Zionism's Historical Context

An En Camino Interview with Norman Finkelstein

Dan Freeman-Maloy

January 24, 2004

(This interview was conducted in October 2003). Norman Finkelstein is a professor of Political Science at DePaul University in Chicago, and the author of numerous books including The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering and Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.

Professor Finkelstein, I’d like to start out with some background. Historically, key Zionist activists such as Chaim Weizman developed a strategic orientation towards the colonial powers that dominate the Middle East. Can you outline this strategy, and how it affected Zionist state-building?

Well I think that’s a good question which is rarely asked. Palestine was a strategic area in the Middle East for many reasons. For our purposes, the important ones to mention are, first of all, it was a key step on the land route to India, and it also was the northern flank of the Suez Canal, which was the crucial strategic area for the sea route to India. And so the British coveted Palestine, as did incidentally all the other great powers – Germany, France – they all coveted Palestine. And the Zionist movement understood that in order to win the backing of the British for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, they had to offer something in return. And what they offered the British in return was to be a stable and secure base of British power in the Middle East.

In one of your books, you quote a Zionist activist and a member of Brit-Shalom who argued that Zionism should identify with the “forces of revolution” in the Arab world, instead of with the dominant powers. He argued that Zionists should join forces with “those who are on the right side of the barricades.” Historically, how strong has this anti-imperialist current been within Zionism?

Well, it was always very weak, for the very simple reason that there was no way that the Arabs of Palestine were going to acquiesce in a Jewish state, and so the Zionist movement – which wasn’t a military force, during the period we’re talking about it’s simply a voluntary organization, supported by very modest contributions of Jews around the world – needed a formidable military force in order to create that Jewish state. They needed one of the Great Powers. So to the extent that you want to identify with the forces of anti-imperialism in the Middle East, it means that you’re on a collision course with the Great Powers, and then who’s going to support your goal of creating a Jewish state in Palestine? The only way the Zionist movement could have reached some sort of accommodation with the rest of the Arab world is if it renounced its aspiration for a Jewish state, and that wasn’t going to happen.

Is it in this context, of siding with imperial powers, that the Israeli relationship with the United States has evolved?

I think these are all good question which nobody ever asks. Probably in part because of my own orientation, I tend to focus on the Israel-Palestine dimension, I don’t focus on the global powers and how they jockey for power in the Middle East. There are two basic points that need to be stressed. Number one: Zionism was always, from its get-go, oriented towards the Western powers, for the reasons which I’ve already mentioned. And so over the past century – Zionism as a project is now over a hundred years old – it’s basically been culturally, economically, politically, militarily, in every crucial respect, oriented towards the West. It doesn’t see itself as part of the Arab world, it sees itself as the extension of the Western world in the Arab world. So that’s the first point, that’s the context. The context is that Zionism never saw itself as part of the Arab world. Having said that, it was Ben-Gurion’s view, and it’s the view that’s sustained the Zionist project from the beginning, that you couldn’t survive in the Arab world unless you had the backing of one of another Great Power, that Zionism would always be on a collision course with the Arab world, and you always had to have a great power backing you. So from the onset until 1948, it was Great Britain. After 1948, it was principally France, because into the 1950s, the French were involved in fighting an insurgency in Algeria, and the French believed that [President Abdel] Nasser of Egypt was behind this insurgency in Algeria. Accordingly, since the Zionists hate Nasser, and the French hate Nasser, an alliance developed between them, and the French became the main arms supplier and the main Western supporter of Zionism. And that relationship ends in 1967 when [French President] de Gaulle opposes the Israeli preemptive strike against Egypt, and then the French are quickly replaced by the Americans.

What role did the Israeli smashing of Nasserite Egypt in 1967 play in shaping the relationship between the organized North American Jewish community and the Zionist state?

Well, there are two points that have to made. First of all, Israel figured very marginally in American Jewish life from its creation until 1967, for pretty straightforward reasons. Mainly, Israel was not firmly in the American camp, there were occasions of tension, and there were occasions of great tension. The great tension, of course, happens in 1956-7, when [U.S. President] Eisenhower demands that Israel withdraw unilaterally from the Sinai. So the American Jews are very cautious, because they’re afraid that if the identify too strongly with Israel, they’re going to be charged with the bogey of “dual loyalty” – Who is your first loyalty to, is it to Israel or is it to the United States? So the American Jews keep Israel at arms length. After June 1967, Israel comes to be what’s called a “strategic asset” of the United States in the Middle East. It’s now a firm U.S. ally. And American Jews now identify with Israel, for a variety of reasons. First of all, because now to be pro-Israel is to be pro-American, in fact, it’s super- American. Because Israel is standing on the frontlines, defending Western (namely, U.S.) interests in the Middle East, and so now to be pro-Israel, as I’ve said, is not just to be pro-American, it’s to be super-pro-American. Secondly, the American Jews now get to play the role of interlocutor between Israel and the United States, they play the middle-man role, and they get into the precincts of power.

