Well, let’s go to President Obama for a minute. This is when he was speaking
before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual convention in
March, touting his military and diplomatic support for the Israeli government.
2. Obama: The fact is, my administration’s commitment to Israel’s security has been unprecedented. Our military and intelligence cooperation has never been closer. Our joint exercises and training have never been more robust. Despite a tough budget environment, our security assistance has increased every single year. And just as we’ve been there with our security assistance, we’ve been there through our diplomacy. When the Goldstone Report unfairly singled out Israel for criticism, we challenged it. When Israel was isolated in the aftermath of the flotilla incident, we supported them. When the Durban Conference was commemorated, we boycotted it, and we will always reject the notion that Zionism is racism. When one-sided resolutions are brought up at the Human Rights Council, we oppose them. When Israeli diplomats feared for their lives in Cairo, we intervened to save them. When there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them. And whenever an effort is made to delegitimize the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them. So there should not be a shred of doubt by now. When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.
President Obama addressing AIPAC. Your response?
4. Finkelstein: Well, I think the obvious response is that President Obama clearly doesn’t believe a word he’s saying. And that’s probably the most troubling or the most disconcerting thing about listening to him. President Obama, he grew up or he got his political start in a liberal Jewish area of Chicago in Hyde Park. And his company, his crowd, his constituency was basically, in significant part, liberal American Jews. And he knows what he’s saying is false. He’s probably the most—least—he’s the least political president in the—at least in modern American history. He doesn’t really believe a word he’s saying. If you read, for example, the memoirs of Cheney and Rumsfeld—I did read through them. They’re hefty volumes, but I went through them, curiosity. Like them or not, there is deep conviction there. You know, with Cheney, when he first meets Bush, when Bush is going to nominate him for president, he says to Bush—and I believe it—I know a lot of memoirs is, you know, not to be taken literally. But he says to Bush, “I’m very conservative. I’m warning you.” And Bush says, “That’s OK. You know, we can deal with that.” Obama is nothing. One day he makes death lists of people to kill, the next day he gives Bob Dylan a medal. Then he talks about how he supports Israel blindly. And you could easily imagine, if there were money and votes, that the next day he would be supporting Palestinian rights. There is absolutely no conviction there. And I think there, Peter Beinart, in his book, his recent book, The Crisis of Zionism, he gets it exactly right. He says Obama is actually a liberal Jew in his mental outlook, and so he knows everything he’s saying is not true. He says he has—we have Israel’s back. Well, what he actually means is, rich American Jews have me, meaning Obama, in their pocket, and I have my hands in their pocket. He wants liberal Jewish contributions. And that’s really what it’s about.
5. Goodman: And yet, you’re saying that liberal Jews in America are changing their views on Israel and Palestinians?
6. Finkelstein: Yeah, you know, the—there’s no question, if you look at two kinds of information. You can look at, for example, the poll data, and the poll data shows that there’s a serious decline, not yet—we can’t call it a precipitous decline, but there is a significant decline in American Jewish support for Israel. And then there’s what you might call the anecdotal data, the—what you might call the high-profile defections. So there’s a Peter Beinart, who’s a former senior editor at The New Republic; then there’s David Remnick in The New Yorker — and both of them influential positions. And you know they have one finger in the air checking which way the wind is blowing, and they have very sensitive antennae. And they realize the Jewish community is moving in a new direction, and we better, as it were, you know, get with the program. I know I’m mixing metaphors there, but get with the program. The Jewish community is changing. It used to be, even—interestingly enough, even as early as about, say, six or seven years ago, the chief correspondent for The New Yorker on the Israel-Palestine conflict was Jeffrey Goldberg. And Jeffrey Goldberg now, he’s become a kind of caricature even of himself as he tries to defend Israel blindly, and he’s also no longer at The New Yorker, because the kind of coverage, the kind of apologetics, the kind of just hackneyed propaganda simply won’t fly any longer with the American Jewish community. They don’t want to hear it. They don’t believe it, you know, because at least in the case of Netanyahu, you could say, there is—and Avigdor Lieberman, there’s a certain amount of truth in advertising. And it’s very difficult to, from a liberal point of view, justify the way they carry on.
