Norman Finkelstein: It Wasn’t a War

Kate Perkins interviews Norman Finkelstein, Guernica – August 2010

The Israel critic and Holocaust heir on the “Gaza massacre,” the Goldstone Report, the public turn against Israeli policy, and the difference between “of” and “in”

Norman Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein

The career of radical political scholar Norman Finkelstein might be described as a sort of heroic painting-into-a-corner. The son of Holocaust survivors, his life’s work has been dedicated to exposing the hypocrisy, ideology, and violence that sustains the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The dimensions of his emphatic anti-Zionism, expounded over the course of six meticulously researched and often polemical books on Israel, Palestine, and the legacy of the Holocaust, have made him a pariah in the mainstream and a hero amongst supporters of Palestinian liberation.

The high controversy around Finkelstein’s politics has penetrated university walls on more than one occasion, making his academic career fraught with defensive, uphill battles. I first met Finkelstein in 2007, in the eye of a storm of controversy surrounding his academic status at DePaul University. Despite his prolific and highly influential body of critical scholarship—and after first having been approved for tenure at DePaul by both department and faculty committees—Finkelstein’s tenure had ultimately been denied—minority dissenters had campaigned successfully against his appointment. Flanked by a supporting cast of speakers including Tariq Ali, Tony Judt, and Noam Chomsky (via satellite), Finkelstein stood before some one thousand six hundred people in the University of Chicago’s packed Rockefeller Chapel to make the case for academic freedom. Contrary to his reputedly prickly demeanor, he appeared extraordinarily collected and calm, his heavy brow furrowing only slightly over sharp, dark eyes as he prepared to publicly address the charges against him. (The university’s final word on the matter was that Dr. Finkelstein’s reputation for outspoken criticism of Israel and of Israeli apologists like Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz made Finkelstein unfit for tenure at DePaul, a school of “Vincentian values.”)

It was the culmination of a long struggle to advance his radical political critique of Israel and of the American Israeli lobby from within the academy. Now an independent scholar, Dr. Finkelstein remains a leading voice of dissent against the pro-Israel policies that underwrite an apartheid regime enforced by egregious war crimes and human rights violations. In This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion, his first book since departing from DePaul—he argues that Israel’s November, 2008 invasion of Gaza, which decisively ended a fragile ceasefire brokered by Egypt that June, marked the beginning of an unprecedented decline in public support for Israel. The book’s epilogue is devoted to the Goldstone Report, a document authored by renowned South African jurist Richard Goldstone that describes the damning conclusions of a U.N.-commissioned investigation into the Gaza invasion, including charges of war crimes against Israel.

In the wake of the bloody attack on the Mavi Marmara aid flotilla, Finkelstein’s argument has been affirmed as Israel wages a round of diplomatic gestures in response to an unprecedented international outcry. I spoke to Dr. Finkelstein by phone about the implications of diminished international support for Israel, the damning conclusions of the Goldstone Report on the 2008 invasion of Gaza, and what the turning tide of public opinion means for a peace process that has, historically, looked more like a state of war.

—Kate Perkins for Guernica

Guernica: This Time We Went Too Far looks at Israel through the lens of international public opinion—specifically, a severely damaged public perception of, and support for, Israeli policy after its invasion of Gaza beginning in November of 2008. How substantial is that change in public perception, and to what extent does it give critics of Israel a new kind of traction with respect to influencing policy?

Norman Finkelstein: There’s no question that public opinion is changing, and if you’re a person of the left, your goal is presumably to try to mobilize public opinion to affect elite policy; and I think now there are unusual, unprecedented opportunities to do so. Whether anything will come of it, well, that’s the challenge. It’s not enough for public opinion to shift; it then requires marshalling that public opinion, harnessing it, for it to have a political impact.

There are many issues, as everyone knows, in the United States on which public opinion leans very much to the left of elite policy, but that’s because public opinion hasn’t been turned into a political force. Having said that, it’s nonetheless a significant part of the battle to get public opinion on your side, before you try to harness it, and that part of the battle, it seems to me, we’re closer to winning now. Public opinion in the United States has shifted significantly, not just outside but also within the Jewish community.

