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2012-06-04

Norman Finkelstein: Waning Jewish American Support for Israel Boosts Chances for Middle East Peace

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Well over a year into the Arab Spring, the author and scholar Norman Finkelstein argues that there is a new, albeit quieter, awakening happening here in the United States that could provide a major boost to the winds of change in the Middle East. In his new book, "Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End," Finkelstein contends that American Jewish support for the Israeli government is undergoing a major shift. After decades of staunch backing for Israel that began with the 1967 war through the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, to the repression of two Palestinian intifadas, Finkelstein says that a new generation of American Jews are no longer adopting reflexive support for the state that speaks in their name. With this shift in American Jewish opinion, Finkelstein sees a new opportunity for achieving a just Middle East peace. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well over a year after it began, the Arab Spring movement in the Middle East and North Africa has toppled three autocratic regimes while continuing to challenge those in Syria and Bahrain. It’s also helped inspire the Occupy and labor movements here in the U.S., with demonstrators from Lower Manhattan to Wisconsin taking cues from the hundreds of thousands who flooded Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Well, my next guest argues there’s a new, albeit quieter, awakening happening here in the United States, one that could provide a major boost to the winds of change in the Middle East. In his new book, the author and scholar Norman Finkelstein argues that American Jewish support for the Israeli government is undergoing a major shift. After decades of staunch backing for Israel that began with the 1967 war through the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, to the repression of two Palestinian intifadas, Finkelstein argues a new generation of American Jews are no longer adopting reflexive support for the state that speaks in their name. With this shift in American Jewish opinion, Norman Finkelstein says a new opportunity for a just Middle East peace is in the making.

His book is called Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End. It’s one of a number of books Norman Finkelstein has authored over the course of three decades’ involvement in the Israel-Palestine conflict, during which he’s come to be known worldwide as one of the most prominent academic critics of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Norman Finkelstein is also coming out with another new book this week called What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage. Both books are published by OR Books.

Norman Finkelstein joins us in studio.

Welcome, Norman, to Democracy Now!

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Thank you for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s start with the title, Knowing Too Much. Explain.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Basically it means that if you go back, say 20 or 30 years, most of the scholarship on the Israel-Palestine conflict, I think, could be accurately described as the Leon Uris novel Exodus with footnotes. It was basically propaganda. And most American Jews felt at ease with their liberal beliefs, their liberal creed, their liberal tenets, and supporting—you might say blindly—all of Israel’s conduct and actions. But over the past 20 or 30 years, in particular since the late—early 1990s, a lot more is now known about the conflict, not least because of the research of Israeli historians and Jewish historians. A lot more is now known about the human rights record, through the workings of Israeli human rights organizations like B’Tselem, but also Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. And a lot more is now known about the diplomatic record. Now, Jews tend to be highly literate. They’re tapped into the circuits of liberal culture in the United States. And they now know a lot more. And so, it’s much more difficult, if not impossible, for American Jews to reconcile their liberal beliefs, their liberal creed, with the way Israel carries on.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your involvement in the whole conflict and your books that you’ve written on it, but starting back 30 years ago.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, actually, it’s an anniversary, if we can use that word, because I first got involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict on June 6, 1982. It’s literally three decades, coming in the next two days. I first became involved when Israel invaded Lebanon in June 1982. And I used to go every day during my lunch hour—I used to jog over from the Upper West—not the Upper West Side, from the West Side, 10th Avenue and 26th Street, I would jog over to the Israeli consulate on Second Avenue and 42nd Street, and I was there demonstrating every day. And that’s how I first got involved.

I ended up involved with a Jewish group. It was—had a weird acronym. It was called JAIMIL, Jews Against the Israeli Massacre in Lebanon, mostly composed of meshuggah Jews—it’s true, I mean, we have to be honest about that—because only crazy people were involved in the conflict back then, and it didn’t reach anywhere near a mainstream. And as a result of being in that group, the arguments started to arise over the issue of Zionism: Are you or are you not a Zionist? And then I turned that into my doctoral dissertation, which I eventually completed. And so, now I had a kind of academic investment in the conflict. And I had a personal investment—

AMY GOODMAN: This you did at Princeton University?

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yeah. And then I had a personal investment, because my parents were survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, and Israel’s actions were always being justified in the name of what happened during World War II. And so, there was a kind of a desire to dissociate the suffering of my late parents from the way Israel was carrying on.

AMY GOODMAN: Both your parents were in camps.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, both my mother and father were in the Warsaw Ghetto, and then my father was in Auschwitz, my mother, Majdanek. And their entire families on both sides were exterminated during the war. They were the only survivors on either side of the family. And so, you could say I had now a triple investment: there was the political investment, there was the academic investment, and then there was the familial—it was the personal investment. And the conflict didn’t end.