7. Just to take one other example, you are in the—I speak a lot on college campuses. And liberal American Jews, especially young American Jews, they’re very idealistic, as I’m sure you know from your own experience and your own family. They tend to be liberal and idealistic. So it’s 2006. Israel invades Lebanon. It’s the last 72 hours. The war is over. It’s over. Israel—the U.N. has passed a resolution finally. Condoleezza Rice is blocking it. The war is now over. And then in the last 72 hours, Israel drops four million—four million cluster submunitions on South Lebanon. Human Rights Watch did a very good report; it’s called “Flooding South Lebanon.” “Flooding South Lebanon.” Now, you’re young, you’re Jewish, you’re in a college campus—you don’t want to defend that in public. Or it’s 2008, 2009, Israel invades Gaza, and it drops white phosphorus, a substance that reaches 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. It drops it on two hospitals: al-Quds Hospital, al-Wafa Hospital. You’re young, you’re Jewish, you’re idealistic—you don’t want to defend those sorts of things. It’s just impossible for you, especially if you’re a younger person. You haven’t yet become too cynical about the ways of the world. It’s impossible for you to reconcile your idealistic liberal credo, beliefs. And young people, as I hope you still remember, they tend to really believe what they say. There’s a certain depth of passion and commitment, conviction, honest conviction. They can’t reconcile that with the way Israel carries on. It’ not possible.
8. Goodman: And where do you see that point of view being expressed in this country? Do you see it in the media? Do you see it in elite politics?
9. Finkelstein: It’s expressed in several places. First of all, and most importantly, it’s expressed on the Internet. It’s not yet to the point of the Washington Post or the New York Times, but it’s definitely liberal bloggers, liberal Jewish bloggers. You know, during the attack on Gaza, and then during the assault on the Mavi Marmara, the liberal Jewish bloggers were very tough on Israel. And frankly, there were few areas of disagreement between myself and them. Let me just take one other example, which I think is kind of illustrative. If you go back a generation, when Professor Chomsky was doing battle intellectually with the liberal Jewish community, so his main adversaries were people like Michael Walzer, Alan Dershowitz, Irving Howe and—Dershowitz, Howe, Walzer—those types of persons—the area of agreement, if you were to take a Venn diagram of the two, you couldn’t even—they didn’t even touch. There was no agreement on anything. Now, when I sat down and read Peter Beinart’s book—and he’s sort of representative of the same left-liberal tradition, but now—I would say I agreed with about 80 percent. I was quite—I was very positively surprised by that. The amount—the area separating me from what you would call left-liberal—I mean, they may not like to hear this, but the amount of space separating me from them is—OK, it’s still there. There is a significant 20 percent. But 80 percent, yeah, there’s a large overlap. And that, I think, is not because I’ve gone soft, you know, I’m becoming—you know, moving towards the center. No, I’m not. Same principles as always. I think because the spectrum has shifted. It’s shifted significantly.
We’re talking to author, scholar, activist Norman Finkelstein. He has just
written the book, out this week, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish
Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End. When we come back, we’ll talk
about his other book, What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and
Courage. What Norman Finkelstein found might surprise you. Stay with us. [break]
Our guest, Norman Finkelstein, he has published two books this week: one, Knowing
Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End;
his other is What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage.
Before we go to Gandhi, your views on a two-state
solution and the whole Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement?
11. Finkelstein: Well, I think one of the problems is the question is often incorrectly posed. The question is not what my personal views are. Here, and I am going to—we’re going to return to it in a moment—I agree with Gandhi. You don’t start with what your opinion is. You start with where public opinion is at. And the purpose of politics is to try to get people to act on the beliefs they already hold. So I think it’s often mistaken when people asked, “Do you support one state or two states?” as if politics were a question about what I support. Politics, to me, is about the maximum you can hope for, in order—you know, trying to reach justice, the maximum you can hope for in a given context. And our given historical context now, you’d say the limit of the spectrum, the very end of the spectrum, would be, say, human rights organizations.
