Professor of Political Science at DePaul University. His latest book is “Beyond Chutzpah: On The Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History.”
Foreign Minister under Ehud Barak, he was a key participant in years of Israel-Palestinian peace talks, including the Camp David and Taba talks in 2000 and 2001.
Norman Finkelstein argues that some supporters of Israeli government policies have attempted to de-legitimize criticism by disingenuously heaping the charge of anti-Semitism. Shlomo Ben Ami defends Israel’s record on human rights, and says peace will only come about through a negotiated two-state settlement. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We return to our debate between the former Israeli Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, and Professor Norman Finkelstein. I asked Finkelstein to discuss a section in his new book called the "Not-So-New New Anti-Semitism."
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, actually, I think it’s useful to connect it with the conversation we’ve just had. Namely, I think when honest and reasonable people enter into a discussion about this topic, you will have large areas of agreement, some area of disagreement, and frankly — and I’m not saying it to flatter; I say it because I believe it; I don’t flatter by nature — I’m quite certain that if Palestinians — if representatives of the Palestinians were to sit down with Shlomo Ben-Ami in a room, weren’t subjected to the sorts of political pressures that Dr. Ben-Ami describes from Israel, I think a reasonable settlement could be reached, and I think he’s reasonable, in my opinion. We can disagree on some issues, but he’s reasonable.
The problem is when you get to the United States. In the United States among those people who call themselves supporters of Israel, we enter the area of unreason. We enter a twilight zone. American Jewish organizations, they’re not only not up to speed yet with Steven Spielberg, they’re still in the Leon Uris exodus version of history: the "this land is mine, God gave this land to me," and anybody who dissents from this, you can call it, lunatic version of history is then immediately branded an anti-Semite, and whenever Israel comes under international pressure to settle the conflict diplomatically, or when it is subjected to a public relations debacle, such as it was with the Second Intifada, a campaign is launched claiming there is a new anti-Semitism afoot in the world.
There is no evidence of a new anti-Semitism. If you go through all the literature, as I have, the evidence is actually in Europe, which is Dr. Ben-Ami’s half-home ground, Spain, but throughout Europe, the evidence is, if you look at like the Pew Charitable Trust surveys, anti-Semitism has actually declined since the last time they did the surveys. They did it in 1991 and 2002. They said the evidence is that it’s declined. And the same thing in the United States. What’s called the "new anti-Semitism" is anyone who criticizes any official Israeli policies. In fact, my guess is had people not known who wrote Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, that book would immediately be put on the A.D.L.'s list of verboten books, an example of anti-Semitism, because he says things like the Zionists wanted to transfer the Arabs out. That's anti-Semitism. It has nothing to do with the real world. It’s a public relations extravaganza production to deflect attention from the facts, from the realities, and I think this afternoon in our exchange, there were some areas of disagreement for sure, but I think a lot of what Dr. Ben-Ami said would not go down well with most of American Jewry, and that’s when they’ll soon be charging him with being an anti-Semite.
AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of language, terrorism — Arafat called terrorist, Hamas called terrorist — how will you describe the Israeli state when it attacks civilians in the Occupied Territories? Or how would you describe Ariel Sharon?
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Well, let me tell you what is my description of terrorism. Terrorism, in my view, is an indiscriminate attack against civilian population. If I, personally, or my son, God forbid, is being attacked, being in uniform in Palestinian territories, by a Hamas call, I would not define this as terrorism. I will define as terrorism if they go into a kindergarten or a mall, explode themselves and cause injuries and death among civilian population. This to me is —
Now, the problem of the response of a state is much more difficult to define, because a state needs to go not against the civilian population. It needs to go against military targets, ticking bombs. This is what states can do and should do. The problem is that when you have a fight, not against armies, which is the case of Syria, Egypt, we never spoke about terrorism, state — Israeli state terrorism against the Egyptians. We spoke about wars between two military sides. This is very difficult in the conditions prevailing in places like Gaza or the West Bank, where you have militias, you have arsenals of weapons, etc., and the army attacks them and there is collateral damage to civilian population. To me, this is very difficult to define as state terrorism. It is attacking military objectives or sort of military objectives, an army which is not a real army but can cause damage and you need to fight back and defend your population, and it is very, very unfortunate that civilians are hit. But if Israel targets intentionally civilians, this is a different matter. This can be defined as terrorism. I don’t believe that we have done it. Normally, the practice is that things happened collaterally.
