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BDS interview fallout: Finkelstein ‘showed his own fear of the paradigm shift in discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’

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Here are three smart reactions to the Norman Finkelstein BDS interview. The first is from Maath Musleh, a Palestinian student in London, the second is former CPT volunteer Sean O’Neill writing for +972 and last is David Samel from the Mondo comment section.

There have actually been so many interesting responses to the piece I should really post more than these three. If you’ve read others please post them below in the comments section, especially if you’ve seen something supporting Finkelstein’s position. I know there was a heated discussion in our comment section, and on Twitter, but haven’t seen a piece picking up his argument. 

First is Maath Musleh writing on the palestineyouthvoice blog:

In a lecture in University of London last year, he gave a lecture advocating for a 2-states solution, claiming it has a Palestinian consensus. I have no clue how did he decide that. Nonetheless, in the Q & A I asked him a clear question: since there is no consensus on a 2-state solution or a 1 state solution, isn’t it just fair to advocate for what holds a consensus; namely, the right of return? He didn’t answer my question, and went on talking about a 1state and 2states solutions. He has marginalized the right of return in his lecture.

In his interview in February 9, Mr. Finkelstein have continued marginalizing the right of return. He said: “If you are serious about building a mass movement, you cannot go beyond what the public is ready to accept.” Which public does he mean? The Palestinian public? Well we are not ready to accept a solution that undermines our rights. The international community? well they accepted the massacre in Gaza, on flotilla, hundreds of thousands of arrests, oppression, dozens of massacres in the past 64 years. Not doing anything about it is accepting it. Also, they are not part of the conflict. They do not get a vote in this. It does not affect every aspect of their lives. It’s our dreams, hopes, lives on stake here.  Or is it the Israeli public? The Israeli public that accepted Gaza massacre, dozens of massacre in the past years, displacement of Palestinians, building of settlements, and many more oppression.

Mr. Finkelstein criticized BDS movement of being picky about the law. He says that the law is clear. “It is also correct that Israel is a state,” he said. “If you want to use the law as a weapon to reach the public opinion you cannot be selective about the law.” UN Resolution 273 (III) admission of Israel to membership in the United Nations recalls “its resolutions of 29 November 1947 and 11 December 1948” as the basis of accepting Israel as a state. The membership of the State of Israel in the UN is dependent on their respect to resolution 194 and the right of return. UN Resolution 194 (III) article 11 states that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes…should be permitted to do so”. This is also part of the law that you wish to be selective about. He criticizes the BDS movement of being selective about the law for calling for the implementation of a UN resolution! Unfortunately, he joined the new trend of using the expression of “a just resolution for the refugee question based on resolution 194″. This is a deceiving expression. The just resolution is to implement resolution 194. There is already an international consensus, expressed in resolution 194, on how should the refugee question be solved.

From O’Neill’s post “In flinching move, Finkelstein slams boycott movement“:

I recently witnessed BDS’s growing clout at a meeting I attended with a woman working with an Israeli artist helping set up a series of salons in New York to explore and question the Birthright Israel programs, and the idea of a “birthright” in general. The project sounds very interesting, but the woman was visibly frustrated at their inability to find people willing to work with them in the city. They are partially funded by the Israeli Consulate, and as a result have had the proverbial door shut on them by activists, artists, and professors, Arab and Jew alike. This would have been incomprehensible five years ago, when I first heard of the BDS movement at the annual Bil’in conference and it was, at that point, divisive even among conference attendees.

Here is where things stand now. There is a paradigm shift in the works in how the Israel/Palestine conflict is understood and approached. There is an increasing consensus among Israel’s critics to see the issue as one of civil rights, rather than a conflict between two nations. Indeed, some BDS activists harbor a desire to see the end of the Jewish state, and others believe this is the inevitable outcome of a civil rights movement, whether they desire it or not. But many others, I would argue most Palestinians among them, simply don’t care about this abstract One State v. Two State argument. They just don’t think civil rights – indeed human rights – can be trumped by someone’s nationalist claims.

Finkelstein’s sudden hostility to the solidarity movement is a symptom of this paradigm shift. It is easy to rail against Israel when the existence of a Jewish nation-state seems guaranteed in perpetuity. But that guarantee seems to have eroded a bit. For some this will be scary. But then change always is. It was scary in South Africa. It was scary in the Jim Crow American South. For others it is liberating, and you can count among these an increasing number of Israelis who see coexistence – real coexistence, not the tenuous kind that reigns in Jaffa, among other places – as a more attractive guarantee to their security than the ethnocratic state. As the ground continues to shift, some of those who are afraid will flinch, and retreat to safer, more moderate arguments. Finkelstein flinched.

