Norman Finkelstein interview, Part I

Lou Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Dec 13 19:56:22 MST 2001

>I know list policy is now to not post full
>articles. But in the case of counterpunch
>stories, it seems that you cannot save the
>original web versions as text files (at least
>not in my version on netscape). So perhaps, we
>could get the full text of this interview (or
>maybe you would be kind enough to send it to me
>Revolutionary regards,

For reasons I don't understand, Netscape occasionally has trouble
copying text. I used to have trouble with the Washington Post as
well. Now that I am using Internet Explorer, I have no such problems.
Another reason to consider IE is that it does not introduce the
"stepladder" effect when you copy and paste into an email program.
Although I hate Microsoft, I do recommend their browser. Download
Internet Explorer 5.5 (service pack 2) from:

A Conversation with Professor Norman Finkelstein

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
By Don Atapattu

Professor Norman Finkelstein is one of a dying breed of American
mavericks that relentlessly defies any attempt at easy
categorization. He is the son of Holocaust survivors but an
unremitting critic of Holocaust reparation claims; a Jew but is a
life-long anti Zionist; and though very much a Leftist, he is often
praised by far Right revisionists of the Third Reich, such as
Hitler-admiring historian David Irving. He initially made his name by
revealing Joan Peter's massively successful From Time Immemorial (a
book heavily promoted by the Israeli lobby, that claimed there were
no native Arabs before Zionist immigration into Palestine), as a
colossal fraud, and for 10 years he was a Professor of Political
Science at New York University.

However, he is best known as the author of four books, the most
recent being The Holocaust Industry, which has catapulted him into
the spotlight, due to its contention that American Jewry have
ruthlessly exploited the Nazi holocaust for political and financial
gain. Often lambasted for his intemperate approach, Finkelstein is
unlikely to win popularity contests in America for the language he
employs, as much as his arguments. Like his close friend and mentor
Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein is not one to mince his words. In
his eyes the mainstream Jewish organisations are 'hucksters',
'gangsters' and 'crooks'; Elie Wiesel (celebrity Holocaust survivor)
is the 'resident clown' for the Holocaust 'circus'; reparations
claims against Germany for Nazi era slave laborers are 'blackmail';
and he infamously dismissed Professor Goldhagen's critically
acclaimed Holocaust bestseller 'Hitler's Willing Executioners' as the
'pornography of violence'. Small wonder then that he has few friends
amongst the American Jewish establishment, with Elian Steinberg
(World Jewish Congress Executive Secretary) stating on TV that
'Finkelstein is full of shit', and the literary editor of the pro
Israeli New Republic describing him as 'poisonsomething you would
find under a rock'.

In its initial hardback edition, The Holocaust Industry was a
tremendous success in many nations (selling 130 000 copies in a few
weeks on its publication in Germany), but in America its sales were
limited to a paltry 12000. This relative failure stateside is
attributed at least in part by Finkelstein to a fatwah by the Jewish
establishment--he notes indignantly that the New York Times book
review was much more hostile toward The Holocaust Industry than it
was even to Adolf Hitler's 'Mein Kampf'. Now the revised paperback
edition has just been released many of these same periodicals are
uncharacteristically silent, perhaps thinking they can kill it more
effectively through lack of exposure rather than outright aggression.
The following is an interview conducted with Norman Finkelstein on 15
October 2001, on the eve of the paperback's publication.

It is generally considered that growing up Jewish and growing up
Zionist are mutually inextricable. What made you break this link?

First of all, I don't agree that Zionism and growing up in a Jewish
household are inextricably linked. It is fair to say that growing up
Jewish and having a consciousness about Israel are inextricably
linked. As a Jew I felt that I bore a certain amount of
responsibility for the policies of Israel because Israel claimed to
speak in the name of the Jewish people, and therefore they were using
the history and suffering of the Jewish people as a means to justify
its policies. However, my family were not Zionists, and therefore I
see no special connection between the two.

You stated in a BBC interview that your radical politics have exacted
'a substantial personal cost' to yourself. Have you found yourself
alienated from mainstream Jewish life?

I wouldn't say that alienation has been the price because I have
managed to find a crowd of people who share my values in my life,
which has been quite satisfying to me. I'd say that without wanting
to pose a martyr, that I've paid a professional price for my views.
Most recently I taught at Hunter College, City University of New
York, and every semester I was the highest rated professor in my
department on student evaluations, I had also published in the last
five years, four books and I would say that in every reckoning I had
proven myself to be worthy as a professor. Nonetheless, I was always
the lowest paid by far, I had the heaviest teaching load, and this
past May after 10 years faithful service at slave wages, I was let go
and forced--at the ripe old age of 49--to relocate to Chicago to find
temporary work.

