From anti-Zionist to Supporter of a ‘Jewish’ State
Pragmatism in the Service of Imperialism
[this is a brilliant refutation of Norman’s position, Ilan Pappe, e- mail 18.2.12.]
Norman Finkelstein, at the beginning of his career, was the brightest star in the firmament. His analysis and dissection of various Zionist propagandists and frauds was second to none. His demolition job on Joan Peter’s fraudulent From Time Immemorial, a book published in 1984, was a wonder to behold. Peter’s main thesis was that the Palestinians were newcomers to Palestine who had only migrated there as a result of Zionist immigration in the first half of the last century, i.e. they were not genuine refugees.
Finkelstein’s review showed that her use of demographic statistics was flawed and dishonest and that the book was a piece of propaganda. This gave the clue to knowledgeable writers such as David & Ian Gilmour, who cited Peter’s errors such as quoting a medieval Arab historian, Makrizi, who died in 1442, to support her statements about mid-nineteenth century population movements. (London Review of Books, 7.2.85. ‘pseudo travellers’).
In fact the evidence to support the fact that Peter’s thesis was junk history, on a par with the methods of holocaust denial, comes from Zionists themselves e.g. Ahad Ha’am or Leo Motzkin, a Zionist leader who in 1912 called on the Arabs of Palestine to transfer themselves to other countries. At the 2nd Zionist Congress in 1898 he told delegates how ‘Completely accurate statistics about the number of inhabitants do not presently exist. One must admit that the density of the population does not give the visitor much cause for cheer. In whole stretches throughout the land one constantly comes across large Arab villages, and it is an established fact that the most fertile areas of our country are occupied by Arabs…” (Protocol of the Second Zionist Congress, p.103).
This review was distributed widely by Noam Chomsky and as soon as the book appeared in Britain, it was savaged (unlike the US where the newspapers and news organisations sang from the same hymn sheet and refused to carry unfavourable reviews until both British and Israeli historians panned the book as a laughable further response fraud).
In the same vein, Finkelstein’s critique of Daniel Goldhagen’s apology for fascism and Nazism, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996), could not be bettered. Goldhagen held Nazism to be benign except for the Jews. The problem was not so much Nazism as the ‘eliminationist’ anti-Semitism inherent in the make-up of Germans. ‘Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s ‘Crazy’ Thesis: A Critique of Hitler’s Willing Executioners’ New Left Review I/224, July-August 1997.
Finkelstein, although a political scientist, was one of the few anti-Zionists who could hold his own with Zionist holocaust historians. With two parents, both survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and the concentration camps, he was able to command authority when he wrote on the subject. Finkelstein had clearly taken the time to get to grip with the main sources and debates of holocaust historiography and he understood how people like Professor Yehuda Bauer of Yad Vashem, the Zionist Holocaust & Propaganda Museum and Institute, operated.
With his book ‘Holocaust Industry’ describing how the Zionist movement had cynically used the extermination of millions of Jews in order to justify Israel’s barbarous treatment of the Palestinians, Finkelstein established his reputation. Finkelstein showed how the Zionist Jewish Claims Conference had stolen and defrauded via expense accounts, much of the reparations from West Germany which had been intended for the holocaust survivors. Today those survivors mainly live in poverty as a result. His second book, ‘Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History’ further established his reputation. The book also proved that Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Professor of Law, had plagiarised and copied, without acknowledgement, from other sources, for his book ‘The Case for Israel’. He had also faithfully copied their mistakes!
Included in the book was a detailed refutation of Dershowitz’s main thesis by reference to innumerable human rights sources. Herein lay a clue, which I noted at the time, to the subsequent political degeneration of Finkelstein. The Palestinian Question is not primarily a human rights issue, even though many people are brought into the movement by Israel’s abuse of Palestinian rights. It is above all a political issue. Finkelstein’s primary weakness is his failure to situate Israel’s disregard of Palestinian rights within a political context.