So if I can use the expression, it’s a kind of power trip also now, to affiliate yourself with Israel. But what’s absolutely certain, and here I regret that nobody has really picked up on one point I make in the Holocaust Industry, which is I think the supreme, and also supremely revealing irony, namely that the only two – the only two – prominent American Jewish intellectuals who identified with Israel before June 1967 were Noam Chomsky and Hannah Arendt. Chomsky was a Zionist from early on, proudly so, and in fact he still considers himself a Zionist. Lived in a kibbutz, briefly, but still, he had deep connections with the Zionist movement. He grew up in a Zionist home, went to Zionist youth camp, and so forth. Hannah Arrendt was also an activist in the Zionist movement. And now, what happens after 1967, Chomsky and Hannah Arrendt become the two bêtes noirs of the American Jewish, Johnny-come-lately Zionists who never had anything to do with Zionism – but these people are just fair-weather friends. When it’s useful to American Jews to be pro-Israel, they’re pro-Israel. It’s quite funny incidentally, if you look at the latest book of that raving maniac, Alan Dershowitz,[1] he actually says at the very beginning that he only became actively involved supporting Israel after June 1967. He doesn’t even realize what that tells about him. He mentions in the book that he went to the same summer camp as Chomsky, which is true, but he had no interest in the topic publicly, because it wasn’t useful.

So you think that the support that Israel has found in the North American Jewish community has less to do with genuine Zionist ideological zeal, and more to do with maneuvering for power on the domestic scene?

We have to make distinctions. For American Jews – we’re speaking about the whole community – there’s come to be an identification [with Israel]. There’s no question about that. I’m talking more about American Jewish elites and intellectuals. And they’re just opportunists. That’s why I’ve always recoiled when people call, you know, Martin Peretz (the publisher and an editor-in-chief of the New Republic), or Mortimer Zuckerman, or Michael Walzer, or any of those others, when they call them “Zionists.” I don’t think they are Zionists, because I don’t think they have any ideological commitment to anything except power. To attribute them, to credit them, with ideological conviction – like they’re flaming or raving Zionists – is to give them too much credit. I don’t think that they’re flaming or raving anything except self-seekers.

In his book Jews and the Left, Arthur Liebman referred to a time in North America where, for many Jews, “to become less radical or significantly less radical would mean to become less Jewish.” There’s been a definite rightward shift in the organized Jewish community. What advice would you give to Jewish activists who wish to oppose Zionist hegemony in the North American Jewish community?

Well first of all, you have to remember, Jews as a socio-economic group have changed radically. They’re by far and away the most economically successful, economically privileged, ethnic group in the United States – they’ve far outstripped WASPS. And when you enter those socio-economic strata, you become conservative; you become defenders of the status quo of which you are beneficiaries. So the idea that you would expect Jews to be at the forefront of social struggles in New York is I think a kind of naiveté. Jews in the 1930s came over from Eastern Europe, they lived in the ghettos of New York and other big cities, they worked in the garment industry, in the garment area, and so it’s unsurprising that they’re going to be radical, or on the left of the political spectrum. But I think it’s investing unrealistic expectations that that era will endure. What’s true is that there’s certainly 1) a residue from that epoch, basically of the New Deal anti-fascist era. And that played itself out, for example, in the New Left and the civil rights movement, where there were significant numbers of Jews who played prominent roles. So you have that residue, and 2) Jews remain a distinct minority in American life (I read yesterday 2.5%, but I don’t think that’s true, I think it’s closer to 1.5%, but let’s call it 2%) of the U.S. population. So as a minority they’re always sensitive to the idea of trying to build bridges with other minorities, so that’s going to put them a bit on the left of the political spectrum, because they’re always going to be fighting for issues like civil rights, tolerance and so forth, as any minority does. But apart from those two factors, which are mitigating factors – the residues from the past and the fact that Jews are a minority – I think that one should realistically expect that classes will behave as their socioeconomic status would suggest they would behave. A representative Jewish figure would be Joseph Lieberman, who’s basically a Democratic Republican. That’s what everybody says, and it’s true. He’s in the Democratic Party because it’s more liberal on social issues, and all minorities are always more liberal on social issues, but on economic issues, and on foreign policy, he’s very reactionary. He’s a conservative Republican. So Lieberman would be a kind of representative figure of where U.S. Jews are at today. And I don’t see why anyone would expect otherwise, given their phenomenal secular success in American life.

To shift topics a little bit, in the Holocaust Industry, you talk about the use of the legacy of antisemitic oppression, especially of the Nazi Holocaust, as political and moral capital in the hands of certain very powerful states. In that context, many Palestine solidarity activists are smeared with charges of antisemitism in doing their work. What would your advice be to those targeted by such allegations?

I think the advice I would give to those people is to say, Whether it’s true or not is absolutely irrelevant. The question is whether the facts are correct, and to simply rule those sorts of smears out of court. You know, you can never know what anyone’s motivation really is. There was a famous Israeli philosopher, Yesha’ayahu Leibowitz. He was a very smart guy, he had six PHDs, you know, impressive stuff. One of his degrees was in psychiatry (his degrees were mostly in the sciences) and he was once asked, “Do you analyze your dreams?” And Leibowitz responded, “I have trouble enough making sense of my waking hours.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that. Namely, when you try to examine your motives, you never really know. Is it Ma, Grandma, Uncle, were you abused as a child? Who knows. To start getting involved in that game… it’s a black hole. So my advice is, don’t go down that path. Simply say, Let’s discuss the facts. We’re talking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, let’s discuss the facts. And leave it at that.

[1] Alan Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurt professor of Law at the Harvard Law School, and recently authored a book titled The Case for Israel. In a recent debate with professor Finkelstein, Dershowitz stated that he is “making a case. I’m doing what a lawyer would do.” Finkelstein responded by pointing out that “this is why lawyers have a bad reputation,” and that the book is in fact “a collection of fraud, falsification, plagiarism and nonsense.” The debate can be viewed on the website for Democracy Now: www.democracynow.org.

More of Norman Finkelstein’s material can also be accessed through his site, www.normanfinkelstein.com

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