Norman Finkelstein is among the leading scholars on the Israel-Palestine conflict in the United States. His work on the issue, as well as on the Nazi Holocaust, has been praised by scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Raul Hilberg. Finkelstein has long been a defendant of Palestinian rights and one of the world’s most thorough critics of Israel.
For decades, he has advocated for two states on the June 1967 borders, a “just solution to the refugee question,” for an end to the Israeli settlements in Palestine, the deconstruction of the border wall, the right to clean water, and an end to the occupation, the Gaza blockade, and the use of any force against Palestinians.
About eleven years ago, Finkelstein participated in a debate with Alan Dershowitz on Democracy Now!. In the debate, Finkelstein discredited Dershowitz’s work on air for – at the very least – being riddled with mistakes. Dershowitz responded by launching a smear campaign against Finkelstein – complete with wholesale lies – which many believe resulted in the denial of Finkelstein’s tenure around that time at DePaul University. His work, however, was and remains primarily concerned with the facts. The response to Finkelstein’s work in mainstream news and most scholarship in the United States is largely one of silence.
His latest book, Gaza: An Inquest into its Martyrdom, set to be translated in over a dozen countries and praised by scholars in the field, has not been reviewed in the mainstream press in the United States and, with the exception of a Democracy Now! interview in January, has received no major interviews. Finkelstein has authored over ten books.
Finkelstein spoke at an event organized by Brattleboro Common Sense in Brattleboro, Vermont, on the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, where the conflict stands at the moment, the possibilities for social movement groups, and the current tragedies playing out at the border wall in Gaza. Following the event, we sat down for an interview and discussed his life, his work, the public support for Israel in the US, the rise of Bernie Sanders, teaching, and more.
The transcript is below. It has been slightly shortened where relevant. Language in some of the questions has been changed where necessary for reasons of context and clarity, but the answers are unchanged. An abridged version appeared in CounterPunch in two parts.
An Interview with Norman Finkelstein: I Will Not Betray the Legacy of my Parents in Order to Make Myself Palatable
Norman Finkelstein, Matthew Vernon Whalan
Matthew Vernon Whalan: Let’s start with your early background – how you got interested in politics, academics, even just reading in general.
Norman Finkelstein: My parents passed through the Nazi Holocaust. Their entire families on both sides were exterminated during the war. Both my parents were in the Warsaw Ghetto until the uprising was suppressed in April 1943. They were then deported to Majdanek Concentration Camp. My father ended up in Auschwitz and in the Auschwitz Death March, my mother was in two slave labor camps. After the war they were in a displaced peoples camp in Austria, and they came over to the US in 1948 or 49’. Both of them were staunch supporters of the Soviet Union, but not because they were communists or even because they were politically engaged – they were not. They supported the Soviet Union because the Soviet Union defeated the Nazis, and they looked at the whole world through the prism of the Nazi Holocaust, and so they felt a real sense of debt to the Soviet Union and the Red Army, to Stalin – in particular to Stalin – and I guess you would call them the last Stalinists until their deaths in 1995. You were not allowed, in their presence, to say even a single word critical of Stalin.
My home was very intensely political, and the salient event was the war in Vietnam, and my mother in particular was – I wouldn’t even say passionate – I would say hysterical, in her hatred toward what the US was doing to the people of Vietnam. And my mother’s moral indignation certainly colored the way I perceive politics. There was always an element, in my politics –
MVW: Were you involved in the Vietnam anti-war movements?
NF: Yeah, I was way too young to be a leader. The war was unfolding when I was in Sixth Grade – which means I was twelve years old – and Johnson had just been elected on a piece platform against Barry Goldwater.
MVW: Right, who Hillary Clinton supported.
NF: She supported Goldwater?
NF: Well, she was always ahead of the curve.
And then she had the audacity to claim that she was the activist in the Civil Rights Movement, and John Lewis lied and said I remember Hillary and I remember Bill but Bernie was never involved. So cynical. So cynical. So, yeah, Hillary was a Goldwater girl. And so I attended the [anti-Vietnam War] demonstrations, and then I got into college. The war was still an active issue in my college years – a very active issue – because I went to school 71’-74’. The Paris Peace Treatise was 73’.
