Norman Finkelstein rocks the London School of Economics

Norman Finkelstein I’ve been meaning to post a write-up of Norman Finkelstein’s 24 January talk at the LSE for a while now, but being a fairly slothful creature I never got round to doing so. Luckily, a video of the talk (see below) has now been uploaded to the ‘net, which means I’ve got a lot less writing to do. I feel there’s a moral lesson in there somewhere. "

The day began with a workshop chaired by Norm entitled, "How can UK Residents Help the Palestinian Cause?", discussing different tactics and strategies activists in the UK and other Western countries can employ to help end the Israeli occupation. Annoyingly, I was unable to attend this since it was in the middle of the day, but Indymedia has uploaded an audio recording of the entire event, which you can listen to here:

Introductory remarks (.mp3)

Round-table discussion (.mp3)

The discussion raised several important points. The first was simply in its focus on what we can do to help. This is very important. We are active participants in the conflict. American and British governments have actively supported and facilitated the Israeli occupation and Israeli expansionism for decades, and continue to do so today. We have a responsibility to do what we can to change this. People love to berate the Palestinians for using violent resistance, or for struggling against the occupation in the ‘wrong’ way. The reality is that the very fact that Palestinians are forced to risk their lives fighting to free themselves from military occupation is a consequence of our failure to end it for them. If the EU and, in particular, the U.S. took a firm stance in favour of pressuring Israel to accept the international consensus two-state settlement, we would probably see an end to the conflict in a matter of months. And unlike Palestinians, we can agitate for change with relative ease and safety. Rather than bemoaning the tactics of a desperate resistance to an occupation supported to the hilt by our governments, then, it is surely far more honest to concentrate instead on what we can do to force an Israeli withdrawal.

Firstly, Norman is surely correct to caution against shallow sloganeering and pointless political posturing. A good example of this is the construction of analogies between aspects of Israel and Nazi Germany. Drawing such parallels may be gratifying for those furious about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, but they are rarely valid and, more to the point, are counter-productive in terms of persuading people to actively oppose the occupation. To be sure, there are occasions when the analogy is called for, and it is certainly not an a priori illegitimate one to make, but I would suggest that it should be used very reluctantly and only after careful consideration, at least if we are at all concerned with winning others to our point of view.

This does not, incidentally, apply to the apartheid analogy, which is becoming increasingly useful as a framework for understanding the regime in the occupied territories. Not only is it an accurate and revealing comparison but, as Norman points out, it is now considered a politically and socially acceptable analogy to make, thanks in no small part to former President Jimmy Carter.

A second interesting issue raised during the session was the merits or otherwise of a boycott of Israeli goods and/or academia. In principle, I am in favour of a boycott – when you’ve got a situation where Palestinian institutions and trade unions are openly calling for a boycott to help them resist an occupation in which we are complicit, the only decent thing to do is, it seems to me, to show solidarity and oblige. The problem with the tactic, particularly with an academic boycott, is that it permits so-called "pro-Israel" advocates to shift the focus of the discussion away from the suffering of the Palestinians towards bogus issues like ‘academic freedom’ and the ‘singling out’ of Israel. Engage, for example, are masters at this. I’m leaning towards the view that a boycott could be effective, if conducted properly, but the question is certainly up for debate.

This also links in with Norman’s point about avoiding labels like "Zionism" and "anti-Zionism". Again, it usually guarantees that the discussion will be diverted from the realities on the ground to an academic debate on the merits or otherwise of Zionism as a political ideology. While such a debate can often be very interesting and useful, it’s not a good way to organise in defence of Palestinian rights, particularly since, in the U.S. at least, many people will approach the discussion from the perspective of a political culture which has explicitly and repeatedly equated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

In my fairly limited experience debating the topic, mainly online, I can safely say that the best approach by far has been to stay clear as much as possible from abstract ideological discussions about Zionism, or flamboyant rhetoric that simply puts people off and scares ‘moderates’ away. When seeking to persuade people that the occupation is an abomination that will persist until Israel is forced to withdraw, we simply need to focus, calmly and clearly, on the facts. We don’t need alienating slogans and propagandistic language, because when it comes to the historical record and to the factual reality on the ground today, there’s simply no contest: in an honest, rational discussion of the facts, Israel loses hands down, every time.

This is a point Finkelstein argued very convincingly in his talk at the LSE in the evening. It was scheduled to last only two hours, but in fact Norman talked for around 1h40m and answered questions for nearly an hour. The event was in very high demand, with the room packed and, if I remember correctly, some people having to be turned away for lack of space.

It was his standard talk, with a few changes here and there. The basic thesis was: the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is, despite common perceptions, actually remarkably straightforward, and most of the "controversy" it generates is in fact contrived precisely in order to disguise this simplicity.

He argued the case compellingly, as always. You can judge for yourselves with the video below. I would just like to highlight the analogy he made between the Palestinian refugee question and his own tenure case at DePaul university. Just as the Palestinian refugees have an uncontroversial, inalienable legal right to return to their homes inside of Israel, so Finkelstein believes that he had a clear right to tenure at DePaul. What’s more, he is convinced that had he chosen to fight the decision all the way, spending a lot of time and a lot of money battling it through the courts, he would have won. But despite recognising his right to tenure, in the end he agreed to settle out of court so that he could put it all behind him and move on with his life.

Similarly, it is up to Israel to offer the Palestinians a settlement that they would find appealing enough to forego the implementation of their right to return. But, and here is the key: if Norman had decided to reject a settlement and fight to achieve his right to tenure, that would have been his decision to make and it would have been our obligation to show solidarity with him in his struggle. Similarly, it is not our place to tell Palestinians that they have to give up on their inalienable legal rights. That’s their decision to make, and we have an obligation to support them either way.

Anyway, without further ado, check this shizzle out:

Google Video of Finkelstein’s talk at the LSE

Google Video of the Q&A session

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