And here’s Samel:

What a terribly disappointing interview. While Finkelstein deserves enormous respect for the courageous things he has done very well, he is most unimpressive here. Several points, in no particular order (other than disorganized rambling):

1) Finkelstein, while accusing BDS proponents of being disingenuous in refusing to acknowledge their ultimate aim is to destroy Israel, is clearly being disingenuous himself. He talks about Israel’s right to exist as a state, and the need for Palestinians to recognize same, but sidesteps the critical issue of Israel as a Jewish State. There surely is no international legal consensus on recognizing Israel as a Jewish State. Yet Israel as a Jewish State is precisely what Finkelstein is defending. Either Finkelstein refuses to recognize that there is an inherent contradiction between a Jewish State and a state of equal rights, or he is stating his preference for a Jewish State over the principle of equality. Neither of these positions is defensible, and he doesn’t choose one and defend it.

2) NF does not talk about the feasibility of the two-state solution. I suppose he might do so elsewhere. I believe his prescription for emptying enough of the settlements in order to make Palestine a geographically viable state is giving settlers a deadline to return within the green line after which they will not be protected by IDF. That’s Chomsky’s solution anyway, and it makes no sense to me. Of the 6 or 7 hundred thousand settlers, even if there are genuinely fair land swaps, there will be tens of thousands of well-armed fanatical settlers who will refuse to cede what God has promised the Jewish people. They will not only refuse to budge but refuse to accept the jurisdiction of a Palestinian government over them. It seems to me that if these settlers are deemed citizens of Palestine, armed conflict between that government and these fanatics would be inevitable, and of course Israel could not sit on the sidelines. Israel’s illegal settlement of hundreds of thousands of Jewish citizens has made the reality of Palestine impossible.

Then there is Israel’s dependence on West Bank water. It will surely insist on keeping access to what should be a Palestinian resource. Even the notion of mutually agreed upon swaps of land has the fatal flaw of requiring Israel’s agreement. All Israel has to do is refuse reasonable plans, propose unreasonable ones, blame Palestinians for refusing these unreasonable plans, and the occupation continues for many more years. There is a reason that the two-state solution, so overwhelmingly backed by the “international consensus,” not only has not been achieved despite this formidable backing, but seems farther away than ever. Israel has unilaterally taken steps to make it more and more difficult, and have probably made it impossible.

3) Finkelstein sounds curiously like his nemesis Dershowitz when he claims that misplaced concern for discrimination against Israel’s minority citizens would raise troubling questions about minorities in other countries, such as India. Let’s put aside the difference that the Indian Government does not, overtly at least, enforce, favor, or sanction the caste system, while the Israeli Government surely grants special rights and privileges to its Jewish citizens. If Finkelstein is so concerned with India’s downtrodden, why doesn’t he take up their cause rather than defending Israel’s blatant ethno-religious preferences that he finds more tolerable than India’s. If he realizes that this Dershowitzian “what about other countries” argument is bullshit, but fears that it will resonate in the larger community, why not oppose the tide and painstakingly try to convince people otherwise? For that matter, if he’s worried about floating ideas that won’t fly, thereby leaving oneself open to counter-attack, why does he repeatedly compare Israel to Nazis? Does he think that will get traction?

4) Finkelstein buys into the “destroy” Israel language, actually using that word several times. One-staters want a peaceful transformation of Israel from a country that favors one ethno-religious group to one that guarantees full equality for all. The use of words like “destruction,” with the implication of violence and killing, to describe this process is dishonest. As many others have pointed out, South Africa was not “destroyed” when apartheid was abandoned. Yes indeed, Israel might cease to exist as a Jewish State that offers some citizens superior rights based on ethnic privilege. Not only that, Israel offers these privileges to Diaspora Jews like Finkelstein and myself. Isn’t it unseemly for him to defend that system, even if he would never avail himself of the undeserved opportunity to supplant Palestinians on their home turf? Opposition to this system cannot fairly be categorized as “destruction.”

