Norman Finkelstein is an internationally recognized scholar on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Finkelstein was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1953. His mother, Maryla Husyt Finkelstein, is survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Maidanek concentration camp. His father, Zacharias Finkelstein, is survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz concentration camp. Until recently he taught political science at DePaul University, Chicago. His books include The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah Finkelstein unites scholarly rigor with moral outrage
Norman Finkelstein follows human rights organizations closely and writes extensively on Israel’s human rights abuses. Often he cites Amnesty reports, also in his latest book Beyond Chutzpah. At the same time, he argues that human rights organizations should pause and reflect from time to time on their communications about human rights violations in conflicts, in particular in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Finkelstein speaks openly and does not shy away from controversy. I discussed with him the role of the EU and of human rights organizations in the in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He is not afraid to call the EU hypocritical when it continues to give massive financial aid, without throwing in the political weight it could have to solve the roots of the conflict.
Finkelstein: There is a human rights clause in a lot of the EU trade agreements that is not implemented at all and completely ignored when it comes to Israel and this is shameful. As to why EU member states do not call for the implementation: every state has its priorities and Palestinian life is simply not that important in the EU. Under pressure of domestic Jewish organizations politicians and the public turn a blind eye to Israel’s human rights abuses. Each state has its own incentives to ignore the Palestinian question, whether it’s a domestic lobby, whether it’s fear of the USA. But it’s a fact that the EU ignores its own organizational instruments, especially economic treaties.
The official EU policy on Israeli human rights abuses is one of dialogue. The Commission’s view is as follows: “Suspending the Association Agreement, which is the basis for EU-Israeli trade relations but also the basis for the EU-Israel political dialogue, would not make the Israeli authorities more responsive to EU concerns at this time. Keeping the lines of communication open and trying to convince our interlocutors is hopefully the better way forward.” What are your thoughts on this?
Finkelstein: This is nonsense. This was the exact argument that was used for a long time to deal with the apartheid regime in South Africa. They call it ‘constructive engagement’. There’s no need to talk now. There’s no need to dialogue. What is there to dialogue about? There is a need to impose sanctions. That’s the very beginning. Israel is economically very dependent on the EU: the EU is Israel’s number one trading partner. Israeli leaders are not stupid. If the EU only starts threatening to suspend the Association Agreement, they will start calculating. We’re not even talking about controversial sanctions like a cultural boycott. We’re talking about provisions that are right there in their own trade agreements. The human rights clause is being grossly violated. The whole thing of having a human rights clause is not to talk about it, but to do something about it.
It is not only nonsense. It is also pure hypocrisy. Why does Israel gets a soft treatment and Hamas gets the full blow of boycott and sanctions, while Israel’s human rights record is much worse? Since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 there have been 4700 Palestinians killed and 1045 Israeli’s killed. On both sides, as Amnesty has written, the overwhelming majority were civilians. So Israel’s record of killing civilians is about 45 times worse. When you kill that many civilians, it becomes hard to argument that it’s only out of self-defense. It becomes state terrorism. Leaving aside house demolitions, confiscations, curfews, collective punishment, torture, etc. We’re just looking at fatalities and clashes. Why do you recognize Israel? Why aren’t there sanctions imposed on Israel?
The standard answer is because Hamas must first recognize Israel.
Finkelstein: On the Palestinians, mainly on Hamas, numerous unreasonably demands are imposed, like the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel as a state for the Jews. But think for one second: it’s crazy to try to impose the legitimacy of a state for the Jews in Palestine on the surrounding Arab world. Would any American go to a Cherokee Indian and impose on him to recognize the legitimacy of the English settlers and the American state on Indian land? Basically you ask people who were kicked out of their homes, to recognize explicitly the legitimacy of the ones who kicked you out.
But first of all, Hamas has officially accepted the settlement of the conflict along the 1967 border. Secondly, give me one Israeli document where Israel has recognized a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Is there any official who has ever recognized it? This is pure hypocrisy. You apply the principle to one side. These are the kinds of demands that are literally insane. It’s about making demands which you know the other side will not accept, and thereby assuring that you could continue to annex the land and take over everything. They could solve the conflict tomorrow, but they don’t want to solve the conflict because Israel doesn’t want these 1967 borders. This is never said out loud, but this is a fact. It’s like Jimmy Carter said: peace will come to the Middle East when Israel accepts international principles and the concept of legal borders, when Israel is prepared to determine its borders according to these principles. They don’t want to. So they keep on making unreasonable demands, which they know are unreasonable.
You hold a strong plea for international law. But what should we do when international law doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on Israel. For example, the advisory opinion of the ICJ will never be translated into a binding UN security council resolution.
Finkelstein: Well, in that case the EU could turn to its provisions in its trade agreements and act decisively upon the findings by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and B’tselem. The EU has provisions that allows it to force Israel to give an effect to international law. But the EU isn’t doing anything. We only impose these provisions on the weak.
You think ‘urging’ Israel to change its policies won’t get us anywhere?