You know, sometimes people ask me, or claim that I have a obsession or fixation on Israel, whereas if anyone knows anything about my life, I actually came to it relatively late in life. I was already 29 years old. I had been active in the antiwar Vietnam War movement, active with Central America, active with many causes. If I’ve stuck to it for 30 years, it’s because there was no resolution of the conflict. I’m not making excuses; I’m just trying to factually explain.

And I think now the remarkable thing is it’s 30 years later, and actually I do believe—and that’s the subject matter of the book—I do believe there are grounds now to be optimistic. We have a real opportunity, I think, of reaching a mainstream, reaching the mainstream of American public opinion and the mainstream of Jewish public opinion. There are real possibilities of breakthroughs, because people know a lot more now, and people know there’s something wrong in that part of the world, which of course they’ve known for a long time, but the big difference is now they know that Israel bears a large burden of culpability for what’s going wrong there. Now that’s completely new.

You know, just to take one example, in the 19—if you read Israeli historians now, people like Tom Segev, who I know you’ve had on the program, and Benny Morris, whom you’ve had on the program, they both acknowledge freely that right from—right from the beginning of the Israeli occupation, they both write, Israel was practicing torture of Palestinian detainees. And they just pass by it as if this is common knowledge. But in the—at the time, during the 1970s and 1980s, it was impossible to make that claim without being accused of being an anti-Semite or, in the case of Jews, being a self-hating Jew or just being crazy.

But what changed was, during the First Intifada, for the first time, Israeli human rights organizations, in particular B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, and then Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, they began documenting these facts. So it was no longer marginal people making these claims. Very good people and courageous people and honorable people, mostly, incidentally, women. It was Lea Tsemel—

AMY GOODMAN: The Israeli human rights lawyer.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Right. Felicia Langer, the Israeli human rights lawyer. It’s one of these odd things. She was—Felicia was—excuse me, Felicia was Communist Party, Lea was Trotskyist. But they were really good people. And then there was Israel Shahak, the organic chemistry professor from Hebrew University. But they could easily be dismissed—you know, communist, Trotskyist. Shahak was a brilliant fellow, but eccentric. I think we can all agree to that. So they were—these were easily dismissed as marginal people.

But now, after the 1990s, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, B’Tselem, and they’re all saying Israel is systematically practicing torture. They estimate about 85 percent of Israeli—excuse me, of Palestinian detainees were being tortured by Israel. Human Rights Watch estimated that during the First Intifada between 20,000 and 30,000 Palestinians had been tortured. And so, now it’s a much different picture, and people are aware of a lot of the facts—not the details, but you don’t really need the details. That’s just for people who are—engage in footnote wars. But the general public has a picture that Israel bears a significant burden of culpability.

And so, now you can reach them. Now there’s a possibility. You can’t reach them on any goal. You can’t say Israel is doing this, and Israel is doing that, and therefore Israel has to be, you know, effaced from the world’s map. No, you can’t reach them on that goal, and I don’t think you should reach them on that goal. What you can reach a broad public on is, we want to enforce the law. We want Israel to be held to the same standard as everyone else—enforce the law.

And the law is pretty clear. You know, people say the law is nebulous, gray areas, ambiguous. No, the law is pretty straightforward. The settlements are illegal under international law. All 15 judges on the International Court of Justice said so. Israel has no title to any of the West Bank, Gaza or East Jerusalem. All 15 judges on the International Court of Justice said so. And the Palestinians have the right of return, or so says Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

So I think we have a real opportunity now, because American Jews are conflicted. On the one hand, they claim to be liberal, which they are. Eighty percent of American Jews voted for Barack Obama for president, which was a much higher percentage, incidentally, than Latinos who voted for Barack Obama. Latinos was about 63 percent. And if you consider that most people vote by virtue of their pocketbook, American Jews should have been voting Republican. But 80 percent voted for a Democratic candidate for president. They are liberal. Exactly why is a separate issue, which I discuss in the book, but for our purposes, we’ll just take it as a given. They are liberal. And it’s just very difficult—

AMY GOODMAN: The most liberal group of voters, outside of African Americans.

NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Oh, by far, African Americans—aside from African Americans, American Jews. And so, they have a very great difficulty reconciling their liberal beliefs with the way Israel carries on.

Let’s just take the example of the segment you just did. You know, Mubarak commits horrendous crimes, he gets overthrown. But 'til the last moment, and even afterwards, Netanyahu was attacking the American government for being too soft on the demonstrators. "Why did you let Mubarak go?" Young American Jews don't want to hear that. They identify with the Twitter revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, with the Facebook revolutionaries. And most of young American Jews, they’re idealists. They’re liberal. And now you have the head of state of Israel saying the U.S. should have been tougher to keep Mubarak in. American Jews don’t want to defend that.

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