Two critiques of Norman Finkelstein’s recent appearances
Norman Finkelstein and Mouin Rabbani have teamed up to write a book, one with a very ambitious title; “How to resolve the Israel – Palestine Conflict.” On Nov. 30th, they came to the Morse Auditorium at B.U. (after a talk at Occupy Boston earlier in the day) to explain the book, and why it should be read when it comes out. Radical stuff, I know.
Gathered to hear their pitch was a disparate group of students, citizens and school officials. There had been talk of a B.U. Hillel anti-Finkelstein action beforehand, and possibly a walk out during the lecture, but neither came to fruition.
While very few knew that Finkelstein holds views similar in many respects to what we call Zionism, everyone knew that he once called Israel a “lunatic state.” Many of the assembled students were on the edge of their seats, waiting for the fireworks. They didn’t come. Funny thing about most modern day “radicals,” they’re usually the only ones making a rational argument. To be sure, there were points where Finkelstein delved into sensationalism, but his analysis was very sober and careful.
Finkelstein, as he has for many years, said that “the international consensus” is what will drive the settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the larger, Israeli-Arab Conflict. According to Finkelstein, we need to look no further than the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for our definition of “international consensus.” Both bodies accept the two-state settlement on the June 1967 border, and end to occupation, including East Jerusalem, a “just settlement of the refugee question” and security for both parties.
Advocating one state, without the two- state international consensus in Finkelstein’s view, is potentially damaging and could lead to these advocates becoming “a cult.” He used the language of Gandhi, saying that “politics is not about changing public opinion, or bringing enlightenment to the benighted masses, it is about trying to get people to act on what they already know is wrong.” Because two states is what has been accepted, by the UNGA, the ICJ, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Conference, the Quartet, and basically every other international organization– as well as civilian populations throughout the world, including a plurality in the U.S.– this is what the general Palestinian solidarity movement should strive for.
Finkelstein had some mildly critical words for BDS and its “vagueness,” stating that in order for the movement to attract a wider audience, goals must be clearly stipulated – to include the final settlement, which in his view, should be based on the June 1967 borders, “two states for two peoples” and all that jazz. This drew the ire of many Palestinian Solidarity movement activists in the crowd. Jamil Sbitan, who is with Boston University’s Students for Justice in Palestine, remarked – “As the Palestinians have a right to self-determination and have called for this movement, it is unfair to tell them that the opinion of international institutions and states is more legitimate than their right to determine their own future.”
Perhaps most surprising of all was the constant stream of students getting up from their seats and leaving, not out of protest, but because they have heard lectures like Finkelstein’s before and- and maybe, just maybe- along the way they have come to agree with the burgeoning “cult” Finkelstein continually warned the audience of. While Finkelstein stressed the importance of mobilization of people toward a resolution based on his definition of international consensus, he eschewed audience member’s questions about the moral question of a two-state settlement, which would undoubtedly leave many Palestinians out in the cold.
“Israel is a reality” was the refrain. Finkelstein was also dismissive of the problem the settlers and the rightward shift in Israeli society pose for a settlement. One audience member asked him, “ You say two-states, but how does that happen without Jews killing Jews? – the settlers are fanatical and will not leave.” Finkelstein brushed the concern aside, saying, “they are cowards – they will leave.” I couldn’t help leaving the lecture a bit dumbfounded, and I wasn’t alone. I went to hear from Finkelstein some new proposals for peace; what I got was a utopian vision that has very little chance of materializing. If international law and institutions held the key for peace, there would already be peace.
Getting Israel and the United States to follow the law – in the mind of many in the audience, including myself – can only be achieved by demanding far more than what is already on the table. Finkelstein fell short of this mark.
In my mind the real star of the show was Mouin Rabbani (link to sourcewatch.org)
Rabbani, who Finkelstein called “the shrewdest analyst on the Israel-Palestine conflict today,” has the unique trait of being very understated in his delivery, but a tremendous force once his words have been transcribed. He spoke of the events of the last year in the Arab world as an “Arab 1848,” whereby a “fundamental change has taken place in the social, economic and political order of the peoples of the region.” Everyday citizens have “broken through the barrier of fear” throughout the region, leading governments to try and counter this change, or move to stay relevant in light of it. Rabbani placed the Palestinian Authority ( PA) in the latter category.