One of the consequences of his attack on Dershowitz, the Professor of Torture (he once proposed giving the Police the right to apply for a Warrant to Torture someone) was that he was denied tenure at DePaul University. A good example of how, in the aftermath of the ‘War Against Terror’ academic freedom has been relegated to the status of a curious artefact in academia in the USA.
It therefore sad that Norman Finkelstein, who will no doubt survive for many more years on the lecture circuit, has little or nothing more to offer the Palestinian cause. On the contrary, everything he is now doing is actually helping to undermine solidarity with the Palestinians. His attack on the BDS movement as a ‘cult’ is unforgivable arrogance that bears all the hallmarks of a frustrated academic. Finkelstein has not only jettisoned much of what he believes in, he expects others, including the Palestinians to do likewise.
I first criticised Finkelstein
after attending a talk given by Finkelstein to a thousand people at the Institute of Education in London on 11th November 2011. Finkelstein spent the best part of 2 hours belabouring the point as to why we should support a 2 State solution. It is only recently that a pre-talk interview with an activist Frank Barat has surfaced.
My first reaction to the interview was that Finkelstein must be suffering from a mid to late life crisis. Repeatedly he talks about
how he has devoted his life time to the cause, how he is growing tired and weary. In a telling part of his interview he says:
‘Yes BDS has had some victories, but the way people have promoted it, on the verge of victory is sheer nonsense – it’s a cult. I’m tired of it. I went through my cult stage I was a Maoist. There were 2 competing possibilities – you can be a Maoist/Leninist and waste 20 years of your life. You can work with Ralph Nader, lot of bills through Congress. Nice we have seat belts and airbags – that was Nader. I’m not going to be in a cult again. Gurus in Ramallah giving marching orders.’
You cannot but detect a feeling that Norman Finkelstein believes he has wasted his life on a cause that doesn’t seem to be bearing any fruit. In his frustration he is both turning on his own supporters and looking for any and every pragmatic solution. As a young man Finkelstein was a Maoist. Maoism collapsed under its own contradictions. What has happened to Finkelstein’s politics is not a new thing. He has become attracted to what he believes is immediately achievable, hence Ralph Nader is his consummate political hero for having got Congress to enact laws in support of seatbelts. An important issue no doubt, since I can personally testify that but for a seatbelt I would probably be dead. But it is hardly an earth shattering, life-changing event for the world. Finkelstein has grown cynical of revolutionary change, which is what the liberation of Palestine demands, and instead believes that a 2 State Solution, enforced by the ‘world community’ is the only solution. Backed of course by world opinion.
Finkelstein says that ‘If you are serious about politics you can’t go beyond what the public accepts, and that is international law.’ Herein lies his most important mistake and it matters little if much of Palestinian propaganda is indeed based on a demand that Israel upholds international law. The weak often look to the law in their frustration, however it rarely serves them well as it was not devised to help the weak and powerless.
Israel does not today rule over 4-5 million Palestinian Arabs because the nebulous concept of ‘international law’ granted them permission to do so. As Finkelstein himself wrote
, when he was an anti-Zionist, ‘In fact, Zionists pursued from early on a “stages” strategy of conquering Palestine by parts – a strategy it would later vilify the Palestinians for.’ For example the Anti Defamation League, a notorious Zionist organisation, acknowledges
that what most Zionists concentrated upon was “creating facts on the ground immigration, agricultural settlement of the land, a Jewish-based economy, etc.’ From this there came the law, not the other way around.
There was nothing in international law that allowed colonists to invade a country, take over the land, expel the people and set up a state based on the ethnic nationalism of the settler. Colonisation occurred by force everywhere and from that there came the law in order to regularise the situation. So it is with international law, except that international law is, at best, a hazy and fluid concept.
