Norman G. Finkelstein talks Naz Shah MP, Ken Livingstone, and the Labour ‘antisemitism’ controversy.
Norman Finkelstein is no stranger to controversy. The American Jewish scholar is one of the world’s leading experts on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the political legacy of the Nazi holocaust. Apart from his parents, every member of Finkelstein’s family, on both sides, was exterminated in the Nazi holocaust. His 2000 book The Holocaust Industry, which was serialised in the Guardian, became an international best-seller and touched off a firestorm of debate. But Finkelstein’s most recent political intervention came about by accident.
Last month, Naz Shah MP became one of the most high-profile cases to date in the ‘antisemitism’ scandal still shaking the Labour leadership. Shah was suspended from the Labour party for, among other things, reposting an image on Facebook that was alleged to be antisemitic. The image depicted a map of the United States with Israel superimposed, and suggested resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict by relocating Israel into the United States. It has been reported that Shah got the image from Finkelstein’s website. I spoke with Finkelstein about why he posted the image, and what he thinks of allegations that the Labour party has a ‘Jewish problem’.
Did you create the controversial image that Naz Shah reposted?
I’m not adept enough with computers to compose any image. But I did post the map on my website in 2014. An email correspondent must have sent it. It was, and still is, funny. Were it not for the current political context, nobody would have noticed Shah’s reposting of it either. Otherwise, you’d have to be humourless. These sorts of jokes are a commonplace in the U.S. So, we have this joke: Why doesn’t Israel become the 51st state? Answer: Because then, it would only have two senators. As crazy as the discourse on Israel is in America, at least we still have a sense of humour. It’s inconceivable that any politician in the U.S. would be crucified for posting such a map.
Frankly, I find that obscene. It’s doubtful these Holocaust-mongers have a clue what the deportations were, or of the horrors that attended them. I remember my late mother describing her deportation. She was in the Warsaw Ghetto. The survivors of the Ghetto Uprising, about 30,000 Jews, were deported to Maijdanek concentration camp. They were herded into railroad cars. My mother was sitting in the railroad car next to a woman who had her child. And the woman – I know it will shock you – the woman suffocated her infant child to death in front of my mother. She suffocated her child, rather than take her to where they were going. That’s what it meant to be deported. To compare that to someone posting a light-hearted, innocuous cartoon making a little joke about how Israel is in thrall to the U.S., or vice versa…it’s sick. What are they doing? Don’t they have any respect for the dead? All these desiccated Labour apparatchiks, dragging the Nazi holocaust through the mud for the sake of their petty jostling for power and position. Have they no shame?
What about when people use Nazi analogies to criticise the policies of the State of Israel? Isn’t that also a political abuse of the Nazi holocaust?
It’s not a simple question. First, if you’re Jewish, the instinctive analogy to reach for, when it comes to hate or hunger, war or genocide, is the Nazi holocaust, because we see it as the ultimate horror. In my home growing up, whenever an incident involving racial discrimination or bigotry was in the news, my mother would compare it to her experience before or during the Nazi holocaust.
My mother had been enrolled in the Mathematics faculty of Warsaw University, I guess in 1937-38. Jews were forced to stand in a segregated section of the lecture hall, and the antisemites would physically attack them. (You might recall the scene in Julia, when Vanessa Redgrave loses her leg trying to defend Jews under assault in the university.) I remember once asking my mother, ‘How did you do in your studies?’ She replied, ‘What are you talking about? How could you study under those conditions?’.
When she saw the segregation of African-Americans, whether at a lunch counter or in the school system, that was, for her, like the prologue to the Nazi holocaust. Whereas many Jews now say, Never compare (Elie Wiesel’s refrain, ‘It’s bad, but it’s not The Holocaust’), my mother’s credo was, Always compare. She gladly and generously made the imaginative leap to those who were suffering, wrapping and shielding them in the embrace of her own suffering.
For my mother, the Nazi holocaust was a chapter in the long history of the horror of war. It was not itself a war – she was emphatic that it was an extermination, not a war – but it was a unique chapter within the war. So for her, war was the ultimate horror. When she saw Vietnamese being bombed during the Vietnam War, it was the Nazi holocaust. It was the bombing, the death, the horror, the terror, that she herself had passed through. When she saw the distended bellies of starving children in Biafra, it was also the Nazi holocaust, because she remembered her own pangs of hunger in the Warsaw Ghetto.
If you’re Jewish, it’s just normal that the Nazi holocaust is a ubiquitous, instinctual touchstone. Some Jews say this or that horror is not the Nazi holocaust, others say it is. But the reference point of the Nazi holocaust is a constant.
What about when people who aren’t Jewish invoke the analogy?