If you are, as I am quite frequently, speaking at college campuses in the United States, it’s quite clear that support among Jews for Israel has dried up.

Guernica: How do you interpret this shift in public opinion, and what in particular do you see as being its most revealing indicators? Is it that the basis for dissent has morphed in some unprecedented way, or is there a kind of quantitative momentum to it that could be attributed to new critics, former supporters of Israeli policy becoming increasingly unwilling to defend its actions?

Norman Finkelstein: There’s no question—and all the poll data bear it out—that there’s a significant disaffection, or what’s called in the literature on the subject a “distancing” of American Jews from Israel. In particular, the younger generation, the under-thirty generation. If you are, as I am quite frequently, speaking at college campuses in the United States, it’s quite clear that support among Jews for Israel has dried up. You’ll find there is a handful of people that you might call the Hillel faithful, who will still have some public events in support of Israel, but barely anybody shows up for them, and when critics of Israeli policy speak, the “Hillel faithful” no longer really show up to protest, to demonstrate, to shout down, to hand out leaflets, because they realize how isolated they are.

Now, beyond the under-thirty generation, there are other significant indicators. Probably the most widely discussed recently was the defection of Peter Beinart, who was until recently Editor of The New Republic, which is a fanatically pro-Israel publication. Beinart wrote an article for The New York Review of Books saying how support for Israel is drying up among American Jews. The article received an absolutely huge amount of attention within the Jewish community precisely because Beinart is an orthodox Jew, not to mention that he used to be a senior editor at TNR. So this is what you would call a defection, and an influential one, at the hard core of support for Israel.

There are many other everyday indications, though, of American public opinion changing toward Israel. American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal. By “liberal,” I mean, basically, support for the rule of law, support for human rights, support for peace; and on all those counts—rule of law, human rights, peace—Israel’s record has become indefensible. Israel has become a lawless country with demonstrated contempt for human rights and, probably, at least in terms of visibility, the most warmongering country on earth today. So, for American Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal—80 percent voted for Barack Obama, by far the highest percentage of any ethnic group apart from African Americans. And when you factor in income, it’s quite astonishing what percentage voted for Obama as compared to, say, Latinos, of whom about 63 percent voted for Obama and within which demographic income is much lower. And that’s because American Jews are, by and large, liberal; and it’s become impossible to reconcile Israeli policy with liberal values.

Nearly the whole of Israeli society managed to convince itself that the Israeli commandos were victims of a premeditated lynching on the Mavi Marmara.

Guernica: And the turn away from Israel that you’re describing, the “distancing” that marks the shift in public opinion, is something you and others have cited as comparable to that of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa. By the end of apartheid there, though, it was clear that the domestic resistance movement—organized dissent within South Africa—was as important to ending the apartheid regime as the international pressure, insofar as the domestic resistance was able to effectively harness the momentum the anti-apartheid movement gained from international boycotts. I wonder what you would say about the state of dissent within Israel, and whether you read it as having undergone, or as being near to experiencing, a shift parallel to that of international public opinion since the 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza?

Norman Finkelstein: Well, of course, South Africa wasn’t freed of Apartheid until 1994, so I’m not implying that we’re at the endgame by any stretch of the imagination. On the other hand, the attitudes of the Israeli elites are pretty close to those of the South African whites during the years of international boycotts—this hunkering down, this belief that they’re the victims, the whole world is against them, that there’s a double standard, that they’re the victims of propaganda and conspiracy, and basically a complete contempt for international opinion. That’s basically where Israel is right now.

Judging from what I read in translation (a lot is now available in translation), the state of Israeli dissent is not a pretty picture. Nearly the whole of Israeli society managed to convince itself that the Israeli commandos were victims of a premeditated lynching on the Mavi Marmara. Israel launched a violent commando raid in the dead of night against a humanitarian convoy in international waters and executed nine of the passengers. It takes a peculiar talent in these circumstances to turn yourself into the victim.

