Transforming Finkelstein BDS attack into opportunity

Man walks by mural of fist holding key reading "We will return" in Arabic and English

Right of return is a central demand of the Palestinian liberation movement.

Abed Rahim Khatib APA images

There have been a number of thoughtful and incisive rebuttals to the recent video interview in which Norman Finkelstein absurdly calls the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against apartheid Israel a “cult,” and admonishes Palestinians to limit their struggle to the “two-state solution” (“Video: Arguing the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign with Norman Finkelstein (interviewed by Frank Barat),” 9 February 2012).

However, Finkelstein’s attack on the BDS movement is not, as some of his critics have suggested, merely an indication of personal demoralization, faulty legal analysis, or political shortsightedness. Rather, it reflects a stubborn attempt to rationalize his rejection of Palestinian demands — especially full equality and refugee rights — that challenge the legitimacy of a “Jewish state.”

“What is the result [if the BDS demands are satisfied]?” Finkelstein rhetorically asks in the interview. “You know and I know what the result is. There’s no Israel!”

This existential defense of Israel is hardly new. Despite his ferocious criticism of the 45-year-long occupation, Finkelstein has long represented those non-Palestinians in the solidarity movement who see the “two-state solution” as necessary to ensure Israel’s survival as a “Jewish state,” a means of reconciling their altruism with their political comfort zone.

Not only is this unjust on its own terms, but it places Finkelstein squarely at odds with a grassroots Palestinian movement demanding an end to all the apartheid structures without which the “Jewish state” could not exist.

Finkelstein denounces those BDS demands as a “clever” attempt to hide their anti-Zionist logic. But the real problem is that he and his allies often become alienated, if not hostile, when called upon to acknowledge — much less confront — more than a century of Zionist colonialism, particularly the ethnic cleansing of 1948 (the Nakba).

In 2009, for example, Finkelstein condemned the Gaza Freedom March for merely referencing refugees’ right of return, with little critical response from solidarity activists (“Why I resigned from the Gaza Freedom March Coalition,” September 2009).

This time, however, something is different. Instead of passing unnoticed, Finkelstein’s attack on BDS has triggered push-back support for the campaign, another reflection of its growing success in building uncompromising support for Palestinian rights.

An important opportunity

Finkelstein’s interview is an important opportunity — particularly for those of us who are Jewish — to affirm our unequivocal support for those rights. This both undermines false charges that BDS is anti-Semitic, and promotes a broad-based, international movement committed to ending not only the occupation, but the entire apparatus of colonialism and apartheid throughout historic Palestine.

Perhaps it will also convince Finkelstein, who has courageously exposed Zionist hypocrisy in the past, to support the BDS campaign’s comprehensive demands, or at least refrain from undermining those who do. Regardless, response to his attack shows that a growing part of the solidarity movement is willing to stand up — as it did in the struggle against apartheid South Africa — for the entire range of rights to which every oppressed people is entitled.

David Letwin is a Palestine solidarity activist who works with Al-Awda NY: The Palestine Right to Return Coalition. He participated in a 2007 delegation of lawyers and activists to the West Bank and 1948 territories, and was a member of the 2009/2010 Gaza Freedom March, where he co-authored the Cairo Declaration.




We are all subject to unacknowledged (and even to ourselves unknown) bias. I have read and heard NF many time since 1980s and have the highest respect for him. It was from him that I first heard of of Israel's practice of home-demolition.

However. It now appears that his undoubted brilliance -- so often and so usefully put to the service of Palestinian human and national rights in the past and, I hope, in the future -- has come into conflict with a deep unacknowledged bias which has steered his thinking off course on the question of "right of return" for Palestinians, through the prism of a so-called "right" of the Jews of Israel to live in a predominantly "Jewish" state, a so-called "right" so strong or predominating as to erase the right, asserted in the Universal declaration of Human rights and in UNGA-194 for peaceably-inclined refugees [the Palestinian exiles of 1948] to return to their own country, the country of their (or, now we must say, of their parents' and grandparents') citizenship.

I would remind NF that if Israel had not refused to readmit the exiles of 1948 (as demanded by UNGA-194 and propounded as a right by UDHR), these same people and their progeny would have been citizens of Israel along with the perhaps quite large number of Jews from abroad who might have become Israeli citizens -- and who in fact did so. Thus, RoR for Palestinians merely returns the demographics to where they should have been absent the unconscionable ethnic cleansing of 1948.

Unless NF approves of that ethnic cleansing, he has no moral or even logical leg to stand upon to oppose RoR today.


Perhaps NF has no moral right to "oppose" RoR and indeed his reliance on the "logic" of remaining within the language of "international law" is folly because international law has been flouted ever since it mandated RoR. But, he is right to recognize "facts on the ground". There is a price to be paid for losing, again and again for 64 years. International law appears to be only as good as the toilet paper it is written on. I think Finkelstein deserves accolades for 30 years of advocacy and a place in the sun of a fine pasture.