But I have to say I wasn’t as active as others because I felt I wanted to study, to prepare myself for what we thought would be the revolution. When I graduated college, I went to work for a radical newspaper – a Maoist newspaper – called The Guardian. And I always knew I would stay the course. So I never felt this need, at that age, to give my all to it, because I knew I was going to give my life to it. That’s how it turned out. Virtually everybody I know from that era went on to fairly conventional lives, and I’m the only one who stuck it out.
MVW: Do you remember some of the earliest writers who influenced your thinking on these issues?
NF: Yeah, some of them are quite embarrassing. Oh, David Horowitz, the super right winger, wrote his book The Free World Colossus, which had an influence on me. I would say the writers that you would know – they weren’t on my radar until relatively late. I don’t think I read Chomsky until – well, let’s see. I don’t think I read Chomsky until 78’? In college I was already a Maoist. So we read Marx. We read Lenin. We read – well I read Trotsky but the Maoists weren’t supposed to. I read – so to speak – the classics.
I read everything there was to read on China. As an undergraduate I actually taught a course on China because I knew more than any professor.
MVW: Where was that?
NF: At Binghamton. I was a voracious reader. So I read everything there was to read on China.
MVW: So let’s get a little more political. We sort of talked about this this morning, when we were talking about the debate on Democracy Now! with Alan Dershowitz, which took place about a decade ago. One thing that was so revealing to me about that was that I think, for both a lot of people who are young and a lot of people on the left, – and I think this is true of your work on Joan Peters as well – it’s eye-opening to see that what’s being debated is not the solution; it’s the problem. It’s the facts themselves that are being debated. It seems like entering into discussions on the Israel-Palestine conflict – not uniquely, but maybe especially – it’s really hard to break through this large structure of myths that ensures the discussion is about what the problem is and not the solution. The same tactic is used, say, in climate change denial. The debate on the issue is not over what to do, it’s over what is real, which prevents substantive change. Just this endless sort of obscuring tactic –
NF: Yeah, you can’t get past the fact issue to get to the solution question. Just to give you one indication of how lunatic our society is: so, occasionally I check on Amazon to see how my book is doing – always depressed by how it’s doing –
MVW: Me too.
NF: And then there’s a category. They break down how your book is doing in different categories. So there’s one category called History/Middle East/Israel-Palestine. So I notice my book is number eight – on one day it’s number eight in this category, this breakdown, this subdivision. So I click on it to see which books are ahead of me. When my book was number eight, you know what was number four?
NF: Alan Dershowitz’s, The Case For Israel. Do you know what was six?
MVW: Joan Peters.
NF: Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial!
MVW: Right, and I mean Dershowitz and Peters are sort of easy to pick on, but this issue even comes up with someone like [Bennie] Morris. I mean, I think your writings on the later work of Morris address this issue as well.
NF: Well Morris was – at one point he was an ideological historian. But most historians have ideological axes to grind. But he unearthed a lot of very good information. There’s no question about that. He was serious in the sense that he combed through archives, he dug up a lot of stuff, it’d be foolish to try to take that away from him. And he dug up a lot of valuable stuff. In particular, for example, in his revised and updated version of The Birth of the Palestinian Question, he has a long chapter on the role of transfer – the idea of expulsion in Zionist ideology. At that period, in the period between the two wars – World War I and II – you know, there was a lot there. Definitely. So Morris, you know, he has his ideological axe to grind but he digs up a lot of stuff.
But what’s interesting about people like Dershowitz is that it tells you something about our intellectual culture that – so I have this debate with him; I completely discredit him; I completely expose him; he himself knows he was discredited and exposed so he goes on this Jihad against me to get me denied tenure. But the fact that he was publicly exposed, publicly discredited, it did not affect his reputation one jot. When this came up, they still went to him. He’s always the go to guy, on Israel. Doesn’t affect him at all.
MVW: But would you say that since that – and not in a correlative way – but since that debate, would you say that the left, in particular, has taken a more critical stance on Israel?
NF: No, I wouldn’t say that. The left has been moving. Look, the old guard in Israel likes to pretend how moral they are, how they were socialists, second international, Kibbutzim. You know – these people – Netanyahu embraces Trump –
MVW: Right, well I want to come back to that.