Once the Nazi holocaust became the cultural referent, then, if you wanted to touch a nerve regarding Palestinian suffering, you had to make the analogy with the Nazis, because that was the only thing that resonated for Jews. If you compared the Palestinians to Native Americans, nobody would give a darn. In 1982, when I and a handful of other Jews took to the streets of New York to protest Israel’s invasion of Lebanon (up to 18,000 Lebanese and Palestinians were killed, overwhelmingly civilians), I held a sign saying, ‘This son of survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Auschwitz, Maijdenek will not be silent: Israeli Nazis – Stop the Holocaust in Lebanon!’. (After my mother died, I found a picture of me holding that sign in a drawer among her keepsakes). I remember, as the cars drove past, one of the guys protesting with me kept saying, ‘hold the sign higher!’ (And I kept replying, ‘easy for you to say!’).
If you invoked that analogy, it shook Jews, it jolted them enough, that at least you got their attention. I don’t think it’s necessary anymore, because Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians now have an integrity of their own. They no longer have to be juxtaposed to, or against, the Nazi holocaust. Today, the Nazi analogy is gratuitous and a distraction.
Is it antisemitic?
No, it’s just a weak historical analogy – but, if coming from a Jew, a generous moral one.
Last week, Ken Livingstone took to the airwaves to defend Naz Shah, but what he said wound up getting him suspended from the Labour party. His most incendiary remark contended that Hitler at one point supported Zionism. This was condemned as antisemitic, and Labour MP John Mann accused Livingstone of being a ‘Nazi apologist’. What do you make of these accusations?
Livingstone maybe wasn’t precise enough, and lacked nuance. But he does know something about that dark chapter in history. It has been speculated that Hitler’s thinking on how to solve the ‘Jewish Question’ (as it was called back then) evolved, as circumstances changed and new possibilities opened up. Hitler wasn’t wholly hostile to the Zionist project at the outset. That’s why so many German Jews managed to survive after Hitler came to power by emigrating to Palestine. But, then, Hitler came to fear that a Jewish state might strengthen the hand of ‘international Jewry’, so he suspended contact with the Zionists. Later, Hitler perhaps contemplated a ‘territorial solution’ for the Jews. The Nazis considered many ‘resettlement’ schemes – the Jews wouldn’t have physically survived most of them in the long run – before they embarked on an outright exterminatory process. Livingstone is more or less accurate about this – or, as accurate as might be expected from a politician speaking off the cuff.
He’s also accurate that a degree of ideological affinity existed between the Nazis and Zionists. On one critical question, which raged in the U.K. during the period when the Balfour Declaration (1917) was being cobbled together, antisemites and Zionists agreed: could a Jew be an Englishman? Ironically, in light of the current hysteria in the UK, the most vociferous and vehement opponents of the Balfour Declaration were not the Arabs, about whom almost nobody gave a darn, but the upper reaches of British Jewry.
Eminent British Jews published open letters to newspapers like the Times opposing British backing for a Jewish home in Palestine. They understood such a declaration – and Zionism – as implying that a Jew belonged to a distinct nation, and that the Jewish nation should have its own separate state, which they feared would effectively disqualify Jews from bona fide membership in the British nation. What distinguished the Zionists from the liberal Jewish aristocracy was their point of departure: as Theodor Herzl put it at the beginning of The Jewish State, ‘the Jewish question is no more a social than a religious one . . . It is a national question’. Whereas the Anglo-Jewish aristocracy insisted Judaism was merely a religion, the Zionists were emphatic that the Jews constituted a nation. And on this – back then, salient – point, the Zionists and Nazis agreed.
John Mann, when he accosted Livingstone in front of the cameras, asked rhetorically whether Livingstone had read Mein Kampf. If you do read Mein Kampf, which I suspect none of the interlocutors in this debate has done (I used to teach it, before the ‘Zionists’ drove me out of academia – joke!), you see that Hitler is emphatic that Jews are not a religion, but a nation. He says that the big Jewish lie is that they claim to be a religion; whereas in fact, he says, they’re a race (at that time, ‘race’ was used interchangeably with ‘nation’). And on page 56 of the standard English edition of Mein Kampf, he says that the only Jews honest enough to acknowledge this reality are the Zionists. Now, to be clear, Hitler didn’t just think that Jews were a distinct race. He also thought that they were a Satanic race, and ultimately, that they were a Satanic race that had to be exterminated. Still, on the first, not trivial, premise, he and the Zionists were in agreement.
As a practical matter, the Zionists and Nazis could therefore find a degree of common ground around the emigration/expulsion of Jews to Palestine. It was a paradox that, against the emphatic protestations of liberal Jews, including sections of the Anglo-Jewish establishment, antisemites and Zionists back then effectively shared the same slogan: Jews to Palestine. It was why, for example, the Nazis forbade German Jews to raise the swastika flag, but expressly permitted them to hoist the Zionist flag. It was as if to say, the Zionists are right: Jews can’t be Germans, they belong in Palestine. Hannah Arendt wrote scathingly about this in Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is one of the reasons she caught hell from the Jewish/Zionist establishment.
