NORMAN FINKELSTEIN AND BDS

Norman Finkelstein has recently been subjected to strong if not vicious criticism for his views on the BDS movement by the very people who once appreciated his scholarship and his willingness to take on Israel’s propagandists. By uttering a single sentence in an interview with Frank Barat, “The BDS movement is a cult,” many of Finkelstein’s admirers turned on him, shunned him and have treated his name in much the same way the aforementioned propagandists treat them. Their reaction to Finkelstein’s criticism of BDS is virtually identical to the reaction the propagandists have to criticism of Israel. Both are afraid of what they might discover if they look at evidence that led their detractors to formulate their views. And both resort to slander and name-calling while remaining immersed in denial. I find these reactions rather cultic, and considering all that Finkelstein has sacrificed over the decades to enhance public awareness of the truth of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people, I also find the reaction of these BDS supporters stunning in its lack of compassion and humanity.

I believe the consternation BDS supporters experience when confronted with Finkelstein’s analysis renders them incapable of understanding what he is trying to tell them. As a result, both Finkelstein and his analysis are being misrepresented. Because I am in accord with Finkelstein’s and the BDS’s common goal of ending the occupation, I will do my best to clarify what I think Finkelstein is trying to impart. His insights could strengthen the BDS movement and make it more understandable to larger segments of the public. I want to disclose that I have not conducted a thorough research of his views on BDS. However, this video seems to me to be a good synopsis of those views: www.youtube.com/watch?v=iggdO7C70P8.

Finkelstein refers to Israeli propagandists’ accusations that the BDS movement wants to “destroy” Israel. The BDS movement doesn’t take a stand on one or two states, preferring to base Palestinian equality on Israeli adherence to international law, but some of its leaders, e.g. Barghouti, Abunimah, have publicly favored one democratic state. Since such a result would be the end of Israel as a Jewish state, the propagandists are not entirely irrational. Of course, their fear of destruction is an effect of their racist mentality and that mentality only allows them to extend democracy to the state’s Jewish citizens, while supporting flagrant violations of international law.

Israeli policies are not as irrational as they may seem. Any student of Israeli history knows that the Jewish government would not be stealing more and more Palestinian land if it thought the end result would or could be a single democratic state. The Israeli government has in all likelihood thought this through and has contingencies in place for most, if not all, possible reactions to its policies. Being a practical man with a deep understanding of Israeli thinking, Finkelstein probably considers dreams of a single democratic state to be unrealizable and, therefore, unhelpful to the Palestinian cause.

And of course, proponents of Palestinian equality do not want – and should not want – two states in which Palestinians in the state of Israel continue to be treated as second class citizens. The fact is, however, that if a state of Palestine came into being on the 1967 border, the adjoining state of Israel would, of course, have a large Jewish majority; but in thirty or so years, Palestinians would become the majority (even without an influx of refugees) unless the government of Israel continues its ethnic cleansing. It seems to me that Finkelstein is trying to get people to understand that because BDS does not directly and forthrightly address this reality, it will not achieve its goals. Instead, it will be exposed for its lack of disclosure or forthrightness. He is pointing out that because the BDS movement is not analyzing itself, it is in danger of sabotaging its stated goals.

I have heard people claim that Finkelstein opposes BDS. This is incorrect. He does support BDS. His argument is that the strategies used by the BDS leadership are self-destructive. Considering that BDS is a Palestinian Civil Society initiative led by Palestinians, Finkelstein‘s argument, consciously or not, is consistent with Israel’s strategists and leaders’ long-time analysis of Arab strategists as unable to figure out Israeli thinking, the effect of which is that they been continually outmaneuvered.

Finkelstein points to the hypocrisy of basing a movement on international law while ignoring or not acknowledging international law that calls for recognition of Israel as one of two states on the 1967 border; and he predicts that under this scenario, Israeli propaganda will win the hearts and minds of the public.

Personally, I am not sure if BDS specifically addresses how a two state solution would (or would not) include recognition of Israel. I should do more research on this issue. However, given that it is possible that Israeli propaganda will win out, BDS supporters ought to take Finkelstein’s prediction seriously and even seek out his advice. And it is a shame that, rather than consider what this meticulous researcher says, some of these supporters – virtually all of whom have demonstrably less knowledge than he – ignore his warnings and even slander his character.

Finkelstein’s reasoning reminds me of Noam Chomsky, who bases his analyses not on what he wants the results to be but on what is best for the victims. Both are realists, not idealists. And this presents for me what I see as a serious problem among so many who are involved in the struggle for Palestinian freedom, and why Finkelstein calls the movement a cult. That is that if BDS followers insist on believing something because they want it to be true while ignoring or denying something, such as his warnings, because they don’t want it to be true, their personal and collective states of mind possess characteristics of a cult. More importantly, this cultic or magical thinking does not help Palestinians living under occupation.