One of the major faults with international law, apart from the fact that it serves the interests of the imperialist not the colonised or occupied, is that it has no enforcement mechanisms. Who is going to take the United States to the International Court for what it did in Iraq and Afghanistan? Who is going to fine the USA billions of dollars? Who is going to prosecute George Bush and Tony Blair? Compared to them Slobodan Milosevik was a saint. What prevents the International Court at the Hague from putting out a warrant for Bush and Blair? Well the USA never ratified the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court and does not accept its remit when it comes to its own leaders. Maybe that’s the reason but it doesn’t prevent the ICC from pursuing lesser fry than western leaders.
International law is helpless against US drone attacks on Pakistan. There is no lawful authority which allows computer gamers in Nebraska to wipe out whole families in Pakistan’s North Western Frontier. It is might and might alone which lies at the heart of power relations throughout the world. At the end of the day, capitalism rules through naked force and we can see how, even in the USA, when the bankers and capitalists are challenged, the Police resort to naked and brutal force as e.g. when the Occupied group was pepper-sprayed in front of the world’s cameras in Oakland, California. Of course the law gives a semblance of authority and rationale to the rule of capital. It legitimates the US’s actions and those of western imperialism, not least through its handmaiden, the United Nations. But the UN can only act when the USA allows it to. But when Israel breaks international law by transferring populations, exploiting the natural resources of the occupied territories and settling the land, the US vetoes all resolutions which are critical of this.
To therefore say that the United Nations is the jewel in the administration of international law is to fail to recognise that the UN is a political instrument at the behest of the USA. When Russia and China veto a resolution over Syria, the West scrambles around looking to undermine it by introducing special forces into the country, arming fundamentalist forces in the country etc.
Likewise Russia’s genocide in Chechnya has gone unremarked by the UN or international law. There are of course certain international conventions such as the Convention on the Child where states have come together to agree a Protocol as to how to deal with certain situations such as child kidnapping, but this is not enforceable internationally but by one’s own courts.
National liberation is the act of the people themselves not a consequence of international law. Apartheid in South Africa was not overthrown by international law and decolonisation did not occur because a court of law told the West to get out of its colonies. Emancipation is the act of the working and exploited classes, not international lawyers.
So when Finkelstein says ‘All I want to do is enforce the law. It is uncomplicated’ he is wrong, it is very complicated. And further international law cannot be enforced because there is no enforcement mechanism. Unless Norman Finkelstein accepts that the US military is the de facto enforcement mechanism.
One of Finkelstein’s major themes is that ‘You can’t be selective with the law.’ He says that ‘the law is a package’ some good, some bad. But this isn’t true. The law is and has always been selective. As the old saying goes:
They hang the man, and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.
The law is not neutral and above society. It reflects and always has done, the interest of the ruling classes in society, the powerful and rich. Even in Britain it is noticeable how so-called benefit cheats are demonised and prosecuted by the state with great vigour unlike those who have stolen billions from the banks or MPs who fiddle their expenses. Fox hunting is illegal but the Police are more interested in prosecuting hunt-saboteurs than the hunters. Their interest is with those who threaten the interests of the property owner rather than property owners who hunt and kill foxes for a past-time. In a small way this emphasises that law in capitalist society is concerned not with human rights or justice but with protection of the interests of our rulers. We can see that in the indifference of the law to extraordinary rendition. Torture is illegal but never has it thrived so.
Norman Finkelstein gives the north of Ireland as an example of how a peace settlement was achieved. But he has spoken too soon. The underlying causes of sectarianism and division haven’t gone away. Partition is still in place, although Unionism has been weakened by its own lack of strategic importance to the British state today and its political weakness and isolation. It has in short outlived its usefulness. There is also a general war weariness but the problems caused by Irish partition remain for future generations.
Norman Finkelstein says that ‘Conflict has been on 2 state basis since Partition – Arafat talked about ‘unfinished business’ of 1948.’ This is nonsense. Transjordan annexed the West Bank in 1948 in a deal with the Zionists. [see Avi Shlaim’s Collusion Across the Jordan] Although the UN carved out an area, some 46% of Palestine for a Palestinian state, it did not attempt to provide a mechanism to enforce partition, still less to provide for the internationalisation of Jerusalem. It was therefore inevitable that the area allocated to a Palestinian state would be fought over by Israel and the surrounding states. Two states was never on the agenda in 1948, let alone now. The idea of 2 statism was the creation of opportunists in the PLO, led by Arafat, who saw the solution to the Palestine Question as lying in a quick ‘diplomatic’ solution to the Palestinian crisis in 1973.