AMY GOODMAN: I would like to get your response, Professor Finkelstein, and also if you could include in that, you have a chapter in Beyond Chutzpah called "Israel’s Abu Ghraib."
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, on the issue of terrorism, I agree with Dr. Ben-Ami’s definition. It’s the indiscriminate targeting of civilians to achieve political ends. That’s a capsule definition, but I think for our purposes it suffices. What does the record show? Let’s limit ourselves to just the Second Intifada, from September 28 to the present. The period for that period, the record shows approximately 3,000 Palestinians have been killed, approximately 900 Israelis have been killed. On the Palestinian side and the Israeli side — I’m now using the figures of B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories — on the Palestinian and the Israeli side roughly one-half to two-thirds of the total number were civilians or bystanders. And if you look at the findings of the human rights supports — B’Tselem, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, and so forth — they all say that Israel uses reckless indiscriminate fire against Palestinians, and B’Tselem says when you have so many civilian casualties, you have, you know, 600 Palestinian children who have been killed, which is the total number of Israeli civilians killed. 600 Palestinian children killed.
They said when you have so much, so many civilians killed — I don’t particularly like the phrase "collateral damage" — when you have so many civilians killed, B’Tselem says it hardly makes a difference whether you are purposely targeting them or not, the state has responsibility. So, you could say Israel — using numbers, now — is responsible for three times as much terrorism in the Occupied Territories as Palestinians against Israel. That’s the question of terrorism.
Let’s turn to an ancillary issue: the issue of torture. Now, the estimates are, up to 1994-1995, that Israel tortured — and I’m using the language of Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem —- Israel has tortured tens of thousands of Palestinian detainees. Israel was the only country in the world, the only one, which had legalized torture from 1987 to 1999. The record on torture, on house demolitions and on targeted -—
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: 1999 is when we came to office.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I wish that were —- I wish that were the saving grace, but the fact of the matter is, being faithful to historical record, the record of Labour has been much worse on human rights violations than the record of Likud. It’s a fact that the only Israeli government during the period from 1967 to the present which temporarily suspended torture was Begin from 1979 to 1981. On the record of house demolitions, Mr. Rabin used to boast that he had demolished many more homes than any Likud government. Even on the record of settlements, as Dr. Ben-Ami well knows, the record of Rabin was worse in terms of settlement expansion than the record of Yitzhak Shamir, and a fact he leaves out in the book, the record of Barak on housing startups in the Occupied Territories -—
AMY GOODMAN: Building more houses?
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yeah — was worse than the record of Netanyahu. It’s a paradox for, I’m sure, American listeners, but the record on human rights, an abysmal record in general, an abysmal record in general, and in particular, the worst record is the record of Labour, not Likud.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Norman Finkelstein, author of Beyond Chutzpah. We move ahead to Shlomo Ben-Ami. In this last part of the debate, I asked the former Israeli Foreign Minister to discuss Israel’s human rights record and the allegations it’s tortured tens of thousands of Palestinians.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: To tell you the truth, I don’t know about the numbers, and we have seen different governments in — the British have done it. What the British did in Palestine in the '30s, there is nothing new in what we did that the British didn't do before us, and the Americans now in Iraq and elsewhere —- what I find very, very uncomfortable is really this singling out Israel that lives in a very unique sort of situation in comparison with other countries, but -—
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Norman Finkelstein makes the point, "Israel’s Abu Ghraib," so that’s making reference to what America did in Iraq.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Okay, okay. But if you — if you would come from another planet and examine the resolutions of the U.N., the Security Council, you might reach the conclusion there is only one sinner in this planet, and it’s the state of Israel, and not anybody else.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: But I am quoting your own human rights organizations. You know, B’Tselem is not the United Nations.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Okay, that’s okay. I mean, I’m not — but it speaks in favor of Israel that we have human rights, we have B’Tselem, and we criticize ourselves.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Right.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: And we want to change things, but the solution —
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I will agree with that, but then you have to say it doesn’t speak too much in Israel’s favor that it’s the only country in the world that legalized torture. It was also the only country in the world that legalized hostage taking. It was also the only country in the —
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: It wasn’t legalized —