Finkelstein has proven to be a soft zionist -- he believes that the zionist state has committed real injustices against Palestinians, and he even works hard to address those injustices, but in his heart he wants to save the state of Israel. This indeed may be why he is working so hard, as Israel's rabid leadership has gone so far as to destroy anything like a healthy future for that state. Chomsky is another good example.


"Finkelstein has proven to be a soft zionist ": it's probably the most absurd thing I've read recently!
"in his heart he wants to save the state of Israel." If you know his works if only a little, you must know that it's incorrect. Finkelstein never really talks about what he personally would like to see happen. He always tries to refer to what's factually correct and reasonably possible to achieve. In the interview about BDS, he is just stating the obvious: Israel does exist, it's a member state of the UN and claiming that you want to eliminate it is absurd. Besides, it's morally questionable, no matter what the IOF do to the Palestinians (and believe me, I spend my time trying to expose their acts of violence to as many people as I can). You also have good people in Israel and if you want to eliminate all the states that conduct wrong policies, then you may as well eliminate the entire planet because you will never find one state that is "pure". Turning into an "israeliphobic" will not help the Palestinians and is just as stupid and unfair as being islamophobic or antisemitic.


Thank you to EI, and Barat and Letwin, for addressing the position of Finkelstein. In the first minutes of the Barat interview, when asked about a solution to the conflict, Finkelstein answers: "You can't go beyond what the public is ready to accept. The public is ready to accept, in my opinion, what international law says." In the following half hour, Finkelstein implicitly dismisses, for various reasons, that aspect of international law called "the right of return of refugees". Does anyone know what exactly Finkelstein has in mind for Palestinian refugees?


Hiis reply is in lline with the "zionist" thinking.


Don't people realize (in particular leaders of all countries and political affiliations) that, at th very end, only justice will prevail. Read history.
This means that a two state Palestinian/Israeli solution in cooperation with the support and guarantee of the UN/Security Council is unavoidable. Enough suffering.
Marcello Petrigh


The U.N. Security Council, when its activities are not blocked by Russia and/or China standing up to the U.S., has always been an instrument of U.S.-centered imperialism and its spoiled child, Israel. The same goes for the U.N. as a whole. Although some positions taken by those bodies occasionally seem good, such as support for the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees and condemnation of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, the only ones that have any effect in the real world are those that are enforced by the military and economic power of the U.S. and its allies, and thus serve the interests of those criminals.

The only section of the Palestinian people that will be served by anything the U.S. allows the U.N. to do will be a small layer that is already serving as paid agents of the U.S., Israel and the reactionary Gulf oiligarchs.


Marcello, I beg to differ. There is absolutely no guarantee that justice will prevail 'at the very end' (whenever that may be) or any other time. Reading history quite clearly teaches that. That doesn't mean that a two state 'solution' may not one day come to pass; quite the reverse.


I have come to fully understand that the real, ideologically motivated, hardcore Zionists are the "left Zionists". A close look at the others like Christian Zionists and other Fascist and Mafioso types in Congress, Government, academia and media reveals that they are mostly con-men and con-wemen adopting the veneer of Pro-Israel and Pro-Zionism because -under the prevailing power/ monetary/ financial structure- it is rewarding and profitable for their business, position and con-games. Of course, the mobster tactics of AIPAC has been quite effective in this respect.
I once asked Finkelstein the following question after one of his speeches including a passionate defenses of "Two-state Solution" :
"Do you think Israel will EVER allow an independent Palestinian State with army, navy, air-force and security apparatus to be established by its side? "
His answer was:
"but they don't NEED to have those"
My response:
"but -as a sovereign state- aren't they who are supposed to decide whether to have them ?"
"I have to go...I have a lot to do"


A two state "solution" has already been tried in the partition of Nov. 1947. The results are plain to see. It was/is a grave injustice to say the least.
Israel is a colonial-settler state based on a religious and ethnic orthodoxy founded through the dispossession of the indigenous population. It is, since at least 1967, supported unconditionally by US imperialism.
The anti-zionist struggle is an anti-colonial struggle.


It seems that Hamas has joined Fatah as a Palestinian auxiliary of Western imperialism by lining up with the U.S.-allied Gulf monarchies against Syria and therefore, in fact if not in words, against Iran and against Israel's most effective enemy, Hezbollah.


The anti-colonialism of the pro-imperialist Palestinian leaderships is only genuine in the sense that they want to replace direct settler-colonial rule (in, at most, the 22% of Palestine that wasn't conquered by the Zionists until 1967) with neo-colonial rule -- with themselves as the local satraps of Western imperialism, of which Zionism and the Zionist state are an integral part.