Finkelstein: All you have to do is look at the track record: is there any evidence in the past that Israel changed its policies because it was ‘urged’ to? Dialogue is necessary with people misunderstanding each other. You have dialogue to clarify misunderstanding. There is no misunderstanding here. Israel itself knows exactly what it’s doing. It know it’s illegal. The EU knows. It’s not a misunderstanding. What’s the point of a dialogue? To tell them it’s wrong? Well, they already know it’s wrong.
Then why does the EU maintains its soft approach?
Finkelstein: There are numerous reasons. One is indifference to Palestinian suffering. There is also an element of racism. The Western world likes stupid Arabs. With Arabs who are intelligent, who do not back down, they have a real problem. The West doesn’t hate Hezbollah because they are terrorists. Half of the states in the world are terrorist. They don’t like the fact that they’re smart, dignified and resistant. The EU is also accomplice to Israeli crimes. Israel wants peace. Nobody wants war. Most people don’t think of war as a desirable human activity. But Israel wants its own version of peace.
The EU is accomplice to Israel’s unilateral imposing of a solution and it thereby even promotes impunity. There are sins commission and sins of omission. The EU is not doing what they are supposed to do. They go on trading with Israel as Israel is committing these atrocities. It’s also the EU’s present relation to the US, the pressure of domestic organizations that work for Israel’s interest and the theory that sanctions against Jews is the Nazi boycott all over again. This is what the Nazi’s did. Don’t you remember 1934, they imposed an economic boycott. This kind of crazy arguments are very effective.
Jewish suffering is being used for political purposes. This is one of your main arguments.
Finkelstein: Exactly. The claim is, that if you suffered more, you shouldn’t be held to the same standards as anybody else. That your suffering gives you unique rights. It’s like the security argument. Everywhere else in the world it’s being considered preposterous to occupy someone else’s territory because of security. But Jews are allowed to derive from elementary principles. Why? Because of the holocaust. That I find unacceptable. The holocaust industry says you can’t compare the holocaust to anything else. But this is the end of history!
History is all about compare and contrast. Compare and contrast the French and the Russian revolution. By refusing to compare the holocaust to anything else, the holocaust industry keeps us from learning from it. I have a real problem with measuring human suffering. I think it was Plato who said, that if you take two happy people and it’s impossible to prove that one is unhappier than the other. Someone who has been in prison for 30 years and survived and someone very wealthy who has been in the prison of his self-torment up to the point of committing suicide. Who was more unhappy? Who suffered more. I don’t know. How do you measure it? I don’t want to get into that. It’s not my business. Nobody has the courage nowadays to speak ordinary truth. Amnesty is pretty cowardly too. They are very cautious when it comes to Israel. Also Human Rights Watch research and publications on the Lebanon war. It was disgraceful.
Then what is, according to you, the role of human rights organizations in this highly sensitive conflict, where human rights fall victim to ‘security considerations’ more than anywhere else? And how they position themselves?
Finkelstein: I think the most striking thing about human rights organizations is, how completely detached their language is from what is actually happening. There is a huge gap between the language used and the reality that it refers to. Take the striking case of Gaza. You constantly use the word ‘disproportionate force’. Is that really what’s going on? Is that really only what’s going on. The only problem is the disproportionate. If Israel would us proportionate force, everything would be fine. Is that really the only problem? Or is the real problem that Israel is committing an atrocity?
You are criticizing the laws of war now.
Finkelstein: International law is the minimum we have. But it’s the very minimum. Let’s not forget international law is not holy. It allows for so much suffering, it allows for so much killing. The idea of laws of war is like etiquette for cannibals. Human rights organizations shouldn’t always stick to its technical, bureaucratic dehumanizing language. The use of language is of vital importance to explain the world what’s going on on the ground. By using technical language, you will not reach the public and you will not have the impact you’re looking for.Why is someone like Jimmy Carter courageous enough to use the word ‘atrocity’ to describe the horrible situation in Gaza. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have never found it in them to use language like that. I think this is very odd.
Of course I am aware of Amnesty’s strong work on individuals and in this way they do show the human side. But I don’t think that’s the issue here. Take the issue of Gaza again. What is going on in Gaza, the blockade, is state terrorism, it’s not merely ‘collective punishment’, it’s pure state terrorism because it’s aim is political. But you never see it described as terrorism. If terrorism means the targeting of civilians to achieve political goals, what are the Israeli’s trying to achieve in Gaza? They’re trying to get the Palestinians to get rid of Hamas. That’s exactly the targeting of civilians to achieve a political goal.
Still you cite Amnesty quite a lot in your writings.
Finkelstein: Correct. But I also know Amnesty has a terrible record when it comes to the Israel/Palestine conflict, a shameful record. After 1991 it started to get better. But now they’ve all gotten terrible again. Up until 1979 Amnesty refused to denounce Israeli use of torture. From 1967 on, Israel was systematically and methodically torturing Palestinian detainees. From 1987 until 1993 Israel tortured, according to Israeli human rights organizations like B’tselem, tens of thousands of Palestinian detainees. Amnesty refused to write about it. The most it would recommend was that Israel should look into the question of torture. Only in 1991 they raised the issue, when they put out their book on Israel’s military courts. Amnesty acknowledges now in its most recent publication on torture, that Israel had been torturing Palestinian detainees since 1967, which is true.
