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Norman Finkelstein: Truth and justice are the ultimate test, not international NGOs

Originally published: Black Agenda Report on June 2, 2021 by Norman Finkelstein (more by Black Agenda Report)  |

Even Human Rights Watch says Israel is committing crimes against humanity in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and in Gaza, and the idea of a Jewish state in the context of Palestine is not legitimate.

Scholar Norman Finkelstein, author of “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering,” “Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom,” and many other books, held a two-hour, Zoom press conference last Friday to take questions about Israel’s latest attacks on the Palestinian people. My questions about international law and international human rights NGOs, and his answers are here, but I’d first like to note that, in other recent interviews, Finkelstein has said that:

  1. Black Lives Matter and Israel’s heroizing of Donald Trump have put pressure on the racist Zionist narrative, even among Israel’s usual champions;
  2. Human Rights Watch depends on its wealthy Jewish donor base;
  3. Human Rights Watch would not have published its latest report, “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” if it thought that doing so would cost them their wealthy Jewish donor base.

Ann Garrison: I’d like to ask Norman about his seeming commitment to international law. I know, Norman, that you understand the international Caucasian Court very well and understand why a number of African members have withdrawn from its jurisdiction. Do you still put faith in this institution or in the idea of international criminal tribunals?

Norman Finkelstein: OK, let’s start from the beginning. I don’t put faith in any institutions, even institutions which I’m a member of. I’m old enough to recognize the fact that human beings are capable of many wonderful things. As Shakespeare said, “What a piece of work is man.” We’re capable of quite wonderful things and we’re also very capable of corruption, capable of being bought off, capable of being seduced by power, seduced by fame, seduced by wealth. Human beings have their good side and their bad side. And since institutions ultimately are led by human beings, I think a healthy dose of skepticism is always in order with all institutions because people are easily bought off. I won’t say all people, but 99 out of a hundred can be bought off. So I don’t put faith in institutions.

On the other hand, I do believe that these institutions, if you can exert sufficient pressure on them, can yield decisions which will be beneficial to the cause because these institutions carry a lot of moral authority. For better or for worse, they carry moral authority.

So in 2004, the International Court of Justice yielded a decision on the wall that Israel has been building in the West Bank, which was very favorable to the Palestinians. I thought that was an important victory. Unfortunately, the Palestinians didn’t do anything with that victory, but it was an important victory in the same way.

I don’t put faith in Human Rights Watch, but it must be said that it’s a very powerful institution. It carries a lot of moral authority and its April 27 report, entitled “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” was a very valuable weapon in delegitimizing aspects of Israeli policy. And it’s now being very widely quoted by supporters of the Palestinians:

Human Rights Watch says Israel is a state based on Jewish domination. Human Rights Watch says Israel is committing crimes against humanity in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and in Gaza. Human Rights Watch says the idea of a Jewish state in the context of Palestine is not legitimate.

That’s a very powerful weapon. If you are involved in the struggle of trying to persuade public opinion, these are very powerful weapons. And Israel is currently in a panic mode. For those of you who know the United States scene of the past three years, Israel’s supporters have been targeting college campuses about what’s called Israeli Apartheid Week. Israel supporters are trying to say that it’s anti-Semitic to call Israel an apartheid state, that the university officials should not allow an Israel Apartheid Week. Well, guess what happened? B’ Tselem–The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Israel’s leading human rights organization, said Israel practices apartheid. Human Rights Watch, the main human rights organization in the world? Guess what it said? Israel is practicing apartheid in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, in Gaza.

Well guess what that means? Israel supporters who are trying to stop Israel Apartheid Week have no answer when Human Rights Watch and Israel’s leading human rights organization say it’s apartheid. That’s a huge victory. They have been silenced. They have been stopped. They have been defeated by those developments. So I don’t think we should trivialize or diminish their significance.

Faith? No, but I recognize a victory for what it is, and exploiting and capitalizing on victories like that is what politics is all about. You win the battle for public opinion when you can get organizations and individuals commanding moral authority or political authority supporting your cause. We shouldn’t be purist about it and say, “Well, these are all Western colonialist, Zionist, imperialist, blah, blah, blah organizations, and therefore we shouldn’t bother with them.” No, no. They’re more than that. They command authority. They are susceptible to popular pressure, and there are victories that have been won and we should not ignore those victories or diminish their significance.