NF: So it’s impossible, any longer, for any self-respecting leftist to defend the way that Israel carries on. The most they’re willing to defend is Israel’s right to continue to be a Jewish State, and opposing the right of return to the Palestinians. On those two issues, elements of the left will draw a line. But apart from that, Israel is completely indefensible.
MVW: Well, that sort of leads well into the next question. You’ve talked a lot about how support for Israel has been bi-partisan for a long time –
NF: In the Congress. Not among the people anymore. If you look at the polls, there’s a huge chasm between Republican Party support for Israel and Democratic Party support for Israel. In the Republican Party it’s like 70 percent, in the Democratic Party it’s about 40 percent, so it’s no longer bi-partisan on the base, but at the leadership levels and in congressional representation –
MVW: Right, on policy.
NF: Yeah, there hasn’t been any breakthroughs.
MVW: So, you certainly touched on this in your talk today, but it would be good to do it again here. So in 2015, the UN releases a report –
NF: The UNCTAD Report.
MVW: In that 2015 report they use the “uninhabitable” to describe what the state of Gaza would be by 2020 if the situation remains the same –
NF: But then in 2017, the UN spokesman said that –
MVW: Right, that even that was optimistic.
NF: They crossed that threshold. They say when you only have two hours of electricity every day, you’ve crossed the threshold of livability.
MVW: Right, so but in 2016, after that second report in 2015 – there were three total I think.
NF: Right, and the second one was 2015, and then there’s 2017.
MVW: So then soon after that, in 2016, after that UN prediction about 2020, Obama signed off on what the White House called the largest arms deal ever, a $38 billion arms deal over ten years, going way past the 2020 prediction –
NF: Well, Obama – because he knows who’s got the money, who’s got the power, which is the only thing Obama is concerned with – he gives Israel that deal because that’s going to get him entrées among the people he wants to be among. But Obama’s also – aside from being a groveler and flunky for power – he’s also a narcissist. So, he waits till the end of his second term and then he doesn’t veto the UN resolution on the settlements. Why? One, because it was payback time to Netanyahu – who is really a pretty disgusting racist, the way he treated Obama – I mean, Natenyahu makes it clear: he hates black people.
MVW: Right, even though Obama was more favorable to Israel than even Bush.
NF: He was the best. He’s actually the best Israel has ever had. There wasn’t one UN security council resolution passed against Israel – even Bush passed several – Bush Senior and Junior. So, one reason was it was payback time. The other reason – because you have to understand Obama: he doesn’t have a political bone in his body. He has no interest at all in politics. But he is concerned about his “legacy,” so he wanted to make sure that he could say in his memoir that he gave them the best arms deal in history – so that secures his backers –but he also wants to show that he’s a liberal, a progressive, so he’s going to say I had to abstain in that resolution because the settlements are wrong and we want peace. So it was just for his memoir. He knew the resolution was meaningless. It was November. Trump had already been elected. The Resolution was totally meaningless. But he did that only for his memoirs. He wants to show that he has this enlightened legacy.
By the way, that’s why Obama was so opposed to Bernie Sanders. It was all the narcissism. He wanted to be the most progressive figure, the enlightened one, the prophet, and he saw that Bernie was stealing all his thunder. The young people were rallying not to Obama but to Bernie. And so he wanted to stop their Bernie dead in his tracks. Part of it is because he wants the power.
MVW: Do you think he was ever progressive?
NF: No, if you read his history – listen, Obama was never interested in politics. Right through high school, there were three things about Obama that come across from his high school years. One: he was always high, always on drugs. Two: he was fixated on basketball. And three: everyone said he had a winning smile. Books? Read? Politics? Joke! He then went to occidental college and he went to Columbia. Columbia there was no politics. He claimed he was active in the anti-apartheid movement. When you interview people who were involved in the conflict, they never saw him! It was all just a fake. He liked to pretend that he was into literature. Complete phony. Only reason he became a community organizer was because he had a completely undistinguished academic career at Columbia, so he needed to pad his resume. So the best way to pad your resume is to say that.
