Big Voice

IssueDecember 2008 - January 2009
Feature by Elise Desiderio

Norman Finkelstein, author and academic, was punished for his principled stand against Israeli brutality by being denied tenure at DePaul University in June 2007. On 12 November, during a whirlwind British speaking tour, and before delivering a talk in Maastricht about Gandhi’s relevance to the Middle East conflict, Norman Finkelstein sat down with Peace News to discuss nonviolence, Gandhi and the role of the intellectual.

Peace News: What are the current peace prospects in Israel and Palestine?

Norman Finkelstein: There are no peace prospects right now. Right now things are very quiescent. The only thing you can do, I’d say, is look for possibilities for the future. And the possibilities are reasonably good.

First of all, in the United States, I think it’s quite clear that Israel’s stock has dropped precipitously – in the public, not yet in government, but in the public – and the main change has been in the Jewish community. If you follow Jewish periodicals, there’s been a major concern about what they call the “distancing” of American Jews from Israel, in particular the younger generation, the generation 40-and-under, or 35-and-under. There has been a clear trend of growing indifference to Israel and I think it opens up possibilities for reaching the Jewish community for a reasonable settlement to the conflict. And there are other possibilities which I’m going to be discussing this afternoon, but those are potential prospects. It’s not for the here and now: for the here and now, it’s grim.

PN: And what are Gandhi’s lessons for us?

NF: I think that his strategy of nonviolent civil resistance has better prospects in Israel and Palestine than it actually did in India. But it requires several things. It requires, first of all, organisation among the Palestinians, which is very tough now for obvious reasons: the internal conflicts in leadership, the demoralisation among the people, so that’s a major obstacle. And in the young supporters of Palestinians abroad, I think the major obstacle is lack of clarity on the goal.

Within the same movement, there are those who see as their main goal to end occupation, and then there are others who see as their main goal to end Israel. And I don’t think those two strategies can coexist within one movement. There has to be a clarity about the goal, and I think that’s also a struggle.

It is a real challenge now to clarify what we want to achieve, because I think one goal is realisable – ending the occupation – and the other goal – ending the Zionist entity or ending Israel – leaving aside moral issues, as a practical matter it has nothing to do with reality. It’s a complete fantasy.

PN: Gandhi had made some comments that were considered controversial in the 1930s regarding how Jews in Europe should react to the Holocaust – issues of passive resistance even in the form, perhaps, of suicide. Do you have any reactions to those comments?

NF: There’s a certain amount of misunderstanding there. First of all, Gandhi like anybody else can be criticised, but I think one has to put it in its proper context.

Number one, and I’m not going to become a Gandhi cultist, I just want the record to be correct: if you go through his collected works, which I’m currently ploughing through – it’s ninety volumes, 500 pages each, so it’s a lot, but I have gone through twenty-three volumes, so I have some sense of what he’s talking about.

As far as I could tell, the only issue on which he extensively commented which wasn’t a state issue, the only one, was the question of the Jews. He’ll talk about what happened in Czechoslovakia, and he has some comments about what happened in China, clearly he has things to say about Hitler, but the only non-state issue which he actually addresses is the Jews.

So we have to be clear that, given the narrow range of topics he talked about, the mere fact that he devoted space to the Jews says something about his lack of indifference – or, to reverse, his concern – about the question.

Number two, when he preaches effectively that Jews, if nonviolent civil resistance doesn’t work, should practice collective suicide of some form or another, you have to bear in mind he was counselling that to many states in Europe. He was saying the same things, for example, to India, because there was a prospect that India was going to be invaded by Japan. And he said that if the Japanese come and if they slaughter hundreds of thousands or millions in the course of nonviolence, we should accept it.

That was his position across the board. It wasn’t just with Jews, he was saying it for everybody. You have “the right to use armed resistance”, however, he doesn’t support it. So that’s his worldview.

It’s not something that’s sort of an animus towards Jews or an indifference to their fate. He thought what he called a “dignified death” through nonviolence was preferable to violence. He was also of the opinion – I don’t agree with him – that nothing could be accomplished with violence that couldn’t be accomplished with nonviolence. So here, he said: okay, all the Jews were killed anyway. So maybe if they had used nonviolence they would have been killed also but they would have died, in his view, a dignified death by going to their deaths willingly.

I don’t really agree with him, because as a general proposition, you can’t prove that everything that violence accomplishes, nonviolence can accomplish – you can’t prove that.

During World War II, had his proposals been adhered to, if all the resistance was nonviolent, would it have defeated the Axis? It’s possible, I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but it may very well be that it wouldn’t have, whereas violent resistance did eventually break Hitler’s grasp. You don’t really know what’s true. The only thing I would want to say is he doesn’t make an exception for Jews. What he was advising for Jews, he was also advising for the Czechs.

PN: Regarding your high-profile tenure denial at DePaul in Chicago in 2007, do you think dissent regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is stifled in academia?

NF: Actually I don’t believe that. In my opinion I was not denied tenure because of my academic activities. I was denied tenure because of my extra-academic activities. I speak a lot, and with all due modesty but with no false modesty, I’ve become quite effective. And so there was a determined effort to stop me.

Not because of what I publish in academic journals or in books, but because of my political activity. I think I was becoming more and more effective, the crowds were getting bigger and bigger, and the other side was having more and more difficulty answering what I had to say.

I’m not even radical by academic standards anymore. I don’t believe in this talk about a one-state settlement, the one-state solution, I don’t believe in this talk about dismantling the Zionist entity, I’m pretty mainstream when it comes to my views.

See more of: Interview