AG: Thank you first for talking about Human Rights Watch. As soon as you started talking about the possibility of achieving victories in international courts, I was reminded of what you said about Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem in your interview with Katie Halper. It addresses a problem I encounter whenever I’m inclined to cite Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International because they got something right. I feel obliged to say how badly corrupted these institutions have been in this, this, and that report, and I worry that, by citing them, I’m putting any credence I may have myself behind them.

NF: You’re totally right, completely right. You end up legitimizing organizations which then make statements that are absolutely appalling. And then people come back to you and say, “Well, you said they’re honorable, you said they’re accurate. You said that they’re just, and now they say X, Y, and Z, and you don’t like what they say, so now you’re condemning them.” I think that’s a problem.

The way I get around that problem, and I’ve faced that problem the whole of my adult life, is: When they do backtrack, when they do act in a duplicitous way, I sit down and I try to demonstrate that what they’re saying in this instance is factually untrue and therefore I’m not obliged to support it. So in the book I wrote on Gaza . . .  actually I wrote two books on Gaza, one on Gaza and the International Criminal Court, and before that, one on Gaza and the human rights organizations. I went through all the human rights organizations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN Human Rights Council, and I showed that what they said about the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, was all lies. But I didn’t just say it. I documented it in about 50 pages of very dense text.

I think you can do two things. You can cite Human Rights Watch when it says something which you can demonstrate is true and correct and you can also, at the same time, criticize or even attack those organizations when they’re carrying on in a hypocritical or duplicitous way. I can attack Ken Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, for how he carried on during Operation Protective Edge. But I can also praise him for the report that was just issued.

In my opinion, you can do both because the ultimate test is not what the reports say. The ultimate test is always truth and justice. When they start to lie, which they do, you can call them out on their lies.

The same is true when they carry on in an unjust manner. I’ll give you an example. Gaza has been called a concentration camp, by many reputable scholars and journalists, people like Baruch Kimmerling, the late Baruch Kimmerling from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Amira Haas, the journalist with Ha’aretz. Now, during the Great March of Return, which began March 30th, 2018, the Palestinians attempted nonviolently to breach the immoral, illegal, criminal blockade of Gaza. And throughout that period of the Great March of Return, even though organizations like Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, and Amnesty International did attack Israel’s killing of the non-violent protestors, they also said that the Israeli combatants and snipers along the perimeter of Gaza had what they called “the right to self-defense.”

And at the time I wrote an article jointly with a young comrade of mine, Jamie Stern Weiner. And we asked the question, “Do concentration camp guards have a right to self-defense?” That to me is a self-evident question. If you describe Gaza as a concentration camp, then those who are preventing people from escaping from that concentration camp are concentration camp guards. That’s what they are. Let’s be clear about what we’re saying. If you describe it as a concentration camp, then they are concentration camp guards.

And then I asked a simple question. This is not a factual question. It’s not a question about truth. It’s a question about justice. As I said, every human rights organization ultimately is not its last word. The last word goes always to truth and justice. Not what Human Rights Watch says, not what Amnesty International says, not what B’Tselem says. The last word goes to truth and justice.

And I say, is there any moral system, any ethic of justice that can possibly conclude that concentration camp guards, who have been confining more than 1 million children in that concentration camp since 2006, have the right to self-defense? And I do not believe that any system of justice, any ethical system can possibly conclude that concentration camp guards have the right to self-defense against children who are trying to escape that concentration camp either nonviolently or violently.

So I can praise them. When I think they are applying the standards of truth and justice, and I can criticize them or even condemn them when they don’t apply those standards. And that’s my answer to you. I recognize the problem that you’re raising. I think it was excellently put. You said, “When I praise these organizations, I feel like I’m legitimizing them. And then when they do something, which is deserving of condemnation, I’m in a very difficult position because I just praised them.”

And I say, when you praise them, you should make clear you’re praising them because what they’re saying is true. You’re praising them because what they’re saying is just, but all human beings and all institutions are capable of corruption, are flawed. They never reach the ideal of pure justice and pure truth. And when they fall short of that ideal, we have every right to reserve the right to condemn them. That’s how I see it.

Norman Finkelstein is a political scientist who has taught at Brooklyn College, Rutgers University, Hunter College, New York University, and DePaul University. He is the author of “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering,” “Gaza: An Inquest in to Its Martyrdom,” “Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History,” I Accuse! HEREWITH A PROOF BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT THAT ICC CHIEF PROSECUTOR FATOU BENSOUDA WHITEWASHED ISRAEL,” and other books.