12. So, you consider yourself a left-of-center program, Democracy Now!, and who do you have on from Egypt? A representative from Human Rights Watch, because you recognize that’s the limit of the spectrum of progressive thought in the world we live. Maybe we wish it went further than Human Rights Watch, but it doesn’t. And that’s why you have HRW as your—the person to be interviewed. And so, taking that—
And I would say, for Democracy Now!, we consider ourselves a grassroots
global news hour, bringing out a big spectrum of opinion. [Of course you do.]
14. Finkelstein: Right, but you’re trying to reach the limits of progressive opinion. And that’s how I want—that’s who I want to reach. I don’t want to go beyond it, because then I become a cult: I’m no longer reaching people. And the limit in the world today is what human rights organizations are saying, what the International Court of Justice is saying, what the U.N. General Assembly is saying. And there you have a complete consensus, apart from the United States and Israel and some South Sea islands. Apart from them, the consensus is clear. It’s a two-state settlement on the June 1967 border and a just resolution of the refugee question based on the right of return and compensation. That’s the limit of opinion. Do my personal views go beyond that limit? Yes, they do. But politics is not about personal opinions. It’s about trying to reach a public and getting them to act on their own sense of right and wrong. And that, to me, is the only place we can go. The problem as I see it with the BDS movement is not the tactic. Who could not support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions? Of course you should. And most of the human rights organizations, church organizations have moved in that direction. The problem is the goal. The human—the official BDS movement, they claim to be agnostic, neutral—whatever term you want to use—on the question of Israel. You can’t reach a broad public if you are agnostic on the question of Israel. The broad public wants to know, where do you stand? And if you claim not to have a stand, you lose them. The BDS movement, it always says, and I’m using their language, “We are a rights-based organization. We are based in international law.” I agree with that. That’s where you have to go: rights-based international law. But the international law is clear. You read the last sentence of the 2004 International Court of Justice opinion on the wall that Israel has been building in the West Bank, and the last sentence says, “We look forward to two states: a Palestinian state alongside Israel and at peace with its neighbors.” That’s the law. And if you want to go past that law or ignore the Israel part, you’ll never reach a broad public. And then it’s a cult. Then it’s pointless, in my opinion. We’re wasting time. And it’s only a wasting of time. It becomes—and I know it’s a strong word, and I hope I won’t be faulted for it, but it becomes historically criminal, because there was a time where whatever we said, it made no difference. Nobody was listening. You could shout whatever you want—who cares? But now, actually, we can reach people. There is a possibility. I’m not saying a certainty. I’m not even saying a probability. But there is a possibility that we can reach a broad public. And so, we have to be very careful about the words we use, and we have to be very careful about the political strategy we map out. Otherwise, we’re going to squander a real opportunity. And I don’t want to squander it. You know, I’ve been at this for 30 years, and I would like to reach that rendezvous of victory. I know it’s a little selfish. I know, a little—
15. Goodman: And that victory would look like?
16. Finkelstein: A victory is what the law says: when Israel packs up its bag and leaves from where it doesn’t belong. You know, last night I watched—
And that is determined by? We just have 20 seconds.
19. Goodman: That is, what would those lines be?
20. Finkelstein: The lines are clear. It’s the June 1967 border. Just let me say, because I know you have to—I watched last night—I went to see The Five Broken Cameras. And I was very struck.
A new film out.
22. Finkelstein: A new film on the Palestinian struggle of Bil’in. And at one point they said, “We want the West Bank and Gaza.” And afterwards I turned to a friend of mine who I went to see the film with—you know him, Phil Weiss—I said to him, “Phil, what do you think the appeal of the film would be if they said they wanted the West Bank, Gaza and Israel?” And he turned to me, and he said, “Well, of course, the filmmakers would take it out.”
We’re going to have to leave it there, and we will do a discussion about Gandhi
after the show and post it online. Norm Finkelstein has written the book, Knowing
Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End.
His other book, What Gandhi Says. 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!
Thank you for having me, Amy.
25. Goodman: Let’s start with the title, Knowing Too Much. Explain.
26. 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.
27. Goodman: Talk about your involvement in the whole conflict and your books that you’ve written on it, but starting back 30 years ago.
28. 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—
This you did at Princeton University?
30. 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.
