Over the last decade, one of the more amusing (though least productive) facets of the culture wars around the Israel-Palestine conflict has been the feud between Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein.
Dershowitz, a tireless advocate for Israel, has incurred Finkelstein’s contempt, which includes claims of misrepresentation, pandering and plagiarism. Finkelstein, a longtime critic of Israel, failed to achieve tenure at DePaul University in part because of a campaign spearheaded by Dershowitz, who wrote damning letters to various university officials (including its president). The two have argued voraciously in print and in person, occasionally directing insults at one another.
It seems intuitive, then, that the mortal enemies have little in common. In reality, though, the substance of their feud doesn’t broach the fundamental issues of Israel and Palestine, about which Dershowitz and Finkelstein have articulated similar, sometimes identical, positions — often enough, anyway — so much so that we can rightly claim the two enemies in fact share profound political affinities. Let’s take a look at the evidence:
Opposing one state
Both Dershowitz and Finkelstein are vigorously opposed to the so-called one-state solution, which assumes various incarnations but at base advances the belief that a binational state for Jews, Muslims and Christians is the most just and realistic outcome of the conflict. Both men have spoken in favor of a two-state solution.
Finkelstein has said, “the near-unanimous consensus for the past three decades has been that the Palestinian people do have a right of self-determination, to be exercised in the ‘occupied Palestinian territory,’ which consists of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Gaza Strip. I see no cracks in this consensus” (“A debate about the two-state solution with Norman Finkelstein,” Mondoweiss, 6 June 2012).
Dershowitz claims to have supported the two-state solution since 1967, though he usually qualifies his position with fantasies of Arab aggression or anxieties about eternally preserving a Jewish majority in Israel (the reason many liberal Zionists desire two states) (“The case against the left and right one-state solution,” The Huffington Post, 21 March 2012).
In 2011, he co-produced a proposal to end the conflict with Chibli Mallat, the conclusions of which sound remarkably like Finkelstein’s, calling for “two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, [to] live side by side, as expressed in Security Council Resolutions 1397 (2002), 1515 (2003) and 1850 (2008)” and a commitment “to the principle of nonviolence as the privileged means to effect democratic change in the region and beyond” (“A joint proposal on the foundations of a two-state solution,” The National, 27 October 2011).
Dershowitz and Finkelstein both emphasize the preeminence of Jewish opinion.
Dershowitz: “The American Jewish community is much more supportive of a two-state solution. And, the Israeli Jewish community is much more supportive of a two-state solution” (“Alan Dershowitz and Caroline Glick clash on two-state solution,” The Algemeiner, 1 May 2013).
Finkelstein: “There are major regional changes — what’s happening now between Israel and Turkey that’s part of an Arab Spring … there is a changed political configuration now. There are changes in public opinion. There are changes in Jewish opinion” (“Finkelstein thinks shift in young Jewish opinion means there will be two (viable states),” Mondoweiss, 19 October 2011).
Denying right of return
Dershowitz is adamantly against any form of right of return for Palestinian refugees. Finkelstein’s pronouncements on the matter have been ambiguous, but there is enough evidence to suggest his ultimate rejection of it.
A colleague, for instance, was present in 2010 at Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, when Finkelstein gave a lecture urging residents, some of them refugees for more than 60 years, to disavow their right of return. (This fits a pattern of Finkelstein admonishing Palestinians to be more reasonable and realistic, what Asa Wistanley calls “marginalizing Palestinians from their own struggle.”)
Dershowitz: “For peace to be achieved, pragmatism must be balanced with principle. The right of return should be implemented so as to protect Israel against demographic annihilation without denigrating the Palestinian narrative” (“Palestinians and the ‘right of return’,” The Christian Science Monitor, 16 April 2007).
Finkelstein: “For now, Israel will not honor a Palestinian right of return; to ‘demand’ it is the emptiest of gestures” (“Two critiques of Norman Finkelstein,” Mondoweiss, 23 December 2011).
Finkelstein: “If we end the occupation and bring back six million Palestinians and we have equal rights for Arabs and Jews, there’s no Israel.”
Finkelstein argues that he supports the right of return in principle, but “in order to achieve a political settlement of the conflict, the right of return will have to be subject to negotiations,” whereas Dershowitz is opposed to the right in principle. For Palestinian refugees the result is identical.
Bickering with boycott activists
Because of his opposition to boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), Finkelstein has alienated a significant portion of his audience (and gained new fans among Zionist hardliners). This alienation hasn’t resulted merely because of his opposition to BDS, but also because of the condescending way he has articulated that opposition.
Dershowitz: “It may be enough to say: ‘The boycotters are wrong’ and leave it at that. But the boycotters are not just adopting bad politics derived from faulty thinking. There is an edge of malice to their campaign. Their desire to hurt, to punish, outstrips their ability even to identify with any precision their targets — all Israeli universities without exception? All academics within those universities? Israeli academics in non-Israeli universities? They cannot say” (“This boycott is not just wrong; it’s anti-semitic,” The Sunday Times, via alandershowitz.com, 14 June 2007).
Finkelstein: “[BDS advocates] don’t want Israel. They think they’re being very clever. They call it their three tiers … We want the end of the occupation, we want the right of return, and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel. And they think they are very clever, because they know the result of implementing all three is what? What’s the result? You know and I know what’s the result: there’s no Israel” (“Finkelstein, BDS and the destruction of Israel,” Al Jazeera English, 28 February 2012).
