NORMAN Finkelstein is the nearest you can get to a Jewish heretic. He is a Jew but an anti-Zionist; the son of Holocaust survivors but a ceaseless critic of what he terms “the Holocaust industry”; a left-wing historian whose views are often praised by revisionist right-wingers such as David Irving.
He is a pugilist by inclination, never missing an opportunity to fire insults at his enemies among Jewish organisations in the US and Israel.
They, it must be said, are not slow to respond in kind. Insults flew within minutes when Finkelstein appeared recently with an Israeli government spokesman on RTE Radio 1′s Morning Ireland, and Cathal Mac Coille, the presenter, had to call the two off each other and beg for calm. “You’re supposed to lie down and take the insults, and I’m not going to do it,” Finkelstein says. “The level of arrogance of these people just boggles the mind.”
He believes Jewish organisations are “huckstering” the Holocaust by extracting huge sums in compensation that never get to the survivors. “What they have done, by turning the central tragedy of Jews in the 20th century into a weapon for shaking down people for money is pretty disgusting; it’s wretched.” He denounces some of the campaigns for reparations against Swiss banks and claims that more than $20 billion (E17.5 billion) has been collected in compensation claims arising from the Holocaust.
Because he is Jewish, Finkelstein gets away with the kind of language others would never be allowed to use. He accuses Jewish organisations, for example, of conducting themselves “like a caricature from Der Sturmer”, the notorious Jew-baiting magazine of the Nazis. He repeatedly refers to the organisations as “crooks” and has even called Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the “resident clown” of the Holocaust circus.
The roots of his anger lie in his parents’ experience. Finkelstein’s father survived the Warsaw Ghetto and Aushwitz concentration camp; his mother lived in the ghetto and ended up in Majdanek camp. He describes both as confirmed atheists.
His father received compensation from the German government. “I still remember the blue envelopes that came in every month. At the end of his life he was getting $600 a month, or a grand total of about $250,000. Even though there was no love lost between my father and the Germans – he hated them all – there was never any complaint about the money. The Germans were always very competent and efficient.”
In contrast, his mother’s compensation was channelled through American Jewish organisations. “Even though they went through the same experiences, she got a grand total of $3,000 and no pension. That’s what you get from Jewish organisations.”
THE line he takes on the Israel-Palestine conflict is similarly controversial, at least within his community. “A colossal wrong has been inflicted on the Palestinians, and no amount of rationalisation can justify that. There are possibilities for peace, but the Israeli elite won’t allow them to happen.”
Finkelstein’s latest book, a second edition of Image And Reality Of The Israel-Palestine Conflict, is a scholarly attempt to undermine the popular image of Israel and its dispute with the Palestinians. He situates the creation of Israel firmly in the colonial tradition and seeks to debunk writers who claim the Palestinians never existed historically.
He compares Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to apartheid South Africa’s attitude to its blacks or US settlers’ view of native Americans.
A New Yorker by birth, Finkelstein admits he has very little direct experience of Israel, although he has visited the occupied territories more than 20 times. “When I’m there no one even cares less that I’m Jewish. In the first year I was a novelty; by the third or fourth it was just, hey, Norman’s back.”
So is he, along with other solidarity workers who spend time with Palestinians but enjoy freedom of speech and personal security back home in the West, just a meddler? “I don’t want to be there. I’m a complete coward. My hat comes off to those young people who work in difficult circumstances, who help Palestinians dig a well or who come to aid of people who are being shot at. If that’s meddling, I say we need a lot more meddling in the world.”
Asked if Israel can be considered a democracy, he responds: “Was South Africa a democracy in the old days? It was a democracy for whites, for the ‘superior people’. Similarly, Israel, for the larger part of its history, has been a society where half the population has all the rights and half the population has none.”
But what about the democratic rights of Palestinians under Yasser Arafat? “How can you have a democracy under occupation? People there have no rights without the approval of Israel. How democratic is Alcatraz? Or a concentration camp?”
There is a solution, he insists. “I don’t think the way out is so complicated. People constantly try to shroud the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in all kinds of mystification. They say it’s about ancient enmities, it’s about the Bible or religion or it’s about the clash of cultures. But when you go to live there you see it’s not complicated at all. The fact is that there’s a military occupation, and that has to end.” And then what? “Then you hope Palestinians and Israelis will live together in peace.”
Although Finkelstein enjoys the security of being a US citizen, he has paid a price for his views. His four books have been popular successes in Europe – The Holocaust Industry sold 130,000 copies in Germany in three weeks – but in the US he has been shunned and his books have been savaged.
The New York Times, he once commented, gave a more hostile review to The Holocaust Industry than it did to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This clearly rankled, and he returns to it. “I don’t want to play the martyr, but if you look at my history I didn’t make out so well. I didn’t get the headlines. I’m in exile in [DePaul University in] Chicago because I was thrown out of every [university] school in New York.
“I’m not happy to be in Chicago. I want to be at home. That’s why I keep an apartment there. I’m still praying for a miracle. I’ve had a hard time.”
Image And Reality Of The Israel-Palestine Conflict by Norman Finkelstein is published by Verso, £15 in UK