MVW: So these two things together: the UN report in 2015 saying that Gaza will unlivable by 2020, and then Obama sings an arms deal that extends nine years past 2020, since it goes into effect this year and lasts ten years. What do you think the impact of that deal will be in relation to the warnings in those reports?
NF: Look, the UN reports are valuable if and when – until and unless – a mass movement makes use of them. So, right now, the people of Gaza have an opportunity to use those UN reports to publicize why the blockade needs to be lifted. In the absence of any action, any mass resistance, the UN reports just collect dust. Look, that’s not peculiar to the Israel-Palestine conflict. That’s true of law in general. So take the United States. So, Brown V. Board of Ed is passed and the US Supreme court decides unanimously, as the last sentence reads, ‘separate cannot be equal,’ and so calls for desegregation of the schools. In what’s called ‘Brown II,’ when they have to give a time table for the desegregation process to unfold, they use the famous expression – what became the famous expression – that the schools had to be desegregated with ‘all deliberate speed.’ So what does that mean? Well, it meant nothing. Ten years later, in 1964, on the eve of the passage of the first Civil Rights Bill. You know what percentage of schools had been desegregated? It’s very enlightening.
MVW: Less than five?
NF: One percent. One percent of African Americans were attending desegregated schools ten years later. So what desegregated the schools? Well, it’s obvious. The Civil Rights Movement is what desegregated the schools. However, when the Civil Rights Movement came along, they were able to use Brown as an ideological weapon in the public, to say, Look, the law says that the schools have to be desegregated. So they had the law on their side, but the law by itself – in the absence of the mass movement, the schools would probably still be segregated today.
And it’s the same thing with these UN reports and UN resolutions. They’re valuable insofar as and only until and unless a mass movement makes use of them. So now, they have a good weapon. The weapon – I think the right way to use it is the way I used it today in my talk. I said, if you confine people in an ‘unlivable’ space – Israel has no right to use any force to confine them. The place is unlivable. So they have the right to breach the blockade. So to that extent they’re valuable. Otherwise they just collect dust. It’s very useful material for the historian but they have no value politically.
MVW: I want to move back to something you touched on earlier. First, broadly speaking – maybe it’s not fair to ask someone to predict – but what do you think the impact of another six years of Trump would be? And then also – sort of a part of that question – his relationship to Netanyahu is interesting. They’re very similar – you’ve talked about this – they both talk about ‘fake news,’ they both talk about so-called border walls –
NF: They both hate non-white immigrants. But there is a big difference. And we shouldn’t lose sight of the difference. First of all, Netanyahu is overwhelmingly popular in Israel and he’s been in office for ten years. The Americans – Trump did lose the popular vote. It’s just a fact. He lost it by about 3 million votes. It’s just the fluke of how our electoral system works that he ended up being the President. Secondly, I think Americans are still feeling out Trump. There’s no reason to suppose that he would survive ten years in office. The Israelis love Netanyahu – notwithstanding the scandals that periodically threaten to bring him down – because they don’t really care. When they see Netanyahu, they see themselves: an obnoxious, racist, Jewish supremacist, loudmouth – that’s Israelis. So, we shouldn’t get carried away too much in the analogy that we forget there’s a significant difference: Netanyahu’s been there a decade. Trump, you know, the American people are still feeling him out.
MVW: Right, which makes me wonder – in some ways, it seems to me that a lot of people in the center-left were able to get away with giving Netanyahu a free pass, but the way that he mirrors Trump, I think, reveals a lot about him and Israel that a lot of people on the left in the United States didn’t put together until Trump came along.
NF: I wouldn’t call them the left. I would say ‘middle of the road supporters of Israel.’ It’s impossible now to ignore what’s there if you want to see it, about not only who Netanyahu was but what Israel has become. And now it’s very hard to ignore it. So yes, I think that’s true.
MVW: We talked a bit this morning about Bernie Sanders, and some of his foreign policy positions in the past, and also I think a lot of supporters of the Palestinians feel like he’s not strong enough on the issue, and –
NF: Well, he isn’t.
MVW: Right, and so I generally agree – I think – with your support for Bernie. I’m more interested in why he’s so weak on foreign policy, since it can’t be explained by the same sorts of financial networks and supremacist tendencies of other elected officials.
