A Critique of Norman Finkelstein on BDS
So Norman Finkelstein gave an interview in London on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Campaign (BDS). I noticed that Finkelstein’s views on the subject have been attracting a lot of attention and criticism. I was asked about such views during my UK university tour last month and in each case I stated that I would not publicly criticize Finkelstein although I disagree with some of the views he holds. But his recent remarks, I felt, went too far. Watching him, I could not help but think of the following points:
1) Finkelstein is obsessed with persuading the “public,” and he really and clearly means the US public, as if the struggle for Palestine is going to be won, or lost, in the US and not in the Middle East. He makes no reference to the rest of the world where public attitudes to Israel are very hostile.
2) Finkelstein asks how people can be convinced of "our position." To that I say: the Palestinians are the primary people to convince and they don’t need to be convinced. Outside of the NGOs in Ramallah that he scoffs at, the Palestinian people (refugees and non-refugees) support the BDS movement. It seems to me that they – and not liberal or non-liberal American in New York City – are the ones who should decide.
3) Finkelstein keeps talking about the “law” and how international law supports the state of Israel. But Finkelstein talks about law as if it is fixed. Law changes and adapts quickly to changing conditions on the ground. At one point, international law supported colonialism and the League of Nations endorsed (in its preamble) the Balfour Declaration and the “trusteeship” over nations – all that in the name of self-determination. Finkelstein even invokes the International Court of Justice in the Hague. But if oppressed people in the world resorted to International law in their struggle for independence and freedom, more than half of the globe would still be under colonial rule. I am glad that Finkelstein was not around to advise the people of Africa on how to achieve their freedom through international law. Plus, there are elements of international law which are in favor of what Finkelstein fears: the UN Partition Plan (as unjust as it was) does not give Israel more than 56% of historic Palestine and it does provide for the establishment of a Palestinian state over much more than the West Bank and Gaza. Is that not international law too Finkelstein? Furthermore, the UN General Assembly resolution 194 is also a part of international law that guides Finkelstein’s views on finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. And the UN Partition Plan does not permit Israel to discriminate, confiscate lands, expel peoples, and commit war crimes. These essential ingredients of the state of Israel are not part of international law.
4) Finkelstein rightly asks whether the real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel. Here, I agree with him that it is. That should be stated as an unambiguous goal. There should not be any equivocation on the subject. Justice and freedom for the Palestinians are incompatible with the existence of the state of Israel.
5) Finkelstein mocks the move to bring up the plight of Arabs within the existing state of Israel. He adds (almost sarcastically) that there are other minorities oppressed around the world. What does that have to do with the subject? Imagine if someone were to say back in the 1950s that the plight of African-Americans should not be a cause for many because there are other minorities oppressed around the world. Again, we are all grateful that Finkelstein was not around to advise the civil rights movement. He brings up the (usual Zionist) point about hypocrisy given the mistreatment of minorities in Arab countries. There is no hypocrisy, Finkelstein. BDS is a movement of progressives around the world who have not oppressed minorities: Finkelstein talks as if the BDS movement is led by Saudi Arabia or Syria or Bahrain. One can call for justice for Arabs in “existing” Israel and also can call for justice for minorities in all Arab countries. The struggle should be universal in fact.
6) It was rather amusing that Finkelstein would invoke the authority of Yasser Arafat to bolster his support for the two-state solution. This is like somebody arguing against the dismantlement of apartheid on the basis of a speech by Chief Buthelezi. We know that whatever Arafat read was dictated to him either by a US official or by an Israeli official.
7) Finkelstein expressed his regret that he struggled within a cult and expresses his belief that working to pass laws in the US Congress would have been better. Again, Finkelstein betrays an American-centric approach to the issue. US Congress would never be in a position to liberate Palestine.
8) Finkelstein clearly expresses his objection to the return of the Palestinian refugees and worries about a change in the demographic reality in historic Palestine. Just as the demographics of Palestine have been changed repeatedly and violently by Israel, they can be changed again – and that would be just.
9) Norman makes fun of NGOs in Ramallah (and many of them deserve to be mocked). But when he expresses disdain for failure to mount demonstrations against the occupation, Finkelstein betrays his own record which has documented Israeli brutality. The Palestinian people now face a double system of oppression: one Israeli and another Israeli-by-proxy through the Palestinian Authority.
Finkelstein has suffered from Israeli and Zionist intimidation and bullying. He has paid a high price for his opposition to Israeli wars and propaganda. But that does not give him a license to mock a struggle that is supported by the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people.