4 June 2012
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 postive 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.
Finkelstein renews attack in Democracy Now interview
In an interview today 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 whose main argument 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 whom far fewer people would know of the struggles of Palestinian political prisoners.
There was no mention either of Edward Said, and his generation, who endured decades of slurs as they brought the Palestinian narrative to a wider public in the United States.
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.
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 US 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.
In practice, Finkelstein opposes rights for all Palestinians
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 that claim 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.
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 six 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.
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?
Permalink Ali replied on
With this kind of crap, you become no more helpful to the palestinian cause then Bibi himself. Different opinions on a solution, and how to get there is a right of any activist. what makes you the authority?
Finkelstein as the diasporic Israeli citizen
Permalink Matthew Graber replied on
The way in which Finkelstein speaks about Israel-Palestine in this video reminds me very much of the way in which Dershowitz speaks - with the agency and the subject being Jews, whether they reside in Israel or in the United States. Finkelstein is directly speaking about the American Jewish community in his new book, and he attributes changes in the current position of the American Jewish community to Jewish and American organizations - B'tzelem, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. So the functional assumption which Finkelstein is working with here is that American Jewish opinion is only shaped by Jewish perspectives, or mainstream American (imperialist) perspectives.
This makes me believe that Finkelstein cannot betray some Zionist sensibilities, which would allow for self-determination and political agency for all people - not just Jews. What is all the more disturbing about this position is that it neglects the agency to affect change of non-Jews - in America and in Palestine - and sees any changes in Israel's positionality as only being the result of Jews.
When Finkelstein is taking such an insular perspective, and maintaining both his critiques and his agency for change as ONLY within Jewish communities in Israel and in the United States, how can we expand the conversation to include non-Jews?
Three words to sum up Prof
Permalink Mahmoud Yamak replied on
Three words to sum up Prof Norman's character: He's lost it.
I think it's time for him to resign from the Palestinian cause and limit his indirect determent towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict. His rhetoric has continued to disappoint me and by reaffirming it again on Democracy Now, it has solidified my stance towards him. Ali Abu Nimah, keep doing your thing!
Thank you for this comment!
Permalink Magdalena Winzig replied on
First I could not blieve my eyes when I read Ali's article. I read some books written by 'the former Finkelstein'. Just wonder what made him change so dramatically. And you are right with every word you wrote! I fully share your opinion
Ever since the Zionist
Permalink victor replied on
Ever since the Zionist movement came about, there were those (in the minority) who cared about its image: they wanted a "humane" Jewish state. The organisations mentioned in the article are such: they do not oppose the notion that the Jews have the "right" to confiscate Arab land and drive its owners away - they just want it to be done "humanely". Our Professor has always been one of these - he wanted the occupation to look "nice".
Now, the struggle against Zionism has moved on: the anti-Zionists are calling into question the entire legitimacy of the Zionist "project". This is where the Prof seems to have "jumped ship". In fact, looking and listentening to everything he has uttered over the years, he has never denied the Jews' "right" for a home in Palestine. In other words, he has always been a Zionist.
Here we go again
Permalink Wouter replied on
I have been involved in the Israel-Palestine drama for a couple of years now, and the petty quarrels between those who are basically in the same camp never fail to amaze me. How pointless, destructive and utterly DUMB it is. Learn a lesson from the pro-Israeli camp: they cover all bases and all support each other. They are laughing at us, fighting among each other like dogs in a cage.
How on earth can you speak so low of Finkelstein - one of the most prominent figures in working towards peace, who basically holds the same view on BDS as Noam Chomsky - is Chomsky an old fool too? And all of this just because you have a specific stake in the fight. BDS doesn't represent the whole of the Palestinian will; BDS represents ITSELF, and that is wrong, sad and pathetic.
Norman and Noam see BDS for what it is in the total scheme of things: a powerful too, not a goal in itself - and if you listen to their cautions, you could grow stronger. As long as you can't see the whole picture, won't play in the team and can't stop overestimating yourself, I will definitely not support BDS actively. Please be a bit more humble and a bit less self-centered.
Benefit of the doubt
Permalink K Carmichael replied on
It's sad that people who are struggling for the same positive and peaceful outcomes do not give each other the benefit of the doubt. Ali, you say:
"Look at those words carefully. What Finkelstein is saying is that the agenda for Palestinian rights should be set not by Palestinians but..."
Yes, you do have to scrutinise those words closely to glean such a meaning. And it takes, I think, an unsympathetic interpretation. In the context of the interview, it is clear that Finkelstein is talking about taking a 'pragmatic' approach which doesn't advocate for outcomes which will alienate those whose opinions are changing and could be vital for shifting the balance of interests in American politics around the Palestine-Israel issue.
