In June, Norman Finkelstein will mark 30 years of criticizing Israel. He remembers the exact day - the beginning of the Lebanon war, which ended his indifference to the Middle East's troubles. He'll have a new book coming out - "Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End" - that focuses on Jewish public figures who represent, in his view, the narrative of beautiful Israel that's coming to an end. He is sure to make a lot of people mad again.
Jobless since losing his tenure in 2007 at DePaul University's political science department in an ugly public fight with Alan Dershowitz, Finkelstein remains in demand as a speaker at universities.
Yet if you happened to walk into one of his lectures, you might be surprised to hear him say he is "not going to be an Israel-basher anymore." It's not that he's changed his mind on the conflict, he just says blaming Israel has become too easy.
"Nobody really defends Israel anymore," he said in an interview. "If you go on college campuses, there are some Hillel faithfuls who are bringing an IDF soldier to try to explain that not all IDF soldiers are war criminals. And among the 60 to 100 people in the audience, there are Palestinian supporters who come with tape over their mouth, and when the soldier starts to speak, many people stand up and walk out.
"They've lost the battle for public opinion," he says. "They claim it's because American Jews know too little - I claim it's because they know too much about the conflict, and young liberal Jews have difficulty defending the use of cluster bombs in Lebanon or supporting the Israeli settlements. I was bashing Israel in the past because nobody else was exposing its true record. Many people are doing it now, so I switched hats from a critic of Israel to a diplomat who wants to resolve the conflict. I have not changed, but I think the spectrum has moved."
Finkelstein's book is suprisingly optimistic about the chances of settling the confict, and about changing the debate, even among American Jewry. The tide of public opinion is turning against Israel, he says, and once support for Israeli policy becomes widely unacceptable in the United States, the "self-designated voices for Israel," as he calls them, will quickly drop out. Meanwhile, American Jewish college students are having their eyes opened.
"The academic research on Israel is no longer the footnoted "Exodus," and younger Jews, when they go to college, are walking away with very different picture of Israel," he said. "And the American Jewish community that for a long time was a huge obstacle to resolving the conflict is breaking up. If you put forth a reasonable and principled goal, I think a resolution is possible. We might be entering the endgame, but one that might take a long time."
Loyal to his tradition of combativeness, Finkelstein takes on not only Michael Oren, Jeffrey Goldberg, Benny Morris and others, but also Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer's book on the Israel lobby.
"I accept that the lobby is very influential and shapes [U.S.] policy on Israel-Palestine. But when Walt and Mearsheimer start generalizing about the influence of the lobby on Iraq, Iran policy and elsewhere - that's where I think they get it wrong. I just can't find any evidence for it."
Finkelstein describes the leadership of J Street as "hopeless". "It's simply the loyal opposition. Politically they identify themselves mostly with Kadima."
Yet he recently clashed with those to the left of J Street, attacking the goals of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions ) movement.
"I've written a little book on Gandhi, and one of the significant insights of his is that it's important not only for your tactics to be perceived as moral, the public also has to see your goal as moral. And the problem with BDS is the ambiguity of the goal. Their official position is: 'We take no position on [the legitimacy of] Israel.' While BDS is a legitimate tactic to force Israel to accept the two-state solution, it has to have a just goal, which means it has to include recognition of Israel as a state. I received mostly hostile reactions from the BDS activists, and that's OK - I am not out there to please."
Leftist-turned-rightist historian Benny Morris, who gets a whole chapter in the book, said once that "for Finkelstein the only good Israeli is an evil Israeli." Is he right?
"I don't claim to know Israel. I don't speak Hebrew, my contacts are pretty limited. But I didn't know Vietnam, I didn't know Nicaragua, El Salvador or Honduras. It doesn't mean you can't reach your conclusions. I don't study cafe life in Tel Aviv. I visited Israel every year for 16 years until I was denied entrance in 2008. I don't feel particularly attached to Israel - nationalism, as Noam Chomsky said, is not my cup of tea - but I feel no particular need to demonize it. I do feel a certain amount of disgust, that's for sure. If my focus was on any other country's human rights violations, I would be as appalled and disgusted. It's just unacceptable, and you can't make excuses for that with 'other people do it.' You probably will find the comparison offensive - it's like going to my parents in the Warsaw ghetto and asking, what do you think about the Volkswagen? Isn't it great? Don't ask people in Iraq or Afghanistan to praise Hollywood, or whether Whitney Houston did a beautiful rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner."
Why does he put the blame solely on Israel?
"Because I don't think both sides are equally responsible. If I were a Palestinian I wouldn't have accepted what was offered at Camp David. On the critical issues, the Palestinians have been willing to make far greater concessions than are required to by [international] law - 60 percent of settlers to remain in place, largest Jerusalem in Israel's history. How can a rational person conclude that the Palestinians bear responsibility for the non-resolution of this conflict?"
How about the violence against civilians they turned to after Camp David?
"International law says people fighting for self-determination can use force in order to achieve their independence."
And targeting civilians?
"They do not have the right to target the civilian population. But now more and more Palestinians are turning to various forms of civil resistance and civil disobedience. This tactic of fasting in prison is going to spread."
"I do not see other reasonable basis for resolution of this conflict other then the international law. What else can you use? To say, I have the rights, and solve it by force? Or based on needs - but who decides what are the needs? Dennis Ross decided Israel needs whatever it says it needs - and the Palestinians get everything that is left over. It's a political problem, so it's up to the international community to apply sufficient pressure to Israel to accept this map that is fair, within the parameters of law - and reasonable. And then the conflict can be solved. With the regional changes, there will be pressure applied by Egypt and Turkey however things settle with the Arab Spring, there will be pressure applied by the Palestinians and the international community, that is weary of this conflict, to resolve it on the basis of international consensus," he said.