Norman Finkelstein needed to reach a moral judgment. On the morning of October 7, he received an email from a friend telling him to check the news. Finkelstein was “euphoric” when he saw that Hamas militants had broken through the barrier that surrounds Gaza. “I have this kind of weird idiosyncrasy,” he told me wryly. “I like it when people break out of concentration camps.”
The notorious Israel critic and son of Holocaust survivors is known for this particular subversion — he has long analogized the leaders of the Jewish state to the Nazis, not to their victims. But as details of the violence and scope of Hamas’s assault emerged, Finkelstein grew less sure of his response. “There seems to be no doubt that atrocities occurred on a large scale,” he later acknowledged. He had historically looked to his mentor, Noam Chomsky, for guidance, but the 95-year-old was unavailable. So Finkelstein turned to another source: the abolitionists. “I remembered reading that in the Nat Turner rebellion, they killed an awful lot of white men, women, and children,” he said. But he couldn’t remember ever hearing that the abolitionists had censured the slave revolts. After consulting the historical record — William Lloyd Garrison had not condemned Nat Turner; C.L.R. James had not condemned the massacres of the Haitian Revolution; W.E.B. Du Bois had not condemned John Brown — Finkelstein arrived at his own conclusion. He decided he would “not condemn or condone, approve or disapprove” of what Hamas did, he said, because “I don’t believe those categories belong, or capture what happened.”
Finkelstein’s search for a moral authority on the conflict may seem odd. For many of his peers, he is the authority, if a complicated one. Finkelstein has spent four decades developing an exhaustive body of knowledge on Israel and Palestine, and has published more than a dozen books on the subject. In the early 2000s, he was among the most well-known of Israel’s adversaries in the United States, and his polemical and unsparing speeches drew fans and protestors around the world. In 2003, he trounced Alan Dershowitz in a televised debate over the celebrity lawyer’s book on Israel. He claims he has been functionally in exile from academia ever since he was denied tenure by DePaul University in 2007. But he has continued to write about Palestine, and Gaza specifically — dutifully chronicling Israel’s operations in the territory with the aim of shifting public opinion against what he characterized as an illegal occupation. “I don’t think anyone has paid a higher price than Norman for speaking out, for sticking to his morals,” said Sara Roy, a leading Gaza expert at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and also the child of Holocaust survivors, referencing the harsh environment for American scholars working on Palestine. Mouin Rabbani, a prominent Dutch Palestinian analyst of the contemporary Middle East, called Finkelstein “far and away one of, if not the, most moral beings I’ve ever met.”
But a moral being is not necessarily a likable one. “He has a personality type that you could genuinely call prophetic,” Peter Beinart, the liberal-Zionist-turned-Israel-critic, told me, “in the sense that Finkelstein seems to have a fundamental inability to say things that he doesn’t believe are true” and is “utterly heedless of the consequences.” In the Hebrew Bible, Beinart added, prophets are unpopular, unpleasant, and burning with uncontrollable rage. Finkelstein has a shock jock’s sensibility — he once summed up Dershowitz’s professional life as a “distinguished career of PRO-BONER legal work,” and called MSNBC’s Joy Reid “living proof that not all yentas are Jewish and not all bovines are cows.” His crankiness and pugnacity often overshadow the content of his message, and his stubborn insistence on saying what’s on his mind has made it difficult for him to sustain relationships or fit neatly into social and political movements. Finkelstein leads an isolated life, has never married, and is no longer on speaking terms with many of his longtime friends. In recent years, he has alienated younger progressives by attacking what he views as an outsized focus on identity politics, directing particular hostility towards the push to protect and expand transgender rights. “I wish Norman Finkelstein wasn’t a transphobe and borderline anti-woke grifter,” reads a representative tweet from November. “I feel pure joy whenever he humiliates another Zionist and his work is really insightful. But then I remember that he’s a clown, sours the whole thing.”
