Q&A: Norman Finkelstein
The intellectual pariah, author of two new books, on Noam Chomsky, BDS, the Holocaust, and Whitney Houston
There’s a cocktail-party psychoanalysis of you that would say, “Look, this is a person who grew up in a home with two parents who suffered terribly. Their experience was ignored and rejected by a community that then laid claim to their personal suffering. So, the child of these two people is going to be very angry at the community that treated them this way.”
I don’t want to pretend to be a prophet or a saint. I’m very conscious of my limitations. I know my flaws. But I don’t like lying. So, when Dershowitz was going through thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of pages of human rights reports just to show that Israeli violations of human rights didn’t happen—it’s not true, it’s not true, it’s not true. It’s just not true. That to me has nothing to do with personal animosity toward Jews. That has to do with a genuine—OK, it may sound pompous—but it’s a genuine revulsion at lies.
When it came to The Holocaust Industry, I had a personal stake, no question about it. I don’t make any pretense to objectivity there. I was the most educated in my family, not the smartest, but the most educated in the United States, so I was the representative fighting the battles. I knew all the main actors personally. That’s why it was so easy for me to take them apart in the book.
On the other hand, as Hilberg said, it was a good job. Because I sat down in the NYU library and got the microfiche of all the hearings in Congress on the Swiss banks. And as Hilberg said, he had thumbed through—that was the expression he used—all the same documents as Finkelstein. In fact, he said, Finkelstein’s conclusions are conservative.
I remember being shocked when I first realized that truth was a relatively insignificant value in public intellectual life, in academic life, in literary life. Ideology mattered more. Personal comfort mattered more. Careers mattered more.
One of my favorite little books is Julian Benda’s Treason of the Intellectuals, which is based in this binary notion that there are two competing sets of values in the world: fame and fortune on the one side, truth and justice on the other side. Benda’s main thesis is, the more vigorously you are committed to truth and justice, the less you’re going to see of fame and fortune. So, I don’t want to become too popular, because then I’m betraying truth and justice.
On the other hand, part of me says, “Well, Professor Chomsky is revered by huge masses of people.” I think they’re probably something on the order of 10,000 or 100,000 people who would say, “Reading Chomsky changed my life.” So, I’m always torn between the trajectory of Professor Chomsky, which has won him the adoration of masses of people, because they believe he’s a truth-teller, a prophet, and on the other hand, always remembering what Benda said, that the cleric who is popular with the layman is a traitor to his office.
But there’s something intensely annoying about prophets. They denounce the king, they denounce the people, they predict that some terrible consequence is going to occur because of a misbehavior, an injustice, and then they’re proven right. So, there’s a self-satisfaction in seeing dire predictions come true, in being the scourge of the people.
It’s often very difficult to separate ego from these sorts of things. Let’s say you write a book and you make a prediction that a war is going to come—and I’ve done that. Part of you wants the war to come because you want to be vindicated, otherwise you’re making foolish predictions. It’s a kind of intellectual egoism. On the other hand, that’s complete insanity, and so you always preface it by saying, “Well, I hope I’m wrong about this.” But of course part you says, “I hope I’m right,” so that everyone says, “Jeez, he’s a prophet.”
Michael Walzer—not in Exodus and Revolution but The Company of Critics—discusses at length the issue of prophets, and he starts out from the premise that a prophet has to be connected with his people. You can’t be a disconnected prophet, so you have to love your people at the same time that you’re criticizing them. This other kind of prophetic—I’m not sure if “badgering” is the right word—he says, is not really workable. If you want to go badger people, criticize people, it has to be based on a real connection with them.
But if a precondition for being a prophet is that you have to love your people, it doesn’t work for me. It’s not something that I relate to.
If you identify yourself as part of the groups that you are criticizing, that means that you have some skin in the game. Otherwise, it’s easy to say that any group of people is morally or intellectual corrupt, because all groups, as a rule, contain at least the seeds of corruption.
I think you can have a stake in principles of justice and become indignant when they are violated. I know that sounds very, as Walzer would call it, abstract and disconnected, but that’s the way I function.
And the other thing is that one has to be realistic about one’s capacities. I don’t have Professor Chomsky’s range, I don’t have his mental capacity, but what I do, I like to do well. I am a person of detail and of mastering the detail. I don’t feel quite the same compulsion when it comes to Israel-Palestine now, because there are so many people out there doing it.
But when I talked to Chomsky about his personal investment in the subjects he writes about, there was an interesting hesitation he had at the end of our conversation. He was like, “Yes, of course, upbringing, childhood, memories of my parents, they all play a role for me.”
But there’s a big difference there. Chomsky grew up in a fanatically Zionist home. You had to speak Hebrew in the house. Everything was Hebrew. You know how he met Carol? His father was Carol’s Hebrew teacher. Carol said, why did she marry Noam? Because he was the best Hebrew speaker in Philadelphia. There was one other rival, but he was the best. So, their home was saturated with Hebrew. My home was saturated with the Holocaust.
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