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.