Nevertheless, as Israel mounted its retaliatory assault on Gaza, Finkelstein gained some 300,000 new X followers in three months. His 2018 book Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom — which argued that Israel was committing war crimes, and acting not in self-defense but in order to project military strength and thwart the peace process — moved up the Amazon Middle East History best sellers list. He appeared on news shows across the political spectrum to discuss the war. In December, New York magazine described him as a long-marginalized scholar taking a “turn in the limelight” after decades of thankless work. Finkelstein told me that he had been receiving around a hundred emails an hour in the wake of October 7, “each of them very specific, lengthy testimonials thanking me for everything I’ve done.” (Finkelstein is prone to hyperbole, but does appear to carry on quite a lot of correspondence.) He said a significant portion of the emails came from people in the Arab world, where Finkelstein has many ties — there is a dedication to his parents in a Gaza hospital, where he helped raise $100,000 for medical equipment after Israel’s 2014 attacks. Finkelstein feels obligated to respond to personalized messages, though he can barely keep up. “I have been totally overwhelmed by that to the point that I am crying,” he told me.
“My whole adult life I’ve been a pariah, I’ve been ostracized,” Finkelstein continued, with his particular flair for melodrama. “Suddenly, I became the go-to person.” But whether or not Finkelstein can sustain another moment in the limelight remains to be seen. He came early to the cause of anti-Zionism in the United States, warned decades ago about the dangers of weaponizing the memory of the Holocaust, and experienced something like cancel culture avant la lettre. Despite the fact that he is, in many ways, the perfect figure to turn to in this moment, he also embodies the discontinuities between generations of the left — a relic of a different century who is trying, uneasily, to speak to this one.
In December, two backers of the prestigious Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought withdrew their support after awardee Masha Gessen published an essay in The New Yorker comparing Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto. “Comparison,” Gessen wrote in their acceptance speech, “is the way we know the world.” Finkelstein dismissed The New Yorker as “Upper East Side reading material” when I asked him about the essay. But for his whole life, comparison to the Holocaust has been the way he knows the world. Finkelstein’s parents were Polish Jews who were imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto and then survived Nazi concentration camps — Maryla, his mother, was in Majdanek, and Zacharias, his father, in Auschwitz — while every single member of their respective families was exterminated. “In the face of the sufferings of African-Americans, Vietnamese, and Palestinians,” Finkelstein once wrote, “my mother’s credo always was: ‘We are all holocaust victims.’” The United States’s conduct during the Vietnam War, his mother told him, was “worse than Hitler.” Finkelstein’s father, meanwhile, sometimes joked that her cooking was worse than the meals in Auschwitz.
After World War II, Finkelstein’s father considered going to Palestine with Hashomer Hatzair, the Polish Labor Zionist youth group of which he had been a member. But by 1947, when his parents were in a displaced persons camp together, it was clear “that there was going to be a war in Palestine, and the Zionists wanted all of the young men to go and fight,” Finkelstein told me. “I remember my mother saying, ‘Whichever way is war, we’re going in the opposite direction.’” His parents moved to South Brooklyn, where Finkelstein was born and developed the unmistakable raspy accent, crass humor, and mid-century Jewish charm he shares with Bernie Sanders (who attended the same high school as Finkelstein) and Larry David. Finkelstein likes to list the other alums of his alma mater to convey the astonishing success and upward mobility of his working-class peers: Judge Judy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Carole King, and Chuck Schumer (“a brilliant guy, a total crook, depraved crook”), to name a few. Jewish parents in the neighborhood, he said, projected “hyper-ambition” and “hyper-competitiveness” onto their children.
