Q&A: Norman Finkelstein
The intellectual pariah, author of two new books, on Noam Chomsky, BDS, the Holocaust, and Whitney Houston
Goldberg doesn’t have a political bone in his body. Past the personal and the experiential, it’s just clichés. He knows the cliché about Jewish intoxication with strength, and he knows the cliché about Palestinians needing to embrace Gandhi, and then at the end, I love America, America is beautiful, La-la-la-la. It’s just one bundle of clichés after another because he doesn’t know anything.
He’s a very good writer. Do you envy that?
I’m not a good writer, and I don’t care. Unfortunately, after I left college, I didn’t have time much for literature. I wish I did. Most of the time I read documents, and that’s not going to help your writing. But I’m a very logical writer, and you can’t get out of me. Once I’ve nailed you, you’re finished.
I find a good deal of what you write to be well-researched and challenging. But then, when I was in Beirut, I turn on the TV and I see you on al-Manar, the Hezbollah TV channel. Why do you need that? If those are your friends, how can you expect people in the American Jewish community who might be sympathetic to your views to listen to you?
My views on the Israel-Palestine conflict are not particularly what you would call left-wing or radical. I say we should enforce the law and end the conflict on the basis of international law; that means a two-state settlement and a June ’67 border and a just resolution of the refugee question.
But on certain matters of principle, I’m not going to budge regardless of whether people like it or not. The Lebanese have the right to defend their sovereignty, and they have the right to use armed force to evict foreign occupiers. You’re not going to change my opinion about that because you happen not to like the Hezbollah.
Now, I don’t like what the Hezbollah says now about Syria, and I’ve said so publicly. But Hezbollah’s record on respecting international law is actually quite good. I think their record is a lot better than any other country I know, but of course maybe that’s because they’re the weaker party.
You submarined your tenure bid at DePaul in 2006 by standing up at a rally and announcing, “We are all Hezbollah.”
I woke up that morning, and the Israelis were bombing Lebanon to pieces. I grew up hearing that the crime of the world was being silent when my parents were penned up in the Warsaw Ghetto. So, I felt that it was important to stand up and speak out.
I thought your thesis about the Holocaust as an ideological construct invented by American Jews who didn’t actually suffer at the hands of the Nazis—and did little to stop the murder of European Jews from happening—was quite powerful. But again, the way you presented your ideas made them repulsive to the community you were attempting to reach.
Whenever somebody says to me, “I read the book,” my first comment is, “Did you laugh?” Because it was supposed to heap ridicule. It was a ridicule born of rage.
I lived with my parents’ suffering every day until the very end of their lives, because I took care of them the last seven years. And to see what became of that suffering just filled me with nausea. Both of my parents, as I suspect you know, before they were deported to the concentration camps they were in the Warsaw ghetto. When I was a kid, 13, 14 years old, I started to read books on the Nazi Holocaust, like The Wall by John Hershey and Mila 18. I remember reading these books and looking up at my parents, and I could not make the connection. The dead bodies piled in the streets; the bunkers. My parents were so ordinary! My mother wouldn’t wear any makeup, nothing. No hair coloring. Hand-me-down clothes from our cousin. My father was a factory worker, and he wore the flannel-checked shirt of a worker.
What they went through, the chasm is unbridgeable. My mother was in an assimilated Polish Jewish community. She used to go to concerts every night. She knew Latin very well, classical music very well, and then suddenly overnight, you were reduced to garbage. My parents were both very close to their families, and the whole family just disappeared.
Once in a while you ventured to ask a question, and the answer was, “Don’t talk to me about that.” I never asked my father one question about Auschwitz. I know it sounds hard to believe. Not one question. I couldn’t do it.
But isn’t that maybe one positive outcome of the “Holocaust industry” you decry, is that it has created a climate where people can talk more openly?
I don’t think it’s sensitized people to anything. I would much prefer the way it was before the Holocaust industry sprung up. You simply can’t imagine what it was like growing up the child of Holocaust survivors. The question that used to make my mother most indignant was “How did you survive?” Most of the time it was a very innocent question, but she felt the insinuation: If you survived, you must have been a Kapo, or else how did you survive? Either you did something dirty, or you went like sheep to the slaughter.
It was a source of embarrassment to be the child of Holocaust survivors. First of all, my parents were called the greenhorns, because their English was very heavily accented. And if you were the child of a Holocaust survivor, [the presumption was] your parents went like sheep to the ovens.
OK. So, your parents were horribly victimized twice, and then you became a victim of the double-trauma that they endured. Why is it good to stay trapped in that shame? An entire people suffered.
It was the private mourning of our family, and that’s it. Don’t claim my parents’ suffering. You have no idea what they went through. I get very angry frankly when I hear Jews talk about the Holocaust. What do you know? Really, what do you know? What did you experience? What right do you have to it?
It’s just so solipsistic, it’s so self-absorbed. You know, if you take Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” she wrote that in ’62 or ’63, and if you look at the bibliography, do you know how many books there were in English about the Nazi Holocaust? Two. There was [Raul] Hilberg’s book and one other. Nobody gave a shit about what happened until it became an industry.
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