How have Jewish academics and Middle East specialists reacted to the
arguments that you have expanded upon in your books?

The reviews of my first book (Image and Reality of the
Israel-Palestine Conflict), were given the content of the book
remarkably favorable. I was quite surprised by the positive reception
of the first book. Generally speaking, I don't have much contact with
the mainstream. I don't publish in mainstream journals, and have
never been asked to publish in them. It is also true that my name
comes up quite a lot in articles in mainstream publications; my
writings on a variety of subjects are quite frequently cited.

While researching your second book (The Rise and Fall of Palestine:
The Intifadah Years), you lived with Palestinian families in the
Occupied Territories. How do you regard this time in retrospect?

First of all, it's not looking back, I still go fairly frequently, I
was there in June and I stay in close touch with the families of whom
I write in the book. When I first went it was a moral test of the
values that are meaningful to me, and I wanted to see if I could
bridge the chasm between a Jew and a Palestinian based upon our
common humanity and our shared commitment to justice and decency. To
that extent I would say that it was a satisfying experience, because
I think that we developed close and meaningful relationships.

Were conditions in the territories as bad as you had anticipated?

I would say that the situation there is horrible. Whenever I go I
almost literally count the minutes before I leave. I can't stand it
there because you feel that you are watching people endure a living
death for no justifiable reason people are suffering and they're
wasting away a life. It's very hard to bear, because it is impossible
to rationalise to oneself why you should have a meaningful and
satisfying life, and these people have to endure a meaningless and
horrifying life. It is impossible to rationalise, unless you consider
yourself a superior human being and deserve better, than maybe it
would be a tolerable situation. When you recognise your common
humanity and realise that for reasons for nothing to do with anything
these people have ever done that they should have to suffer this
way.. it's really hard.

Did you ever experience any hostility because of your background (as
an American Jew)?

Quite the contrary. The first couple of years, I was treated like
royalty and people were gracious and wonderful, by the third year no
one could care less that I was Jewish. It was not even a topic of
discussion. Even this summer I spent time in Gaza, where the people
knew I was Jewish, and they didn't care. It's not an issue; the issue
is whether you are for or against the occupation.

'Image and Reality of the Israel Palestine Conflict' is a radical
reinterpretation of Israeli-Arab history, turning on its head the
standard Western notion of Israel being the constant victim of Arab
aggression. How have historians reacted to the arguments contained
within it?

As I said earlier it does get frequently cited. The chapter on Joan
Peters--the hoax about Palestine being empty on the eve of Jewish
colonization--is considered a standard text, everybody cites it. The
chapter on Benny Morris and the Palestinian refugee question (in
which Finkelstein dismisses Morris' claims that there was no overall
plan by the Zionists to expel the Arabs from Palestine), is
considered the definitive critique on the Morris book, and nowadays
most scholarship agrees that I'm closer to the truth than Morris. The
last chapters on the `67 and `73 wars...they're pretty much ignored.

Regarding your most recent work, The Holocaust Industry, can you
explain who the Holocaust Industry (according to your interpretation)
are and what their goals might be?

The Holocaust Industry, is as I conceive in the book, is
institutions, organisations and individuals who have put to use
Jewish suffering for political and financial gain. Throughout the
little book, I am not at all shy of naming names, so large numbers of
organisations and individuals are cited for their activities in the
exploitation of the Nazi holocaust. It is hard to say the main ones,
but the mainstream Jewish organisations and individuals such as Elie
Wiesel, they feature prominently in the book.

Do you believe the 'Holocaust Industry' were responsible for the poor
sales of the book in the US in comparison with its spectacular
success elsewhere?

First of all, I do name names and a lot of these individuals and
organisations have a huge vested interest in the Nazi holocaust. It's
a political weapon, but it's also plainly a financial weapon, and
it's unsurprising that the book would die an early death in the
United States. Given those facts, it would be shocking were it

Do you believe these people were involved in your dismissal from New
York University?

I think it works much more subtly in our system. Sometimes phone
calls are made, no doubt about it, but I think things work through a
crystallising of a consensus--in the sense of 'this guy is more
trouble than he is worth, and so it is time to let him go'. I think
this is what happened at Hunter College, that yes I had an excellent
teaching record, yes I had an excellent publication record, but it's
also true that 'a lot of people are complaining about him and we do
get all these phone calls and there are faculty members who are very
uncomfortable with him because he is just not professional' and so on
and so forth. Finally, a consensus crystallises that it is time to
let him go.