As Israel becomes like South Africa, it’s increasingly becoming a pariah state, being excluded from culture at large. The other day, an Israeli friend wrote to me, “Can you believe it? They excluded us from a gay pride parade in Spain! We can only march as individuals!” She was so incensed at the absurdity of this. And I just felt like reminding her that for the past three years, Israel won’t admit toys into Gaza. But there is this anger as the momentum gathers, as Israel is being slowly but surely excluded here and there. My friend’s way of expressing this was, “The world’s noose is tightening around us.” But, no—Israel is tightening the noose around itself.

We have to be careful though not to reduce everything to BDS. It may acquire more significance, but I think the major fronts right now are international law and nonviolent civil resistance.

Guernica: It does seem to be an increasingly unavoidable dynamic between Israel and the rest of the world. For example, there’s the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, an international effort to force Israel to change its policies, which has expanded significantly since it emerged in 2005, not just in membership, but in its cultural dimensions—sports, the academy, consumerism, as well as its political-economic aspects. You don’t give much attention to BDS in This Time We Went Too Far, though, and I’m wondering what your view of that movement is. What, in your view, are the most significant indicators that the so-called Gaza War had an unprecedented and directly negative effect on the international perception of Israeli policy?

Norman Finkelstein: I think there are several strands of popular resistance and popular mobilization occurring. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is one. I don’t see it as being the main one, currently, except at some moments and some junctures it has the most salience; for example, if some popular or prominent musician decides not to perform in Israel on behalf of the BDS cause, but it’s just one of several strands of resistance.

A second, major strand is the mobilization of international law to force Israel to conform to what Israel’s apologists now call a “lawfare,” which in their minds is the same as warfare, but instead of military weapons, it involves the use of the law as a weapon. This was most prominently expressed during the mobilization of the Goldstone Report. There have been many examples of it, mostly taking the form of the international community exercising what’s called universal jurisdiction, where, when Israeli officials want to visit this or that country, they’re threatened with being held there for past violations of international law. So there’s serious concern among Israelis that their generals and their officials are not free to travel even in places like the UK, because they may be served with papers for having committed war crimes.

A third strand of demonstrated dissent consists in the various forms of nonviolent resistance that have emerged, as demonstrated in the villages that are being destroyed by the wall that Israel is building. Now there are popular mobilizations that are occurring along the fence and so-called “buffer zone” that Israel has created in Gaza. Then there is, of course, the form of nonviolent resistance carried out on the aid flotillas, and in particular there has of course been an enormous international reaction to the recent attack by Israeli soldiers on the Mavi Marmara.

We have to be careful though, I think, not to reduce everything to BDS; it’s one of several strands, but probably the least significant, in my opinion. It may acquire more significance, but I think the major fronts right now are the international law and the nonviolent civil resistance.

Guernica: I want to return to the Goldstone Report, which you mentioned just now with respect to the impact of international law on Israeli policy. That report, of course, detailed the results of the UN fact-finding mission led by international jurist Richard Goldstone; it was an investigation into Israel’s conduct in, and basis for, the 2008 Gaza offensive that officially ended the ceasefire agreement brokered in Cairo in June of that year. You dedicate the epilogue of This Time We Went Too Far to the Goldstone Report, and you seem to interpret the effect of its public disclosure as amounting to something like a decisive lifting of the rock on the gruesome conduct of the Israeli military. Even so, Tariq Ali published an article in the New Left Review describing the Goldstone Report, essentially, as a whitewash, since it tones down the far more damning Palestinian eyewitness accounts detailed in the appendices of the findings. How would you respond to that argument?

Norman Finkelstein: Yes, I read that article. Of course, Tariq’s a friend of mine—he’s a terrific guy! But, look—for those who bothered to read it—the Report was really incredibly damning. It did limit itself in what it undertook to examine. It did not examine the legality of Israel’s attack on Gaza. There’s a distinction in international law between what’s called the justice of a war, and the justice in a war. The justice of a war basically refers to the question whether there is a right to attack in the first place. Justice in a war is concerned with whether the fighting happens in accordance with the international laws of war. In Goldstone’s report, he did not discuss the question of whether Israel’s attack was legitimate. He discussed the question of how Israel fought the war. I think his conclusions were pretty much as damning as they could get. He says that Israel launched a deliberately disproportionate attack “designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.” I don’t know how much further he could go; he’s very clear in stating that all the evidence points to one conclusion—that Israel’s attack was designed, premeditated, orchestrated by the highest levels of Israeli society, that the senior-most officials of the Israeli military were involved in state terrorism, designed to terrorize the civilian population. That’s a pretty tough assessment.