Since I first became involved in this issue over seven years ago, one inescapable observation I’ve made is that many activists tend to be ideological, even extremely so. They put their ideologies, which are based on unexamined beliefs, ahead of what is best for victims of the oppression. I have met people who ignore (as in hiding their heads in the sand) the probability that their obsession with their ideologies could lead to many deaths. Their attachment to their beliefs takes precedence over or occludes recognition of that probability. They slip into denial so as not to face the consequences of their ideologies.

When I have suggested, as an example, that if they want a single democratic state it might be wiser, if many lives could be saved, to accept a fair two state solution with a long-term goal of eventually merging the two states, their response is almost invariably a subtle change of subject or contempt for my making the suggestion. Their state of mind, in this case, is similar to Israel’s defenders who, in fact, do not defend Israel. Rather, they defend idealistic images of Israel that are superimposed or projected onto the real Israel. Their projection allows them to remain opaque to painful insights they would realize about Israel and about themselves if only they would stop denying and projecting.

Finally, the successes BDS has had, which are regularly touted with great fanfare, are good steps but in the whole scheme of things they are, nonetheless, small steps. This is what Finkelstein is stressing. And again, I have been a bit taken aback with how ecstatic people become from a single success. I am not demeaning the success, but none of the BDS successes to date has had a significant real-life impact on the lives of Palestinians. I prefer that people forego the ecstatic celebration and replace it with self-analysis in order to remain vigilant to what needs to be done, what tactics can be altered for maximum success, and how best to reach the public and gain its trust.

As Professor Chomsky wrote to me, “The successes of BDS – which usually have nothing to do with the BDS movement, e.g., the important EU actions – are in protest against Israel’s actions in the occupied territories, which is what Finkelstein supports. When the BDS movement has sought to initiate protests against Israel itself, it has almost always backfired, leading to reactions that were harmful to the Palestinians. I presume that’s Finkelstein’s point too….”

Richard Forer is author of Breakthrough: Transforming Fear into Compassion – A New Perspective on the Israel-Palestine Conflict

 

Finkelstein points to the hypocrisy of basing a movement on international law while ignoring or not acknowledging international law that calls for recognition of Israel as one of two states on the 1967 border; and he predicts that under this scenario, Israeli propaganda will win the hearts and minds of the public.

Personally, I am not sure if BDS specifically addresses how a two state solution would (or would not) include recognition of Israel. I should do more research on this issue. However, given that it is possible that Israeli propaganda will win out, BDS supporters ought to take Finkelstein’s prediction seriously and even seek out his advice. And it is a shame that, rather than consider what this meticulous researcher says, some of these supporters – virtually all of whom have demonstrably less knowledge than he – ignore his warnings and even slander his character.

Finkelstein’s reasoning reminds me of Noam Chomsky, who bases his analyses not on what he wants the results to be but on what is best for the victims. Both are realists, not idealists. And this presents for me what I see as a serious problem among so many who are involved in the struggle for Palestinian freedom, and why Finkelstein calls the movement a cult. That is that if BDS followers insist on believing something because they want it to be true while ignoring or denying something, such as his warnings, because they don’t want it to be true, their personal and collective states of mind possess characteristics of a cult. More importantly, this cultic or magical thinking does not help Palestinians living under occupation.

Since I first became involved in this issue over seven years ago, one inescapable observation I’ve made is that many activists tend to be ideological, even extremely so. They put their ideologies, which are based on unexamined beliefs, ahead of what is best for victims of the oppression. I have met people who ignore (as in hiding their heads in the sand) the probability that their obsession with their ideologies could lead to many deaths. Their attachment to their beliefs takes precedence over or occludes recognition of that probability. They slip into denial so as not to face the consequences of their ideologies.

When I have suggested, as an example, that if they want a single democratic state it might be wiser, if many lives could be saved, to accept a fair two state solution with a long-term goal of eventually merging the two states, their response is almost invariably a subtle change of subject or contempt for my making the suggestion. Their state of mind, in this case, is similar to Israel’s defenders who, in fact, do not defend Israel. Rather, they defend idealistic images of Israel that are superimposed or projected onto the real Israel. Their projection allows them to remain opaque to painful insights they would realize about Israel and about themselves if only they would stop denying and projecting.

Finally, the successes BDS has had, which are regularly touted with great fanfare, are good steps but in the whole scheme of things they are, nonetheless, small steps. This is what Finkelstein is stressing. And again, I have been a bit taken aback with how ecstatic people become from a single success. I am not demeaning the success, but none of the BDS successes to date has had a significant real-life impact on the lives of Palestinians. I prefer that people forego the ecstatic celebration and replace it with self-analysis in order to remain vigilant to what needs to be done, what tactics can be altered for maximum success, and how best to reach the public and gain its trust.

