Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International–they both issued position papers, and both of them said that under international law the Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 and then in 1967, they–and the expression they used–they and successive generations which have maintained genuine links with the land–that’s the expression they use–successive generations maintain genuine links with the land. They have the right of return. I’m not going to quarrel with Amnesty or Human Rights Watch. I told you earlier I try to stick pretty closely to what international law says. I think they’re fair interpreters of the international law, so I’m not going to quarrel with it. On the other hand, I recognize as a practical political matter this is a tough issue to solve. And then we have to figure out ways to resolve it.
JAY: Okay. In the next segment, we’re going to talk about the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, something that Norman has a lot of criticism of. So please join us on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News for the continuation of our series with Norman Finkelstein.
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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.”