(I don't entirely agree with this strategy but I understand the guy's reasoning. I also think that some of the things he's said about BDS are unhelpful and/or wrong. However, he seems to have revised some of his ideas and certainly recognises that BDS can be a worthwhile tactic.)
My point is that if you give the guy the benefit of the doubt, and he gives those advocating for BDS the benefit of the doubt then it's possible to have a really constructive dialogue about tactics between people who have complementary areas of expertise and understanding. That approach leads to energy and effort being expended to the same postive ends.
However what I'm seeing is needless antagonism, unsympathetic interpretations and a lot of energy and time being wasted in in-fighting. Please can we give people the benefit of the doubt, proceed with trust and love and do all we can to use positively the huge areas of agreement between those who want a peaceful and just end to the occupation.
(That said, by all means call people out when - despite giving them the benefit of the doubt - they show themselves to be racist, hateful, disingenuous, whatever. And they will show themselves up: you won't need to resort to interpretative contortions.)
I've read Norman Finkelstein
Permalink Juan Luis Domínguez replied on
I've read Norman Finkelstein's many works on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among those "The holocaust" industry", "Beyond Chutzpah" and "Image and reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict", and I've always found in him a demanding scholar in pursuit of the truth no matter how many politically-correct topics he had to break. That's why I'm all the more surprised to read about him in such a way. He now is even compared to Dershowitz, whom he very strongly wrote against. What has made this unwavering fighter for Palestinian rights end up supporting the same policies he so determinately challenged in the past? Something very serious must have happened to unsaddle him from his past enrolment on the Palestinian cause.
I believe that before condemning him to the fire, some more should be sought to help explain his dramatic shift in opinion.
Well, I have admired
Permalink Anonymous replied on
Well, I have admired Finkelstein for years and have always found he talks with honesty about what he believes in. I cannot see how anyone he has followed his books, lectures and professional trajectory can think he is or has been a zionist.
I have watched both videos twice and thought long and hard about what he is saying. I still support the BDS movement. What I think he is saying is that his (and my) personal opinion may be that Israel should have never been created or at the very least not the way it was created;that a 2 stage solution short changes the Palestinian side greatly and it is not fair; that Israel has disregarded international law since before its formal creation; that Jewish and western public opinion chooses to be blind to Israel criminality, etc, etc. NEVERTHELESS fighting your stand from a position which the majority of people do not support will not bring any considerable change to the status quo. Preaching to the converted is not enough and if your preaching is not bringing a substantial amount of “new converts”, then you may choose to be pragmatic and focus on the bits of your message that can bring large numbers of people in.
This is why he is saying he does not want to start from personal opinions as it is understood where that has got him in the past. We could argue against this position which is a tactical/pragmatic one, but I can see why he has decided on it - although I don’t agree with it.
If his new tactic of keeping his personal opinion to himself and not going further from the vast current “consensus” about a more “palatable” 2 state narrative (which stands under all UN resolutions and international law) brings a lot more people in and particularly American Jews – diminishing their blind support for Israel and IAPAC… then this can only be a good thing and wish him luck!
You want Prof. Finkelstein to resign?
Permalink Jonathan replied on
One poster wants the Prof. to resign, the other compares him to Dershowitz? And the writer of the article accuses him of opposing rights for all Palestinians?
If you folks don't want Finkelstein on your side, then god knows who qualifies.
I am starting to think Finkelstein is right about BDS. It is a cult.
I suppose then, with the way
Permalink KhelifaS replied on
I suppose then, with the way Dr. Finkelstein has defined 'Israel' is that the problem with the whole situation is that such an oppressive, non-democratic, blatantly racist state does in fact exists and has been accepted by the international community as legitimate. And to have the UN General Assembly or the international community, including mainly the superpowers, who base all decisions on self-interest as the indicators of justice is the very definition of injustice, as it takes no consideration of those parties that are directly involved, nor does it take the opinions of the victims, which should at least be having their ideas voiced as to the future of their struggle.
A difference of politics.
Permalink Pio replied on
There seems to be several things happening here.
1. Finkelstein supports a two state solution
2. Finkelstein supports liberal forms of mobilization centred around human rights, international law, political and legal mechanisms, and NGOs.
3. Finkelstein is against radical polemics (and seems to think DBS is this, which i disagree with) because these will alienate important constituencies such as mainstream Americans and Jewish Americans.