As Professor Chomsky wrote to me, “The successes of BDS – which usually have nothing to do with the BDS movement, e.g., the important EU actions – are in protest against Israel’s actions in the occupied territories, which is what Finkelstein supports. When the BDS movement has sought to initiate protests against Israel itself, it has almost always backfired, leading to reactions that were harmful to the Palestinians. I presume that’s Finkelstein’s point too….”

Richard Forer is author of Breakthrough: Transforming Fear into Compassion – A New Perspective on the Israel-Palestine Conflict

8 thoughts on “NORMAN FINKELSTEIN AND BDS

  1. You make some very sound points here, Richard, that help clarify some issues that continue to pester me — namely the issue of what Israel ultimately calls itself (Jewish State, or something more universal), and the issue of idealogical thinking that blocks clear analysis.

    The difficulty I have with Israel remaining a Jewish state, which is in its charter, is this: How can Israel become a nation of ALL its people, if a good share of those people are not Jewish? Won’t the non-Jews continue to be regarded as “outsiders”? I guess my overall difficulty with this has to do with what I see as the “real” reality that we are all one people, and must learn to accept and live with that reality if we are to have peace. I’d like to see some discussion of that. As for Norman Finkelstein, I agree with him, and disagree with Ali Abunimah and his friends.

  2. Hi George, I agree that calling itself a “Jewish” state is equivalent to legalizing discrimination against those it considers outsiders and who, in addition, are not wanted by the majority in the Jewish state. Israel is in fact a racist state that believes in ethnic cleansing, segregation and apartheid-like policies. .

  3. Hi Richard,
    What a difficult issue. Thanks for trying to untangle Norm Finkelstein’s (convoluted) thinking.
    Sounds like he is FOR BDS when it comes to boycotting products coming out of the occupied territories (like the EU), but AGAINST BDS if it wants to boycott any/all products coming from Israel (within its own undefined, 1967 borders).
    He seems upset that no one in the BDS movement seems to want to “recognize” the legitimacy of the Israeli State. Is that true?
    My understanding of the BDS leaders is that they have long ago “recognized” the existence of “Israel” (1988 e.g.), and that Isr has not reciprocated to acknowledge or make way for a Palestinian state.
    The BDS people (as I understand them) want Israel to stop defining themselves as an exclusively JEWISH state, and show more of a readiness to include full citizenship to the 20% Arab Palestinians already within the borders of Israel.
    As you and Norm point out, the present Israeli “state” can’t do that because it would jeopardize the “necessity” of a Jewish majority in “their” State.
    Thus “ending the Occupation” means (to BDS), ending Zionism as practiced from the beginning of the occupation of Palestine: That is, deliberately excluding, marginalizing and driving the natives out.
    The people I know and respect insist on affirming (not just acknowledging) the right of the Israeli State to exist, they just hate the ethnic cleansing, and apartheid-like policies of successive Israeli administrations, the Likud now being the most blatant and unyielding.
    As to “recognizing” Israel, which Israel are we talking about? The ethno-centric Jews first, non-Jews as (permanently) second class?
    Can that ever change without “destroying” Israel? How does nonviolent change happen without extremists (jihadists or Zionist) wrecking havoc on one another (when distrust breaks out into all-out warfare)?
    Thanks for opening up Norm Finkelstein’s view on BDS.

  4. John, I don’t think you are correct about Finkelstein only supporting BDS within the Occupied territories. He supports BDS in and of itself. What he is upset about is the hypocrisy of a movement founding its goals upon international law, while ignoring international law when it doesn’t favor its interests. He says that such a contradiction will be easily exploited by Israel and will insure that the BDS movement does not succeed. Also, BDS leaders do not always support their own stated principles. There are cases where they state that in a “democratic” state Jews would have rights as a result of the magnanimity of the Palestinians. This, of course, would scare Israeli Jews and insure the latter would not trust proclamations of real democracy by the former.

  5. Minority rights would need to be protected in whatever state(s) emerge.

    How magnanimous is either side with “the other”?

    Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are showing much ability to practice true democracy, so that minority rights are protected.

    Fear of a truly autonomous Palestinian State rules the day. There are jihadists behind every bush.

    Trust building exercises seemingly do not exist as far as I can see. Both Bibi and Abbas do not see these present “negotiations” as of vital importance, it seems.

    There is no reason for Bibi to negotiate. He holds all the high cards in this card game. The US seems to be making this clear.

  6. John, Bibi and his Likudniks have never accepted the idea of a Palestinians state. Rather, they have always wanted a Greater Israel at least as far east as the Jordan River. Equally obvious, peace negotiations have been used by Israeli leaders to hide their true intentions, which have been and still are the acquisition of more and more land. I believe most Palestinians could live peacefully in a single state or within two states. The problem are the fanatics on either side, but mostly on the Israeli.