When it comes to Israel, Amnesty becomes afraid that jews decide to pull the money from the organization. Jews as liberals finance liberal organizations like Amnesty. In the last report of Human Rights Watch on the Lebanon war, they claimed that Israel targeted civilians by mistake. How is it possible to drop 4,6 million cluster bomblets in South Lebanon indiscriminately on villages and HRW couldn’t figure out if it was a war crime. It didn’t find evidence of a war crime.
You write about anti-semitism and the misuse of the argument. Let me quote you in one of your articles on your website: “Although the subject of many reports by human rights organizations, Israel’s real human rights record in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is generally not well known abroad. This is primarily due to the formidable public relations industry of Israel’s defenders as well as the effectiveness of their tactics of intimidation, such as labeling critics of Israeli policy anti-Semitic.” Also Amnesty is being accused of anti-semitism Is this strategy of the misuse of these arguments a big threat to human rights work?
Finkelstein: The threat is as big as people are cowardly in giving in to the threat. Carter is pretty good. People keep calling him an anti-semite and actually his record and arguments are getting better. If you have a clear conscience, the anti-semitism thing won’t bother you and you go your way. It’s as strong a weapon as you allow it to be. The real threat is that Amnesty and other human rights organizations are becoming apologists for Israel. And then you have those who say that it is not enough of an apologist to satisfy Israel’s supporters.
What should organizations who work for peace and human rights do against these false accusations that serve only to weaken their call for justice?
Finkelstein: The answer is very simple. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that we’re anti-semitic. How does that change the facts? Do they become different, just because I’m anti-semitic? And if we are anti-semitic, how does that explain all the other human rights organizations, including the Israeli human rights organizations? B’tselem reached the same conclusions as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. Are they all anti-semites? So either everyone is anti-semitic, or maybe they’re telling the truth.
What about the security argument?
Finkelstein: The security argument does not justify just about any action. International law says that a state cannot use force unilaterally. The US used terrorist tactics against Cuba since 1959. Does that mean Cuba gets the right to annex Florida, as Israel claims the right to occupy and annex the West Bank because it is under a security threat? The US invaded Nicaragua. Does that give the right to Nicaragua to occupy Louisiana? You have to see what security allows for. And it doesn’t allow for answering to security threats with occupation or annexation. Under security, a state has the right to build border protection, deploy troops, build checkpoints on its own side of the border. And I’ve got news for you: in July 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled that the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza are occupied Palestinian territory. It’s not Israeli territory. You’re not allowed to deploy troops on somebody else’s territory without their permission. These are very obvious principles.
You speak of uniting the many against the few, what do you propose very concretely?
Finkelstein: Let’s look at what the consensus is today and unite the many around this consensus. Let’s look at the UN General Assembly, let’s look at the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, let’s look at what human rights organizations say and they give us a sense of what’s the consensus among the many. We should organize around this consensus. That’s the way you change things. God helps those who help themselves. Unless we demand power for ourselves, unless we won’t enforce our will based upon reasonable principles that can be understood by the many, things won’t change.
If you would’ve told me thirty years ago that Nelson Mandela would be the president of South Africa, if you would’ve told me thirty years ago the US would have a black president, if you would’ve told me a guerilla army of 1500 could force one of the four most powerful armies in the world to defeat, I would’ve told you ‘you’ve lost your mind’. People who organize, can get their act together and force change. But by staying indifferent, nothing will change.
You said the Lebanon war has been a turning point for Israeli’s and the broader Middle East. Why is that so?
Finkelstein: It was the first time it was Israel urging the UN to enforce a resolution. All of a sudden Israel became dependent on the rule of law, because its power is weakening. It was for Israel a very poor showing. And the other side is getting more efficient and more organized. Israel has throughout its history depended on two facts: that its adversary is corrupt. That their Arab adversaries are stupid. For a long time this has in fact been true. Now Israel begins to see its adversaries not corrupt and quite intelligent. That’s causing them a very big problem. Hezbollah has a strict model of being organized, no empty slogans, no promises you can’t fulfill.
You seem to talk about Hezbollah as if they are morally superior.
Finkelstein: I don’t want to talk in terms of moral. Simply look at their record. Their record is better! Of course we don’t know what their record would be like if they ever gained state power. Look at the Lebanon war. On the Israeli 160 killed, 25% civilians (33 civilians). On the Lebanese side 1200 killed, 80% civilians. It’s just a fact that the record of Hezbollah is much better. Take the case of cluster bombs and bomblets. Hezbollah has been accused by Human Rights Watch of using 3000, Israel 4,6 million. Or take the Amnesty International report on damage done to civilian infrastructure. Israel in the millions, Lebanon in the billions. Whichever way you look at it.
Will a Palestinian state under the two state settlement be viable enough, according to you?
Finkelstein: It’ll be a garbage state, trapped between Israel and Jordan. It won’t have much independence. I don’t have any illusions about it. It will end the occupation, which is a good thing. Beyond that, not much. People will still be miserable, corrupt leaders. But it will be a first step. It sets the parameters.
May 19th, 2008, Ghent