An interview with Norman Finkelstein: Israel 'has lost a lot of ground'

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Controversial Jewish American scholar Norman Finkelstein does not feel like a pariah anymore.

Visiting Canada again this week on a tour of campuses to deliver lectures and answer questions about the seemingly intractable situation in the Middle East, he reports receiving more invitations to speak than ever these days.

"It is much more difficult in public life to defend Israel than to criticize it," Finkelstein explains in a telephone interview with rabble.ca. "I've gotten more invitations from more mainstream places."

The holder of a 1988 doctorate in politics from Princeton University, Finkelstein has not held a university position since he was denied tenure at DePaul University in Chicago five years ago after a campaign by opponents of his views on Israel-Palestine. This denial by DePaul came despite Finkelstein's popularity among students and praise for his scholarship from the leading historian of the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg.

I asked Finkelstein what it has been like to live on income from lecture fees and the sales of his published books, including This Time We Went Too Far, Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion and Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.

"There is no problem with my survival," he assures me.

The reason for his startling optimism is the large amount of polling data that reveals evidence of "serious fissures," in American Jewish opinion with regards to Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory. This is also the subject of his upcoming book, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Love Affair with Israel is Coming to an End.

Finkelstein points to the defection of prominent American Jewish journalists such as New Yorker editor David Remnick and Peter Beinart (whose article "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment" appeared in the May 12, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books) to the camp of those critical of Israel.

More importantly, Israel has "lost a lot of ground" among a younger generation of American Jews who cannot abide the "carryings on" of the Jewish state. Finkelstein says that 30 to 40 per cent of American Jews under age 40 have told pollsters that they have "distant feelings for Israel."

Despite their extremely comfortable economic status in the U.S., Jews are more likely to describe themselves as "liberal" in their politics than other Americans in general.

"Eighty per cent of American Jews voted for [U.S. President] Barack Obama, a much higher percentage than Latinos," says Finkelstein.

And while Finkelstein cannot offer similar empirical polling for Canada, he appears to think that Jews in our country are similarly inclined. "No, I don't think it is that much different in Canada." (This may be a debatable point, considering the swing towards the Conservatives in the last federal election in a few Toronto ridings where there is a significant Jewish population.)

Another thing working against Israel in the long run, Finkelstein thinks, may be exhaustion within the international community, "which has grown weary of this conflict [and] recognizes that Israel bears the bulk of the culpability for its perpetuation."

The recent leaked comments between French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama himself indicate a certain degree of exasperation with the intransience of the current Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

"They are tired; the conflict has gone on for eternity and it is completely nonsensical at some level of abstraction," says Finkelstein.

Finkelstein has created some surprise in certain circles with his position that the internationally recognized solution of two states -- Israel next to a contiguous Palestinian state based roughly on the 1967 borders and east Jerusalem as the capital -- can still happen. This is still viable legally and politically despite the large numbers of Jewish settlers illegally living on Palestinian land in the West Bank, he contends.

The proposal for minor land swaps by the Palestinians "is eminently reasonable," Finkelstein says. That is, Israel can have 1.9 per cent of the West Bank which would enable the Jewish state to keep 63 per cent of the half a million settlers within Israel proper.

When asked about the danger posed to Israel by those that respected Israeli historian and peace advocate Yehuda Bauer calls "genocidal radical Jewish nationalists," Finkelstein contends that those Jewish settlers who would violently resist an evacuation of the Palestinian territory represent at the most "a few thousand" diehards.

"All the Israeli army has to tell them is 'we are leaving. If you want to stay, among 2 million Palestinians, you stay.' And in the blink of an eye they will be gone."

Finkelstein also suggests that if the United States alone decided to pressure Israel to seriously move on the two-state solution, that would happen.

"The Israeli government has no options or alternatives if the U.S. says you have to get out. There is nobody in the international community that Israel could lean on; and it is only the U.S. that is blocking action against Israel's systemic and increasing violations of international law."

Nonetheless, Finkelstein does not underestimate what it would take to unlock the current U.S./Israel juggernaut: "So much of the exchange of intelligence and practised manoeuvres and so forth [between the U.S. military and the Israel Defence Force] are so routine at this point that they are not noticed. From a daily point of view there is complete integration between Israeli and American planning."

Which may explain why the U.S. and Israel have a shared interest in preventing Iran from becoming an important regional power in the Middle East.

Finkelstein, however, is doubtful, despite the "hysteria" about Iran investing in nuclear technology, that either the U.S. or Israel would be willing to risk the consequences of a war with the Tehran government.

"There is a recognition that an attack on Iran can easily get out of control."

Paul Weinberg is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Norman Finkelstein's Canadian tour was sponsored by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

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