NF: He didn’t count on big campaign contributions so, you know, Bernie does want to be effective. He does want to be a true politician. He cares about getting things done. He has to work with the people in the Democratic Party and sometimes even the Republican Party. So, I think going too astray on Israel-Palestine will cost him in terms of political effectiveness. I don’t think it’s – I mean, look, he doesn’t know a lot about foreign policy. He says a lot of dumb things.
MVW: Yes, he does.
NF: You know – he was talking about the enlightened King Abdullah –
MVW: Right or that we should ally with Saudi Arabia to fight ISIS, when ISIS has gotten US weapons from Saudi Arabia in the past.
NF: But he’s no dummy. His brother is very smart and I’m sure they’re in touch. They know, so to speak, what a progressive Jew is supposed to think. So, I think it’s just political calculation and just – you know, whenever you press him on Israel-Palestine he gets very hot under the collar. I think he gets hot under the collar because he knows he’s being hypocritical.
MVW: Right, like you spoke today about this term ‘disproportionate force’ that’s used to describe Israel, and that’s as far as you’ll go. You used the example that if you shoot a child in the back who’s running away, and that’s disproportionate force, what would be the ‘proportionate’ amount of force toward the child? Most of these public figures are not even willing to go as far as using that term, but that term is pretty much Bernie’s safety net when it comes to criticizing Israel – ‘disproportionate force.’
NF: Right, that’s the word he uses, because it’s the most meaningless and innocuous. But I thought he was not bad. During the primary – to the extent that these things count in politics, it was an extremely – ok, look, I’m not – well, I am emotional even though I try to be pretty hardnosed, but it was hard not to be moved by the fact – and I’m sure Bernie was moved by the fact that he was winning the Arab vote. Who would have thought? The Jewish candidate. And you know Arabs, Muslims, they’re saturated with these conspiracy theories about Jews. It just comes with the turf. He won the Arab vote in Detroit. He won it in Michigan. And there was a point where he had a woman with the Hijab on stage with him. You know. He was making all sorts of really human gestures, which were really touching, and I felt like – well, the guy’s a good egg. For all of his compromises and all of his sellouts, I wasn’t too keen on the way Alexander Cockburn used to go after him. You don’t know?
MVW: I haven’t read that work of Cockburn’s.
NF: Oh, it was brutal. He was brutal. You won’t be – and look, it was all true. If you want to draw up a list of terrible things about Bernie, it is a long list. I mean, I would want Bernie to win the nomination just so that I could live long enough to see the debates between him and Trump.
It would be pure theater. Pure Theater! I assure you it would be the highest rated TV Show in American history. Everybody would be there – and they’d be there just for the laughs.
MVW: He polls as the most popular politician in the country. In many cases it’s not even close.
NF: Oh, just imagine how that makes Obama feel – Obama who wants to be the prophet. A totally empty-headed zero, and he wants to be the prophet. Never did anything. Never was interested in politics –
MVW: Has no prophecy.
NF: Yeah, but those debates would be – ah you could just see Bernie rolling his eyes.
MVW: And could you talk a bit more about what you brought up in your talk today? The idea of pressuring Bernie Sanders to make a trip to Gaza?
NF: I think it would bring the cameras with him. That’s what we need. And I think Bernie is capable of that human gesture, which is what we need. And I know that if he sees the situation he will come out emphatically to lift the blockade. And that’s what needed right now. And the fact – like you just said, most popular politician in America. That would have a very big impact on public opinion. It needs to be done quick, and I think he can do it. Whether or not he’ll do it, I think it’s – of course he will resist it, because he will anticipate the damage it can do to his presidential base. But on the other hand there might be ways of cushioning it so that it won’t cause such damage.
MVW: Well that’s why I ask some these questions about Bernie – because I’m not sure that if he took a stronger stance against Israel that he would lose any of his base at all.
NF: No, he won’t.
MVV: Right, it’s the political relationships.
NF: About 40 percent of the Democratic Party base is ready for it, especially if it’s put forth in humanitarian terms. The blockade is inhuman and has to be lifted. The water is contaminated. It’s wrong. I think it won’t hurt. But it has to be done right. I’m not the right person. I can make the connections but then somebody has to organize it in a way that will not cause him harm. You know, Hamas is very sensitive to that. As you’re probably aware, there are no flags at the demonstrations, they have been very open about having to defer to the democratic mode. On every press statement they issue, there’s an organizing committee, and Hamas knows that if they come down too hard the mass demonstrations will fizzle out, and they have to keep people together. So, they’re willing to play a backseat role and I think it can be done right.