In 1948 ¾ million Palestinian Arabs were expelled in order that a Jewish majority could be created in Israel. What effectively Norman Finkelstein is now saying is that Zionism should be allowed its victory. The problem is that the 1.5 million Arabs in Israel are still subject to the same forces of discrimination and oppression.
Norman Finkelstein says that ‘There is nothing in the international consensus which says anything about Palestinian minority in Israel. You want to drag in that minority and start talking about them you’ll get nowhere. The whole world persecutes their minorities. Or every country in the Middle East.’
Whilst many states have problems of national minorities, Israel is a state of its Jewish citizens and Jews world-wide. In this it is unique. It is an ethnocracy, an apartheid state. Yes many states do have problems of national minorities, and often in those cases separation is the only solution as with Czechoslovakia and the Tamils of Sri Lanka. But in Israel the Arabs aren’t a national minority, any more than the Jews of Germany were a national minority. They are Israeli citizens, they should have equal rights but instead they are treated as tolerated guests, a ‘demographic problem’ who should be expelled when the right opportunity arises. This is very different from a problem of national minorities. It is about purification of the race. That is why Israel is also unique in not having an Israeli nationality. There is a Jewish nationality, which includes Norman Finkelstein and myself. The conflict in Palestine has nothing to do with different nationalities and everything to do with a nationalist political current Zionism which brought into being a state based on the same principles that motivated European anti-Semitism.
Contrast this with Israel where the State and the parties within it compete as to who is the greater racist. The state deliberately introduces legislation which is overtly racist. A unification law which prevents Israeli Arabs marrying the person of their choice, if they are an Arab, and continuing to live with them in the country of their birth. Or the passage of legislation, the Community Standards Act, which allows committees of existing residents to veto newcomers who don’t accord with the existing norms and practices of those communities. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is a recipe for open discrimination against Arabs and a way of subverting the Supreme Court’s belated decision in 2005 in Ka’adan that the Israeli Lands Administration and JNF couldn’t bar non-Jews from leasing their land. Instead of implementing this decision successive governments have done their best to subvert it. In other words Israel’s government does its best to increase racism and, as we saw in the Palestine Papers, the Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni negotiates with the Palestinian Authority on the basis of transferring Israel’s Arab citizens into any new bantustan that is set up. A point that Norman Finkelstein, in his desire for a 2 State Solution, is oblivious to. To pretend that Israeli racism against Arabs is no different from other countries is to fail to understand the imperatives and dictates of Zionism.
That is why Norman Finkelstein is wrong to suggest that the solidarity movement is a mirror image of the Palestinian authority. It is noticeable that despite characterising the PA as ‘a gang of corrupt, wretched collaborators’ which fears its own people, he supports their aspiration to a bantustan in the West Bank.
Norman Finkelstein insults and caricatures the BDS movement as a ‘little ghetto’ ‘a cult’. Yet if this were so, it is hardly likely that Israel would pass a law
which effectively criminalises calls for a Boycott of Israel and the settlements. The fact is that BDS, unlike any other solidarity action, has for once forced the Zionists on the back foot. It undermines and throws into question the legitimacy of the Zionist state and its apartheid institutions. And far from having a few accomplishments that can be counted on the fingers of two hands BDS has made an enormous impact.
Veolia has just suffered a £500m loss of contract in West London and is trying to get out of the Jerusalem light railway project. The decision of British and Irish trade unions to support the boycott has undoubtedly hurt the morale of the Israeli state and for us, the task is to turn these resolutions into reality. The growth of supermarket boycotts is a reflection of the growth in support for Palestine despite the efforts of the international law makers to insulate the Israeli state. A whole range of artists and musicians, such as Elvis Costello and Santana, have supported the cultural boycott and refused to play in Israel. Others have disrupted Israeli concerts in London. We even have a Boycott from Within group in Israel itself.
