Beyond Chutzpah: An Interview with Professor Norman Finkelstein

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Audacity. Cheekiness. Daring. Gutsiness. Any one of these words can define the Yiddish word, “chutzpah” with both positive and negative nuances. But as DePaul Professor Norm Finkelstein demonstrates in his new book, “Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History”[1], there are those who take chutzpah too far in the negative direction.

One such person is prominent Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz whose book, “The Case for Israel”[2] is debunked point by point by tireless and meticulous researcher Finkelstein. Ultimately, Dershowitz’s book is found to a work of fraud and plagiarism. Knowing that Finkelstein’s book would damage his credibility, Dershowitz took the unusual step of writing to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and suggested that he interfere and prevent the book from being published. The book’s publisher is the University of California Press. According to The Nation, the legal affairs secretary to Governor Schwarzenegger responded to the Dershowitz letter: “. . . he [the Governor] is not inclined to otherwise exert influence in this case because of the clear, academic freedom issue it presents.”

Finkelstein, whose parents are both survivors of the Holocaust, discusses the misuse of anti-Semitism in order to achieve political gains, but shines most in his book when showing that Dershowitz’s claim that Israel is a haven of human rights is wholly inaccurate. Reports by human rights organizations, like Amnesty International and Israel’s own B’tselem, are cited in surplus. One wonders if Dershowitz ever thought to do some of his own-fact-checking with prominent and respected human rights organizations when putting Israel up on a human rights pedestal. From the graphics to the torture of Palestinian minors to the complicity of Israeli medical personnel, there is nothing left to the imagination in terms of Israel’s horrendous human rights record. There is even a chronology in the back of the book that describes the roots of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

If one can summarize “Beyond Chutzpah” in one sentence, it would be this: Finkelstein leaves no stone unturned when setting out to prove the misuse of anti-Semitism.

Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with Finkelstein about his thoughts on a myriad of themes in his book. Passionate, colorful, and with a dry wit to boot, Finkelstein rejects the label that he is an intellectual but rather “someone who goes through the reports and credible history of what is going on and compares it to the nonsense . . . somebody’s lying.”

What was your purpose in writing “Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.”

It’s important for people to read the record of what is going on there.

What do you consider the most effective example of the “new anti-Semitism” on American public opinion?

There are a large number of claims circulating about rampant anti-Semitism on college campuses. When you go actually go through the records, talk to the schools, speak to the deans and so forth, all of these claims turn out to be fraudulent. There’s just no record of this so-called rampant anti-Semitism on college campuses.

The most striking example is Columbia University where there was huge hysteria, newspaper editorials, and local politicians all calling for professors at Columbia’s Middle East Center to be fired. The president eventually was forced to create an ad hoc committee to look into the charges and after all this hysteria and demands that these professors be fired, all that they could find was in one case in one instance in one day in one classroom after the invasion of Jenin in April 2002. A professor responded heatedly to a student who was defending Israeli tactics. That was it. On the other hand, they did find that pro-Israel outsiders were disrupting the classrooms of these professors, secretly video-taping their lectures and being turned, as the Columbia Report put it, into informers for the pro-Israel lobby. The real story was the harassment of professors who were critical of Israeli policy.

What will surprise people the most when reading “Beyond Chutzpah?”

I think they’re going to be very surprised by the fact that this whole claim of the new anti-Semitism is a complete fraud and they are going to very surprised that Israel’s human rights record is quite abysmal. It’s the cumulative effect of going through all of the reports in all aspects of Israel’s human rights policy. It’s not looking at one case of one person who was tortured or one child who was killed, or one house that was demolished. The record is really quite horrendous. Everybody who has read it has made the comment that it’s quite shocking to see the magnitude of Israel’s human rights crimes in the Occupied Territories.

How is the “new anti-Semitism” used to discredit legitimate criticism of Israel?

Whenever Israel faces a public relations debacle such as the Intifada or international pressure to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, American Jewish organizations orchestrate this extravaganza called the “new anti-Semitism.” The purpose is several-fold. First, it is to discredit any charges by claiming the person is an anti-Semite. It’s to turn Jews into the victims, so that the victims are not the Palestinians any longer. As people like Abraham Foxman of the ADL put it, the Jews are being threatened by a new holocaust. It’s a role reversal –” the Jews are now the victims, not the Palestinians. So it serves the function of discrediting the people leveling the charge. It’s no longer Israel that needs to leave the Occupied Territories; it’s the Arabs who need to free themselves of the anti-Semitism.

American Jewish organizations: Zionist or not Zionist?

American Jewish organizations didn’t give a fig about Israel before the June 1967 War. After 1967, Israel became their cause because it was safe. Israel is now the strategic asset to the US in the Middle East and so people became pro-Israel, not because they are Zionist. It’s a politically useful position to have. The biggest mistake anyone can make about people in power is to ascribe to them ideological convictions. Ben-Gurion was a Zionist. Abba Eban was a Zionist. The early founders of the state of Israel were Zionist for sure because they were committed to ideas. Just like the Bolsheviks were clearly Communist. But once you get into power, people are interested in one thing –” more power. And then they adjust their beliefs and their ideology to serve that goal.

I don’t think Alan Dershowitz cares about Israel. He never wrote about Israel before June 67. The Holocaust –” he’s said: Growing up, we never discussed the Holocaust. I don’t remember one single conversation with anyone about the Holocaust.

They don’t care about the Holocaust or Israel, they care about their careers. So, I’ve always found it perplexing as to why these people are elevated by giving them an ideology and acting as if they are acting out of conviction.