With the election of Barack Obama, the PA believed they had their man. The PA, like most people with knowledge of the conflict, was becoming disillusioned with the idea of a two-state settlement. Under the Oslo process, the Palestinians were “hamsters in the wheel, having to prove their worth at every turn for the crumbs from the American/Israeli table.” With Obama, they thought that “salvation was just around the corner.” He spoke of wanting the U.S. to have a different relationship with Muslims, and of the Israel-Palestine conflict as being central to the current problems, and assigned a Middle East envoy (George Mitchell) within thirty six hours of taking office. Unfortunately, all that Obama had to offer was a “revival of Oslo,” and once this reality set in, “Obama went from a Jesus like savior to Judas” in the eyes of not only everyday Palestinians, but the PA leadership as well.
This posed a problem for the PA. Due to the fragmentation of the Palestinian body during the Oslo process, the PA had to contend with Hamas, who was gaining steam and threatening the legitimacy of the PA. The PA, according to Rabbani, “wanted an achievement.” So, in February of 2011, they went to the UN Security Council with a motion to condemn further settlements in the OPT. The PA leadership, according to Rabbani, thought with the events taking place in the Arab world, and the increased pressure on international institutions by popular movements, the U.S. would be “very wary of vetoing” the motion. The subsequent U.S. veto proved to be “a death blow” for the peace process to date. What the PA was looking for with their next move, the bid for statehood, according to Rabbani, was not “internationalization” of the conflict, but “electric shock for Oslo.” The PA was threatening the US and the Quartet with a “hold me back or I will kill him” scenario. But, a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum – after being “kicked in the teeth” by Obama at the UN, the PA leadership has made it impossible to go back to the negotiating table without a “clear and credible agenda,” it would be “political suicide” for them to do so. The PA’s inadvertent internationalization of the conflict at the UN has lead to a “decided break with Oslo” and potentially an “end to the Quartet” with International Law and UN resolutions becoming the basis for any future talks.
What has to take place first and foremost according to Rabbani, is a “Palestinian National Reconciliation” between Fatah, Hamas, other Palestinian political movements, the Palestinian diaspora and those inside in the Green Line. “Human Agency plays a role” he declared. “Palestinian Solidarity, Arab solidarity and International solidarity need to be mobilized.” While Rabbani agrees with Finkelstein that current political realities lead to “the possibility, if not the certainty, of eventually solving the conflict” within the two-state paradigm, he advocates a full right of return for living Nakba victims and “perhaps” all of their descendants. Will this be problematic for a two-state settlement? Will it pose problems for the authors as they collaborate? We will have to wait and read. One thing is for certain, the students involved in the Palestinian Solidarity movement have a moral clarity you don’t find every day. On the right of return, Kareen Chehayeb had this to say – “I believe in the full right of return, and that if a two-state settlement [was to forego] the right of return, there will be a plethora of new problems.” Now that sounds like a radical.
Norman Finkelstein: Scholar, Advocate, Radical, or Liberal/Zionist?
Norman Finkelstein is called an ‘American Radical’, but I believe a far more appropriate term for him, and those who share his views is ‘American Liberal’.
I recently heard Norman Finkelstein speak at the American Muslims for Palestine conference, for the first time following the incredible uprisings and display of people power – which began in the Arab world, and inspired the occupy movement which continue to grow in strength and numbers daily. No doubt an outstanding scholar, Finkelstein has gone to great lengths to research, document and disseminate the ongoing atrocities and war crimes committed by Israel. His thorough, meticulous approach is unparalleled and he’s paid a great price to his professional career, as his advocacy on Palestine caused him to lose tenure at DePaul University. Yet, instead of using his address to seize and build upon our knowledge during this historic moment, I was disappointed to hear him give, almost verbatim, the same talk we’ve heard for years.
For the sake of progress, I believe it’s necessary to understand Finkelstein’s logic and to do so, we must note the line and important distinction, of where his scholarly work ends and his advocacy begins. When the role of scholar and advocate blur, it becomes unclear and difficult for the audience to follow a line of reasoning; creating a schism. The issues he shifts from academic to advocate are some of the most critical for Palestinians and include, but are not limited to: one-state versus two, right of Palestinian refugees to return, and boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).