His own parents, Finkelstein told me, were eccentric, even as they led fairly ordinary American lives. During his childhood, he said, the label “Holocaust survivor” was a source of shame because of two assumptions. “One, they ran like sheep to slaughter,” he said. Two, “if you survived you must have done something dirty.” Fiercely political, Finkelstein’s parents stood by Joseph Stalin for freeing them from Nazi rule, even as the rest of the world soured on the Soviet leader. (Initially supporters of Israel, they turned against the state when it aligned with the West during the Cold War.) In middle school, “I was fanatically defending Stalin,” Finkelstein said. “I had no idea I was saying anything nuts.” When his teacher told the class Stalin had killed tens of millions of people, Finkelstein went home and asked his mother if it was true. “Stalin said this generation would suffer but the next generation would live a decent life,” she assured him. It was his parents’ unwillingness to renounce Stalin that, according to Finkelstein, taught him not to waver. “It was impossible that they would utter a single word contrary to their conviction,” he has said.
Finkelstein’s parents remain two of his greatest influences. “It is precisely and exactly because of the lessons my parents taught me and my two siblings,” he has said, “that I will not be silent when Israel commits its crimes against the Palestinians.” He refers to his mother often in his books, interviews, and casual conversation. He lives in his late father’s apartment, overlooking the South Brooklyn thoroughfare Ocean Parkway, among his parents’ furniture. They divorced but reunited at the end of their lives before they both died in 1995, and Finkelstein remains forcefully protective of them. Once, after they passed away, a childhood friend told Finkelstein he wanted to include Finkelstein’s mother as a character in a novel he was writing. “He said to me, ‘Your mother was the weirdest person I ever met,’” Finkelstein recalled, visibly enraged. “And I’m thinking to myself, you stupid fuck. You stupid, stupid fuck. With all of your books, and all of your knowledge, it never occurred to you that my mother was weird because all of her family ended up in gas chambers?”
After graduating from Binghamton University in 1974, Finkelstein hung around the Marxist economist Paul Sweezy, worked at a Maoist paper, and then studied with the French Marxist Charles Bettelheim in Paris. Finkelstein first started reading about Israel during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when he was pursuing a PhD in political science at Princeton. Two years later, the journalist Joan Peters published From Time Immemorial to wide acclaim, arguing that the Palestinian nationality had been largely invented to justify Arab attacks on Israel. Checking Peters’s footnotes, Finkelstein discovered that she had quoted selectively to misrepresent the content of her sources (primarily British studies and reports) and fudged the numbers in a key demographic study. He sent these findings to a number of academics. Only one replied: Noam Chomsky. “I warned him, if you follow this, you’re going to get in trouble,” Chomsky later recalled in an essay, but it was the beginning of a deep friendship between the two men. Finkelstein published a review of the Peters book in the leftist magazine In These Times, calling From Time Immemorial a “spectacular fraud.” It was one of just a few critical reviews in the American press, though British magazines eviscerated Peters’s work.
Finkelstein felt invigorated by what he called “forensic scholarship” — the product of what Chomsky called, in an email to me, his “laser-like scrutiny” — studying the underlying source material to assess the author’s conclusions. He would go on to make a pattern of it, building a series of books around similarly forensic critiques of others’ work. His 1995 Image and Reality of the Israel–Palestine Conflict took aim at other prominent scholars, including the Israeli historian Benny Morris, author of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, which contested the Zionist consensus that Arab leaders had ordered Palestinians to leave in 1948. Finkelstein skewered Morris for claiming that Palestinian refugees had chosen to flee the war. In fact, Finkelstein believed, they had been forcibly expelled by Zionists — and he trudged through Morris’s own sources to prove it. Then, in 1998, he went after another acclaimed work, Harvard political scientist Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, attacking Goldhagen’s thesis that the brutality of the Holocaust could be attributed to the Germans’ unique, “eliminationist” anti-Semitism — a kind that outstripped the preexisting anti-Semitism in Europe. Finkelstein found this notion of a categorically German anti-Semitism laughable. “The perverted German consciousness of Goldhagen’s making floats above and persists in spite of history,” Finkelstein wrote in the New Left Review.
