I am not a fan of famous professors. They are normally so caught up in their research that they’re often socially starved animals; aloof and arrogant in their approach. I’d rather read their work than meet them. Some have been in the library so long they’re unaware of the hairs growing on their nose. When I accepted a chance to interview Professor Norman Finkelstein, one of the most eminent intellectuals working on the Israel-Palestine conflict, I wondered if he’d ask me to shine his shoes.
But I was pleasantly surprised.
Professor Finkelstein was cool, humble and down to earth. He even laughed at my jokes. I quickly realised that Finkelstein really didn’t have any (h)airs about him.
“I want to see the real South Africa,” he tells me. “How often do you go to the township?”
He quizzes me instead. He wants to know everything. About changes since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy; if the poor and common man have reaped any economic benefits from the political changes; about crime, corruption, and community development. Here is a man uninterested in plastic, paper revolutions or tacit power shifts. He is interested in addressing real problems, through real solutions.
Even amidst exhaustion after spending most of his time delivering lectures around the country, he was not here to muck about. He wanted to learn, make comparisons, debate solutions, and understand the dynamics.
It was no surprise that his no frills approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict has resulted in widely acclaimed books, including Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history.
But it has come at a huge cost.
Professor Finkelstein’s principled stance alienates him from mainstream US intellectual community, leaving him with few friends in the civilised world.
“People get it wrong. I am definitely not pro-Palestine or anti-Israel. This is not about taking sides. This is a human-rights issue. Are you for truth and justice or are you against it? Israel is in violation of international law, and everyone agrees on this, including The United Nations, the Arab world and the international community in general. Resolving this conflict is not that complicated,” argues a passionate but measured Finkelstein.
Finkelstein’s family was traumatised by the Holocaust. His grandparents perished in the concentration camps and both his parents were survivors of Nazi brutality. As a consequence, his ideas of justice and equity were endemically shaped in his formative years by his mother, values that have become the backbone of his scholarly life.
Let’s just say Finkelstein knows the value of speaking up against injustice.
It was during his PhD thesis on “Zionism” in which he sought to debunk some of the popular ideas that gave unfair leverage to Israel and Zionism that first got him into trouble. His attention to detail, found him searching deep into the demographic history of Palestine and the region, arguing that pro-Zionism theories of a scarcely populated land called Palestine which Zionists claimed as their own is a “monumental hoax”.
Finkelstein pushed on and after being rather disappointed by the manner in which the Holocaust was prostituted into an ideological weapon, he began investigating how the Holocaust was being exploited by Israel using the “victim state” mentality to gather a type immunity from criticism.
Needless to say, the American Jewry aren’t his biggest fans. And it is widely known that he is treated like an academic leper for attacking the accepted academic rhetoric.
When he is done milking me for information about the “rainbow nation”, I cut straight to the chase.
“Are you a practising Jew?” I ask him.
I suggest, rather out of turn, that it is because he isn’t an observant Jew that the Jewish community battle to support his views. I insinuate further that he should go to the synagogue, wear a hat, grow curly hair doubling for sideburns and kiss the Wailing Wall.
My activist friend sitting alongside me shrugs, and steadies to launch an attack, but I shoot her down with Taliban-like fervour, “Same goes for you woman, you should put on a scarf if you want the Muslim community to take your activism seriously!”
Finkelstein smirks at my cheekiness and calmly disagrees, “The facts don’t change, no matter how we dress ourselves”.
He adds, “Look, I think people should remain who they are, and if they are honest to their cause, I believe people will see the truth eventually”.
It is obvious that Finkelstein is an eloquent man. But beneath the calm exterior lies a resolute thinker.
He even dug up Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of passive resistance and sense of social justice in searching for new spaces and strategies for peace.
Gandhi might have perished in 1948, but Finkelstein says there are a number of lessons that may be learned from Gandhi’s approach to life, his method of conflict-resolution and ending an illegal occupation.
“Sure, Britain was bankrupt after WWII and it is difficult to establish just how much of a role Gandhi played in getting Britain out of India, but his philosophy of justice is exactly what we ought to be striving for,” says Finkelstein.
But surely he doesn’t expect Hamas to trade suicide bombers for salt marches?
“I don’t think Gandhi’s philosophy could work everywhere, but a civil disobedience campaign could work in Palestine. It is in the international eye unlike for example south Lebanon, where Israel could bomb to its heart’s delight and no one would care”.
“The idea is if we could organise a mass campaign act of civil disobedience, you will, as Gandhi puts it, quicken the conscience of the international community to finally act at what it knows is wrong,” says a methodical Finkelstein.
Professor Finkelstein tells me that everyone knows the current blockade of Gaza, one that started since June 2007, is illegal and in violation of international law. The Israelis might have removed their arsenal from the area, but the borders to the outside world remain closed.
A massive non-violent march is planned for January 1 2010, in a bid to end the blockade of Gaza. Thousands from all over the world are expected to descend on the region and walk across the mile-long corridor that separates Gaza from the rest of the world in an attempt to pressure a reopening of the borders.
“This will not be illegal. We are trying to enforce the law. And the law says that the siege of Gaza is illegal.”
“Israel is totally in the wrong, and so the issue is rather uncomplicated. But it is not simple to resolve because at the level of implementation it is very tough. This is not a case of the issues being complicated; instead it is tough because Israel has US muscle behind it.”
Gaza is but one aspect of the ongoing conflict, and I wonder what is destined for the region in the near future. Any predictions, I ask.
“I can’t make predictions, but I can tell you one thing. If we do nothing, it will get worse.”
“Remember, visit http://www.gazafreedommarch.org/,” he says with a smile.
Ps. Professor Finkelstein has since withdrawn from the Gaza Freedom March, but continues to support participation.