He stakes all of his positions on these issues, which are virtually based on the same premises, that we should a) do what is popular or ‘realistic’ b) adjust our language and positions to appeal to ‘global consensus’ for fear that c) if we don’t, we will inevitably ‘turn people off.’ It is difficult to understand from where he comes up with his conclusions and what he lays down to be, ‘realistic goals’. What is clear however, is that all of these positions he urges are heavily based in an antiquated top down model of power and are, it is worth noting, most commonly held liberal Zionist positions. During this historic time it is more important than ever to be critical and understand the role of our allies, while building mechanisms for communication – in order to learn from one another.
Though it’s not complicated to understand once presented with the truth, the corporate media would have us believe otherwise, and the majority of American’s are utterly confused by the situation, issues and facts on the ground. The role of a scholar is to present facts and information, in a clear and succinct manner; which is very important in educating the masses and is desperately needed today. This is especially true for the case of Palestine, as for anyone with a belief in justice and human rights, the facts alone speak for themselves compelling one to join the cause.
The role of an advocate is to take these available facts and use the information to create analysis, build positions and ultimately take action. For many years now, Finkelstein’s stated position has been consistent (with itself). He suggests, like so many liberals, with regards to advocacy for Palestinian justice, that we take a more “practical” or “realistic” approach to the most difficult issues, until we are able to achieve ‘global consensus’.
Despite taking note of the global uprisings and referencing the shift of power in his talk, he continues to selectively advocate for “realistic” strategies, and appeal to this ‘global consensus’. He goes on to define this ‘international consensus’ broadly to mean: “the authoritative political, legal and human rights bodies in the world”1 and suggests that we place our hope in international law and bodies such as the United Nations and the International Court of Justice-despite what he recognizes as their historic inability and/or political unwillingness to enforce their own laws, as they relate to Palestine. He even goes on to acknowledge “one of the best kept diplomatic secrets is that a broad international consensus has long existed on how to settle the Israel-Palestine conflict.”1 and in doing so, displays another example of his confusing and contradictory conclusions.
Using the same logic when speaking about one of the most important issues for Palestinians-right of return, he continues to overlook and thus dismiss altogether, the unlimited potential for people power, handing it over to Zionists: “For now, Israel will not honor a Palestinian right of return; to ‘demand’ it is the emptiest of gestures. That right will be honored only if the Palestinians become powerful enough to enforce it. If or when that happens, that some leaders verbally renounced the right will count for nothing.”
If and when, we amass such a show of people power that we will be able to influence justice to be served, we certainly will not need Israel’s permission to grant us these rights. Just as the apartheid government of South Africa was forced to fall, so will the Israeli system of oppression. Would the activists who worked all those years to end apartheid in South Africa have done justice to their cause if they created goals, based on what they thought the oppressors would be wiling to concede? For 20 years Israel has shown a clear lack of good will to engage in negotiations, or even uphold the agreements they’ve already made!
Another one of his bizarre recommendations is, rather than educate the international community about the racist ideology of Zionism* and Israeli apartheid, he suggests we adjust our language to fit this ‘global consensus’. Would the civil rights, women’s rights or any other movements in the USA have succeeded if they backed down because they didn’t have popular support at the time? Could they have effectively succeeded without talking about the KKK and white supremacy, issues of gender and male dominance etc.? Are we more concerned about protecting people’s feelings, or “turning them off” – than we are capable of/educating the general public about the source of the injustices, and seeking justice for the oppressed?
He builds on this line of reasoning, with regards to perusing the two state solution, by saying that “thousands of Palestinians suffered, sacrificed, even died for a sovereign Palestinian state.” However, I would far more likely characterize Palestinian’s brave struggle and sacrifices have been for the sake of freedom, liberation and justice. And, finally in a blow to the logical thinking mind, Finkelstein admits, in a posting subtitled: The one-state solution is an attractive ideal mistaken for a live option, implies the one state solution is ideal, and goes on to recognize: “of course the two-state solution is unjust. It cements Zionist usurpation of Palestinian land. It lets the perpetrators of this usurpation go scot-free, without so much as compensation for their victims. Worst of all, it perpetuates a state based on racial supremacy. Israel’s notion of Jewishness, the determinant of who should hold sovereignty, is ultimately biological. It is based on kinship. In practice, this kinship does not, as in other countries, depend on tracing family lines back to residence in the sovereign state, but simply on closeness to anyone considered ‘Jewish’ in the racial sense of the term.” 2
He clearly lays out all the reasons to be against such a state, yet still defies his own knowledge of the issue, and astoundingly makes his case for a two state solution. Using the following logic:
“it leaves ‘Jewish property’, including the settlements, in place. Some advocates of the one-state solution are explicit about this, though they never seem to mention it when criticizing the two-state solution. Others don’t speak of the settlements, or make vague references to adjudication – not a promising way to expel committed fanatics.”