By the late 1990s, Finkelstein’s focus had shifted from Israel’s origins to the country’s justifications for its violent encroachments in Palestine. Decades before the Jewish left held signs urging “Never Again” and “Not in My Name” to protest the current war in Gaza, Finkelstein was fighting the weaponization of his parents’ trauma. His most controversial, and likely most influential, work is his 2000 book The Holocaust Industry — a wide-ranging indictment of how the genocide of six million Jews, which “barely figured in American life” for years after World War II, had come to be understood as a unique event among other atrocities, and how it had overshadowed the murders of the Nazis’ millions of other victims. The Holocaust Industry, too, began as a review — of historian Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life. Finkelstein accepted Novick’s premise that the Holocaust only became a “shocking, massive, distinctive” event in the American collective consciousness after the Six-Day War in 1967, when American Jews believed that Israel was “poised on the brink of destruction.” But unlike Novick, he interpreted that shift as a response to Israel’s new status as an American military proxy in the Middle East. “After the 1967 war, Israel’s military élan could be celebrated because its guns pointed in the right direction — against America’s enemies,” Finkelstein wrote. Post-1967, he continued, American Zionists “were doing exactly what American Jewish elites had always done: marching in lockstep with American power.” The book grew from a corrective to Novick into a missive against what Finkelstein saw as an industry of weaponized identity benefiting Jewish elites — in particular the Jewish lawyers litigating reparations (and enriching themselves in the process) and the Zionist organizations attempting to skim off payouts. The Holocaust Industry was translated into twenty languages, and the German version alone sold 130,000 copies in its first few weeks. According to Verso Books, it remains one of the press’s best-selling books of all time.
Since October 7, American college campuses have been epicenters of the debate about free speech and the limits of discourse on Israel and Palestine. Crusades against Palestine solidarity activists in the Ivy League have already gotten two university presidents pushed out and led to a crackdown on student organizations. This is familiar terrain for Finkelstein, who was denied tenure by DePaul University, the largest Catholic university in America, in 2007, after Alan Dershowitz sent the faculty a “dossier” of “Norman Finkelstein’s most egregious academic sins.” Dershowitz — now known for defending Donald Trump during his impeachment trial and the billionaire Jeffrey Epstein against sex-trafficking charges — was then still a respected figure among liberals. In 2003, he published The Case for Israel, a best seller that claimed, among other things, that “no other nation in history faced with comparable challenges has ever adhered to a higher standard of human rights.” In response to a small but vocal contingent of critics, Dershowitz offered to donate ten thousand dollars to the Palestine Liberation Organization if anyone could find a factual error in his book. Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman accepted the challenge, inviting him onto her show to debate an expert in fact-checking Zionists — Norman Finkelstein.
The debate, aired live and since preserved on YouTube, has been viewed, clipped, and variously repurposed countless times. It was a bloodbath. Finkelstein pointed out numerous places where, he said, Dershowitz had lifted language out of From Time Immemorial without citing Peters. Dershowitz, true to form, responded with legal threats. “I’m not a litigious person,” he claimed. But “when you make allegations of plagiarism, it has great legal implications.” Once more, Finkelstein expanded his takedown into a book: Beyond Chutzpah (the title a riff on Dershowitz’s New York Times best seller, Chutzpah), published by the University of California Press. Dershowitz asked then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to block its release (Schwarzenegger declined) and reportedly wrote letters to administration officials across the U.C. system and at the imprint itself. He called Finkelstein “unstable,” “like a child,” and a “nut job.” Speaking to The Guardian, Finkelstein said of Dershowitz that “if a true word were to leap out of his mouth he would explode.”
Dershowitz’s intervention in Finkelstein’s tenure bid brought local and national attention to the fight, as academics from around the country came to Finkelstein’s defense. Novick, who had called The Holocaust Industry “trash,” wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that “it would be disastrous, I believe, to have a university composed exclusively of people like Finkelstein and Dershowitz,” but “equally undesirable to have a university composed exclusively of people like me,” referring to his own “tentative and cautious” style. Finkelstein also enjoyed the support of many students — to this day, his students everywhere from Hunter to the Brooklyn Public Library, where Finkelstein has taught free classes, attest that he is a devoted teacher with high expectations. The DePaul political science department voted in favor of Finkelstein’s tenure, as did the college-wide personnel committee, unanimously. But the DePaul administration overruled the votes. Worried friends found him a lawyer, and Finkelstein quickly reached a confidential settlement with the university to leave. (The ordeal perhaps explains why his favorite movie is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie — the 1969 Muriel Spark adaptation about a withering but undeniably charismatic schoolteacher who gets fired for imparting her controversial politics to her students. Though, notably, Brodie, unlike Finkelstein, is a fascist sympathizer.)
Finkelstein later reflected that his staunchest defenders during the tenure case were conservatives like the Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg. For Finkelstein, personally hurt by what he perceived as a lack of support from the left, the episode also affirmed his belief that leftists have a weak commitment to free speech. But his memory does not square with that of others I spoke to. The writer, editor, and public intellectual Tariq Ali told me that Verso organized a group to show up at DePaul in defense of Finkelstein. “I don’t think we have ever had a solidarity meeting with a writer who raised so many hackles,” Ali told me, “and people, despite their differences with him, came to speak at it.”
Finkelstein now believes that the left has made its own bed on the issue of campus free speech. Universities are less able to withstand attacks from donors, he argues, because they have waded into other hot-button issues in recent years, under pressure from the left. “So the Jewish donors are saying, ‘you took a position on George Floyd, and you took a position on Ukraine, why don’t you take a position on what happened on October 7?’” He blames “wokeness,” in particular, for contributing to a politicized academic environment and encouraging overly emotional discourse among students.“I think a lot of people on the left learned the hard way not to stifle speech on the grounds that it hurts your feelings. Because now it’s backfired,” he said. “Guess what, Jewish feelings can be hurt too.”
When I first reached out to Finkelstein last February, seven months before Hamas’s attack, he was leading a quiet and mostly solitary life. I was interested in him as a rare unrepentant leftist from a bygone era — politicized by Maoism, trained in the Marxist tradition, committed to internationalism — who might offer valuable perspective in a moment of relative defeat and demobilization for U.S. progressives. He was then teaching a weekly seminar at Hunter College and spending his time reading, writing, and corresponding with far-flung friends. Finkelstein’s lifestyle reflects his belief that sacrifice, thrift, and isolation are essential components of political radicalism. “I wouldn’t have minded some recognition,” he told me last spring. “But if I got it, I would begin to wonder, what am I doing wrong?”
He has been underemployed for nearly two decades, supporting himself since his tenure denial through speaking fees, his DePaul settlement, income from a few adjunct courses, and, more recently, Social Security payments — although he says money would not interest him anyway. He eats the same two meals every day: eggs for lunch and pasta with vegetables for dinner. Weather permitting, he goes to Coney Island, which he called a “great irony” of capitalism. One would expect the rich to “put all of the poor people in the inner city and keep the beach for themselves,” he said. But “the assholes all want to be in Manhattan.” He has taken the same daily loop around the boardwalk at a jog (or now, aged seventy, at a stroll) for decades. It is five miles long — roughly the width of the Gaza Strip, he often remarks. He has no cell phone, so each time I joined him on a walk, I had to call his landline twice: first to make a plan, then again on the day in question so he could read me the hourly temperature, wind speed, and chance of rain to ensure we could meet unimpeded by acts of God.
Finkelstein has a commanding presence: he is tall, with an angular face and expressive eyebrows. But in our early meetings last spring, he seemed adrift. At that point, Finkelstein hadn’t studied or written about Palestine in earnest for several years, convinced he had become “useless” to the cause. After being cast out of the academy, he remained devoted to studying the topic — he has written four books painstakingly documenting successive Israeli military operations in Gaza and rebuking international bodies for failing to investigate war crimes. But in 2012, Finkelstein angered potential allies by calling the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement a “cult.” BDS, he argued, was disconnected from conditions on the ground in Palestine and took a hypocritical line in invoking international law to defend Palestinian rights and sovereignty while refusing to acknowledge that Israeli statehood was legitimate under international law, too. Beyond what he saw as the inconsistency of this position, Finkelstein criticized BDS for failing to adequately assess the political realities of the peace process. He did not see a near future in which Palestinians would be granted the full right of return to Israel, but he did see one where sufficient pressure from the international community forced a two-state solution. After he criticized BDS, Finkelstein claims, the Palestine solidarity groups that had once viewed him as a rock star stopped inviting him to speak. And the most recent of his books on the region, which went into what he called “microscopic detail” about Israel’s military campaigns, with the aim of building a legal case against the Gaza blockade, garnered little attention. Finkelstein felt an increasing sense of futility; for a time, “it didn’t appear as if anything could be done” for Palestinians, he said.
On one of our early walks, Finkelstein half-joked that he was sure I was writing a “takedown” of him, in light of contentious positions he has lately espoused on issues far afield from the ones that have preoccupied him for much of his adult life — namely, the Ukraine war and so-called “identity politics.” On the former, Finkelstein stood almost alone in justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a legitimate response, under international law, to NATO’s provocations. At the time, he was making the rounds in the online alt-media ecosystem, appearing on shows like “Chapo Trap House,” Briahna Joy Gray’s “Bad Faith,” and Glenn Greenwald’s System Update to discuss his latest book, I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It!, which urged a younger generation to reject “wokeness” — what he sees as an elite project spearheaded by grifters who have betrayed left-wing traditions of class solidarity and egalitarianism.
The project was fueled, in part, by Finkelstein’s bitter disappointment after the defeat of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, which he characterized as “the biggest challenge to capitalist exploitation in generations.” (He doesn’t believe Bernie is perfect — he called him a “moral monster” for opposing a ceasefire in Gaza, later noting, “I retain a soft spot in my heart for him” — but thought he would make people’s lives better as president.) In I’ll Burn That Bridge, he argues that the Democratic Party turned towards identity politics as it sought to replace its trade union and working class base with “the rich and super-rich” and “‘oppressed minorities’ of every imaginable ilk.” Finkelstein contends that the liberal craze over race and gender identities obscures the salient class relations that should be the focus of the left — and is promoting a politics that reifies, rather than abolishes, hierarchies. (Such classifications, he believes, are analogous to the “zoological identity” fixation that was the precursor to Nazism.)
But what Finkelstein designates as identity politics is imprecise, and he does not engage with its genealogy on the left. Instead, he attacks a handful of individuals, some of whom were already scorned by much of the left at the time of the book’s release. His targets include avatars of the post-2020 DEI movement such as Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility (2018), and Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist (2019). (In September, Kendi’s Boston University-based Center for Antiracist Research laid off more than half its staff, prompting allegations that it had mismanaged its roughly fifty million dollars in donations while treating employees poorly and producing little academic output.) Finkelstein argues that DiAngelo and Kendi’s accounts of identity are ahistorical and shallow, prescribing little in the way of societal transformation. He also takes aim at stalwarts of the left who declined to support Bernie Sanders. He calls Angela Davis a “sellout” for criticizing Sanders’s “economic reductionism” while launching a fashion line and appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair — activities he views as incompatible with political radicalism.
Finkelstein has said that left ideology is committed to two things — “reason” and the “underdog.” (The latter may be why his favorite TV show is Britain’s Got Talent. Finkelstein is moved by the show’s humanistic portrayal, one of his closest friends told me, of ordinary people who overcome adversity to do extraordinary things.) But he has long been suspicious of the role that victimhood has played in American Jewish identity formation. “There’s so much hunger, so much starvation in the world, so many people are suffering, and you want me to get excited about some idiot painting a swastika somewhere?” Finkelstein said in a 2009 documentary about anti-Semitism called Defamation. His opposition to identity politics and its co-optation has clear roots in his work on Jewish identity, the Holocaust, and Israel’s defenses of its aggressions, but I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It! lacks a compelling critique of liberal identity politics — instead, much of it reads like a meandering diatribe.
Beyond a small corner of the internet, few took notice of the book, which was put out by the independent press Sublation Media after Finkelstein’s previous publishers rejected it. “Many of your books are so methodical and precise — forensic in explaining an opponent’s thought and a devastating deconstruction — that we were all a bit taken aback by this one,” Tariq Ali wrote in a letter turning down the manuscript for Verso, which Finkelstein posted on his blog. The book also spotlights Finkelstein’s most reactionary position: his view on transgender rights. On the one hand, he seems to believe that transgender people deserve the same rights as anyone. But he also depicts demands for respectful treatment, access to gender-affirming surgery, and inclusion in school sports as causes liberals have taken up disingenuously for political gain. “Here’s my shout-out to the snooty, self-indulgent, virtue-signaling Harvard-Hamptons-Hollywood crowd,” he writes. “I’ll tell you my pronouns if you tell me your net worth.” Finkelstein does not entertain the possibility that left-wing advocacy for trans rights is a response to demonization, violence, and legislative attacks. Last summer, Finkelstein doubled down, posting a short blog on his Substack headlined “Transgender Cult.” In it, he argued that the “woke world” had a “perverse and perverted fetish of transgender persons,” characterizing gender-reassignment surgery as “genital mutilation.” For people who admire his work on Palestine, Finkelstein’s transphobia compromises him as a moral force. “Intensely disappointing to see this kind of contrarian mindset from someone who otherwise stands up for people who are being persecuted,” the Middle East journalist Séamus Malekafzali commented on Finkelstein’s post. Finkelstein’s stated commitment to a universalism that he believes the left has abandoned, at its own peril, is undermined by his failure to display solidarity in all directions — or even to study the issue seriously the way he does nearly every other.
Then Hamas burst through the “prison gate.” (Finkelstein has long rejected the term “border fence,” quoting Confucius by way of justification: “The beginning of all wisdom is to call things by their proper names.”) Since October, Finkelstein’s tweets and video clips of his talks and media appearances have seemed ever-present on left-wing corners of the internet. At the same time, he has been conspicuously absent from organized political activity. “I haven’t been asked to speak at any rally, not one,” he told me, though he headlined a November talk hosted by the progressive publisher OR Books, home of many of his works, that turned into a march. For much of the organized Palestine solidarity movement, Finkelstein claimed, “I am insufficiently radical in their minds, because I haven’t taken an explicitly anti-Zionist position.”
But Finkelstein’s absence is not indicative of a lack of enthusiasm for the recent wave of actions. He compared the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace’s October sit-in at Grand Central Station, with only a hint of irony, to the Paris Commune and the stormings of the Bastille and the Winter Palace. But he experienced it from outside the station “because of this darn cell phone thing,” he told me. Since the location was only announced at 6 p.m., moments before the protest began, he had to wait at home to check for updates on his computer; by the time he reached Grand Central, the police had sealed the main concourse. Meanwhile, some of his biggest post-October 7 media appearances have been on right-wing shows. He took on conservative commentator Eli Lake in a live debate and has appeared on shows hosted by Daily Wire commentator Candace Owens, Mikhaila Peterson (daughter of Jordan), and British TV presenter Piers Morgan. (Morgan said Finkelstein was “highly requested.”) Finkelstein will talk to anyone, but he harbors few delusions about these interlocutors: though he credited Peterson’s “guts” for having him on, he dismissed her father as a “lunatic” and “terrifying moron.”