The twists and turns of the diverse Palestinian resistance to colonialism and a brutal military occupation are not significant in the "Big Picture".


Look, I'm a Zionist, but I have no problem accepting,in principle, the Right of Return for Palestinians. All the BDS ask for is recognition of the principle, with no mention of how it is to be implemented.

The devil is in the details. I think it was Uri Avnery of Counterpunch who talked about setting up a committee with representatives from both sides, that would figure out how many Palestinans would be re-admitted and in what order, which types of Palestinians would get preferential treatment, without upsetting Israel's demographic balance.


We'd be lucky to get rid of a million illegal settlers who violate the illegal UN partition-plan of Palestine, without a war. The two-state solution has never been tenable, because the Israelis never intended to let Palestinians have a contiguous state, nor a viable state anywhere in ancient Palestine.

The USA, Britain, France, Germany and Russia are the primary culprits, along with the lackey 'UN' organization, that gives kosher stamps to genocide, and whose resolutions are hypocritical at best. What better way to get rid of the Jews, than to send them all off to Palestine, and make it the center of ww3.

We'd never hear the end of all the kvetching for reparations!

The sanctions placed on Iran, should actually be on Israel. Take that, Norm.


Finkelstein keeps hammering away about under the law being the only solution to achieve Palestinian rights and how any argument outside of the law is not achievable because it will not be accepted by the public or the UN?

If the law is require to get the western nations behind Palestine and the goals the Palestinian people wish to achieve then why is it that Israel can violate any UN directive it chooses while threatening to attack any country it chooses (Iran at this time) and still have the sympathy and weaponry of civilized society.

How is BDS more impotent than what has been tried before since nothing seems to work. What has Mr. Finkelstein got that can be shown to be a more correct measure toward freeing the Palestinian from Israel’s death grip around Gaza as well as Israel’s ‘free land’ housing boom in the West Bank. How are the Palestinians to ever achieve their rights as human beings through their political system when all the ‘honest’ politicians are either killed locked up or sanctioned?


i think you have to take seriously Norm's contention that not many people outside of the hardcore of Palestine solidarity activists are going to take very seriously suggestions that the aim espoused by the BDS declaration and of the one state solution (as articulated presently) aren't (in essense) to eliminate Israel.

either way he is correct that we should all be honest about our aims.

on balance i think Norm forsakes a little too much principle in favour of what he perceives to be pragmatic positions (i.e. his view that removing Israel from the map altogether is not a realisable option, means that he over emphasises what he perceived to be the inachievability of equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel; surely that can be acheived without the disollution of the state of Israel).

the foaming-at-the-mouth accuasions that Norm is some kind of closet Zionist whose central aim is to protect the state of Israel would be laughable if they weren't so very reminicient of the tactics of Stalist thugs attempting to extinguish any dissenting or critical voices. get a grip.

Dave White's assertion that, since the 'West' has so far chosen not to get behind the minimal position of the enforcement of international law in relation to the conflict, we should make more and more maximalist demands is as demented as his grasp on the English language is loose.


One does not have to be foaming at the mouth or a Stalinist to point out this fact: many people who self-identify as Jewish are drawn to the cause of Palestine out of guilt for what has been done to Palestinians. Some reject outright the idea of committing genocide in order to create a Jewish state. These are called "self-hating Jews." Some think the idea of a Jewish state is valid but that it can be achieved in a nicer way -- i.e., with no FURTHER genocide. These are soft zionists. Some are all for the Jewish state and want all remaining Palestinians "transferred."These are hard zionists. Finkelstein falls in the middle. To him and many others, Israel is a fact that can't be erased. To the rest of the world, this "fact" was based on a monumental crime: it would be immoral to let it continue.


Laurie Ray attributes an assertion to Dave White that he did not make. He did not say, in any words, that "we should make more and more maximalist demands". In fact, he didn't mention any demands at all.

In fact, though, most revolutions happen when the disaffected sections of the population respond to the denial of their moderate, non-revolutionary demands with the assertion of much more radical demands, like 'down with the government'.


Sorry to hear it after everything's he's been through. So much for the dispassionate academic analysis.


It ia exactly this kind of behaivor that makes you no different from the AIPAC crowd that attacks Finkelstein as being anti-semetic. He is a hero till he disagrees with you, I suppose, and it is all too typical of the BDS movement. The minute anyone challenges your slogans with silly little things like feasability and law, it turns into a character attack. You are only interested in organizing "feel good" protests, that do nothing for the actual Palestinians. Advocate, instead, for the two state solution which the intellectual community has long ago acknowledged as the most feasible solution. It may force to you part with your romantic ideas about what being an activist is, but at least it advances the quality of life for those who are actually suffering.,,,