“Some of these people seek Armageddon”: An encounter with Norman Finkelstein

Aug 11, 2023
Ukraine and Israel flags together textile cloth fabric texture. Image:iStock

Like his mentor Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein is effectively banned from entering the Palestinian territories by Israeli authorities. This constitutes a very exclusive club: Jews welcome in Ramallah but not in Tel Aviv.

The day the City appointed a rat Czar was a good time to leave Manhattan, at least for a few hours.

The temperature in April had reached 33 degrees, and neither the crims nor the growing mischief of rodents could sleep comfortably: both were being unseasonally bold in Hell’s Kitchen last Spring.

Fuelled by coffee and hash-infused chocolate, we jumped on the Q train in Midtown and headed south to Avenue U station at Gravesend Brooklyn, a 50 minute ride shared with bent backs, COVID transmitters, fentanyl ferrets and New York’s less fashionable detritus. The subway was noisy but seemed safe enough. Providing you adopted a look of jaded, angry despair and spoke only with your eyebrows, you could fit right in amongst the great unwashed who also appear astonished that any public service in NYC actually works.

With workers returning to their more affordable high density apartments, we arrived late afternoon in a district of Brooklyn that used to be dominated by Russian Jews who, since gentrification, had migrated several blocks north of the bridge. The streets were now grimy and de-industrialising, but humming with Ukrainian refugees, Chinese shopkeepers, and former citizens of what was once known as the USSR but now derisively referred to as “the stans”.

We came to catch up with Norman Finkelstein, the foremost authority on the Israel-Palestine conflict, who was a local neighbourhood celebrity. Norman is fearlessly independent and a meticulous scholar, which has made him largely unemployable in academia. He had just published a new off topic book on the the modern American left called I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get To It!, in which he eviscerates Barack Obama, the cancel culture, the odious Alan Dershowitz, and the false promises of academic freedom.

Finkelstein is particularly scathing about those who betrayed the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, in particular those on the left who traded class politics for the dead end of identity politics. Few, including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis and Ibram X. Kendi, escape his wrath. If the right wanted to thwart the dangers posed by agitators for class struggle and social justice, it could not have invented anything more innocuous than identity politics. That the left embraced it enthusiastically as an alternative to the hard slog of organising opposition to corporate and political power is, for Finkelstein, nothing less than a generational betrayal.

In equal parts memoir and score settler, the book is as hilarious as it is disturbing: a perfect companion for those celebrating, or just witnessing the disintegration of progressive politics in the America.

In earlier correspondence Norman appeared disheartened by the Palestinian cause, especially its leadership, and suggested the battle “was over”. He was encouraged by the shifting ground of liberal Jews in the United States, who were no longer reflexively supportive of every crime Israel perpetrated against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. And he was pleased that human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem were finally calling Israel’s military occupation by its appropriate term: an apartheid regime. Even the term settler colonialism has entered common currency.

However, he regarded Mahmoud Abbas and the corrupt PA leadership with a contempt reserved only for Vichy-style collaborators. They have largely been superseded by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and a new generation of militant groups such as The Lions’ Den in the West Bank. It’s little wonder they keep postponing elections.

Like his mentor Noam Chomsky, Norman is effectively banned from entering the Palestinian territories by Israeli authorities. This constitutes a very exclusive club: Jews welcome in Ramallah but not in Tel Aviv.

He arrived on a bicycle which, in keeping with our surroundings, was so run down it didn’t need to be chained to a pole: no-one would steal it. Norman was in a cheerful mood which belied his irascible reputation, and seemed to be recognised by locals of every demographic. Despite references in video interviews to his time “coming to an end”, at 69 Norman prides himself on never visiting doctors. Walking for three hours on Coney Island beach each morning kept him lithe and fit. And his Jewish fatalism at bay.

Avoiding the Chinese restaurant which the year before had left us deep fried and significantly undernourished, we kept walking until we found a table inside a family-run Tajikistan restaurant. Ominously, disco lights and sound checks were underway as we sat down. We eagerly anticipated Norman’s views on recent book sales and how to sue your publisher after they invariably let you down. Our order was taken but before another word was spoken, Tajik karaoke music commenced at extremely high volume, rendering customer participation likely and conversation impossible. What to do?

Thanks to Anna’s Russian fluency and Norman’s insistence, our table was moved outside onto the street, thus possibly marking the very first el fresco Tajik dining experience south of the Brooklyn Bridge. The carnivorous Tajik diet has not fully embraced vegetarianism but we enjoyed a delightful view of uncollected street garbage and no-one seemed to think any permits were required. Having never thought it feasible or necessary, the Tajiks were thrilled that their family business empire was unexpectedly expanding.

Norman wanted to talk about the Russia-Ukraine conflict and his sympathies were clearly with Moscow. Modern history, particularly the 30 million lives sacrificed during the Great Patriotic War against Nazism, gave the Kremlin good reason to oppose a proto-NATO state on its borders after years of negotiations had failed to produce an acceptable diplomatic outcome. Ultimately for Finkelstein, the equation was simple: at what point does provocation justify military intervention? For him, Kyiv and its Western backers crossed the line first.

He also thinks the war will prove to be a greater disaster for the West than Iraq was, but is intended as a warning shot at Beijing to leave Taiwan alone. Norman is particularly concerned about the neo-fascists behind what he called “the Vogue models”, Zelensky and his photogenic wife. “Some of these people seek Armageddon and are keen to hit a Russian nuclear facility, triggering a response that no-one could contain. We better pray the Russians win.”

On this point he parts company with most, including comrades on the left like Chomsky who stress the illegality of Russia’s invasion. But he has a point when he questions the reductionism of the Russophobes: “putting the irrational personal hatred of Putin in the West to one side, how long would any Russian leader who allowed Ukraine to join NATO last in power?” Not long, one suspects.

A former Maoist, Finkelstein is convinced that China will be the only victor in this conflict, ultimately eclipsing the economic power and political influence of the US, which cannot control its promiscuous impulse to interfere in the affairs of other countries. The current state of politics in Washington, whether it’s the reactionary right or the irrelevant left, no longer appeals or inspires anyone. The United States is no longer the indispensable nation, if it ever was.

Paying the bill inside without being sucked into the vortex of swirling Tajik dancers was the night’s greatest challenge, and only just avoided. We said goodbye to Norman and looking around the dilapidated buildings in Gravesend as we began our return journey to Hell’s Kitchen, it was not difficult to conclude that the apogee of the Western century was a distant memory. Whether the Chinese century would replace it was not certain, but in the swelter of climate change and as the doomsday clock shifted ever closer to midnight, there were more pressing concerns to be worried about.

*This is the second in a series. The first can be found here.

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