  7. LET’S TEST HONESTY 750,000 JEWS FLED ARAB COUNTRIES BETWEEN 1950-1980 –I WOULD LIKE TO SEE UN CONDEMNATION AND DEMANDS FOR THEIR JUSTICE . I WOULD LIKE TO SEE YOUR ARTICLES AND SPEECHES IN THIS MATTER . I WOULD LIKE TO SEE YOUR VIEWS PRIOR TO 1967 WHEN THE JEWS WERE THREATENED WITH GENOCIDE BY THE ARABS . I WOULD LIKE TO SEE UN RESOLUTIONS REGARDING THE THREATENED GENOCIDE AND COMPENSATION FOR THESE 750,000 JEW WHO FLED ARAB COUNTRIES- MOSTLY “WITH ONLY THEIR SHIRTS ON THEIR BACKS ” AND THEN THE IRANIAN JEWS WHO HAD TO CHOOSE ANOTHER COUNTRY DUE TO THE HOSTILITIES BY THE MULLAHS ( AFTER 1979 ) . AND NOW EUROPE AND THE JEWISH EXODUS FROM EUROPE . I COME TO THE CONCLUSION THAT YOU ARE VERY WELL EDUCATED AND READ IN THESE MATTERS . THEREFORE, YOU ARE AWARE AND CHOOSE TO REMIAN SILENT AND ONLY CONDEMN ISRAEL. APPARENTLY , HONESTY AT BEST IS QUESTIONABLE–SHAME–IS MORE A LACK OF.ONE THING FOR SURE–TIME TESTED AGAIN AND AGAIN –DEVINE JUSTICE ——READ THE EVENTS AND PEOPLE WHO THREATENED ISRAEL IN THE PAST FIFTY YEARS – SOMEHOW SOMETHING HAPPENS –NOT BY ISRAEL BUT BY NATURE–I WONDER WHY

    • First of all, if you want to see all the things you mention in your comment why don’t you do some sincere and objective research? Regarding Jews who left Arab countries in the wake of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians, these Jews have always been welcome to register with the UN agency on refugees. Some have done so.
      Also, The thrust of the common argument you make with regard to Jewish “refugees” is generally to demean the Palestinian people’s history of suffering and to implicate them in Jewish emigration, which they had nothing to do with. Jewish emigration was a reaction to Israel’s expulsion of Palestinians. This argument deflects attention from Israeli policies intended to deny human rights to non-Jews
      Additionally, so as to frighten Iraqi and Egyptian Jews into emigrating, Israel’s Mossad planted bombs – made to look like the work of Arab terrorists – in Jewish neighborhoods of Baghdad and Cairo. In any case, a majority of Jewish emigrants left their homes of their own accord, many because they heeded Israel’s offer of free transportation and housing. Israel recruited these emigrants, even sending emissaries who fomented panic among Jews, encouraging them to flee, in order to build a strong Jewish majority. Many had enough time to gather their possessions and many were compensated with properties taken from Palestinians.
      A few years ago, former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry Alon Liel said: “to define [Jews from Arab countries] as refugees is exaggerated”. Iraqi-Israeli former Knesset Speaker Shlomo Hillelhas stated: “I do not regard the departure of Jews from Arab lands as that of refugees. They came here because they wanted to, as Zionists.”
      Regarding Arab calls for genocide of Jews, it is true that Radio Cairo, for example, called for the death of Jews but this was empty rhetoric of a kind that would have and could now be neutralized if Israel would make a fair peace with the Palestinians, which anyone who studies the history would know Israel has refused to do. Instead Israel has chosen to seize more and more land while ethnically cleansing more and more Palestinians.
      Are you familiar with the numerous and even constant calls by Israeli MK’s who often use genocidal language? Or a significant portion of Israeli Jews who have expressed a desire to kill “Arabs?” I have never denied that some Palestinians and other Arabs have called for Israel’s destruction, though not to the extent that Israel has literally destroyed Palestinian society. However, there is so much propaganda from Israel and its defenders that has character assassinated the Palestinians that there is no need for me to focus on Arab anger which sometimes is expressed in genocidal terms. This entire tragedy has to be looked at in the context of Israel’s theft of the land and the Zionist project that from the beginning, with Theodore Herzl, was meant to dispossess the indigenous people. Israel has always consciously chosen to sacrifice the lives of some Israel Jews, to incite anti-Semitism around the world and to not make peace in return for fulfilling what has to be defined as an inhumane and self-destructive goal: the theft of Palestine and the ethnic cleansing of its non-Jewish population by any means it can get away with.
      If you truly care about peace you have no choice but to study the history with the intention of separating fact from fiction and of not allowing any preconceived notions to influence your research. If you stay true to that course you will come to the same conclusions as have I. These conclusions are inescapable to anyone who is able to put personal prejudice and favoritism aside and simply follow where the facts lead.

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