Norman Finkelstein’s misleading attack on BDS
Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the Electronic Intifada website, examines Norman Finkelstein’s latest assault on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
EARLIER THIS year, Norman Finkelstein gave a notorious interview to Frank Barat in which Finkelstein attacked the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as a “cult,” accused prominent Palestinians of lying about their goals–which he characterized as the destruction of Israel–and demanded that Palestinians recognize Israel, effectively, as a Jewish state.
Finkelstein was apparently so disturbed by the negative reactions to this interview (although they were entirely positive among many Zionist fanatics) that he tried unsuccessfully to scrub the video from the Internet.
I wrote a detailed rebuttal to Finkelstein’s poor arguments in an Al Jazeera article titled “Finkelstein, BDS and the destruction of Israel.”.”
As far as I know, Finkelstein never responded to my piece or to others. I have had no contact with him since long before the Barat interview, although I heard from various people that Finkelstein felt the interview didn’t represent him, that he was having a bad day at the end of an exhausting UK tour, and other such excuses.
In a June 4 interview on Democracy Now!–looking relaxed and rested–Finkelstein renewed his attack on Palestinians and their quest for their rights in even more strident terms, leaving no doubt where he stands.
The interview was about his new book Knowing Too Much, the main argument of which is that liberal American Jewish opinion has shifted on Israel to a point where uncritical support is no longer politically tenable, a shift that is also becoming evident in the mainstream.
Finkelstein attributed this shift almost entirely to the efforts of Jewish Americans such as himself and Israeli groups like B’Tselem, and a few international groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Interestingly, Finkelstein made no mention whatsoever of the struggles and sacrifices of Palestinians over many decades, not just nameless individuals but also the efforts of groups like Al-Haq, founded in 1979; the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, founded in the 1990s, which has led efforts to bring Israeli war criminals to justice internationally; or Addameer, without which far fewer people would know of the struggles of Palestinian political prisoners.
There was no mention either of Edward Said and his generation, which endured decades of slurs as they brought the Palestinian narrative to a wider public in the United States.
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BUT DESPITE these shocking omissions, let us accept that the efforts of people and movements have shifted public opinion to the point where Finkelstein now believes there is an unprecedented opportunity for progress.
It is at this point that Finkelstein begins to contradict himself and move from ignoring Palestinians to attacking them outright.
In the last third of the half-hour interview, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman asked Finkelstein about his views on a two-state solution and BDS. Here’s how he replied:
You don’t start with what your opinion is. You start with where public opinion is at. And the purpose of politics is to try to get people to act on the beliefs they already hold. So I think it’s often mistaken when people ask, “Do you support one state or two states?” as if politics were a question about what I support. Politics to me is about the maximum you can hope for, trying to reach justice, the maximum you can hope for in a given context, and our given historical context now, you’d say the limit of the spectrum, the very end of the spectrum would be, say, human rights organizations.
So you consider yourself a left-of-center program–Democracy Now!–and who do you have on from Egypt? A representative from Human Rights Watch, because you recognize that’s the limit of the spectrum of progressive thought in the world we live. Maybe we wish it went further than Human Rights Watch, but it doesn’t. And that’s why you have HRW as the person to be interviewed. (Emphasis added)
Look at those words carefully. What Finkelstein is saying is that the agenda for Palestinian rights should be set not by Palestinians, but by organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which are integrated and tied into U.S. global power.
Finkelstein had lauded his own efforts over many decades to shift public opinion, but now that he is tired and satisfied, the effort should cease and Palestinians should accept what international constellations of power are prepared to grant no matter how far short of justice that may be.
Finkelstein told Goodman that he wants to reach the “limits of progressive opinion,” but he warned:
I don’t want to go beyond it because then I become a cult. I’m no longer reaching people. And the limit in the world today is what human rights organizations are saying, what the International Court of Justice is saying, what the UN General Assembly is saying–and there you have a complete consensus, apart from the United States and Israel and some South Sea islands. Apart from them, the consensus is clear: it’s a two-state settlement on the June 1967 border and a just resolution of the refugee question based on the right of return and compensation. That’s the limit of opinion. (Emphasis added)
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FINKELSTEIN THEN shifted his attack back to the BDS movement:
The problem as I see it with the BDS movement is not the tactic. Who could not support boycott, divestment and sanctions? Of course you should. And most of the human rights organizations, church organizations have moved in that direction. The problem is the goal. The official BDS movement claims to be agnostic, neutral, whatever term you want to use, on the question of Israel. You can’t reach a broad public if you are agnostic on the question of Israel. The broad public wants to know, where do you stand. And if you claim not to have a stand, you lose them. (Emphasis added)
The goals of the BDS movement–as set in the 2005 Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions–are straightforward: an end to Israel’s occupation of all lands seized in 1967; full equality for and an end to all forms of discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel; and that Israel respect, promote and implement Palestinian refugee rights, including the right of return.
As Finkelstein elaborated in the Barat interview–but not on Democracy Now!–his objection is that implementing all three of these basic rights would effectively cause Israel to forfeit its Jewish character and become a democracy. As Finkelstein put it so memorably, “Because, if we end the occupation and bring back 6 million Palestinians and we have equal rights for Arabs and Jews, there’s no Israel” (I will simply refer readers back to my Al Jazeera article for a response).
After continuing his attacks on the Palestinian-led BDS movement, Finkelstein offered this thought on the consequences of Palestinians continuing to insist on their rights, and rejecting the so-called two-state solution, which Finkelstein misleadingly asserts is “the law”:
That’s the law. If you want to go past that law, or ignore the Israel part, you’ll never reach a broad public. And then it’s a cult. It’s pointless in my opinion. We’re wasting time. And it’s not only a wasting of time. It becomes–and I know it’s a strong word and I hope I won’t be faulted for it–it becomes historically criminal. (Emphasis added)
There you have it, Palestinians. If you continue to insist on rights for all Palestinians, you are committing a crime.
As for Democracy Now!, will it allow Palestinians an opportunity to respond to Finkelstein’s misleading attacks?