Yes, the settlements would remain in place and those who want to live in them as equals would be encouraged to do so. Those who wish to disrupt the process of justice and sharing the land as equals, could be taken in to be held to legal proceedings, in addition to truth commissions and international observers (such as, but necessarily the UN) to enforce the deal.
He also takes a hard, critical look at boycott, divestment and sanctions, a powerful nonviolent strategy, modeled after the case of South Africa, largely credited for ending apartheid. He rejects this strategy, in direct opposition to Palestinian calls for international solidarity, put forward by Palestinian activists and 170 NGO’s in 2005. He does so using the logic that it is divisive and will turn people off. Yet if Finkelstein were consistent with even his own positions, rather than catering to Zionist critics, he would recognize them as reasonable demands-to cease all relations with the state of Israel, until it complies with international law (demands of BDS call: http://www.bdsmovement.net/bdsintro.).
In fact, we can learn a great deal by Palestinian proponents of the call, who are well versed in steering clear of ideological debates altogether, and care not for semantics of a so called one or two state solution, and instead focus on achieving their rights.
He even continued his talk with commonly repeated Zionist logic, that India has a prevailing caste system and the struggle for Kashmiri independence and gives the example of so many of the other countries such as China and Saudi Arabia. All of which are indeed unjust and which we should most certainly be critical of! However, none of these countries proudly boasts to be US’s number one ally, or recipient much less largest recipient, of US tax dollars and weapons – without which Israel would never have amassed so much power.
Just as we don’t want a state based on religious purity, we also don’t want to be ideological purists. However, we have gone too long and come too far, to compromise on our most basic rights now. I understand wanting to be practical to achieve political gains. However, Palestinians have already been down that road and in the process, given up so much; and lost everything in the process. We should learn these important lessons from history, and must support allies based in principles and solidarity, rather than compromising our most basic fundamental rights. Besides, why would anyone with absolutely no power to negotiate officially, begin with such week positions when all we have is the truth and our principles.
The overwhelming show of people power globally, shows increasingly that we are no longer waiting for, nor depending on governmental or international bodies to correct the massive number of injustices which are taking place on our planet.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is in nearly 1,500 cities worldwide, and growing in strength and numbers daily. During this most historic moment, and incredible show of people’s power globally, we are discovering, defining and realizing what is possible. We have drawn massive inspiration from those across the globe who literally managed the impossible: to overthrow some of the most powerful US backed allies/dictators- which were, to the West, of utmost strategic importance. Just as the corrupt 1% of bankers, politicians, dictators and war makers are working closely together, so must we. The success of this global people’s movement to achieve our full potential, is directly related to the extent of which we learn to work together, learn from each other and share information.
In the role of an ally it is more important and necessary than ever to actively connect the various issues – from OWS, to Egpyt with the issue of Palestine etc, and show how they are all the same struggle. As the the 99% begin to collectively take matters into our own hands, it is literally impossible for anyone to predict what is ‘realistic’ or ‘possible’. Norman Finkelstein who is speaking to people from all over the country and the world, is in a position of great influence. The international solidarity movement (http://www.palsolidarity.org), the Flotillas (http://www.freegaza.org/) and the Global March to Jerusalem (link to www.globalmarchtojerusalem.org) and BDS (www.bdsmovement.net) are great ways and perfect examples of movements and campaigns for allies of the Palestinian people to support. Otherwise, just stick to the facts Norm! ; )
1. From his article, titled: Resolving the Israel-Palestine Conflict: What we can learn from Gandhi link to www.normanfinkelstein.com
2. Article: Reasoned rejection of one-state position: The One state solution is an attractive ideal mistaken for a live option: link to www.normanfinkelstein.com
*The definition of Zionism is the belief in the right of a Jewish state to exist, which is in itself inherently racist. It is impossible to reconcile democracy, equality and justice with separate laws and standards for non-Jews. The definition of apartheid is ‘separate’, as in laws for non-Jews.