Approaching 60, Norman Finkelstein reflects
We Are Change Rotterdam posted this February 8 interview of Norman Finkelstein in Europe three months ago. We’ve kept meaning to post it because the longtime scholar of the Israel/Palestine conflict reflects so openly as he approaches his 60th birthday later this year.
Finkelstein bluntly describes the loss of his profession, teacher, and the shift in his political role from being a leader on campuses to being marginalized by Palestinian solidarity activists because of his criticism of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement (BDS) as a cult movement. Finkelstein has also alienated some activists by insisting that the only viable path in the struggle for justice for Palestinians is to work for a two-state solution, a position he defends in the interview.
Author most recently of this important book on the relation of American Jews to Israel, Finkelstein says that he went from 75 speaking invitations a year from college activist groups to none. (Though later this spring, it developed that Finkelstein had a half dozen engagements.) And notwithstanding his criticisms of BDS, he said in this interview with Harry Fear that the BDS movement is “certainly important… certainly ought to be encouraged.”
Below are key excerpts of the interview. It begins with Finkelstein musing on the fact that he has been engaged in politics since he was a boy.
I remember my friends’ parents were pretty confident that I was passing through a phase. I knew deep inside I was not. This is it. You know… This is going to be my life’s purpose. And that’s what it’s turned out to be…. Then in June 1982 I became involved in the Israel Palestine conflict, and thirty years later, 31 years later, I’m still and it and presumably, I’ll go to my maker whoever that might be, still involved in the Israel Palestine conflict.
How do I assess it? There are days where I think that my life was a complete waste of time. Then somebody wrote to me, “How can devoting your life to truth and justice be a waste of time?” And that was a sobering reminder. So I have my good days and my bad days like everybody else.
Interviewer: Careerwise, you were also a professor at DePaul University. How is your life now?
My career was a disappointment, no point in pretending otherwise. I loved to teach at every university where I did teach, and I taught at many schools, because I was kicked out of many schools. I was always the most popular professor in the department, always had the best student evaluations in the department, and my teaching left an imprint. Students– 10, 15, 20 years later– can still recite passages from John Stuart Mill that I had gone over in class. I was an effective teacher, I was a very committed teacher, and I absolutely loved to teach.
The ordeal at DePaul University left a very sour taste in my mouth and by the end of the last year which was a complete nightmare for me I never wanted to enter a class again, which was just as well, because I was never going to enter a classroom again. I was– it’s a fair statement to make, I was and continue to be blacklisted. I think it’s also a fair statement to make, I got no support from faculty after I was denied tenure. During the tenure battle, there were a lot of people who lent their names and support to me. But afterwards– you know– ask the simple question, I’ve now been out of De Paul six years… “Has one faculty at any university in the United States, one faculty invited me to speak in the department, to give a lecture, to give a talk? Anything?” No. No. I got no– after the DePaul debacle I got no support at all. I was out on my own. And actually I can’t get any job at all. First of all because of age… I’m headed for 60 so that already disqualifies me.
But beyond age, if you google my name– there was a prior time where people asked for references when you were applying for a job. They don’t do that anymore. They just google your name. And if you google my name, you know, it’s disaster. And you can’t do anything about that, by the way. I tell Google, I’ve been in extensive correspondence with them, when you put under my name “Holocaust denier” in the dropdown list, you’re killing all my prospects for a job.
I couldn’t get hired in the local dogpound. I mean it. I mean that literally. I couldn’t get a job in the Postal Service. They see “Holocaust denier,” end of story.
Now at the airport, I’m on a watch list. So every time I come back. Let’s say when I come back from Europe tomorrow, I get interrogated for an hour and a half. Who puts you on the list? Nobody knows. How do you get off the list? Nobody knows. They even say there is no list.
So between all those things, no work.
So your life is now comprised of lectures, traveling.
Even lectures have significantly diminished because I’ve had major differences of opinion with elements in the Palestine solidarity movement. And they carry on like a cult, and so when the differences emerged, I was blacklisted, too. That’s just a fact. Last year I’d probably say about– I’d say between– about 75 invitations to speak around the United States by what’s called SJP, Students for Justice in Palestine. This year I didn’t receive one. I didn’t receive one. They carry on like a cult. And the guru says, “You’re out,” you’re out. So, you know, things are a little more difficult. On the other hand, I’m approaching 60, so my life is behind me, it’s not ahead of me. If it were ahead of me, then I would be very angry. But now I look back, I don’t look forward.
What would you like to accomplish with your publications and talks?