A spokesman for the World Jewish Congress suggested that you should
be grateful to organisations such as themselves, for the compensation
that your parents received. Is there not some truth in that were it
not for the awareness raising campaigns of these bodies, Holocaust
survivors would not have been compensated at all?

These organisations frankly, bring to mind an insight of my late
mother, that it is no accident that Jews invented the word
"chutzpah". They steal, and I do use the word with intent, 95% of the
monies earmarked for victims of Nazi persecution, and then throw you
a few crumbs while telling you to be grateful. It is very hard to
sink much lower than to turn the colossal suffering of the Jewish
people during World War Two into an extortion racket. I really think
that not even Julius Streicher (leading anti Semitic publisher in
1930's Germany) were he editing Der Stuermer today, could have
conjured up the image of Jews huckstering their dead, but that's
exactly what this gang of wretched crooks have done. They have
disgraced the memory of the Jewish people's suffering on the one hand
by turning it into an extortion racket. If there were any doubt left,
I would point to the recent London Times article headlined 'Swiss
Holocaust cash revealed to be a myth', that is all the claims against
the Swiss banks were a fantastic concoction of the Holocaust
hustlers. But then after turning Jewish suffering into an extortion then deny the actual victims these monies is
very difficult to imagine sinking any lower on a moral level than
that. If they were all put behind bars, it wouldn't be yet, in my
opinion, be a just punishment.

Many of the same adjectives crop up in the hostile reviews of The
Holocaust Industry, such as 'bitter', 'angry', 'shrill', and
'polemical'. Do you think this is because you are breaking a hereto
untouchable taboo?

Only one of the many reviews I have read, made the comment that the
book was very funny, and I think that there is a certain amount of
humour in the book. I didn't note personally any intimation of a rant
or shrillness. You find humour there and irony there, but I should
point out that the book went through several editors who were quite
exacting and wherever it did go over the top, they pulled me back. I
think a lot of reviews stem from the fact that most people (including
myself), tend to defer to authority, and the first reviews the word
that was constantly used was 'rant' and before you knew it everyone
began to pick up on that, and so that became the drum beat theme of
the negative reviews. Therefore, I don't think it is so much that I
broke a taboo; I think the initial negative reviews set a tone for
what followed.

One extraordinary fact that I learned in your book was that former
President Reagan, and his UN ambassador Jean KirkPatrick, received
the Simon Wiesenthal Center humanitarian of the year award (for their
staunch support of Israel) despite providing political, financial and
military support to extreme Right terrorist groups in Central
America. Do you agree that it is an incredible perversion of history
that the racism and violence of the Nazi holocaust, is now used to
justify turning a blind eye to racism and violence?

Well that is what you would expect from the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
This is really a gang of heartless and immoral crooks, whose hallmark
is that they will do anything for a dollar. As I point out in the
book, the guy who runs their headquarters in Los Angeles, runs it as
a family business, and in the mid 1990's they were collectively
raking in $525 000 a year.

Do you think The Holocaust Industry would have been published were
you not the Jewish son of Holocaust survivors?

(Laughs) No, I have no doubt about that. First of all, it just got
barely published as the son of Holocaust survivorsIf I weren't, there
would be no chance at all.I would have been buried alive. Just the
other day I was speaking to someone who I cannot name for this
interview, who met with a high government official in Germany who we
both know. My friend asked him about the questions raised in my book
concerning the number of surviving slave labourers, and whether the
German government knew that the numbers had been grossly inflated to
justify the extortion of huge amounts of money. His response was that
'of course we knew what he was saying was true', but a decision was
made early on to go on with the blackmail because 'we were afraid of
a huge anti Semitic reaction being unleashed in Germany', and the
attitude was Germany was rich enough to pay the ransom. But, if you
go to Germany and try to say the things that I did, the so called
'Left' become absolutely hysterical as they have this huge vested
interest in being professional anti anti-Semites and semophiles. It's
this huge identity that they have carved out for themselves, and when
I go out there and say that of course be anti Nazis but a lot of what
is being done in the name of anti anti-Semitism, is in fact a gross
falsification of history .and unless exposed will do huge damage to
the Jewish people, these people go berserk. It is one of the
peculiarities of this whole industry, in that it has created an
alignment between the Left in Germany and the Right-wing Jewish
establishment in the US. They sing the praises of people like Israel
Singer (disgraced executive V.P. of the World Jewish Congress), a
complete and total hoodlum - something that crawled out of the
sewer.and they sing the praises of him! You would think he was
Demetrios the way they talk about him.