MVW: If we could talk about your experiences teaching these days –
NF: I have no experiences these days. I lost my job 11 years ago –
MVW: But I was referring to the class you’re teaching now at the library. But you can tell the beginning of that if you want.
NF: I miss the classroom, and so I’ve experimented with teaching substantive courses – things I would do at a regular job, at the New York Public Library at the main branch in Brooklyn. And I did a course keyed to Charlottesville. It was called ‘Free Speech After Charlottesville.’ I did a course on Plato’s Republic, a course on Thomas Moore’s Utopia; I did a course on Rousseau; I did a course on Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, and now we’re doing the landmark Supreme Court Decisions, and I’m reading through them now for the first time. I was very curious to see how much of what the court does is actual law and legal reasoning and how much of it is just politics disguised as law. So the first class was on Plessy V. Ferguson and Brown V. Board of Ed. The class is titled ‘What’s Wrong with Segregation?’ I found Brown, which said that separate cannot be equal, wholly unconvincing and poorly argued. I found Plessy, which said that separate can be equal, I found it interesting. It was better argued. Next we moved onto Row V. Wade, which is called ‘Where Does Life Begin?,’ which we’re doing now – very poorly argued. And then we’re going to do the two main sodomy decisions. One is called Bowers V. Hardwick, which was 1986, which criminalized sodomy, and then 2003, Lawrence V. Texas, which decriminalized sodomy. They reversed themselves. And that class is called ‘What’s Wrong with Being a Pain in the Ass?
You know what’s the most interesting thing about these decisions for me? We always pretend as if we’re so much more enlightened than the Arab-Muslim world and how backward they are on women’s rights and how backward they are on Lesbian and Gay rights. The funny thing is, all of these decisions, which show how ‘enlightened’ we are, they all came towards the end of my lifetime. Remember, up until 2003 – which is within your lifetime – sodomy was illegal in the United States. Not incidentally, when we talk about Sodomy we’re not just talking about gay rights. Sodomy was any non-procreative sex, so anal sex, oral sex –
MVW: You know that Ted Cruz at one point wrote a 70-something page legal brief saying masturbating shouldn’t be protected under the law?
NF: Yeah, well, one of the arguments that Antonin Scalia used to oppose the decriminalization of sodomy was that if you decriminalize sodomy, then you’re going to have to decriminalize masturbation, you have to decriminalize adultery, you would have to decriminalize all sorts of things. And that was 2003. Maybe if Ted Cruz masturbated more, he wouldn’t be such a freak. Maybe that accounts for the fact that he’s such a weirdo.
MVW: Right, masturbating more would be the most normal thing he ever did.
NF: Look, I have to give [Cruz] credit for one thing. He’s debated Bernie twice on healthcare and something else, and he was good, he was an effective debater. I was surprised, however, that Bernie, who doesn’t have any great debating skills – he held his own against Cruz.
MVW: It’s true, Bernie just has that one speech he just gives over and over.
NF: That’s right. But he held his own against Cruz. So, anyway, just take my lifetime. I was born in 1953. The law that decriminalized having interracial marriage was passed in 1967. Up until I was fourteen years old, interracial marriage was illegal in many parts of the United States. They were called the miscegenation laws. Miscegenation means mixing. Then, do you know when it became legal to use contraceptives in the United States? It’s called Griswold V. Connecticut. 1986. Up until 1986 there were many states that had laws on the books saying that it’s illegal to use contraceptives. Then you have abortion only legalized in 1971, sodomy only legalized in 2003. So, we claim to be so far ahead of these backward, benighted Arab countries. But maybe there’s a 40-year difference.
MVW: Even then it depends on the issue.
NF: Right, it depends on the issue. In the case of sodomy, you know, ten years ahead.
MVW: So how are those classes going?
NF: Well, I don’t want to say anything mean-spirited, but I was hoping to have my rapport with the new generation. But most of the students – I would say that half of them can’t hear me and the other half of them don’t know where they are.