None of this is particularly surprising because he has never claimed to be anything but a liberal, academic, and Jewish American. Not being Jewish or Palestinian, and a supporter of Palestinian sovereignty and opponent of American (and all other) Imperialism this doesn't really shock me. I mean even among Palestinians similar political positions abound as they also do in many other popular movements containing contradictions around class, race, gender. Same goes for Chomsky. The honeymoon might be over with Finkelstein, but I don't think it's time to call for a divorce. Radical Palestinian activists supporting DBS need to be prepared to engage in political struggle within the movement around the kinds of positions Finkelstein and others promote so that Palestinians aren't again left relying on the predations of Imperialist powers and NGOs. The difficult thing is to do that without harming the popular movement with internal strife.
Yes to BDS and a Palestinian State without any trace of Zionism
Permalink Hadassah BORREMAN replied on
In the person of NF, we aren’t with a Jew, but with American intellectual who only has a Jewish origin; he doesn’t practice Jewish law, the Torah, which is the only authority for Jews, he doesn’t like Jews of strict observance either. I say this so that we understand why he changed his views. However the Torah is immutable!
A Jewish domination (a fortiori a Zionist domination which is the highest physical achievement of the Zionist heresy) is prohibited everywhere, especially in the Holy Land. The Zionist entity was founded against the Torah; this Zionist entity isn’t a Jewish State. The question of Palestine can’t be solved only politically, she responds to spiritual laws.
The first Zionist settlers have captured Palestine, an Arabic land that was inhabited by the Palestinians that also the Zionists of today continue to disregard and ignore. This is injustice! Much worse, the Zionists are acting in our name, in the name of the Jews, since the beginning. The two-States solution is nonsense; it doesn’t solve any problem, because the root of the problem is the application of the Zionist ideology. We must uproot this root, not just cut the dead leaves of the weeds.
Zionists must give back everything they have stolen, they must leave Palestine and they have to be tried as war criminals.
The Palestinians have the right, and above all, they have the duty to defend themselves, the duty to protect their property and identity according to the rules they decide. Everything is permitted to end this Evil.
The Palestinians deserve our support, BDS and other actions will help to the disappearance of their misery that’s also ours. Yes to a Palestinian Islamic rule with only the Palestinian flag!
YECHURUN – JUDAISM AGAINST ZIONISM
In the first place,
Permalink Ladidah replied on
In the first place, Finkelstein's insistence that Israel's continued existence is "the law" is bizarre. International law absolutely recognizes that states and state forms change, the requirement is that these forms change in accord with the self determination of peoples and not by negating peoples' human rights.
To the extent that international law addresses the relations between existing states, yes, it "recognizes Israel" as an existing state; it does not, of course, mandate that it must continue to be a state in perpetuity, any more than international law required that the Soviet Union continue to be a state in perpetuity.
UN resolutions, by the way, are not the primary basis of international law, and Finkelstein's argument that Israel's existence "is the law" is incredibly off-base, first, because it isn't, and the recognition of Israel as a state in international law does not mandate the continuation of that situation; and second, because even if it did, there are greater movements and causes than law.
Slavery was the law in the US and for hundreds of years recognized as the law between nations. The "doctrine of discovery" continues to haunt both national and international law today (although great advances are being made by Indigenous movements in the realm of internationally recognized rights) and that does not in fact mean that Indigenous people should not fight for their rights or freedom. International law, like domestic law, is a political system, and the Palestinian national movement is a liberation movement not a court case.
This time he went too far...
Permalink Sami replied on
Finkelstein's canon is based on UN resolutions and investigations by international human rights organization. If you've ever attended one of his talks he always ends it with a quote by Aimé Césaire “There's room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory.” Sadly the peace and justice for all rhetoric does not fly anymore. Jerusalem - 'the city of Peace' - is very telling of this. How could Palestinians ever find restitution for their demolished and stolen homes under those pretexts? And as long as the Apartheid Wall and the settlements exist they will always stab at the heart of justice. It's surprising that Finkelstein (himself once academically defamed and labeled a 'radical' himself) would call those who support BDS members of a cult. The past 64 years have shown that International Law is not capable of any just restitution. And if we are 'criminal' in demanding our rights - in spite of those who gloat their atrocities - then so be it.
And yes, this is not the first time that Finkelstein has belittled Palestinian activists. He once told our SJP, that he was disappointed that Jewish students were not playing a larger role in organizing with us.
After so many comments read
Permalink Juan Luis Domínguez replied on
After so many comments read for and against Norman Finkelstein, I feel it's high time to take a pause and reflect. Please let's remember how often interviewers have mistakenly translated words spoken by those interviewed, and how written sentences turn up being a far cry from what the interviewed said or meant (I'm not questioning at all the accuracy of the journalist).