5) Finkesltein revels in the near-unanimous “two state consensus”, but that consensus was achieved decades ago, and the reality not only hasn’t been achieved, but is further away than ever. BDS proponents are trying something different. Even if he thinks their efforts are not likely to be fruitful, and that they are better spent in other pursuits, why does he disparage them as a cult? They are trying a similar tactic to one that was at least partially responsible for the end of apartheid. Finkelstein’s comparison of BDS to his own youthful flirtation with Maoism isn’t simply insulting, it’s just plain stupid.

6) Finkelstein worries that the international community simply will not accept the end of Israel, but refuses to talk about the end of Israel as a Jewish State. But if full equality of all citizens inconsistent with the Jewish State, isn’t that a problem with the concept of a state defined by an ethno-religious privilege, rather than a problem with the concept of equality? Does he really think the world will not be receptive to a focus on equality that almost all countries at least subscribe to, even if some might be less than genuine? Does he really want to label those who lobby for equality a cult? The cult of equality? What’s next? The cult of freedom, justice and fairness?

7) Finkelstein’s analogy of having to accept red lights as well as green lights is strained. There is no contradiction in demanding what Palestinians are entitled to as a matter of international law, and demanding what they are entitled to under moral and ethical precepts. There is no consensus of international law recognizing the Jewish nature of Israel, and advocating for truly equal citizenship violates no legal principles, even if equality would spell the end of the Jewish State as we know it. I’m not certain, but I doubt if there was any international consensus on the legality of apartheid, especially in the early years. Did that make opposition to apartheid somehow a flaunting of principles of international law? Of course not. Even if opposition to apartheid was based totally on moral rather than legal considerations, it was principled and worthy of respect.

8) Assuming Finkelstein is correct that BDS proponents are overly optimistic about their achievements, is that really such a big deal? He should advise them to tone down unrealistic expectations, but instead he’s throwing out the baby with the bath water.

9) The situation has changed drastically since Norman started advocating for the two-state solution. It has changed drastically over the past 15-20 years. Shouldn’t Israel face consequences for refusing to adopt the international consensus, and in fact making it more difficult to the point of impossibility to obtain?

10) I can completely understand Finkelstein’s greater concern for the 4 million Palestinians living under a foreign military dictatorship than for the 1.4 million or so citizens who are “merely” discriminated against in ways we in the US would find intolerable, but he should ask himself whether demands for equality under the law regardless of ethno-religious heritage can ever be considered extreme, or quixotic, or counterproductive. Why should it be so hard to convince people that discrimination against citizens based on ethnicity is morally indefensible in the 21st century. He doesn’t even try to demonstrate that concern for simple equality among citizens somehow retards progress toward ending the occupation and the more dire circumstances faced by more people. Finally, I thought Norman treated this earnest interviewer with arrogance. Frank asked excellent questions, and if anything, can only be faulted for not being combative enough. Finkelstein dismissed him with the obnoxious attitude that he was once young and foolish too, but has now grown up. Yuck.

Update: Norman Finkelstein’s response to David Samel’s questions have been taken down because we did not have permission to publish them. The editors sincerely apologize for the mistake.

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David’s rebuttal was excellent. Glad it got recognized.

I see a two-pronged struggle (BDS + severance of the Israel-U.S. special relationship) leading to the Zionist entity’s abandonment of the ethnic state concept, with its agreeing, instead, to sit down with Palestinian leaders for the purpose of creating a society based on equality with liberty and justice for all. Better yet, this is the year!

My attempt to decode NF’s views — possibly correct: he urges BDS to give up its call for these: “return of 1948 exiles” and “full democracy within Israel”. WHY? It appears that he worries that [1] if lots of exiles return to (e.g., pre-1967) Israel AND there is full democracy, then the existing Palestinians and the returning exiles can all VOTE and will take the place over politically, destroying Israel as a Jewish-run place, and… Read more »

These responses pretty much dispose of NF’s arguments against BDS, and without the arrogant impatience (noted by Samel) with which he treated his interviewer. “Picking up his argument” would be pretty tough, I think, for the simple reason that it’s indefensible. Maybe we should be asking instead why Finkelstein proposed it in the first place, and with the anger (and yes, fear) that seems so evident. My guess is that as demands for universal rights… Read more »

One state versus two state solution is a question for Palestinians to debate and decide. Outsiders may join in the debate and discussion but this remains an issue for Palestinians to decide. Supporters of Palestinian rights don’t always keep that in mind which does nothing to keep the focus on the ongoing occupation and ethnic cleansing. If anything, the one state – two state debate distracts us from that focus, possibly intentionally.