Speaking of Alan Dershowitz, the two of you have had a very public spat. In “Beyond Chutzpah,” you debunk Dershowitz’s book “The Case for Israel” point by point. Harvard University’s response?

There’s been no response except at some early date to exonerate him for all those charges. As far as Harvard is concerned, Alan Dershowitz has clean hands.

You have said that you believe there is a potent insurance out there against fraudulent material being published, except when it comes to the Palestine-Israel conflict. Is this what’s coming into play here?

I think there a couple things. That’s part of it, but another part of it is that Harvard can’t acknowledge that its senior most professor of law is a hoaxer and a plagiarist. It says something about the institution –” it’s so devastating that they just can’t do it. It shines a light on them that is quite shocking. There’s the element of Israel and there’s the element of institutional protection.

How do you respond to those who perceive “Beyond Chutzpah” as being opposed to any invocation of Holocaust memory?

There are a lot of people who have suffered in the world. It’s time to give other people’s stories a public airing. I don’t think there’s any danger here of the Holocaust being forgotten, given the fact that the New York Times prepares a story on the Holocaust probably 5 out of every 7 days in the week. First, the only subject covered more thoroughly than the Holocaust is the weather. Second, most of what’s called the memory of the Nazi Holocaust is politically-motivated. Its use and exploitation is used to immunize Israel from criticism, immunizes American Jews from criticism, and for many years, it was used as a shakedown operation to extract monies from Europe. That kind of memory we can surely do without.

But as far as remembering the Holocaust? I remember everyday. It’s my parents.

How do you hope “Beyond Chutzpah” will affect the American Jewish community, as well as your critics in American Jewish organizations?

Well, some people — you can’t change their minds. Once Leon Trotsky, the Russian Revolutionary, was asked: What do you do with Fascists? He said: Acquaint them with the pavement.

Some people, you’re not going to change their minds. But there are a lot of people out there who are genuinely ill-informed and have decent intentions but have gotten wrong information. And it’s those kinds of people you want to reach, not the hard-core fanatics and zealots of Zion. I’m not going to try and convince them of anything. I have better things to do with my time. I’d rather watch paint dry.

Regarding the Israeli proponents of a two-state solution like Ariel Sharon: Sincerity or lip service?

They’re not proponents of the two-state solution, this is nonsense. There’s an international consensus on what the two-state settlement means. It’s a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank including East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Anything else is garbage. There are people like Sharon who don’t support a two-state settlement. They support a one state solution for Israel and a phone booth for the Palestinians.

Did you see the application of the “new anti-Semitism” before the Gaza withdrawal?

Well, of course. The so-called “new anti-Semitism” charade began in 2001 right after the public relations debacle Israel suffered with the Second Intifada. It’s actually been effective. News organizations’ coverage of the Middle East began to change. Everyone got nervous about “targeting Israel.” It long preceded the Gaza withdrawal.

You discuss Israel’s Wall and the land confiscation in your book. How do you respond to those who say “land grab or not, Israel has the right to defend herself and her citizens”?

Every state has that right. You build a wall on your own property. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t get along with their neighbors, and so they decided to build a wrought-iron fence around their property. So the first thing you have to do, at least in New York, you have to hire a surveyor and the surveyor demarcates the border. If you’re one inch into your neighbor’s property, under the law, you have to tear down the fence. Very uncomplicated.

The West Bank and Gaza, under international law, are occupied territories. Israel doesn’t have title to one half of one inch of the West Bank or Gaza or East Jerusalem. Want to build a fence? Build it on your border and protect your people. This has nothing to do with terrorism. This has nothing to do with protecting the settlements. If you want to protect the settlements, you do what Israel has done. You build electronic fences around the settlements. Kiryat Arba is very well-protected and there are no terrorist attacks.

It has to do with creating a new border.

Do you feel there is US acquiescence to this border change?

There’s nothing Israel can do without US support. It can’t breathe without US support. The US bankrolls everything, and it’s just silly to think that Israel can do anything without the support. There are issues about why the US supports Israel. Is it the lobby or strategic interest? Now you can quarrel about that. But what you can’t quarrel with is the notion that were it not for the US, Israel can’t do anything.

At what point do you think the general effectiveness of this “new anti-Semitism” will fade?

Very simple –” when Israel no longer comes under public attack or when people just get tired of it, just like the Holocaust Industry. People were Holocausted out. Like the Law of Diminishing Returns, if you keep bringing up the Holocaust, people are getting more and more bored. At some point, it becomes less omnipresent in American public life. And presumably at the point they start calling Mickey Mouse and Michael Jackson anti-Semites, people are going to begin to yawn and get turned off.

Tell me about the man you dedicated “Beyond Chutzpah” to — Musa Abu Hashhash.

Musa grew up in the Fawwar Refugee Camp. In his youth, he was Communist and now he’s with the Israel human rights group, B’tselem. I would have to say that he is the most decent human being that I’ve ever met in my life. And I’m not a kid anymore. I’ve got about 51 years on this planet.

There’s a song that Paul Robeson used to sing called “The Purest Kind of a Guy.” The lyric went ‘I don’t know how I know but I know what I know. He’s the purest kind of a guy.’ That’s Musa.

Notes:

[1]. “Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History"
by Norman G. Finkelstein
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0520245989/mmn-20/

[2]. “The Case for Israel"
by Alan Dershowitz
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0471679526/mmn-20/

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