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Ash responds to critique of Finkelstein on BDS

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Mondoweiss reader Aaron Maté sent us the following note after our recent post “Norman Finkelstein’s disinformation about BDS“:

Gabriel Ash writes: “The absence of any Palestinian political force that calls for the renunciation of the Right of Return and the abandonment of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, as Finkelstein advocates, further buttresses the claim that the three BDS demands are indeed elements of national Palestinian consensus.”

I was really surprised to see you guys publish this statement, and think it merits a correction. As you well know, Norman has never called for renouncing the right of return (or abandoning Arab-Israelis), as he explains in the very interview Ash takes issue with:

Dr. Finkelstein: “In everything I have ever written on the subject, I have emphasized that Palestinians have a right of return, and no one has the right to tell Palestinians that they should renounce this right as a precondition for negotiations… Negotiations must start from the premises that (1) Israel bears overwhelming responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, and (2) Palestinians have a right of return.  Once these points are acknowledged by Israel, I think a resolution can be found.”

Ash responds:

From the same interview:

Q: 1. You disagree with some of the specific “three tier” demands of the founders of the BDS movement.  Particularly, as per your points above, you disagree with the BDS founders’ insistence on the return of all Palestinian refugees, and linkage with the rights of Palestinians in Israel… 
 
NF: Exactly correct. 

Whether Finkelstein supports the right of return and equal rights depends on the definition of the word “support.” I am not very interested in that, you can say that he does, or that he doesn’t. My article is about his attack on BDS. Part of that attack, as the quote I provide makes clear, is that he wants BDS to drop two of its three demands, the demand for right of return and the demand for equality, and focus only on ending the occupation. 

Admittedly, it doesn’t follow that he opposes either in principle or even in practice in another context, for example, within partition negotiations. And, I HAVE NOT ATTACKED him for that. I disagree with him on the role of these two demands, but that too isn’t the focus of this article. The focus is on BDS, and his unfair to the point of malicious critique, including the idea that BDS leaders fail to represent the Palestinian people when they insist on raising the refugees issue, a critique Finkelstein formulated at the occasion of the Gaza Freedom March.

The sentence I wrote that is in dispute here can be read as accusing Finkelstein of not supporting the right of return or equal rights. That would be a bad reading, and I agree that it is also a likely reading because of the tendencies of a lot of people to read the questions before us through a purely ideological lens. This is not my intention. I simply refer to Finkelsteins’s calling for dropping these two demands from our current campaigns.

Ash also responds to Norman Finkelstein’s recent postOf cults and flunkies“:

The following sentence that I wrote in an essay recently published in Mondoweiss caught Finkelstein’s ire:

The absence of any Palestinian political force that calls for the renunciation of the Right of Return and the abandonment of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, as Finkelstein advocates, further buttresses the claim that the three BDS demands are indeed elements of national Palestinian consensus.

In response Finkelstein quoted himself to prove that he does in fact support the Palestinian right of return:

In everything I have ever written on the subject, I have emphasized that Palestinians have a right of return, and no one has the right to tell Palestinians that they should renounce this right as a precondition for negotiations.

Finkelstein has caught an imprecision. I did not intend to portray him as opposed to political equality or the right of return. The carelessness was due to the fact that Finkelstein’s substantial positions were tangential to the essay, which focused on BDS, and only concerned himself with Finkelstein’s practical prescriptions and not with his general beliefs. The context of the sentence was the representative power of the BDS call and the inclusion within it, in addition to ending the occupation, of the rights of refugees and of Palestinians who are citizens of Israel.

Norman Finkelstein calls for separating these two demands and excluding them from campaigns to end the occupation. He criticizes the inclusion of these two demands in BDS and other campaigns. Thus, Finkelstein left the Gaza March organizing in anger, over a dispute, according to him,

…not whether one personally supported a particular Palestinian right or strategy to end the occupation. [but]…whether inclusion in the coalition’s statement of a particular right or strategy was necessary if it was both unrelated to the immediate objective of breaking the siege and dimmed the prospect of a truly mass demonstration.

For those who might not know, the Gaza march organizers angered Finkelstein because they insisted on merely mentioning that most of the victims of the Gaza blockade are also refugees; no actual demand or commitment was requested.  I reproduce the key offending sentence:

The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were forced out of their homes during Israel’s creation in 1947-48 are still denied the rights granted them by UN Resolution 194.

I leave it to the reader to ponder the meaning of supporting rights in principle but opposing even as much as mentioning them in actual advocacy work and campaigning. However, Finkelstein’s prescriptions for depoliticizing advocacy has a substantial history, associated in the US with the legacy of Saul Alinsky. There are serious questions about organizing strategies involved which are worth discussing, and which I do not address at all, beyond noting that Finkelstein’s underhanded smears are themselves not conducive to serious reflection.  

In sum, mea culpa! My imprecision unnecessarily feeds an obsession with questions of ideological “purity and danger” that has little to do with BDS but is evident on the comment section of my own essay and others published on Mondoweiss. A more accurate restatement of what I wrote would be,

The absence of any Palestinian political force that calls for the renunciation of the Right of Return and the abandonment of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, issues that Finkelstein advocates that solidarity campaigns drop, further buttresses the claim that the three BDS demands are indeed elements of national Palestinian consensus.

This restatement has no impact on the substance of the essay.

Titling his response, “cult and flunkies,” and ignoring the actual criticism, Finkelstein makes clear that he has no intention of ceasing to spread disinformation about BDS.  Since he has raised the question of hypocrisy, I would like to end by asking, if what I wrote “flunks” because of a tangential imprecision, what grade should Finkelstein give himself for his embarrassing misrepresentations?

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Normally, when one is fighting for a cause, one is tolerant of other voices that are fighting for the same cause, even if they disagree on one aim or aspect of the struggle. For example, I know Gays and Lesbian activists who are active on this cause, and make common… Read more »

I do wish we could just move on from this issue. Infighting is exactly what Israel and it’s supporters want from us. Some people think the right of return must be implemented in full, some like Chomsky I believe, say that it’s an impossible demand and wrong to raise Palestinian… Read more »

“intention of ceasing to spread disinformation about BDS.” Really? You think F is consciously intending to mislead others? This is the dark hole one always digs when hypothesizing the motives of others. I think you (and others) are trying to tear down Finkelstein himself as a way of undermining his… Read more »

Having a long history of being a minority in many different lands, Jews supported both justice and equality. Justice for minorities in society, not just Jews. And equality (before the law) for all individuals.

How is it that Finkelstein has broken with these two vital historic tenets of Jewish tradition?

I’m glad that Ash recognizes his original statement is incorrect, and hope Mondoweiss will reflect that in the article. But I’m afraid his suggested correction is still off the mark: “The absence of any Palestinian political force that calls for the renunciation of the Right of Return and the abandonment… Read more »