Finkelstein has stated on numerous occasions that BDS is a “cult,” though he has never applied the same term to his utterly sectarian worship of some imaginary “international consensus” that risibly simplifies the complexity of the world’s population.
Disrespect towards Arabs
In communities of decolonization, one’s interactions with the colonized party are as important as the opinions one articulates (indeed, a person’s negative behavior generally foregrounds an insidious agenda). Neither Dershowitz nor Finkelstein practices respect when communicating with Arabs.
For Dershowitz, to whom Arabs are little more than a brown mass of existential danger, unsavory interpersonal behavior is no surprise. We might reasonably hold Finkelstein to a higher standard, however.
I’m thinking of Finkelstein’s tendency to lecture Palestinians about their unrealistic expectations and their need to succumb to the inhibitions of Israeli liberals. In early June at a Left Forum panel, for example, he proclaimed of those unwilling to recognize Israel’s right to exist: “That’s pure unadulterated hypocrisy. And, speaking personally, I don’t want to have anything to do with it. And speaking politically, it won’t go anywhere” (“Norman Finkelstein throws wrench in anti-Israel movement’s claim to a rights-based agenda,” Anti-Defamation League, 21 June 2013).
He also admonished Palestinian attorney Lamis Deek (“Israel is a state. It has the same rights and the same obligations as the 190 other states”) and afterward complained to As’ad Abukhalil for criticizing him on the Angry Arab blog: “It’s useful to think twice before joining in a lynch mob.”
Here Finkelstein sounds a lot like Dershowitz when the latter patronized Palestinian novelist Susan Abulhawa at the 2010 Boston Book Festival (“Trainwreck in Boston: Dershowitz calls a Palestinian novelist a bigot and a Holocaust denier,” Mondoweiss, 17 October 2010). Even the language they use is comparable.
Finkelstein recently went on a bizarre, paranoid rant: “Even lectures have significantly diminished because I’ve had major differences of opinion with elements in the Palestine solidarity movement. And they carry on like a cult, and so when the differences emerged, I was blacklisted, too. That’s just a fact.
“Last year I’d probably say about — I’d say between — about 75 invitations to speak around the United States by what’s called SJP, Students for Justice in Palestine. This year I didn’t receive one. I didn’t receive one. They carry on like a cult. And the guru says, ‘You’re out,’ you’re out” (“Finkelstein disowns ‘silly’ Israel boycott,” The Jewish Chronicle, 16 February 2012).
This sort of behavior is typical of certain members of privileged groups who devote themselves to improving the lot of the oppressed. Anybody who has worked in communities of decolonization knows the type: a person arrives and shows himself ultimately uninterested in achieving liberation, but insists on leading the wretched horde to his vision of an acceptable outcome — one that is invariably “pragmatic” and “realistic,” saturated in the language of objectivity and the common good.
Of course, it is but an unlucky accident that these outcomes always happen to favor the interests of the oppressor. When that person is challenged or marginalized, histrionics ensue.
Finkelstein’s comments about Students for Justice in Palestine reveal a man more interested in nourishing a God-complex than in doing anything to help Palestine.
Patronizing and pedantic
Dershowitz and Finkelstein have differences, too. Finkelstein has never plagiarized or supported torture and Dershowitz has never attempted to lead a march on Gaza he would later deem “sectarian” after the people on whose behalf he purported to march demanded a voice in the planning (“Why I resigned from the Gaza Freedom March coalition”).
Finkelstein acknowledges evidence of Israel’s brutality in the past and present, whereas Dershowitz more or less blames everything that’s ever gone wrong in the Holy Land on the Arabs. Yet Finkelstein’s positions on the right of return and binationalism indicate an unwillingness to accept moral ownership of the brutality he acknowledges. To say that emphasis on justice isn’t pragmatic is to severely underthink the possibilities of decolonization.
Ultimately, on the issues that matter most, those fundamental to the cessation of the Zionist colonial project, there is little disagreement between Dershowitz and Finkelstein, certainly none of significance. There is also little to distinguish in their patronizing and pedantic tone with Palestinians.
Many advocates of Palestine are rightfully upset with Finkelstein, but if I may offer a suggestion, I would advise that we assign Finkelstein the same status we have long accorded Dershowitz, that of a slightly cogent but mostly curmudgeonly white male who occasionally annoys with outbursts of bluster and disdain.
Just as their feud has taken too much time away from important matters, Finkelstein’s discourse of “international consensus” and “cults” and “pragmatism” is so slovenly that we’re better served challenging more sophisticated opponents of Palestinian aspirations.
Finkelstein can be frustrating because he apparently believes that practicality, realism and reasonableness exist within fixed structures of meaning and have nothing to do with definitional commonplaces and political ethos generated and maintained by the ruling classes. He’s made it clear he’s sticking with that discourse. There’s nothing left to do with Finkelstein but hope he reads the Wikipedia entry on the theory of hegemony.
It’s difficult to say whether the Dershowitz-Finkelstein feud will continue. While the two have much in common politically, they differ in motive, and this difference of motivation will likely keep them at odds. For those who care about Palestinian voices, motivation is less important than actual belief; in this area, Dershowitz and Finkelstein are the Peres-Netanyahu tandem of American liberalism.
Let us then leave them to their feuding with the understanding that they have nothing really to resolve beyond the antipathy of competing egos. Passionate interpersonal conflicts, after all, often occur with the people with whom we have most in common.
Editor’s note: The reference to the article “Why I resigned from the Gaza Freedom March coalition” which appeared on Norman Finkelstein’s personal website was linked to the wrong target and misattributed to The Jewish Chronicle. This has been corrected.