MVW: But it’s not reserved for older people?
NF: No, it’s just that – I have to say, to the credit of older people, they have the discipline and sticking power. They start a class and they finish it. The young people – I had young people in the beginning but it’s your generation. They have no staying power. Everything is surfing. No attention spans. They go to one class, two classes, they’re bored and they go somewhere else.
MVW: I wanted to move back to your life again if that’s alright. Have you spent much time in Palestine?
NF: I did in the beginning. 88-95, I would go every summer for a couple of weeks.
MVW: And what was your experience like on the ground there? Most of your work is concerned with the facts and not so much with the personal experience.
NF: I would go back to the same families every year – see what remained the same, what changed, what got worse, watch the kids grow up, but now there’s no connection anymore.
MVW: How come?
NF: I don’t know – I’m disappointed. Sometimes I worry it’s that they get these reports back there that Norman is a traitor because I don’t support BDS, and that the BDS crowd poisoned my relationships with them. It’s a disappointment.
MVW: I agree. In fact, on that note, this is probably a good question to lead into. Chomsky often talks about how if he starts to become too accepted in the mainstream, he’ll start to wonder what he’s doing wrong. I wonder what your feelings are about that, particularly since you talk a lot about the realm of possibility – how far it’s possible to take a movement, an audience, an issue, before you start to lose people, and the importance of constantly calculating that, and yet you have been kind of locked out of the mainstream in spite of those calculations. It most cases, what it seems people are mainly locking you out for is your adherence to the facts. Dershowitz, for example, kept accusing you of being ad homonym, but the most insulting thing you did to him in that interview was point to the text that he wrote, and quote human rights documents that he seemingly didn’t read.
NF: That’s true. My objectives remain quite reasonable and moderate, but I will not make the facts more palatable. I could say that Israel is using ‘disproportionate force,’ and that would make me a critic of Israel. But I don’t think that expression – or ‘indiscriminate force’ – I don’t think those expressions accurately capture what’s happening. And I’m not going to water down the facts to make it more palatable. If you say they’re using disproportionate force, the implication is that they’re entitled to use proportionate force. If you say they’re using indiscriminate force, the implication is that they have the right to use discriminate force. I don’t think they’re entitled to use any force. I don’t think you have a right to confine people to a concentration camp and if –
MVM: And under international law you don’t have that right.
NF: –And if you want me, as the son of survivors of concentration camps, to now say that if the Nazi guards had used discriminate and proportionate force then it was okay to keep my father in Auschwitz and my mother Majdanek – no, I’m not going there. You lose me. I’m not betraying the legacy of my parents in order to make myself palatable. So that puts me outside.
MVW: But you talk a lot about how far you can go before you lose people –
NF: Well I don’t want to – you know, when you’re young a lot of politics is about striking radical poses and trying to be – and here I mean this positively – you’re idealistic and you’re pure and you don’t want to have dirty hands and I understand that. I was there. I wanted to be pure. I didn’t want to compromise, and there was an element of posing – posturing as they call it. I recognize that. But I’m way too old now to be regressing back to that stage in my life. I want to get something done. I want to see something achieved. I don’t want to just – you know – look like Che Guiverra in the mirror.
MVW: Right, but I think you lost people because you stuck to the facts, because you were reasonable, because you correctly made those calculations you talk about.
NF: I think that’s right. But the truth also happens to be very ugly. And I’m not going to whitewash it. So, you know, if I’m wrong tell me when I’m wrong but if I’m not wrong – you know, when you start reasoning these things through. You know, Amnesty International finally did cross a linguistic Rubicon. It stopped talking about disproportion and used the words ‘murderous assault.’ That’s exactly what it is. It’s murderous. I could be wrong, but I think part of it was me. I was going after Amnesty very hard the past couple of years, for what they did after Operation Protective Edge, their whitewashing, and I think I was very aggressive and effective. But the other thing is, of course, what we have to henceforth call the ‘Natalie Portman Factor.’ When she used the word ‘atrocities’ to describe what’s going on in Gaza, she raised the bar. If you want to be legitimate you’re going to have to rise to using the word ‘atrocities.’