Dissident American academic Norman Finkelstein speaks to the <i>Mail & Guardian</i>.
Those South Africans with an interest in the conflict in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories would have had a field day recently. First, there were speaking engagements by Alan Dershowitz, the pro-Zionist author of A Case for Israel, followed by discussions and talks by David Benjamin, legal adviser to the Israeli Defence Force.
During the past month, dissident American academic Norman Finkelstein has given his contentious take on the occupation to audiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town. He is best known for his books, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (2005), and the Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (2000), in which he writes of the use of Holocaust-based guilt, anti-Semitism and the exploitation of poor Holocaust survivors to garner immense moral and financial support for Israel and pro-Israel organisations in the United States (US).
Finkelstein recently spoke to the Mail & Guardian about exploitation of tragedy, strategic boycotts and freedom of speech.
Your book delves quite deeply into Zionism in America, but how do you think that same sentiment came to places like South Africa at the same time, where we didn’t see Israel as an asset?
You’d have to look carefully at the relationship of the South African Jewish community with Israel. I don’t know that history. If I can make an analogy, last night I was attending the 80th birthday party of Ahmed Kathrada. Cyril Ramaphosa was there and each of them was talking about how the other gets to meet Hollywood stars, and they were very excited by the prospect of meeting Hollywood movie stars. And I mention it because the US has a real powerful cultural hold over the world. So when American Jewry discovered Israel it’s not altogether surprising that that then began to influence the rest of Jewry around the world, that it began to exert an influence on Jews who otherwise wouldn’t have taken much interest in Israel.
It’s also true to say that the relationship of South Africa and South African Jews to Israel does parallel the American case because remember, South Africa was aligned with the United States in the Cold War, they’re both on the side of Western civilisation against communism and so forth. And Israel, as it emerged after World War II, was seen to be left wing. The original leaders of Zionism were socialists and communists, and a lot of their attraction and appeal was to the left. So for the very same reasons that American Jews would want to distance themselves from Israel, the same impulse would be at work amongst South African Jews. They don’t want anything to do with communist Jews. Communist Jews are people like Joe Slovo. So it’s not surprising that after 1967, when Israel becomes pro-West and safe, that South African Jews also discovered that, though not with the same force of American Jews.
Although you are generalising, you talk about a superior ethnic identity complex amongst Jews in the US. Have you found the same thing here in South Africa?
I have not met many South African Jews but I would not be surprised. White people have a superiority complex to non-whites. Nobody is surprised by that. Because white people have enjoyed enormous earthly success, as compared with non-white people. For me it’s kind of breathtaking when you ponder the scope of the British Empire and how dispersed it was. Parts of the British Empire extended to North America and parts of its extended to South Africa, parts to India, and Britain is really a tiny place on the world map. So when you manage to command so much power and you’re such a minuscule part of the world’s geography and population, of course that’s going to go to your head.
And the same thing is to be said of, in the US, Wasps, that they commanded the wealth and the power of the most powerful country in the world. You wouldn’t be surprised if they walked around with a superiority complex. So then why would anyone be surprised if Jews, who have enjoyed such a fantastic earthly success in the US — I mean it’s kind of breathtaking, the magnitude of power and prestige that Jews enjoy in the US — it would be almost remarkable if they didn’t have a superiority complex. I would be surprised were it otherwise. They look around and they see, they’re about 1,5% of the American population, and they see in the economy, in the universities, in Hollywood, in the newspapers, books, it’s overwhelmingly Jewish. Gore Vidal once said that almost the entire reading public in the US is Jewish. If you lose that readership you lose everything. Jews read, or at least they used to. The remarkable thing would be were they not given to a superiority complex.
What do you make of parallels that have been made between apartheid South Africa and Israel?
I would say the parallels have become so commonplace and so mainstream that it’s hard to imagine that they don’t contain a large kernel of truth. In fact the only issue that seems to arise any longer is whether the occupation is worse than apartheid was.
I appreciate the response of John Dugard, who said many South African blacks have gone to the occupied territories, people like [Arch]Bishop [Desmond] Tutu, and he says they think it’s worse, so I’m willing to defer to their opinion. Tutu seems like a reasonably honest person, and I don’t think he would exaggerate just for rhetorical effect.
The issues frequently raised are that the South African government never sent helicopter gunships into the townships and Bantustans and indiscriminately fired amongst the civil population. Then there is the issue of South Africa investing money into the Bantustans to make them work, while Israel is just grinding the Gaza strip into dust. Right now what they’re doing to Gaza, I don’t think there’s a comparison anywhere. I wouldn’t want to insult the leaders of apartheid by saying what they did compare to anything in Gaza.
Do you think we have an ”apartheid industry” in South Africa, and if so, is it along the lines of what has sometimes been alleged regarding the holocaust?
There are a lot of people in South Africa who have exploited apartheid. A lot of people in the ANC became millionaires under black empowerment. That’s not unusual. After September 11, there was all sorts of fraud going on. People claiming to have been in the World Trade Centre that weren’t. People are always exploiting tragedy for personal gain.
What’s remarkable about the case of the American Jewish exploitation is they managed to immunise themselves from any kind of criticism by charging that if you criticise, you are an anti-Semite or a holocaust denier. They managed to neutralise any criticism and that, of course, is going to exacerbate the exploitation because if no one is there to criticise you, you can carry on in a reckless fashion.
Do you think that David Benjamin, legal adviser to the IDF, and called a war criminal by activists and academics for his role in the siege on Gaza, should be given a platform to speak?
I pondered that during the Vietnam War. In my opinion there were certifiable war criminals who were part of the Johnson administration and Professor [Noam] Chomsky, who was the leading intellectual critic and activist critic of the war in Vietnam, defended the right of people like Walt Rostow, who was an MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] professor, to teach at MIT even though he may have been a war criminal of a very high order.
So my feeling with people like David Benjamin is the following: Number one, he should have the right to speak, but number two, that does not prevent the people who are inviting him from denouncing him as a war criminal. If the person who invites him refuses to introduce him that way, then that person is morally delinquent. So, for example, when President [Mahmoud] Ahmedinejad came to Columbia University to speak, the president of Columbia, Lee Bollinger, used the occasion of his introduction of Ahmedinejad to denounce him. And the third condition is that [Benjamin] should also be told that if he comes we intend to prosecute him under international law.
As an academic, how do you feel about an academic boycott on Israel?
One of the precepts in politics, of the Chinese revolutionary Mao Tzu-tung, was ”unite the many to defeat the few”. You should aim at targets which can do this. The problem with the academic boycott is that I’m not against it in principle, but in practice it’s not a wise strategy. Israel always wants to change the subject. If you talk about an academic boycott you have to start talking about academic freedom, which is changing the subject.
You need a wise item to focus on. Take for example the AHAVA boycott. That is viable, it’s about the settlements. You can’t change the subject. The issue of academic boycotts is not one of principle, it’s one of prudence. Settlements are indefensible, that is the type of targets you should choose.
For example, the right of return is not a wise item to focus on. Rather focus on borders and settlements, where the case is stronger. All countries worry about borders because they all have borders. But they don’t all have refugees. You will garner the most potent support where countries would be willing to act.
How is it that Alan Dershowitz has managed to garner so much support in the US?
Most people are in awe of power and authority. Dershowitz is a Harvard professor and kind of a soap opera character. People don’t care what he says and whether it’s true or not, he’s a character in a national drama.