31. Goodman: Both your parents were in camps.
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—
33. Goodman: The Israeli human rights lawyer.
34. 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—
35. Goodman: The most liberal group of voters, outside of African Americans.
36. 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.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.
I’m Amy Goodman, joined by Norman Finkelstein, scholar, activist, author. He
has just published two books. One, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish
Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End. His other is called What Gandhi
Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage. What does Gandhi say, Norm
38. Finkelstein: Well, I think the first point is, very few people read Gandhi. They just assume: Gandhi, simple person, simple dresser, skinny, nonviolence, it’s obvious what it means—when, in fact, it’s not obvious at all what nonviolence means for Gandhi. His collected works come—you’ll be surprised, I think, to learn they come to 98 volumes. And that’s about 500 pages per volume. When I first started checking out the works at NYU Library, New York University Library—and NYU is a prominent research library—I think you’ll be surprised also to learn, even though they acquired the collection in 1984, apart from one volume, I was the first person who ever checked out any volume of Gandhi’s 98-volume collected works. I went through about half, 47 volumes, about 25,000 pages.
39. I was curious to know, what did Gandhi mean by nonviolence, because, you know, on reflection, it’s not so obvious. And the first thing to say about it is Gandhi was not the kind of nonviolent pacifist that, for example, was depicted in Sir Richard Attenborough’s film on Gandhi. Gandhi valued nonviolence, no question about it. But he attached equal value, and in some places you could say more value, to courage. Not just nonviolence, but courage. And he found nothing more despicable than cowardice. It wasn’t violence that, for Gandhi, was the most repellent of human instincts; it was cowardice.
I want to read a quote, that you quote in What Gandhi Says. Gandhi says,
quote, “My nonviolence does not admit of running away from danger and leaving
dear ones unprotected. Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer
violence to cowardice. I can no more preach nonviolence to a coward than I can
tempt a blind man to enjoy healthy scenes. Nonviolence is the summit of
bravery. And in my own experience, I have had no difficulty in demonstrating to
men trained in the school of violence the superiority of nonviolence. As a
coward, which I was for years, I harboured violence. I began to prize
nonviolence only when I began to shed cowardice.” Norm Finkelstein?
41. Finkelstein: Well, you know, it’s a—first of all, it’s a great quote, and there are many quotes like that in Gandhi. And it’s hard sometimes for a person to understand the logic, because a lot of people on the left, they take nonviolence to be sort of wimpish, and they want violence because it’s more, you know, macho and so on and so forth. But Gandhi comes along, and he says, “I think nonviolence takes more courage than violence.” So, at the beginning, when I read that, I thought he was just saying it for rhetorical effect. But then, when you read what he actually means, it’s actually sensible. He says, if you believe in violence, and say there’s a war, your enemy, your opposite, has a weapon, and you have your weapon. So, at any rate, yes, you’re risking your life, but you have something to protect yourself: your weapon. And you may survive the encounter. But Gandhi says, “Nonviolence means you’re supposed to march into the line of fire” — and now I’m quoting him — “you’re supposed to march in the line of fire, smilingly and cheerfully, and get yourself blown to bits.” That’s what nonviolence means for Gandhi. You’re supposed to get yourself blown to bits. During the nonviolent activities known—the various campaigns, he would say to his followers, “Don’t be a coward and go to jail, because you’re afraid to get killed. Don’t use jail as a pretext to get away from getting killed. You better” — and I’m quoting him — ”You better get your skulls cracked. Otherwise, I don’t want to hear from you.” So, the irony is, even though Gandhi is attacked by people on the left for being wimpish, the fact is, he set such a high standard. I couldn’t meet it. I mean, I have to be honest about those things. I wish maybe, if I’m thrust into circumstances like that, I’ll find the courage to do it. But sitting here, no, I couldn’t honestly—I couldn’t honestly say I can meet that standard. I’ll give you an example. A couple of days ago, a friend of mine, my webmaster, Sana Kassem, she sent me a video of a fellow, an American Jew, protesting in the Occupied Territories. And every time the Israelis fire the tear gas, he’s of course running in the opposite direction. Of course. And it’s being filmed. And I’m thinking to myself, but Gandhi says he’s supposed to march—go right into it. And you’re supposed to get killed.
