‘Zionism is racism’, ‘Israel is a settler colonialist state’, ‘a settler colonialist project needs to be decolonized’. If you’re a left-leaning person and you are working for justice in Palestine, you have probably come across statements like these. And as true as they may be, we have to ask ourselves a fundamental question: “Who are we talking to?”
As Norman Finkelstein put it: “Zionism for most people is a hairspray, a cologne [..]” And I think he has a point. The broad public has no idea what we are talking about. I realized it the other day when I was selling a book to a man at my university, and he asked me about my bachelor thesis. I told him I was writing on Zionism, and he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.
As a solidarity movement who is working for justice in Palestine from the outside, we have to ask ourselves first of all, what our goal is, our purpose. One obvious goal that most people can agree to, is to create a broad public opinion in favour of the Palestinian cause. If this is our goal, we have to be pragmatic about the tools we choose to pursue this goal. A good place to start is our vocabulary.
We have a huge vocabulary. Zionism, apartheid, South Africa, Shuhada Street, settler colonialism, and so forth. We shouldn’t dismiss it all together, the vocabulary is good, the arguments are strong, but we should be pragmatic about how we use it. Because there is another language, a language that can resonate with people who have no clue about the Israeli colonization of Palestine, a language that can reach the broad public: International Law and equal rights. This is the most important lesson that we should learn from Finkelstein.
Personally, International Law is not my moral compass, it is not a language that I would usually use, it’s not a standard that I would use to measure whether something is right or wrong. But I have to be honest with myself. Am I working for justice in Palestine to feel good about myself, or am I working for justice in Palestine because I genuinely want Palestinian children to be able to go to school without being teargassed at a military checkpoint? If I chose the latter, I have to put my own moral standards aside for a moment, and be realistic about my choice of tools.
Politics, says Finkelstein, is not about what you personally want or believe, it’s about the maximum you can realistically achieve within the existing framework. In the matter of public opinion, the law is the framework, the furthest we can go in any argument. If we are advocating for something which is on the other side of the law, such as dismantling Israel as a state, then we lose the broad public, we lose our credibility. We no longer have the law as a common horizon that gives us credibility among people who don’t know us, we are just talking to ourselves.
And remember, as Finkelstein points out, the law is completely on our side in this matter. The Palestinians won in every aspect. The International Court of Justice, the highest judicial branch in the world, voted unanimously in favour of the Palestinian cause. Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, are Palestinian territory under International Law. The occupation, the siege, the annexation, are illegal under International Law. The settlements are illegal under International Law. The wall is illegal under International Law. Israel has a legal right to exist as a state within the pre-June 1967-borders, meaning Israel has to withdraw immediately from Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
On the matter of the right of return of the Palestinian refugees, Finkelstein’s opinion has changed over the years. In 2008, in a lecture given by Finkelstein at the Case Western Reserve University, Finkelstein spoke strongly in defense of the right of return: “They have the right. It is incontestable,” he stated. He further refers to an investigation made by Human Rights Watch which concluded that there can’t be any question: The Palestinian refugees have a legal right of return. However, over the years, Finkelstein has come to believe that the return of the Palestinian refugees and the demographical change that would follow, would mean the end of the state of Israel which he says is not in accord with Israel’s legal right to exist as a state within the pre-June 1967-borders.
Rightfully, Finkelstein has been widely criticized by many who see this as a betrayal of the Palestinian refugees. It is true, as he points out, that the return of the refugees would create a demographical change. But does this mean the end of the state of Israel? No, but it would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state, opening up for Israel instead to become a democratic state, in which all its citizens, despite ethnicity or religion, can enjoy equal rights.
And despite what Finkelstein has come to believe in recent years, there is absolutely a basis for the right of return under International Law. Article 11 in UN resolution 194 states that the refugees have a legal right to return. Amnesty International say they have a legal right of return. Human Rights Watch say they have a legal right of return. And these are powerful institutions and organizations, that are uncontroversial and trustworthy to the broad public, and therefore a strong tool for those of us who seek to reach a broad public.
If we want to do everything that is in our power for the Palestinian people, to use the means and institutions that are available to us in our countries, to put pressure on the Israeli government and system of oppression, then this is our strongest case: International Law and equal rights. If we go beyond that, we are not trying to reach the broad public anymore. At least not in an effective way.
This solution, that Finkelstein lays out in his pragmatic manners, calls for a two state solution. We can agree or disagree as to whether this is the right solution, and it goes without saying, that I would support any solution that is supported by the Palestinian people, but we have to be realistic about how we can best contribute from the outside, and one thing we can’t do, is to decolonize Israel. Decolonization has to come from within, and the mere idea that decolonization could come from the outside, is a colonial idea in itself which we should be critical about.