Norman Finkelstein makes much of the ruling of the International Court of Justice, which declared the Apartheid Wall illegal. It also stated that the pre-1967 border is legally Israel’s border. But Israel has never defined its borders. The ICJ’s ruling though useful propaganda wise, has been ignored, its ruling totally redundant. Indeed its ruling is held to be advisory. So when Norman Finkelstein says ‘You want to enforce one state, don’t pretend you want to enforce the law’ then we have to turn round and say clearly that we aren’t fighting to enforce any law but to obtain justice for the Palestinians, a very different thing.
Norman Finkelstein has though put his finger on certain problematic areas for the Palestine solidarity movement. There is a widespread appeal to international law and rights. Palestinians and Palestinian organisations are not left-wing or socialist groups. Palestinians are a refugee population not the scions of a working class. That is a major weakness of the Palestinians compared to Black South Africans. In South Africa the banks and capitalists feared that if they persisted in supporting Apartheid they may endanger capitalism altogether. The other weakness of the Palestinians is that the Whites were in a minority in South Africa but Israeli Jews have rough parity with the Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories.
The real problem the Palestinians face is that compared to the Black masses in their fight against Apartheid, they are incredibly weak. They have no hinterland, no Mozambique or Angola further from which to operate. They don’t have a politically conscious working class. They have an Arab East which is still subservient, despite the Arab Spring, to US imperialism. Indeed the US and its allies have been able to subvert the revolutions as in Libya by sponsoring particular, usually Islamic fundamentalist, groups.
The rights that people have, even the right of women to vote in Britain, were obtained not through the law but through defiance of the existing law. The best way to make a good law is to break a bad law. It is this that the good Professor Norman Finkelstein, with his patronising admonition to Palestinians that he is not prepared to waste the rest of his life, doesn’t understand.
Norman Finkelstein says that ‘I’ve been at this 30 years, I’ve earned my right to speak my mind, and not going to tolerate leftist posturing, childishness.’ Leave aside that others, including myself, have given even more time to the movement. It is not childish or leftist posturing to build for a boycott of Israel. What is most evident is a rightwards moving Norman Finkelstein. Finkelstein confuses his own personal crisis with that of the Palestinians.
Of course the Palestinian struggle faces major problems in comparison with the Anti Apartheid movement in South Africa. For a start Israel is much stronger than the Apartheid Regime of F W de Clerk. The liberation movement was led by one movement, the ANC and the Communist Party. The Palestinians are for the most part led by collaborators, bigots and Wannabee oppressors. There isn’t a great political difference between the PA in Ramallah, which tortures those under its control, or Hamas, which also uses tortures its opponents. Both Hamas and the PA opposed the movement against Mubarak and suppressed Palestinian demonstrations. But then why should we be surprised. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are the parents of Hamas. They are also the last resort of the Egyptian military and it is no surprise that they only joined the demonstrations against Mubarak at a late stage.
It is no surprise that the Palestine Return Centre, which organised Norman Finkelstein’s last tour of Britain, has nothing to say about the content of Norman Finkelstein’s speech or interview.
About the movement for BDS and One-State Norman Finkelstein says that ‘They are being disingenuous. 3 tier, very clever – end of occupation, right of return, equal rights for Arabs in Israel. They know the result is no Israel.’
It is an interesting point, equal rights for Arabs in Israel means no Israeli state. Norman Finkelstein is correct and therein lies the problem. If equal rights and the right of return for Palestinian refugees means an end to Israel what does that say about Israel? Why should we accept the continued existence of a state based on inequality? Especially when the first thing it will do is to transfer its existing Arab population into the new Palestinian Bantustan. Most people of course don’t understand that the existence of Israel as a Jewish state means permanent inequality for Israeli Arabs. That is one of the reasons why the solidarity movement should indeed come out explicitly in favour of one state.