Another matter that puts you at odds with the Jewish establishment,
is your rejection of the uniqueness of Jewish persecution compared to
the suffering of other peoples. What is the position of groups like
the World Jewish Congress on financial reparations for the
Indo-Chinese, Black slavery, the slaughter of the American Indians

They don't say anything, well I shouldn't say they don't say
anythingDuring the US Congressional hearings on the Holocaust
compensation, Maxine Waters (US Congresswoman) raised the issue with
the special US envoy on Holocaust compensation, and of course he
responded in exactly the way you would expect--he said you can't
compare and it is not the same thing, and that is the standard view
of these organisations. Nothing compares to the Jews. Everything that
the Jews endure, everything that the Jews achieve, is special,
because we're the 'chosen people', so don't compare us with garbage
like the Tasmanian savages (the entire indigenous population of
Tasmania were exterminated under British colonial rule), or don't
compare us with the Gypsies. I mean God forbid those uncivilised
savages be compared with us. You have to understand that the great
tragedy of the Second World War, was not that Jews per se were
killed, but such a cultured people were killed--if you kill
uncultured people, who cares?

What is your position on the comparison between Israel and the
Occupied Territories and South Africa under apartheid (as raised
during the recent UN convention on racism in Durban)?

I don't think the comparison with South Africa is exactly precise for
a number of reasons. Israel proper--pre June `67 Israel, is a fairly
lively democracy, Palestinian Arabs do enjoy rights of citizenship
(as) second class citizens, it is probably similar to the situation
to Blacks in the American South before the civil rights movement. The
difference is that in the US South, Blacks did not have the right to
vote, but that question is due to numbers, where American Blacks were
the majority in several states in the South and that is why they were
disenfranchised, whereas Israel's unstated official policy is that
they will tolerate a minority of approximately 15%, so long as the
Arabs remain around this percentage its OK to give them the right to
vote because it won't affect the Jewish majority. In addition to the
second-class citizenship of the Israeli Arabs, there is also the
occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and that too is not really
comparable to South Africa because I think it is much worse.

Dr David Rabeeya (Iraqi born American rabbi), talks of a caste system
in Israeli society, where the Arabs are clearly at the bottom, but
also the non European Jews are considered to be of lesser value. He
claims that the wholesale importation of Russian Jews was to ensure
the demographic majority of secular European Jews over their
Sephardic countrymen for generations to come.

There is some truth to that, because a large percentage of the
so-called 'Russian Jews' are not Jewish. In recent years, it has been
more than 50%, and the reason why is because the Israeli
establishment likes the blue eyed, blonde haired Aryan types as a
racial group. The Russians look right even if they are not Jewish,
and they preserve the Ashkenazi elite's dominance.

You argue in The Holocaust Industry that if it were no longer in
America's interest to support Israel, the Jewish elites would quickly
forget about the Jewish state. Is this really tenably considering the
huge emotional attachment American Jewry has to Israel?

Generations of Americans Jews have not been brought up on Zionism.
Before 1967, Israel barely figured at all in American Jewish life, as
anyone who goes back and reads the publications of the US Jews before
then will tell you. Even nowadays people are not Zionist by
conviction, they are Zionist because it is useful for their political
and more recently financial self-interest. The guiding light is what
serves their self-interest, not ideological commitment.

Raul Hillberg (leading Holocaust academic) says that he hopes you
will expand on your work in The Holocaust Industry. Are you currently
working on anything?

No. I suffered the blow of losing my job so I have to make ends meet
to survive.

Did you not receive a substantial sum from the spectacular success of
The Holocaust Industry in Germany and elsewhere?

No, that is science fiction. You don't receive substantial sums. I
received a $5000 advance for the book, and in total I have received
about $50 000. You are not going to get rich out of this...I mean $50
000 is the average annual salary in the United States, I have never
made more than $22,000 in a year, so it is about two years salary.
OK, I am not a kid anymore, but I expect to be living more than two
more years.

I noticed that the publication of the paperback of The Holocaust
Industry has been delayed in the UK

(Interrupts) No, no it's been published but I don't expect it to get
any kind of publicity. It's not a bad paperbackthere is a lot of new
material in it.

You dismiss entirely Professor Daniel Goldhagen's argument that the
German public were collectively responsibility for the crimes of the
Nazis, yet you seem to hold the Jewish people collectively
responsible for the policies of Israel. Is this not a case of double

Collective responsibility is not a term that is devoid of any
meaning, whether or not it's true depends on the circumstances. In
the case of Germany you were dealing with a fascist, terrorist state
in which the population had relatively speaking no say in the making
of policy and no say in the crimes committed. In other circumstances
depending on which a collectivity influences policy and shapes
criminal actions, it does bear a responsibility, so you have to
examine each individual case for how much collective responsibility
is applicable.

[ end Part I ]

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