Even if there was a factual basis for Livingstone’s remarks, to bring the issue up at that moment – wasn’t he just baiting Jews?
I can understand his motivation, because I’m of roughly his generation. If he was ‘baiting’, it was a reflexive throwback to the factional polemics in the 1970s-80s. Israel marketed Zionists as the only Jews who had resisted the Nazis. The propaganda image projected back then was, the only resistance to the Nazis came from the Zionists, and the natural corollary was, the only force protecting Jews now is Israel. Every other Jew was either a coward, ‘going like sheep to slaughter’, or a collaborator. Those who dissented from Israeli policy back then, in order to undercut this Zionist propaganda, and to strike a nerve with them, would recall this unsavoury chapter in Zionism’s history. Some pamphlets and books appeared – such as Lenni Brenner’s Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (1983) – to document this ‘perfidious Zionist-Nazi collaboration’. Livingstone’s recent comments were born of the same reflex that motivated us back then. These certifiable creeps who went after Naz Shah got under his skin, and so he wanted to get under their skin. That’s how we used to fight this political battle: by dredging up those sordid chapters in Zionist history.
Livingstone based himself on Brenner’s book. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that perhaps Brenner’s book contains factual errors, it’s more of a party pamphlet than a scholarly tome, and it’s not exactly weighed down with copious documentation. Still, the fact of the matter is, when Brenner’s book was published, it garnered positive reviews in the respectable British press. The Times, which is today leading the charge against Livingstone and the elected Labour leadership, back then published a review praising Brenner’s book as ‘crisp and carefully documented’. The reviewer, the eminent editorialist Edward Mortimer, observed that ‘Brenner is able to cite numerous cases where Zionists collaborated with anti-Semitic regimes, including Hitler’s’. So, it’s a tribute to Ken Livingstone that at age 70 he remembered a book he read more than 30 years ago, that got a good review in the Times when it first appeared. If the Times is upset at Livingstone’s remarks, it has only itself to blame. I myself only read Brenner’s book after the Times review.
Let’s zoom out a bit. You’ve written a great deal about how antisemitism accusations have been used to discredit and distract from criticism of Israel. Should we see the current campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Left more generally as the latest episode in that history?
These campaigns occur at regular intervals, correlating with Israel’s periodic massacres and consequent political isolation. If you search your nearest library catalogue for ‘new antisemitism’, you’ll come up with titles from the 1970s proclaiming a ‘new antisemitism’, titles from the 1980s proclaiming a ‘new antisemitism’, titles from the 1990s proclaiming a ‘new antisemitism’, and then a huge uptick, including from British writers, during the so-called Second Intifada from 2001. Let’s not forget, just last year there was a hysteria in the UK over antisemitism. A couple of ridiculous polls purported to find that nearly half of Britons held an antisemitic belief and that most British Jews feared for their future in the UK. Although these polls were dismissed by specialists, they triggered the usual media feeding frenzy, as the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Independent hyperventilated about this ‘rampant’ ‘new antisemitism’. It was exposed as complete nonsense when, in April 2015, a reputable poll by Pew found that the level of antisemitism in the UK had remained stable, at an underwhelming seven percent.
This farce happened only last year. One would have imagined that its mongers would be hiding in shame, and that we would enjoy at least a brief respite from the theatrics. But lo and behold, in the blink of an eye, right in the wake of the Pew poll showing that antisemitism in the UK is marginal, the hysteria has started up all over again. The reality is, there is probably more prejudice in the UK against fat people than there is prejudice against Jews.
Ask yourself a simple, but serious, question. You go for a job interview. Which trait is most likely to work against you: if you’re ugly, if you’re fat, if you’re short, or if you’re Jewish? It’s perhaps a sad commentary on our society’s values, but the trait most likely to elicit a rejection letter is if you’re ugly. Then fat; then short. The factor least likely to work against you is, if you’re Jewish. On the contrary, aren’t Jews smart and ambitious? Pew found antisemitism levels at seven percent. Is that grounds for a national hysteria? A May 2015 YouGov poll found that 40 percent of UK adults don’t like Muslims and nearly 60 percent don’t like Roma. Imagine what it’s like to apply for a job if you’re a Roma! So where is your order of moral priorities?
Many of those involved in last year’s ‘antisemitism’ hysterics are also participants in the current campaign against Corbyn.
The question you have to ask yourself is, why? Why has this issue been resurrected with a vengeance, so soon after its previous outing was disposed of as a farce? Is it because of a handful of allegedly antisemitic social media postings from Labour members? Is it because of the tongue-in-cheek map posted by Naz Shah? That’s not believable. The only plausible answer is, it’s political. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the factual situation; instead, a few suspect cases of antisemitism – some real, some contrived – are being exploited for an ulterior political motive. As one senior Labour MP said the other day, it’s transparently a smear campaign.
