Moonlighting: Non-Specialists in the News
Interview With Norman Finkelstein
Sitting in a Middle Eastern restaurant minutes before he is due to speak to a booked-out lecture theatre, Norman Finkelstein tells me mid-meal, "wherever I travel, as is the case in Edinburgh, there is a large community of people who share my point of view".
In his thick Brooklyn accent, drawing out the '–burgh' in Edinburgh, the political scientist, author and activist talks to me about his life on the road. Although he spends a great deal of time travelling and talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he says he prefers a sedentary life.
"If I had a choice I would sit at home, but when I sit home I feel guilty because what I do is not really scholarship in the narrowest sense. I am not writing for academic journals, I am not writing for academic conferences, I am writing to try to bring about a just settlement to the conflict. And so if I am not out speaking I am not really doing my job."
On the second leg of his UK university speaking tour, the professor is in Edinburgh to speak at a lecture organised by the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), regarding his views on a peaceful resolution to the enduring conflict.
A prominent but very controversial figure in the US intellectual community, he has been called a radical."I consider myself a radical. The American radical itself connotes a lone figure, a lonely figure... I think there is a broad international consensus. Some places it's quantitatively stronger and other places quantitatively weaker. But the general picture is that everyone recognises that Israel bears a significant, I'm not saying complete, but a significant burden of culpability for what is going wrong in that part of the world."
Finkelstein is part-scholar, part-activist, and he tells me about the roles these two characteristics play in his life. "I would say my primary motive is political. But I try to uphold the standards of scholarship." He became politicised during the anti-Vietnam movement and only became involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a quite late point (in his opinion) in his late 20s. 1982, the year of the Israeli-Lebanese war, was the starting point of his relationship with arguably the world's most prominent ongoing conflict.
A writer of polemic works including the seminal text, "The Holocaust Industry", he is considered by many to have suffered due to his public denouncement of the American intellectual community over their uncritical support of Israel. He found notoriety following his public row with writer Alan Dershowitz. Opposition to this, he told me, came from "pro-Israel Jewish organisations who wanted to stop me not because I was an incompetent scholar, just the reverse; they wanted to stop me because I was perfectly competent and I was becoming more and more effective. I do draw large audiences and the consensus seems to be that I am effective in what I have to say and effective in what I have to write."
After accusing Dershowitz of falsification and plagiarism in his apologist book "The Case for Israel", Finkelstein found himself out of favour with the educational establishment for his controversial views regarding Israel. His experiences in the last five years have caused fear over a stifling of public conversation on the topic.
Many people see the US as a nation that is overwhelmingly and uncritically pro-Israeli, where expressing dissenting and critical views is taboo. Finkelstein denies that it is impossible to have an open, public and unbiased debate on the topic. "It depends upon what you mean by public. If you mean the mainstream media [that] is correct. If you mean going out into communities and going into colleges then I would disagree."
Finkelsten came to Edinburgh to give a talk that he says he has, until now, never given - that is, one of real hope for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve a peaceful solution to the conflict.
This hope has been inspired by a new generation of socially conscious activists in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, as well as internationally in the Occupy movement, which he says have consciously been inspired by Tahir Square. His politically formative years were the years of youth dissent against the establishment and what it saw as its conservative and imperialist views during the 1960s.
I wonder if he would see the Occupy movement as an equivalent: "The most obvious difference in the movement was that in the 1960s, when we demonstrated on the streets, the people on the sides were our enemies. But now with the Occupy movement, when you demonstrate on the streets everyone around is cheering you."
In his opinion the Middle East is radically changing. The sudden state of flux created by pro-democracy movements in the region have meant that the future of power and governance there is uncertain. Yet for all the change he feels that Israel has stayed on the same path and seems to continue in its disregard for international law and impunity over its actions.
On the topic of Iran and its nuclear weapons ambitions, he brands the stance of the Israelis as pure thuggery. "You say you want to attack Iran now, because in three years Iran could do x or y. Well that's called a preventative war and preventative wars are clearly illegal under international law but nobody says anything."
The popularity of the Occupy movement which he is very enthusiastic about, in addition to the growing consensus and opposition to Israel's practices, have made him hopeful for an end to the stalemate in the region. He told me: "Your generation might be the first one to bring about change in a truly global scale. That will be exciting."Note: Articles listed under "Moonlighting: Non-Specialists in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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