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, yes. As your chief justice called it, "keeping Lebanese as bargaining chips." Israel was the only country in the world that’s legalized house demolitions as a form of punishment. Those things have to also be included in the record.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Ben-Ami.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: In addition to — I totally agree with you, it’s to Israel’s credit that it has a B’Tselem, an organization for which I have the highest regard and esteem. I agree with that.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Okay, but the thing is that the conditions where Israel has to operate, this is — we do not have a Sweden and Denmark as neighbors, and we have neighbors that have taken hostages, and have taken hostages that forced us to exchange things that were not very popular. Rabin himself gave away 1,500 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers, and Sharon gave away 400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for four bodies of Israeli soldiers. So we are living in that kind of place.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: But that may tell you that’s because they take so many people prisoner that they have a lot to give back. Right now, as we speak, there are 9,000 Palestinian political prisoners in Israel.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: This is because we live in the conditions that we live. We are not, as I said — this is not Scandinavia.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: But, Dr. Ben-Ami, you know, as well as I do, international law does not apply to some countries and not to others and some continents and not to others. Either it applies to everybody, or it applies to nobody. So to use the excuse, "Well, in our neighborhood we don’t have to recognize international law," is simply a repudiation of international law.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: No, I’m not saying —- No, no, I’m not saying that we do not have to recognize international law. I say that the conditions -—
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, then, it applies —
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: No, no. I mean, there are conditions where you cannot apply these lofty principles, which are very important, but you cannot apply them. And the British —- and the British -—
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: The British is an interesting example.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Well, it’s an interesting example. They didn’t —
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: B’Tselem did a comparison —
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: They did it in Gibraltar —
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: The British — that’s right.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: They did it in the Falklands. They did —- anywhere -—
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: B’Tselem did an interesting comparison. It compared the British policies of torture in Northern Ireland with Israeli policies of torture. In the 1970s, there were thousands of terrorist attacks by the I.R.A., and B’Tselem’s comparison showed that the Israeli record is much worse than the British on the question of torture. That’s the facts.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Yeah. You face now in this country a challenge of terrorism, so you go to PATRIOT Act and you go to —
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: But you won’t find me justifying torture.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: These are the conditions that can be very dire, very difficult —
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: No conditions justify torture.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask Dr. Ben-Ami, on the issue of the United States, as you look here, coming here for a few days, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, do you feel there are problems with the detention of the hundreds of men that are being held at Guantanamo without charge and what happened at Abu Ghraib?
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Well, I cannot condone that. I mean, I think that, obviously, it is a violation of international norms. There is no doubt about it. But I don’t follow the internal American debate. I don’t know if this society is scandalized by what happens and what is the degree of civil opposition, civic opposition, and if you have here organizations like not only B’Tselem, even Shalom Achshav, which is a centrist — it’s not a leftwing — organization that exposes the seams of your own government, I don’t know. Maybe yes.
I think we are a society in the middle of a very complicated conflict. As I do admit, in this conflict many atrocities were committed by both sides, however, but I do recognize our own shortcomings, blunders and things. And the only solution to this situation — the only, the only solution — is to try and reach a final settlement between us and the Palestinians. There is no other way. There is no other way: to split the land into two states, two capitals, trying to find the best way to end this conflict, because much of the instability of the Middle East has to do with our condition. You don’t need to be a bin Laden or a Saddam Hussein, who tried to put on themselves the mantle of the vindicators of the Palestinian cause in order to say that the Palestinian issue is a platform of instability in the region that needs to be solved.
But even when it is solved, let us not fool ourselves. Many of the problems that the West is facing today with the Arab world will persist. The Palestinian issue has been used frequently by many Arab rulers as a pretext for not doing things that need to be done in their own societies. But for the sake of the Israelis, I am not — I am not — when I say that we need to make concessions, it is not because I am concerned with the future of the Palestinians or because I am concerned with international law. I want to say it very clearly, it is because I define myself as an ardent Zionist that thinks that the best for the Jews in Israel is that we abandon the territories and we dismantle settlements and we try to reach a reasonable settlement with our Palestinian partners. It’s not because I am concerned with the Palestinians. I want to be very clear about it. My interpretation, my approach is not moralistic. It’s strictly political.
AMY GOODMAN: That was former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. He is the head of the Toledo Peace Centre in Spain now. Also our guest for the hour, Professor Norman Finkelstein. He is the author of Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, professor at DePaul University in Chicago. This has been an edited version of the debate they held in our Firehouse studio last week. For the full unedited debate, you can go to our website at DemocracyNow.org.