The ‘antisemitism’ accusations are being driven by the Conservatives ahead of the local and Mayoral elections. But they’re also being exploited by the Labour Right to undermine Corbyn’s leadership, and by pro-Israel groups to discredit the Palestine solidarity movement.
You can see this overlap between the Labour Right and pro-Israel groups personified in individuals like Jonathan Freedland, a Blairite hack who also regularly plays the antisemitism card. He’s combined these two hobbies to attack Corbyn. Incidentally, when my book, The Holocaust Industry, came out in 2000, Freedland compared it to Mein Kampf. Although he appears to be, oh, so politically correct now, he didn’t find it inappropriate to compare a book by the son of Nazi holocaust survivors to Mein Kampf. We appeared on a television program together. Before the program, he approached me to shake my hand. When I refused, he reacted in stunned silence. Why wouldn’t I shake his hand? He couldn’t comprehend it. It tells you something about these dull-witted creeps. The smears, the slanders – for them, it’s all in a day’s work. Why should anyone get agitated? Later, on the program, it was pointed out that the Guardian, where he worked, had serialised The Holocaust Industry across two issues. He was asked by the presenter, if my book was the equivalent of Mein Kampf, would he resign from the paper? Of course not. Didn’t the presenter get that it’s all a game?
Compare the American scene. Our Corbyn is Bernie Sanders. In all the primaries in the US, Bernie has been sweeping the Arab and Muslim vote. It’s been a wondrous moment: the first Jewish presidential candidate in American history has forged a principled alliance with Arabs and Muslims. Meanwhile, what are the Blairite-Israel lobby creeps up to in the UK? They’re fanning the embers of hate and creating new discord between Jews and Muslims by going after Naz Shah, a Muslim woman who has attained public office. They’re making her pass through these rituals of public self-degradation, as she is forced to apologise once, twice, three times over for a tongue-in-cheek cartoon reposted from my website. And it’s not yet over! Because now they say she’s on a ‘journey’. Of course, what they mean is, ‘she’s on a journey of self-revelation, and epiphany, to understanding the inner antisemite at the core of her being’. But do you know on what journey she’s really on? She’s on a journey to becoming an antisemite. Because of these people; because they fill any sane, normal person with revulsion.
Here is this Muslim woman MP who is trying to integrate Muslims into British political life, and to set by her own person an example both to British society at large and to the Muslim community writ small. She is, by all accounts from her constituents, a respected and honourable person. You can only imagine how proud her parents, her siblings, must be. How proud the Muslim community must be. We’re always told how Muslim women are oppressed, repressed and depressed, and now you have this Muslim woman who has attained office. But now she’s being crucified, her career wrecked, her life ruined, her future in tatters, branded an ‘antisemite’ and a closet Nazi, and inflicted with these rituals of self-abasement. It’s not hard to imagine what her Muslim constituents must think now about Jews. These power hungry creeps are creating new hate by their petty machinations. As Donald Trump likes to say – it’s disgusting.
Labour has now set up an inquiry that is supposed to produce a workable definition of ‘antisemitism’ – which is to say, to achieve the impossible. It’s been tried countless times before, and it’s always proven futile. The only beneficiaries of such a mandate will be academic ‘specialists’ on antisemitism, who will receive hefty consultancy fees (I can already see Richard Evans at the head of the queue), and Israel, which will no longer be in the spotlight. I understand the short-term political rationale. But at some point, you have to say, ‘enough already’. Jews are prospering as never before in the UK. The polls show that the number of, so to speak, hard-core antisemites is miniscule. It’s time to put a stop to this periodic charade, because it ends up besmirching the victims of the Nazi holocaust, diverting from the real suffering of the Palestinian people, and poisoning relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities. You just had an antisemitism hysteria last year, and it was a farce. And now again? Another inquiry? Another investigation? No.
In order to put an end to this, there has to be a decisive repudiation of this political blackmail. Bernie Sanders was brutally pressured to back down on his claim that Israel had used disproportionate force during its 2014 assault on Gaza. He wouldn’t budge, he wouldn’t retreat. He showed real backbone. Corbyn should take heart and inspiration from Bernie’s example. He has to say: no more reports, no more investigations, we’re not going there any more. The game is up. It’s long past time that these antisemitism-mongers crawled back into their sewer – but not before humbly apologising to Naz Shah, and begging her forgiveness.
Jamie Stern-Weiner is an independent researcher based in Cambridge. A dual British-Israeli national, he has written about the Israel-Palestine conflict for The Nation, Jadaliyya, MERIP and Le Monde diplomatique (English edition). He can be found on Twitter @jsternweiner.