42. Goodman: But, I mean, he was very strategic. He wanted to achieve an end. He didn’t want just to have people killed. He—most importantly was to accomplish what he was driving for: Indian independence.
43. Finkelstein: Yeah, well, India independence. But we have to be clear about Gandhi. Sometimes he’s reduced to India independence. But no, he had a whole program of Hindu-Muslim unity, about—and he led many campaigns. I mean, it was news for me also. I’m not pretending as if it’s common knowledge. But Gandhi was very careful. He would only take on public campaigns where, he said, the public already recognized the wrong. So let’s take one example. In the 1930s, he led a major campaign against alcoholism, which was a big problem in India. And people said, “But Mr. Gandhi, why do you focus on alcoholism? There are many other problems. We have a problem with people who are addicted to racetrack betting. And they’re addicted to the cinema,” which, you know, Gandhi thought was a sin. So he said, “Why do you choose” — excuse me — “Why do you choose to focus on alcoholism?” And Gandhi’s answer was very straightforward. He said, “Because Indians already recognize alcoholism is a problem. But they don’t recognize that racetrack betting or the cinema is a problem.” And then he said, “It’s wasting time.” Gandhi always said, “I’m a man of action. I want to get things done.” And so, he wants to start with where public opinion is at. You see, for Gandhi, politics was not about bringing enlightenment to the masses. No, that’s sort of like the Marxist tradition: “We’re the vanguard. We know the science, the science of Marxism” — or in my day, the science of Marxism-Leninism. “We have the science, and we have to bring enlightenment to the benighted masses who suffer from false consciousness and all sorts of other, you know, maladies.” Gandhi is not that. Gandhi is sort of like the Occupy movement. Yes, he’s very much like the Occupy movement, because the Occupy movement started from where people were already at. The Occupy movement comes up with a slogan: “We are the 99 percent.” The basic point being, 1 percent are hoarding it all, and 99 percent are getting nothing. And it immediately struck a responsive chord with Americans because that’s how we already felt. They started—what made the slogan so successful is they tapped into a sentiment that was already there. They started from where the consciousness of the American people already was. Nobody had to educate us that the system was unfair. It had been rolling before our eyes for the last several years, or more. And so, what made their movement so successful was, I think, the Gandhian tactic: they found the perfect slogan that embodied the consciousness of the American people at that moment. If they had gone a little further in their slogan, they may have lost the people. And that, I think, was a real—for me, it was a real insight in Gandhi that politics is not about enlightening people. Politics, for Gandhi, to use an expression, is to quicken the conscience of the public to get them to act on what they already know is wrong. And actually, it worked in my own case. You know, personally, I’m a person of the left, have always been, and always railing against the capitalist system, the unfairness of the distribution of wealth and so forth. When I started to hear about these folks in Zuccotti Park, it resonated for me. But then I heard they’re camping there. I said, “All right, Norm, you’re heading toward 60. You’re not going to Woodstock. You’re past your prime. This is not for you.” And so, I just was an observer, a sympathetic observer, but an observer. And then, when I heard about—I’m from Brooklyn, New York, and I heard 800 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. I said, “OK, Norm, it’s time to do something.” Now, nobody had to tell me the system was wrong. What people had to do was quicken my conscience to act. And that’s what Gandhian nonviolence is all about, getting people to make the kinds of personal sacrifices which will force the bystanders to say, “OK, I really have to do something now. If they do it, why aren’t I doing it?” And that’s what Gandhianism was about. But also, as I said, you have to enter a thousand caveats, qualifications, about his commitment to nonviolence, because it was not nonviolence that for him was the ultimate sin. Actually, I’ve read through about half of his—as I said, half of his collected works. He uses—I know it’s a paradox—he uses the most violent language, not against those who commit violence. Actually, he says he was an admirer of Sparta, because he admired the courage of the warrior. And he always used military metaphors. It was “the army of the nonviolent.” He was “the general.” He always used martial metaphors. But he said—as I said, he reserved his most violent language for cowards. He literally says they don’t deserve to live. A coward does not have a right to live. There is where he gets—you know, Gandhi was very strict about nonviolence. He had to be nonviolent in thought, word and deed. But you could say he sort of verges on violence—violent language, thought and word when it comes to cowards. And I have to say also, probably in his classification, I would rate a coward. I mean, I’m not proud to say that. But he had such a high standard of what political commitment was about and the sacrifices you were obliged to make, if you want to be morally consistent with your values, it’s a tough act.
