Q&A: Norman Finkelstein
The intellectual pariah, author of two new books, on Noam Chomsky, BDS, the Holocaust, and Whitney Houston
You mentioned the current conversation about Israel and Palestine on the left. There is something intensely off-putting for me about the BDS movement, which is the lack of honesty about what the leadership of that movement is trying to accomplish. If you’re going to hold Israel accountable to international law, you can’t at the same time be using these things tactically to bring about a result that is not in accordance with international law—which is to destroy the legal and physical integrity of an existing state. It’s intellectually dishonest, it’s a lie, and as a political tactic, it is stupid, because it treats people like dupes.
The points I would stress are, No. 1, among the rank and file of the movement, the groups on campuses, Students for Justice in Palestine, I do not think there is any cynicism. I want to be fair. These people, the basic point is: Well, we had a civil rights movement, we created one society for all people, shouldn’t that be the goal everywhere? It’s Rodney King writ large for Israel and Palestine. “Why can’t we all get along?”
The problem is, there are conflicting sets of principles. There’s the principle of equality before a single unitary secular state. Then there’s the second principle, and that’s the right of self-determination of peoples. And the right of self-determination of peoples is, “No, we don’t want to live together, and we want to live separately.”
So, how do you reconcile a commitment to the principle of equality before the law with the principle of self-determination of different peoples in different states? The literature will tie your mind into knots. Because the whole question of self-determination is, who is the people? Is it the people in Brooklyn? Is it the Jews in Brooklyn? Is it the Latinos in Brooklyn? So, it’s very complicated, but it’s clear that a bedrock of international law is the right of self-determination of peoples.
My own view is, you can’t claim as a foundation the principle of international law and what BDS calls a rights-based approach and deny the fundamental principle that under international law, Israel is a state. That’s a fact. There are no “ifs,” there are no “ands,” there are no “buts.”
When you look at the International Court of Justice opinion, the very last sentence of the opinion—just read the very last sentence. It says two states. I mean, you just can’t get around that. You can’t say you support a rights-based position and then you’re ignoring what the law says. This is the law! And this is what I find completely unacceptable.
There is what you call intellectual dishonesty—I’ll call it intellectual disingenuousness, because I prefer the euphemism—and then there’s the practical side. You’re not going to rope in the Jewish community and say that Israel does not have the right to exist as a state. It’s there, it’s a state.
The truth is that ordinary people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle have been used as pawns for a century or more in a political game, by their own leaders and by the leaders of bigger, more powerful countries.
But I don’t think it has to have an unpleasant ending. I think everyone can walk away feeling that somehow it was worth it, and that their dignity was validated.
Politics is not about abstract reason. Take the case of the U.S. and the Mexicans. The U.S. stole two thirds of Mexico. Thirty million Americans are of Mexican descent, which is about one tenth or more of the population. The Mexicans who come over here, they send over remittances to their families in Mexico, which basically allows the Mexican economy to survive. So, rationally speaking, we shouldn’t be talking about immigration reform, we should be talking about one state! So, why don’t we abolish the Mexican-American border?
That’s not politics. I might wish it were, but it’s not. And that’s where I found reading Gandhi really useful. For Gandhi, politics was, What is public opinion? What is possible where public opinion is now? Everything else, he said, “I’m not wasting my time on it.” When people would say, “Mr. Gandhi, you’re leading this campaign on alcoholism in India because you say alcoholism is a sin. But why don’t you also have campaigns against racetrack betting and the cinema?” because they thought the cinema was sinful.
Gandhi’s answer was very simple. He said, “Because most Indians agree that alcoholism is a problem. They don’t agree the other things are a problem, so there’s no point in it.”
You don’t give up your dreams, but dreams aren’t politics. Personal convictions are not politics. Personal convictions, if they become the subject of a group conviction, they become a cult. You know, Gandhi lived two lives. He was a leader of the Indian independence movement, but throughout his whole life he also belonged to an ashram. He didn’t allow pens, he didn’t allow underwear, he didn’t allow 10,000 things. He was the guru-leader, and he was very strict. He made you keep an account of every second of every day. And he read it. That’s an ashram. But that’s not politics, you know.
Politics is about where the public is at. And that to me is sensible. Everything else, I don’t want to talk about anymore.
Why do you like Whitney Houston?
There was something really so fragile about her even at the end of her days. I listened to the interview with Oprah, it really kind of touched me. She obviously really loved Bobby Brown. For all of her degeneration, she remained a very pure, innocent church girl.
Her daughter came home and said, “Mommy, he [Bobby Brown] spit on you,” and she said, “It’s all right, it’s all right.” And she said her daughter said, “No, it’s not all right.” And I thought, how could anyone spit on Whitney Houston?
Maybe she had to find the man who would spit on her.
Because she had so much power, she wanted somebody in charge. She liked that.
I wish she had done gospel. The thing about the songs she sang is they were so wretched.
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