As commentators such as "Anonymous", K Carmichael, Wouter, and Magdalena Winzig have clearly expressed, Norman Finkelstein clearly deserves at least the "benefit of the doubt", and perhaps his demonizers should spend some more time reading any of his works about Palestine and, maybe, their condemning opinions would be less mercurial.
Permalink Andy Simons replied on
I think Mr Abunimah misrepresents Norman Finkelstein. To highlight the advocacy of Human Rights Watch, the UN, and the International Court of Justice is not to personally dismiss the diversity of Palestinian opinion. Finkelstein has been to Palestine many times and it must be extremely frustrating that he’s no long allowed into the Occupied Territories. The non-Palestinian, mostly non-Arab bodies NF cites are more likely to inform world judgement than those in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Diaspora. More important than all international attitudes is what Washington thinks and they won’t be listening to voices from the PA. Sadly, progress for the Palestinians can only be made if and when the Americans wake up, from AIPAC to right wing Christian groups to the apolitical mainstream.
His use of the term ‘historically criminal’ refers to the opportunity for a two-state solution. We may not swallow 2SS idea willingly, but his analysis of international law and public opinion leads him to this unsatisfactory conclusion as being the only possible one. Make no mistake, Mr Finkelstein is saddened at the prospect. He deserves rational argument and not condemnation.
Honestly, as much as I am a
Permalink Michiel Sikma replied on
Honestly, as much as I am a fan of Ali Abunimah, I don't understand why he so bitterly attacks Norman Finkelstein. This article is full of loaded terms (the word "attack" is used 7 times) and doesn't elaborate on a few very important points.
The point him trying to remove the video is unconvincing to anyone who knows what he's capable of saying to a camera with a straight face, and it is simply factually incorrect to say that it is "misleading" to state that international law calls for a two-state settlement, unless you want to disagree with the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice. It may fall short of what we want, but I don't think you can very easily argue that they are misinterpreting international law.
To paint this man—who has dedicated his life to solving the conflict—as some kind of secret Zionist or a self-centered narcissist whose goal is to set the Palestinians up to be caught in the dragnet of US global power is just outrageous, and it's very misleading and debasing. And I think Abunimah would certainly be a lot better off treating him as an ally he strongly disagrees with rather than an enemy.
And to all the people who say Finkelstein "lost it": he hasn't changed his positions or his principles. If you disagree with him on this principle, you always have. He did not change. He did not lose or gain anything. And if you think he's a secret Zionist, or an opponent of Palestinian rights, as much as I hate to make an argument from authority, you should ask yourself if you would make the same accusation of Noam Chomsky, who shares Finkelstein's observations and has explicitly stated that he thinks his warnings of BDS attaining cult-like features are "apt". You may disagree with them strongly, but they are not enemies and should not be treated as such.
Finkelstein is smug and arrogant in his capitulation to power.
Permalink aaron aarons replied on
Leaving aside the very real possibility that his position is distorted by ethnic identification with Jews, the essence of Finkelstein's argument is that one must be pragmatic, i.e., operate within the limits of what is defined as possible by the dominant ideology. But what is especially hard to take is the smug contempt and arrogance he displays towards anyone who does not accept those limits. I tried watching a few minutes of his recent interview with Goodman, but neither what he was saying nor his manner of saying it were different from what I heard him say at U.C. Berkeley a few years ago. It was unwatchable and unlistenable, at least without a few barf bags at hand.
BTW, it would be bad enough if he called himself a 'liberal' or a 'moderate'. But, at least at that U.C. Berkeley talk (where I challenged him on it) he actually called himself a 'communist'!
Who decides the fate of Palestinian People? The Palestinian's!
Permalink michael hall replied on
It is rather simple. Only those in chains have the right to decide how,when & where they will break their chains and then decide for themselves how they will then live with their former captors. Activist groups are generally good intentioned,no doubt, but they have absolutely no right to dictate the terms of capitulation,the process of negotiations or the terms of breaking the shackles and after. Only those people themselves who are under oppression have the right to decide on what they will live under. Isn't this part of the problem? No activist group has the right to barter or bargain the rights of the Palestinian people, only the Palestinian people have that right. Support the People, observe and report but take over the stuggle? That is the epitome of arrogance and elitism. It is the Palestinain peoples struggle and they will decide on what they want and how they will get it. Who has the right to do that for them? No one does. It is their kitchen,their ingredients,let us allow them to cook their own future?