Israelis themselves have said it wasn’t a war. People allow themselves to slip into this language, and it’s not even used by Israelis.

Guernica: State terrorism—and yet the Israeli invasion Goldstone investigated is still commonly referred to as the Gaza War.

Norman Finkelstein: Right—it wasn’t a war. Israelis themselves have said it wasn’t a war. People allow themselves to slip into this language, and it’s not even used by Israelis. As one Israeli I quote in the book said, “It’s a big mistake for Israel to say it ‘won’ the war, when there was no war. There were no battles…no military enemy in the field.” One Israeli soldier after another testified that they never saw an enemy in the field. And yet soldier after soldier kept using the same words, testifying that Israeli forces “used insane amounts of firepower.” How do you describe a situation where the attacker is using “insane amounts of firepower,” but there’s no military enemy? That’s not a war. That’s a massacre.

Guernica: Right, but describing it that way—as a massacre—would seem to address the justice of a war, rather than what you’re saying the Goldstone Report confined itself to detailing, that is, the justice in a war.

Norman Finkelstein: That’s debatable, but the upshot of the Report is an explicitly damning assessment that has had an unprecedented effect on public support for Israeli policy.

Guernica: To what extent, in your view, has the Obama administration’s comportment toward Israel since the Goldstone Report and, in particular, since the attack on the Mavi Marmara, reflected the American public’s diminished support for Israel?

Norman Finkelstein: Well, I think it’s too soon to expect a substantial change in elite opinion. Public support has to be mobilized effectively to change policy. You could say that there’s been some progress, at the lowest or ground level, public opinion. But pressure then has to be exerted on Congress; and then there’s the highest level, where policy is actually made, the executive branch. It’s very tough; and there’s no reason to be pessimistic, but without a distinct and visible mobilization of public opinion, there’s no reason to be excessively optimistic.

There have been some—I don’t want to call them ‘shifts,’ but there has been some movement in the Obama administration, mostly because they are concerned about losing Turkey. A new configuration of power is emergent in the Middle East—how substantial it is, and whether it will be able to withstand U.S. pressure, I can’t say—but clearly a new configuration of power is beginning to emerge along the axis of Iran-Turkey-Syria and, you might argue, Lebanon—versus the grouping of the regime leftover from the British Mandate period, which has been taken over by the U.S. and includes Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Iraq, although it’s not yet clear where Iraq fits into the picture. The U.S. is definitely concerned about this configuration of power, which is reminiscent of what in the nineteen sixties was called the ‘radical Arab regimes,’ back then headed by Nasser in Egypt, and Syria. Nowadays these regimes are less about the rhetoric, but they have substantial economies, and they’re well entrenched.

After the flotilla attack, some of the most influential, elite policy analysts, including Anthony Cordesman, who was a complete apologist for Israel after the Gaza massacre, came out swinging. Cordesman said that Israel has to bear in mind that it’s becoming a serious liability for the United States. For someone of that influence, that’s a significant shift; he’s saying that Israel is causing us trouble, and of course, he had Turkey in mind. So to that end, I think that at the elite level, we’ll begin to see some movement at the level of diplomacy and power-balancing. But what that indicates is that right now the U.S. isn’t reacting directly to popular pressure; it’s reacting directly to state pressure.

Then again, state pressure itself is a consequence of popular outrage. Erdogan’s very strong reaction to the flotilla bloodbath was itself the result of an accumulation of popular outrage. He spoke out very strongly against the Gaza invasion in an exchange with Shimon Peres—I think it was at Davos in 2009, during the Gaza massacre—that reflected the influence of the Turkish population’s overwhelming disapproval with Israel’s behavior in Gaza and elsewhere. So it’s not so easy to isolate these things as exclusively a state-to-state dynamic.

Guernica: What about Israel’s official state response to the Goldstone Report?

