Q&A: Norman Finkelstein
The intellectual pariah, author of two new books, on Noam Chomsky, BDS, the Holocaust, and Whitney Houston
For three decades, Norman Finkelstein has been the American Jewish community’s problem-child—denounced as a hysteric, a marginal ideologue, and a self-hating Jew. Selfless and vain, highly emotional—sometimes hysterical—in tone yet relentlessly logical in his arguments, he is now an academic with a doctorate from Princeton whose attacks on “the Holocaust Industry” and public cheerleading for Hezbollah have rendered him so toxic that he can’t obtain even the lowliest adjunct teaching position at any community college in America.
Yet, like it or not, Finkelstein’s influence on public debate is by now undeniable, with his once-radical ideas having been embraced throughout the Jewish community, from his debunking of the idea of Israel as “a land without a people” and his diagnosis of a strain of American Jewish Holocaust obsession to his assertions of the immorality of the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
On the eve of the publication of two new books—Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance With Israel Is Coming to an End and What Gandhi Says About Nonviolence, Resistance, and Courage—I made a pair of unlikely pilgrimages to Finkelstein’s book-lined one-bedroom apartment on Ocean Parkway. Located smack in the middle of the most densely populated Jewish ZIP code in America, the place where Finkelstein spends his days is, as he is quick to point out, quite different from the fancy suburban abodes occupied by critics like Alan Dershowitz, who, he says, claim to love Jews but “live among the goyim.”
Finkelstein is a martyr of a particular type: a man who sets himself on fire at a dinner party and wonders why no one offers him a glass of water. In the course of our conversations, we spoke about the life of Gandhi, Finkelstein’s Holocaust survivor parents, his mentor Noam Chomsky, and the idiocy of conspiracy theorists who suggest that a small group of neo-conservative Jews manipulates American foreign policy in favor of Israel. We also discussed his fixation on Jeffrey Goldberg (which I expected) and his love for the music of Pete Seeger (also expected) and Whitney Houston (not expected at all). Where Houston went from manicured black pop queen to foul-mouthed reality-show subject, Finkelstein’s engagements with the public have been consistent in their marginality. Still, the comparison is instructive, save for the fact that Finkelstein’s own drive toward pariah-dom may have finally bottomed out.
What’s left is a difficult and contradictory human being whose personal history and distinctive modes of argument have confined him to a small apartment in the heart of a community to which he professes to have no attachment whatsoever. But to dismiss him, professionally or personally, as “damaged goods” begs the question of who, exactly, made him this way. After reading over the transcripts of our conversations, I realized that his disavowal of any attachment to the Jewish community that rejected and stigmatized his survivor parents may let both Finkelstein and his critics off too easily.
What follows is an edited version of portions of our conversations.
How do you know Noam Chomsky?
That’s an interesting story, which tells you something about Professor Chomsky as a person. I don’t like to put him on a pedestal, because, you know, I’ve known him for more than a quarter of a century, and I was very close with his wife, closer than with Professor Chomsky. Because Professor Chomsky is in the cerebral world, and [his wife, the linguist] Carol [Schatz], who is brilliant, was also down to earth. We could talk bullshit. I went shopping with her, we would talk about prices in the supermarket, and she took out her coupons at the cash register.
Chomsky has his flaws, but the virtues are staggering. It’s not just that he made these linguistic discoveries; it’s the thousands of graduate students that he trained. He created physically a field. And you know, I travel a lot, I tell you every time everywhere I go, at least two people will say, “I read a book by Chomsky, and it changed my life.” But he has his flaws, like everybody else.
What are Chomsky’s biggest flaws?
I’m never going to say. Because Chomsky’s biggest virtue, you know what it is? Aside from his staggering intellect and absolute faithfulness, Professor Chomsky never betrayed a friend. He will defend them even though inside he knows that they’re completely wrong.
But don’t those virtues of friendship and faithfulness come into conflict with the truth?
I know that! I see that! But he cares very deeply about the facts. Let me tell you a story. I worked for a radical newspaper, The Guardian. A modest paper, you never heard of it. I remember we were sitting in a room, having an editorial meeting, and at that time there were two Maoist factions—it’s laughable now—the October League and the Revolutionary Communist Party. The Guardian was pro-the October League, and we were debating whether we should increase the numbers of people who attended the October League rallies and decrease the number of people who attended Revolutionary Communist rallies in our stories. And I’m thinking to myself, “Wait a minute, there’s a problem here. Shouldn’t we be telling the truth?” And you know, that was the difference with Chomsky. It wasn’t enough to say that something was bourgeois propaganda or Zionist propaganda—no, you had to prove it.
So, how did I meet him? I had been a Maoist, and then when the Gang of Four was overthrown I was completely distraught. I was bedridden for three weeks, it was a very painful experience for me. Not only because I had been wrong, but because I felt really embarrassed that I had been lecturing and pontificating with such self-confidence.
Then in ’82, almost 30 years ago now, I got involved with the Israel-Palestine conflict, and then Israel and Lebanon, on June 6, 1982. I belonged to a little group, and they were always arguing about Zionism, and I didn’t want to hear about ism’s anymore. So, I refused to take a position on Zionism. And then I decided, “OK, Norm, get intellectually serious.” I sat down and started to read about the subject. Eventually it became my doctoral dissertation at Princeton.
At the very last minute, when I was just about finished with the research phase and I was about to go on to the writing phase of the dissertation, I walked into Harper and Row Bookstore, and there was this book called From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters, and it said that it was going to change the history of the conflict. Everybody on the left like Professor [Edward] Said, they said, “Ahh, Zionist propaganda. Why even bother?”
Well, I heard that line before. If anybody criticized China, they said, “Bourgeois propaganda.” And I said, “I’m not going to be taken for a fool a second time. If it’s true, it’s true, and I’m out of here.” Because I was so devastated by what happened in China. The worst part of it was the personal humiliation. I was not going to be a fool again, you know?
So, when the book came out, I went at it. It was Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick. I went down to the New York Public Library, and they had a special section at that time where they kept all the League of Nation and Permanent Mandate Commission reports on Palestine, and I went through everything. The core of the book was chapter 13, the demographic study, and in the back were the tables that corresponded with the text. I would come home from work each night, lie down on my bed, and go through the numbers, I do everything with paper and pad, and I’m doing it and I’m doing it and I’m doing it. And then one night, it was 1:30 in the morning, I suddenly discovered the fraud, the fake numbers. I got goose pimples. I’ve discovered a fraud!
With Nice Work and Porgy and Bess up for 20 Tonys, the Gershwins and Stephen Sondheim talk to Tablet