44. Goodman: A thumbnail sketch of who Gandhi was, since you’ve studied him. For people who, as you said, have a very sort of scant—a sort of caricature of who he is, explain where he was born, why he came to adopt the views he did.
45. Finkelstein: Well, I’ll tell you—I mean, I’d like to always be honest. I didn’t look too closely at the biographical data. I mean, I know as much as, you might say, a Wikipedia entry might say. I was more interested in the theory. I was interested—I began the whole project because I said to myself, well, you know, India under Gandhi—under Gandhi’s influence, it faced the same sort of challenges as Israel-Palestine. First of all, Gandhi wanted to end an occupation, like the Palestinians. Second of all, Gandhi was confronting the great power of his day, the superpower of his day, namely the British Empire. Similarly, the Palestinians have to face a formidable regional power, namely Israel, and right behind it, the superpower of our day, namely the United States. And thirdly, the Palestinians don’t really have a military option. The only way they’re going to succeed is if they try these tactics that Gandhi pioneered in India. And so, I felt, for those three reasons—trying to end an occupation, facing a superpower, and the only tactical option is really nonviolence—it would be interesting to see, OK, how did Gandhi reason the whole thing through? And that was my impetus. I don’t know the history better than sort of a generalist, or, for that matter, Gandhi’s personal biography. He was a—you know, there were—many things about Gandhi were very eccentric and also very autocratic. You know, Gandhi was, “you do it my way, or go the highway.” He was very, very autocratic. And he said that what he decides to do is not based on reason. Reason comes later. It’s what his inner voice tells him to do. Well, obviously you can’t rationally argue with an inner voice. Either you agree, or you don’t agree and you leave. I did have a good opportunity when I was in South Africa a couple of years ago. I went to see his granddaughter, Ela Gandhi. And I remember her saying to me, and it just came out in conversation, she said he had great confidence in that inner voice, which is—you know, nowadays we would say—we would call it, he had good political instincts. But you can’t argue with an instinct. Instinct tells you, “Do this at this moment.” But you can’t really argue with it. And so, it was very hard. You know, reading him, there’s that streak of autocratic—that autocratic streak, which is very unpleasant. On the other hand—and, you know, I sort of get emotional—you can’t but admire that man. I mean, the kind of moral force he had, it was just terrifying at the end, in ‘47, you know, Egypt—excuse me, Israel—ah, India erupts in this horrible bloodletting, the Partition. They estimate like a million people were killed. You go into streets of Calcutta, literally 10,000 bodies in the street. All the blood is literally flowing in the streets. And Gandhi comes in, and the first thing he does is he goes to the Hindu temples. Now remember, this is where the intercommunal hatred has reached a fever pitch. And he goes into the Hindu temples, and he insists, “I’m going to begin each religious—each service, prayer service—I’m going to begin it with a passage from the Koran.” The Hindus were going mad. “What do you mean, the Koran?” And he is adamant. “I am beginning with the Koran.” And there would be the hecklers and the people who were worse than hecklers. He would stay with them in the temple the whole night. He said, “I’m going to sit and reason it through with you why I’m beginning with the Koran.” And when he went on the hunger strikes during the terrible bloodletting, you know, to his credit—you can take it away—they stopped. OK, it’s true they stopped killing each other temporarily. You can even say they stopped briefly. But for the Mahatma, for Gandhiji, they stopped. You know, that’s—it’s very impressive. Of course, the downside is, that kind of moral power came and went with Gandhi. There was nobody else commanding that kind of moral authority. But it was a very impressive show. It really was. And it gets me a little bit angry when people on the left, who I like, you know, and they’re very harsh on Gandhi. No, there were a lot of problems, no question about it. But there, there went a man.
Author, scholar, activist, Norman Finkelstein. He has just written the book,
out this week, What Gandhi Says: About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage.