Teaching John Stuart Mill in Iran: A Conversation with Norman Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein is of course best known for his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—his bookslectures and media interviews on the subject over the last three decades—and for the considerable controversy it has generated.
 
Less known is that for many years he also taught political theory. It might come as something of a surprise that among his favorite works is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. This might come as a surprise since Finkelstein is well to the left of most admirers of the iconic nineteenth-century liberal thinker. Of course Mill was also a socialist and a feminist—indeed an early one (see Martha Nussbaum’s comments at the end of this interview). But in postcolonial studies Mill is widely regarded as an imperialist and a racist. An ambiguous and contested legacy, to be sure—which is part of Mill’s enduring hold on us.
 
Finkelstein recently taught a short course on Mill’s On Liberty in Iran. There’s a whole literature devoted to this phenomenon. Norma Moruzzi has written about reading Hannah Arendt in Iran. Ali Paya and Mohammad Amin Ghaneirad have mapped the multiple spheres of influence that Jürgen Habermas enjoys in Iran. The Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo has published a book of conversations with Isaiah Berlin. (I myself have written a short book on Iran’s engagement with liberal thinkers.) When leading political thinkers (of varying persuasions) from Europe or North America—from Habermas and Antonio Negri to Richard Rorty and Immanuel Wallerstein—visit Iran, their lectures are major events and occasion considerable buzz. (For more on this, see Mehran Kamrava’s book Iran’s Intellectual Revolution, Farzin Vahdat’s God and Juggernaut: Iran’s Intellectual Encounter with Modernity, and Mehrzad Boroujerdi’s Iranian Intellectuals and the West.)
 
But Finkelstein did something a bit different. His students weren’t the usual liberal-minded suspects—who represent a significant swath of Iran’s educated classes, incidentally (a phenomenon that is underestimated and trivialized by many Western leftists, which I regard as a form of Left Orientalism).  It would have been easy for him to teach the depredations of U.S. and Israeli policy in such a context—but it also would have been incredibly boring. He did something far more interesting. He taught Mill to largely conservative-oriented students in an institution that cranks out apparatchiks for the Islamic Republic.
 
That is just wickedly cool. Here’s our recent conversation about that experience.
 
 
The interview was filmed on April 24, 2014, as part the series of conversations with our guest lecturers that our Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver produces. 

United States of Israel

Sarah Palin is just the latest GOP politician to visit to Israel after a string of possible Presidential hopefuls to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the past few months. Why is establishing your credentials in Tel Aviv before running for US president as vital as stumping in New Hampshire?

Norman Finkelstein v. Benny Morris

To readers I would highly recommend Norman Finkelstein’s new book, ‘This time we went too far’. It is the most systematic and thorough dismantling of the hasbara edifice erected by Israel and its apologists (including Morris). On paper, Morris is a fine historian, but in his media appearances he always dons the hat of the propagandist. In this debate from Russia Today’s CrossTalk, Benny Morris comes across as defensive and boorish. He uses the familar tools of the propagandist, derision and ridicule, to evade serious questions. Every one of his claims about Gaza — that Hamas used human shields, and that its leadership took sanctuary in basements of hospitals — is rebutted by extensive research carried out by the Goldstone Commission, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. (via MondoWeiss)

On this edition of Peter Lavelle’s CrossTalk, he asks his guests whether the current “indirect talks” between the Israelis and Palestinians are a waste of time.

Impact of the Gaza war on Israel

Norman Finkelstein on Al Jazeera’s Riz Khan Show.

Has there been a shift in Israel’s ties with its allies since the Gaza war and how will that affect the peace process with the Palestinians? Is international support for Israel dwindling since the Gaza war and is it losing the battle for global public opinion?

Finkelstein in Prague

Last week, Norman Finkelstein delivered a series of lectures in Prague as part of his European speaking tour. Finkelstein was initially invited to speak at the prestigious Czech Academy of Sciences but had his invitation revoked less than 24 hours prior to his scheduled talk, allegedly at the behest of the Prime Minister’s office. A similar fate befell Finkelstein’s appearance in Munich and Berlin, where the Heinrich Boll and Rosa Luxembourg Foundations cancelled the events, following “a concerted campaign by neoconservative and pro-Israeli pressure groups, such as Honestly Concerned and BAK Shalom, known for their unconditional support of Israeli policies and the defamation of critics as anti-Semites.”

Here is Finkelstein’s lecture at Casa Gelmi in Prague, organised by the Czech pro-Palestinian group ‘Friends of Palestine’.

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Dissident Jews: Unwanted in Germany?

by Raymond Deane

Norman Finkelstein

A European country that scapegoats a Semitic people, persecutes defenders of human rights by stripping them of employment, and denies freedom of speech to Jews: surely a description of Germany during the Third Reich?

Yes, but unfortunately also a description of Germany at the outset of the 21st century.

In the wake of German Chancellor Merkel’s craven speech to the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset) two years ago, I wrote: “a penance is being paid for Germany’s past crimes… by the Palestinians to whose plight Merkel is so indifferent…. By scapegoating the victims of its former victims, Germany is compounding its past crimes.”  (Scapegoat upon Scapegoat, Electronic Intifada, 20 March 2008).

Just one year later I described the case of Hermann Dierkes,  forced to resign his position as representative of Die Linke (The Left Party) on Duisburg city council after tentatively advocating a boycott of Israeli goods. I commented: “It appears that freedom of speech, supposedly one of the proudest acquisitions of post-Fascist Germany, is readily suppressed when exercised to advocate positive action against the racist, politicidal institutions and actions of the Zionist state.” (A public stoning in Germany, Electronic Intifada, March 2009).

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Raymond Deane’s Open Letter to the Heinrich Böll Foundation on Norman Finkelstein

UPDATE: It now appears that the Rosa Luxemburg House has also cancelled the lecture. For shame.

Raymond Deane, renowned composer and founding member and former chairperson of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, sent this open letter to the Heinrich Böll Foundation after they cancelled Norman Finkelstein’s scheduled lecture in Berlin under the pretense that Finkelstein is a “controversial” figure.  PULSE is the first site to publish this letter in English.  The letter is also being translated into German, and will be appearing on several German websites shortly.  Finkelstein’s talk will still take place, but will be hosted by the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation.

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An Issue Of Justice: Origins Of The Israel/Palestine Conflict

justice Finkelstein Israel PalestineThe Gaza massacre has re-ignited debate across the UK and elsewhere and prompted many people to want to learn more.  For those relatively new to the conflict, I usually point them towards Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Finkelstein’s An Introduction to the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Occupation 101 and this lecture, also by Norman Finkelstein, An Issue of Justice.  It is one of the best lectures I’ve heard and succinctly covers the main areas of the conflict in an hour.

As an aside, I don’t agree with Norman on the Israel lobby and the Iraq war or his position on the two state solution, however I do think his argument on the two state solution is useful for demonstrating that Israel and the US prevent peace in the region.

An Issue Of Justice: MP3