Even as the world has caught up with him, Finkelstein remains most comfortable on the margins — ideologically aligned with a left that won’t always have him, platformed by a right that won’t always listen, and insulting them both. But his brash personal demeanor belies a pragmatic approach to movement rhetoric. He has urged caution about the slogan “from the river to the sea,” which has become a fixture at Palestine solidarity protests. The phrase is a lightning rod for controversy — it has been criminalized in Germany and condemned by Jewish organizations in the U.S., where some have characterized it as a call for genocide. At the November OR Books event, Finkelstein said that Trotsky believed that getting slogans right was “one of the most difficult aspects of politics,” and argued the right messages for the moment are: ceasefire now, lift the blockade on Gaza, end the ethnic cleansing in the West Bank. “I will not in any way dilute my praise of what the young people, and the young Jewish people, have been doing,” he hedged. But “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free — I do not think that is a wise slogan now,” he told the audience. “It may be your aspiration, it may be part of your political program, it may be part of your ideology,” he went on, “but political slogans are something else, and when you start conflating them I think you lose people.”
But Finkelstein rarely comes across as exercising this kind of restraint himself, perhaps because he doesn’t think anyone is listening to him. He is well-known for a video clip of a book talk he did in the early 2000s in which he excoriated a sobbing college student, accusing her of shedding “crocodile tears” for Holocaust victims. His often outrageous commentary has been ubiquitous on X over the past few months, even though he barely knows how to use the platform — he emails drafts to his “tech team,” three younger people he has hired on a freelance basis to post on his behalf. One of the technicians told me that during one week of work in November, he “was up from maybe 5 a.m. to midnight, just making sure I could review everything — make sure there were no typos, make sure there were no factual errors and so on.” On November 16, Finkelstein posted an image of Chuck Schumer wearing a dopey grin and giving two thumbs up, with the caption “Senator Schumer Reacts to News That Ten More Babies Died in Al-Shifa Incubators.” In another tweet, Finkelstein claimed that “the Jewish billionaire class” had launched “the most concerted assault on academic freedom in the history of our country” to stifle dissent on Israel. Critics, including former Bernie Sanders advisor Matt Duss, slammed the phrase “Jewish billionaire class” as anti-Semitic and counterproductive, but Finkelstein defended himself, pointing out that Israeli media outlets have used similar phrases, like “Jewish mega-donors,” and noting that Jews make up a disproportionate percentage of U.S. billionaires. “And you know what?” he continued. “With money comes power. I know this is a shock to politically correct people.”
At least occasionally, Finkelstein does seem to listen to feedback and moderate his output accordingly. During a December phone call, he read me a draft of a tweet taking aim at Bill Maher after the comedian joked that Gazans should “make the best of it.” The draft read: “I would be morally remiss if I didn’t say, only a dirty Jew would make jokes as the people of Gaza face martyrdom. That’s right, Mr. Maher, you are a filthy dirty Jew.” I asked Finkelstein how he squared the incendiary language with his own advice to be careful with slogans. “I know they’re going to take ‘dirty Jew’ out of context,” he conceded. When I saw the post a few hours later, the phrase “dirty Jew” had been cut.
Finkelstein is not inclined to be overly modest about his expertise — “having studied the conflict in general for 42 years and in minute detail the situation in Gaza since 2008,” he said, he necessarily became “the vital person” after October 7. (That is evidently an overstatement, although his 2018 book, Sara Roy told me, is “widely used in the field.”) Yet Finkelstein is ambivalent about being pressed back into the cause and sympathetic to younger generations’ relative lack of interest in “old fogies.” “I recognize,” he said, “that it is your moment, it’s not my moment.” When we spoke in late December, he had recently celebrated his birthday. “I was so tired, I don’t even remember it,” he said. “It’s been a complete nightmare. But I’m not dead. The people in Gaza are dead.” Finkelstein had been hoping to spend his remaining years leading a quiet, semi-retired life, and he lamented the stack of books he would now likely not get to: a biography of Eugene Debs, a collection of Debs’s speeches, a book on Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign, another book on Debs, Chomsky and Me, and The Black Jacobins. But, he went on, “I have an obligation. I’m going to fulfill that obligation.”
Julia Rock is a climate journalist in New York.