Norman Finkelstein: Israel hasn’t issued any formal response, because officially, it doesn’t recognize the Goldstone Report. It has issued some very substantial reports—by now, you could say it’s issued three—two very large reports, and one smaller report, on what actually happened and also on their progress in investigating war crimes allegations. The bottom line is that none of these reports have satisfactorily responded to the claims of the Goldstone Report, and none of these reports are very convincing. For example, with regard to Israel’s targeting of hospitals, Israel claimed that there were Hamas militants seeking refuge in the hospitals. But over and over again, international human rights investigations have shown that there is no evidence for that claim. Furthermore, these international human rights investigations have consistently found that the violent attacks on civilian infrastructures were carried out after Israeli forces had secured and controlled the area. These findings conclude that none of this damage was being inflicted by what in international law is called military necessity. As Human Rights Watch (HRW) points out in its last report, called “I Lost Everything,” HRW obtained satellite imagery both of what the area looked like before Israel took over and of what it looked like after. The preponderance of destruction occurred after they took over the area. And the case of the civilian deaths—almost all civilian deaths occurred where there was no military fighting going on, according to reports issued by both HRW and Amnesty International. The vast majority of civilian deaths occurred in places and situations where there was no fighting. Israel’s claims, in defense, that Hamas used civilians as human shields, have across the board been shown to be baseless by all the reports on human rights groups’ findings. There’s no evidence that Hamas engaged in human shielding during the Gaza massacre whatsoever.

As far as the justice of the invasion, which the Goldstone Report doesn’t address: during the period of the ceasefire, around October of 2008, there was one reported rocket attack on Israel. Remember, we’re not talking about roman candles and firecrackers. These are not military “rockets” and mortar; they’re the most primitive sorts of weapons. Those were not Hamas, but rather what Israel called “rogue terrorist organizations.” There’s no question that Hamas was, as the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs put it, “careful to maintain the ceasefire.”

The ceasefire lasted until November 4, 2008, despite the fact that Israel had explicitly violated its terms of the ceasefire: Israel was supposed to gradually lift the blockade of Gaza in return for Hamas ceasing rocket and mortar attacks on Israel. Well, Hamas ceased its rocket and mortar attacks, but Israel didn’t lift the siege of Gaza. Then, on November 4th, while everyone in the U.S. was watching the presidential election unfold, Israel went in and attacked Gaza, killing six Palestinian militants and knowing full well that it would provoke rocket attacks, giving them a pretext to launch the invasion.

Guernica: The pretext being a typical basis for the kind of disproportionate violence Israel has exerted in the name of self-defense. The same rhetoric about security and self-defense has been trotted out by Israel after the attack on the aid flotilla, and provoked significant admonishments even from international apologists for the Gaza invasion, like Cordesman, as you mentioned earlier. Do you see, or expect to see, Israel changing its rhetoric in response to the increasing condemnations it’s facing?

Norman Finkelstein: I think Israel is going to try to prove that it has met all the demands of the international community, and that there’s no reason any longer for there to be any hostility directed toward Israel. They’re going to claim that they lifted the blockade, even though they won’t have done that. But in fact there are significant limitations to the lifting of the blockade; most crucially, Israel is still blocking any exports from Gaza, which means that the economy can’t resume there. If as a result of the crippled economy there has to be an increase in aid flotillas, what we can expect to see from Israel is another propaganda war—Israel is going to claim that these flotillas are unnecessary, just as they claimed before the attack on the Mavi Marmara that anyone who wanted to could just deliver any goods and that Israel would transport them to Gaza. Well, that was a complete lie. But they’ll continue to use arguments like that, and the propaganda war will be a new, or rather renewed, realm in the battle between popular resistance and the Israeli government.

For a time, though, things had been looking quite promising: it was popular resistance that was leading, and state actors who were lagging behind. State action was being set by popular resistance, namely the flotillas, and not by states. The so-called Quartet—Blair, et al—they were reacting to the initiatives of popular resistance. Now, they’ll try to recuperate and lead again, and it’ll depend on us to escalate the pressure, such that we remain a step ahead of policy elites, such that we’re leading and we’re determining, the next move.

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