Well that’s another thing. Maybe I’m– it’s not a sour mood– but things have changed, you know, in my own personal life and also generally, I’m not sure if there is much I can accomplish. First of all, young people don’t read anymore. Reading is out. Young people don’t even have the attention span because of the web. They’re so accustomed to surfing the web that if you write an article that’s more than 300 words, it’s just not going to get read, that’s just a fact. Somebody told me if you do a video let’s say, what you’re doing now, they say keep it under 2-1/2 minutes on youtube, they’re not going to stay on more than 2-1/2 minutes. So books– forget it, it’s hopeless. And I believe in detail. There’s an old expression, the devil is in the detail. And I do think that detail is important. You can’t understand any conflict, you can’t understand– not so much the intricacies, the realities, because there’s a huge barrage of propaganda and in order to break through the propaganda you have to know the details. It’s impossible to do details in 300 words.
So have you given up?
No. I’m in a stage of frustration and I’ll explain why. I have a good friend in Palestine. Her name is [phonetic] Nidal Barham. And I was telling her, that you know, my books don’t sell, it’s a complete disaster. And she said, “But Norm, you said when you first came here– meaning in the 1980s– you said that you write because you want in the future, that someone would pull the book of the shelf and see that back then, meaning now, somebody was telling the truth.” You know, like, there are some people who wrote quite honestly and effectively about American Indians. There was a woman Helen Jackson, for example. That was 100 years ago. Now it’s 150 years ago. But we can go to the library and pull the book off. So I always imagined my books would be like that. Because I recognize I’m not going to get a broad readership.
Well, here’s the problem, I publish with a small publisher, OR books. Libraries are cutting their budgets like mad. So my books don’t get in the library, they’re gone, and that’s kind of frustrating. So I used to be writing for posterity, and now I’m writing for oblivion because it’s not going anywhere. Libraries are not ordering books the way they used to.
Then a real question begins, Why am I doing it? And mostly I do it, It’s a kind of therapy. I want to get the truth out there. If nobody cares about it– OK. I still want it on paper. Ten years ago when I used to lecture, people came up to me at the end and they’d say, Professor Finkelstein I read all your books. Then starting around about four or five years ago, people would line up afterward and say, Professor Finkelstein, I watched all your YouTubes. So now it’s reached the point where they don’t even take the chance to watch a YouTube that’s more than 2-1/2 minutes. So the culture is seemingly changing very quickly, and personally, speaking for myself, I don’t think for the better. The culture has become so vulgar, so gross…
But the new generation is just… [wiggling his thumbs on an imaginary keyboard] texting, texting, texting. It’s not yet that bad in Europe, I’ve noticed. I lectured last night in Belgium. I was shocked, people were actually not doing this [texting]. In the United States it’s frenetic, it’s frenzied….
Questioner asks about the dynamic between the Israel lobby and opponents of Israel.
The opponents of Israel– the Israel/Palestine conflict has gone on for a very long time. And the problem with anything that goes on for a long time, it becomes institutionalized. And when it becomes institutionalized, you develop a stake in its perpetuation, because if it ends tomorrow, Oh my god, what am I going to do with my life?
I’m free– I’m happy to, not happy– but I’m honest enough to admit, that that was a problem for me. I had honed in on this tiny tiny tiny tiny little place in the world’s map, read enough books to fill this room– Well, the conflict ends, what am I going to do with my life? It’s a problem, you know.
Do you still advocate the 1967 borders?
I don’t personally advocate anything. And I don’t think politics has anything to do with what a person personally advocates. That’s one of the useful things I got from reading Gandhi. Politics is not personal. Politics is about, You want to build a mass movement for change. And if you want to build a mass movement for change, you begin where the people are. And if you go past where the people are, you’re not talking any longer to the people, you’re talking to yourself.
So when you asked me what I personally advocate, I think that’s totally irrelevant. Personally I advocate a world without borders. I’m oldfashioned enough, I still believe in a world without states. But that’s totally beside the point. What’s important is on what basis– what’s the furthest you can reach a broad public, and the furthest you can reach a broad public is, two states on the June 67 border. You’re talking about the Netherlands: Is it conceivable you can reach a broad public on in any way– I’m not necessarily saying physically, but in any way eliminating the state of Israel? In my opinion the answer is obviously No. The same thing is true in Belgium, the same thing is true anywhere in Europe, the same thing is true everywhere. It’s not a program that can possibly reach a broad public. And so once you set your goal in trying to reach that public– it doesn’t necessarily have to mean their actual consciousness, it could be also their incipient consciousness, they’re just almost at the point of being ready to embrace something. OK, that I can see. But one state? Is there a constituency for one state? Is there a potential for a constituency of one state? Is there any possibility that a broad public is going to embrace in any shape manner or form the elimination of the state of Israel, the answer is obviously No. It has nothing to do with politics.