Norman Finkelstein sums up his case thus: ‘You are only clever in your cult. Here they have a case – they only want to destroy Israel – I think they are right. I have one standard. Can I defend this position in public not whether I can defend it in my cult.’
Norman Finkelstein is trapped by his own background in Maoist politics and fails to see that in his reaction he adopts the language of the Zionists. No one I know seriously suggests ‘destroying’ Israel, nor should they. The implication is that the population itself will be destroyed or dispersed. What we seek is the destruction or overthrow of the Israeli state. The people of Israel, its Jewish citizens, are and should be made welcome to stay as equal citizens, with guaranteed national rights such as language, culture and religion. But the apartheid Zionist state structures themselves and their implementation have to go.
Norman Finkelstein has also abandoned support for the right of the Palestinian refugees to return. He asks
‘Will a person in the public find it reasonable to demand 6m Palestinians go back to a country with 1.8m Palestinians and 5 million Jews.’ Well put in those terms probably not but that is not the choice. Most Palestinians given the chance to return will probably not take it up. They will likely choose to stay where they are, but they should have the right to return if they wish.
Norman Finkelstein even claims to support BDS, though it is hard to understand why, but ‘until they are explicit on their goal and that has to include recognition of Israel….’ When I first heard Norman Finkelstein speak, about 4 years ago, in Sussex University, he gave as good an exposition of the origins of Zionism and how it was quite uncomplicated, as I have heard. Norman Finkelstein is a methodical and clinical speaker, even if he does have the tendency to repeat himself.
It is a great pity that he has now succumbed to defeatism and despair. Apart from anything it is not his right and when he attacks the BDS movement it is unforgivable. Norman Finkelstein says that ‘It’s not an unwitting accident that BDS does not mention Israel. It will split the movement. There is a large section which wants to eliminate Israel.’ Leaving aside the caricature ‘eliminate Israel’ then he is right in the sense that there is disagreement amongst supporters of BDS as to whether 2 States is a viable solution. But so what?
Most 2 State supporters are fairweather friends and often motivated by the desire to preserve a Jewish majority in Israel. But 2 States is based on championing an imperialist solution to the Palestinian Question through a rejigging of borders and the imposition of a Palestinian Bantustan. But I agree, political clarity is important. The Green Line doesn’t even exist on Israeli maps. There is already a single state. The problem is that half of its inhabitants are denied even elementary democratic rights. Those who propagate illusions in a 2 state solution are, wittingly or otherwise, helping to prolong the agony of those in the West Bank and Gaza.
The road Norman Finkelstein is travelling on is one mapped out by Zionism. He says that ‘If we end the occupation and we bring back 6 million Palestinians and we have equal rights for Arabs and Jews we have no Israel. That’s what it’s really about and you think you’re fooling anybody?’
If equal rights for Arabs and Israelis means no Israel, because Israel by its very nature rests on racist discrimination, then most people would agree that Israel as currently constituted has to go. Of course this also means dealing a blow to sectarians on the Palestinian side too. Hamas, a Muslim organisation, cannot become a national liberation organisation. Hamas and Political Islam is a reflection of Zionism and imperialism not its adversary. But it is also necessary to put Israel in perspective. It is not supported by the USA because of a love for Jews or guilt over the holocaust but because Israel is imperialism’s main watchdog and base in the region. About the role of Israel in the Middle East Norman Finkelstein, in his post-Maoist phase, has nothing to say.
As Finkelstein says, ‘I’m 58 years old, I gave my life to the cause and I’m not going to be anyone’s fool. I’ve lost patience with it.’ It is a fact that people, even Norman Finkelstein, can get burnt out and become lost to the movement. Norman Finkelstein’s present position is that of a historical curiosity, a relic of past battles. His books relevant for what Finkelstein used to believe in rather than what we currently preaches. Norman Finkelstein today is a performing bear, dancing to imperialism’s melodies whilst the older lyrics remain unsung.