An Interview with Norman Finkelstein
On Islamo-Fascism and Other Vacuous Epithets
By WAJAHAT ALI
Wajahat Ali speaks to American political scientist and writer Dr. Norman Finkelstein about the denial of his tenure at DePaul University, anti-Semitism, and challenging the academic status quo on the Palestine-Israel conflict.
WAJAHAT ALI: In the recent DePaul University tenure controversy, you and a vocal community of supporters suggested “external pressures” forced the University to deny you tenure despite your overwhelming popularity and respect amongst your peers and students. What is your response to this denial?
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: I do not want to be a tenure martyr. It was for sure a disgusting ordeal. But my main concern now is to move on and put it behind me. Reasonable people do not doubt why I was denied tenure. The facts are straightforward. I easily met all the criteria of tenure at DePaul. I was denied tenure due to my vocal opposition to Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian Territories.
Regarding your scholarship, you question and challenge what some consider long-held assumptions regarding the Israeli-Palestine conflict, specifically the actual intentions and motivations of several parties, such as the Israeli government, the United States, and the Arab world. Currently, what do you believe are the most crucial and major obstacles that if removed, could establish some sustainable semblance of peace in that region?
The basic terms for settling the conflict are not a mystery. They are embodied every year in the same General Assembly resolution titled “Peaceful Settlement of the Palestine Question.” The resolution calls for full Israeli withdrawal to the June 1967 borders. The entire world apart from the U.S., Israel and this or that South Pacific atoll (Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu, Micronesia, Marshall Islands) supports this settlement. Once the U.S. and Israel accept the G.A. resolution, the basis will be in place to resolve the conflict.
In your book Beyond Chutzpah, you present evidence against Dr. Alan Desrhowitz’s book, Case for Israel, and conclude that his work is a mixture of plagiarism, shoddy research, and poor scholarship. If Dr. Dershowitz’s book is filled with so much error, how do such works become authoritative pieces on the subject?
To win acclaim in mainstream media on certain subjects you merely have to echo the party line; it has precious little to do with actual scholarship. The Nazi holocaust and the Israel-Palestine conflict are two such subjects. Terrorism is another one. I just read this ridiculous book by a so-called leading American intellectual named Paul Berman entitled Terror and Liberalism. The book is fact-free. Indeed, it might be called insane in a rational culture. It starts from the premise that no country in the world has done more for Muslims than the United States. That’s the central premise. You can imagine where it goes from there. Of course it’s a huge bestseller in the United States. It’s hard to imagine how debased U.S. intellectual culture is. Although, in all fairness, I doubt it has yet sunk to the level of France where Bernard Henri-Levy is called a philosopher.
In your controversial book, The Holocaust Industry, you make two arguments. One is that the promotion of the uniqueness of “Jewish suffering” experienced during the Holocaust is used to shield and deflect legitimate criticism of Israel. The second builds upon this and says that this promotion allows a powerful industry to label any such critic, no matter how legitimate, an Anti-Semite. How has this “labeling” played out in recent years in regard to critics of Israeli domestic and internal policies?
Whenever Israel comes under international pressure to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict diplomatically or on account of its human rights violations, it revives the extravaganza called The New Anti-Semitism. In 1974 the Anti-Defamation League, an Israel lobby group in the U.S., put out a book called The New Anti-Semitism and in 1981 it put out another book called The Real Anti-Semitism. Right after the new intifada began, the Israel lobby again started with The New Anti-Semitism. The purposes of this agitprop are pretty obvious: to delegitimize all criticism of Israel as motivated by anti-Semitism and to turn the perpetrators into the victims. It seems to have less effect in recent years due to overuse: once you start calling Jimmy Carter an anti-Semite, people really begin to wonder.
Anyone who knows this “info-tainment industry” well knows that “scholarship” and polemical histrionics make loyal bedfellows, thus explaining the phenomenon of shock jocks, right wing radio hosts, and the rise of polemical pundits.
What is the role of the professional and ethical academic and historian, specifically one whose concentration deals with the Middle East, in today’s hysterical society? Does your experience with DePaul University signal a warning call to those who tread what some consider your controversial path?
I don’t think my personal experience has much wider meaning. I was targeted because I am politically active. I don’t limit myself to a professional audience of other academics. I have a public reputation, and it was this reputation that the Israel lobby was trying to discredit, successfully, as it turns out. But most academics speak to other academics.
The “Muslim World” has gained a considerable spotlight after 9-11 with pundits commenting on the “clash of civilizations,” “the roots of Muslim rage,” and the newest label suggesting an emergence of “Islamo-fascism”. You have had considerable experience with Muslims and Muslim Americans.Do you believe that a conflict exists between the so-called West and Islam? If so, how can we, as an American society, regain Muslim trust, confidence, and understanding specifically in light of the Iraq War, the Palestine-Israel conflict, and the aggressive rhetoric against Iran, which some Muslims claim is ample proof of a war on Islam rather than realpolitik?
“Islamo-fascism” is a meaningless term. If I am not mistaken, it was coined by the commentator Christopher Hitchens. The term is a throwback to when juvenile leftists, myself among them, labeled everyone we disagreed with a “fascist pig.” So this is a kosher-halal version of that epithet. Fascism used to refer to a fairly precise historical phenomenon, although it’s even doubtful that the term accurately encompasses regimes as different as Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. But when you start using the term to characterize terrorist bands who want to turn the clock back several centuries and resurrect the Caliphate, it is simply a vacuous epithet like “Evil Empire,” “Axis of Evil” and the rest.
Your parents survived the Warsaw Ghetto and the Auschwitz concentration camp. Your published works and scholarship, although labeled Anti-Semitic by your critics, are generally dedicated by yourself to honoring and preserving the integrity of those victims, such as your parents from those you claim exploit their suffering for political ends. Like others in your field, you could have easily avoided controversy by agreeing with the mainstream. With all the issues you have faced as a result of your scholarship, what has motivated you to continue down this road?
Whenever I wonder why I do what I do – and I do have those moments of self-doubt – I put in my mind’s eye the suffering of my late parents, I think of my friends in the occupied territories, and the doubts vanish. I press on, knowing that soon I will pass from the scene, hopefully having done some good, and not too much evil.
Wajahat Ali is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” (www.domesticcrusaders.com) is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. He can be reached at email@example.com