Sunday, October 16, 2005

Setting the Record Straight: Interview with Norman Finkelstein

Many new students might be asking, “Who is Norman Finkelstein and why should we care?” Finkelstein is a professor in the political science department, who has become famous and controversial for his defense of justice in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While some authors defend Israel no matter how atrocious it’s occupation of Palestine is, and go as far as to twist the facts, Finkelstein has consistently pointed out the glaring differences between what Israel claims to be- a democracy with a good human rights record, and it’s actual actions in Palestine. A Jewish professor, both of whose parents survived the horror of the holocaust, Finkelstein has become a voice for those who are not heard in Palestine. Several weeks ago he was on the front page of the Chicago Reader, a free weekly paper, because of his new book “Beyond Chutzpah: on the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and Abuse of History,” and his ongoing feud with Harvard Professor and Israeli apologist Alan Dershowitz. Revolver managed to send Finkelstein an e-mail with several questions, which he was gracious enough to respond to and answer.

Revolver: Tell us a little bit about your new book.

Norman Finkelstein: The subtitle summarizes the book's content. It's about how Israel and its American apologists use the claim of anti-Semitism to immunize Israel from criticism, and how American apologists for Israel like Alan Dershowitz falsify the historical record to protect Israel.

Rev: What are your thoughts on the Gaza pullout? Is this making Gaza a giant isolated prison? Is it a retreat on Israeli's part? Is Sharon going soft or is he using it as a diversion to add more settlements and build the wall in the West Bank?

Fink: The consensus among all serious commentators is things will probably deteriorate yet further in Gaza after the Israeli pullout. It's also useful to bear in mind that all human rights organizations - Human Rights Watch, B'Tselem - agree that the disengagement doesn't mean the end of the Israeli occupation of Gaza. Under international law Israel's continued military control of Gaza after disengagement means it remains an occupying power.

Rev: You are friends with Professor Noam Chomsky, and have called him one of your biggest intellectual influences, but you are a communist and he's an anarchist. Do you guys ever get in friendly arguments about it? With you cheering for Marx and Lenin and Chomsky rooting for Bakunin and Kropotkin?

Fink: We talk about Lenin and Marx about once every 10 years. I suppose we don't agree but it doesn't keep me up nights. The practical legacy of Marxism - the Soviet experiment, China under Mao - is an abiding interest of mine, but not the theoretical side.

Rev: In the Chicago Reader article about your feud with Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz Dershowitz is quoted saying that he will fly out to Chicago next year when you are up for tenure to make a case against you receiving tenure. Are you worried that DePaul might listen and be swayed by his claims? I'm told by my classmates that DePaul already tried getting rid of you once, and if it wasn't for students protesting and defending you that they might have succeeded. What can students do to help your chances of receiving tenure?

Fink: When I read that remark of Dershowitz's in the Reader, I thought of the song, "Bring on the Clowns." I assume he's just trying to use up his "frequent flier" miles. I never tell students what to do: they're smart enough to figure things out on their own.

Rev: Dershowitz is known for his support of Israeli torture techniques like sticking hot nails under the fingernails of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Are issues like this being lost in the focus on the argument over whether or not he is guilty of plagarism and fraud in his book? The Chicago Reader article for example had no mention of Dershowitz's support for torture.

Fink: I cannot dictate a journalist's storyline. Two-thirds of my book is devoted to Israel's human rights record as documented by mainstream human rights organizations, juxtaposed against Dershowitz's falsification of this record.

Rev: Dershowitz has been trying to prevent the success of your new book at every step. One of the more outrageous attempts to silence "Beyond Chutzpah" was when DePaul's own bookstore canceled an appearance and booksigning with you. I understand that public pressure convinced them to reschedule your booksigning though. Do you have any thoughts or comments about this episode or Dershowitz's campaign in general?

Fink: I'm glad that Barnes and Noble was responsive to the feedback of customers. It shows that when people act, things can change.

Rev: Any closing thought or comments on topics we didn't touch on?

Fink: In a few days I'll be back in my office, 24-7, as usual.

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