The Irish Times, 2003
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
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
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
He compares Israel's treatment of the Palestinians to apartheid
South Africa's attitude to its blacks or US settlers' view of
"All these settlers used the same language. What was left
out of the picture was that there were people living there before
they arrived. We were told there was a wilderness, that it was
virgin land and that every once in a while there were these savages,
slightly above the level of the fauna, who would attack the settlers."
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."