Review-Image And Reality Of The Israel- Palestine Conflict

John O'Neill johnfergaloneill at
Tue Jul 1 17:29:57 MDT 2003

'I won't lie down and take the insults'

  Norman Finkelstein, the nearest you can get to a Jewish heretic, is a
pugilist by inclination. He tells Paul Cullen what fuels his ire

Norman Finkelstein is the nearest you can get to a Jewish heretic. He is a
Jew but an anti-Zionist; the son of Holocaust survivors but a ceaseless
critic of what he terms "the Holocaust industry"; a left-wing historian
whose views are often praised by revisionist right-wingers such as David

He is a pugilist by inclination, never missing an opportunity to fire
insults at his enemies among Jewish organisations in the US and Israel.

They, it must be said, are not slow to respond in kind. Insults flew within
minutes when Finkelstein appeared recently with an Israeli government
spokesman on RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, and Cathal Mac Coille, the
presenter, had to call the two off each other and beg for calm."You're
supposed to lie down and take the insults, and I'm not going to do it,"
Finkelstein says. "The level of arrogance of these people just boggles the

He believes Jewish organisations are "huckstering" the Holocaust by
extracting huge sums in compensation that never get to the survivors. "What
they have done, by turning the central tragedy of Jews in the 20th century
into a weapon for shaking down people for money is pretty disgusting; it's
wretched." He denounces some of the campaigns for reparations against Swiss
banks and claims that more than $20 billion (?17.5 billion) has been
collected in compensation claims arising from the Holocaust.

Because he is Jewish, Finkelstein gets away with the kind of language others
would never be allowed to use. He accuses Jewish organisations, for example,
of conducting themselves "like a caricature from Der Stürmer", the notorious
Jew-baiting magazine of the Nazis. He repeatedly refers to the organisations
as "crooks" and has even called Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor who won
the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the "resident clown" of the Holocaust circus.

The roots of his anger lie in his parents' experience. Finkelstein's father
survived the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz concentration camp; his mother
lived in the ghetto and ended up in Majdanek camp. He describes both as
confirmed atheists.

His father received compensation from the German government. "I still
remember the blue envelopes that came in every month. At the end of his life
he was getting $600 a month, or a grand total of about $250,000. Even though
there was no love lost between my father and the Germans - he hated them
all - there was never any complaint about the money. The Germans were always
very competent and efficient."

In contrast, his mother's compensation was channelled through American
Jewish organisations. "Even though they went through the same experiences,
she got a grand total of $3,000 and no pension. That's what you get from
Jewish organisations."

The line he takes on the Israel-Palestine conflict is similarly
controversial, at least within his community. "A colossal wrong has been
inflicted on the Palestinians, and no amount of rationalisation can justify
that. There are possibilities for peace, but the Israeli elite won't allow
them to happen."

Finkelstein's latest book, a second edition of Image And Reality Of The
Israel-Palestine Conflict, is a scholarly attempt to undermine the popular
image of Israel and its dispute with the Palestinians. He situates the
creation of Israel firmly in the colonial tradition and seeks to debunk
writers who claim the Palestinians never existed historically.

He compares Israel's treatment of the Palestinians to apartheid South
Africa's attitude to its blacks or US settlers' view of native Americans.
"All these settlers used the same language. What was left out of the picture
was that there were people living there before they arrived. We were told
there was a wilderness, that it was virgin land and that every once in a
while there were these savages, slightly above the level of the fauna, who
would attack the settlers."

A New Yorker by birth, Finkelstein admits he has very little direct
experience of Israel, although he has visited the occupied territories more
than 20 times. "When I'm there no one even cares less that I'm Jewish. In
the first year I was a novelty; by the third or fourth it was just, hey,
Norman's back."

So is he, along with other solidarity workers who spend time with
Palestinians but enjoy freedom of speech and personal security back home in
the West, just a meddler? "I don't want to be there. I'm a complete coward.
My hat comes off to those young people who work in difficult circumstances,
who help Palestinians dig a well or who come to aid of people who are being
shot at. If that's meddling, I say we need a lot more meddling in the

Asked if Israel can be considered a democracy, he responds: "Was South
Africa a democracy in the old days? It was a democracy for whites, for the
'superior people'. Similarly, Israel, for the larger part of its history,
has been a society where half the population has all the rights and half the
population has none."

But what about the democratic rights of Palestinians under Yasser Arafat?
"How can you have a democracy under occupation? People there have no rights
without the approval of Israel. How democratic is Alcatraz? Or a
concentration camp?"

There is a solution, he insists. "I don't think the way out is so
complicated. People constantly try to shroud the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict in all kinds of mystification. They say it's about ancient
enmities, it's about the Bible or religion or it's about the clash of
cultures. But when you go to live there you see it's not complicated at all.
The fact is that there's a military occupation, and that has to end." And
then what? "Then you hope Palestinians and Israelis will live together in

Although Finkelstein enjoys the security of being a US citizen, he has paid
a price for his views. His four books have been popular successes in
Europe - The Holocaust Industry sold 130,000 copies in Germany in three
weeks - but in the US he has been shunned and his books have been savaged.

The New York Times, he once commented, gave a more hostile review to The
Holocaust Industry than it did to Hitler's Mein Kampf. This clearly rankled,
and he returns to the it. "I don't want to play the martyr, but if you look
at my history I didn't make out so well. I didn't get the headlines. I'm in
exile in [DePaul University in\] Chicago because I was thrown out of every \
school in New York.

"I'm not happy to be in Chicago. I want to be at home. That's why I keep an
apartment there. I'm still praying for a miracle. I've had a hard time."

Image And Reality Of The Israel- Palestine Conflict by Norman Finkelstein is
published by Verso, £15 in UK

© The Irish Times

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