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Reflections on Norman Finkelstein’s Controversial Interview


Norman Finkelstein's interview with Frank Barat (http://vimeo.com/36862425) has caused a storm of controversy. Some have accused him of showing in the interview that he is a closet Zionist. Some have argued–like this long winded piece by the invaluable Richard Seymour (http://leninology.blogspot.com/2012/02/finkelstein-on-bds.html )–that Finkelstein has a wrong-headed focus on international law and institutions as the ultimate source of justice for the Palestinians.  I don't interpret his comments in the interview in these ways.

I don't think Finkelstein is arguing that international law and institutions are the ultimate source of justice for the Palestinians–rather that they are the best hope for an extremely weak and isolated people like the Palestinians. Finkelstein, like Chomsky, seems to believe that any relizable settlement for the Palestinians is going to contain alot of injustices and leave the Palestinians in a subaltern state. Chomsky in "Peace in the Middle East", first published in 1974, suggests (as I believe he continues to do in recent times) what the most realizable–but not the most moral or just–two state settlement would be. According to Chomsky you would have an Israeli state that would continue to be racist against Israeli Arabs and other non-Jews under its jurisdiction; and a very weak Palestinian state that would discriminate against Jews and other minorities in its midst. However, according to Chomsky, both of these states and societies might, based on shared interests, find ways to federate with one another in different spheres (as in a customs union) and this federation and other cooperation might gradually increase as the years went by to the point where the two states evolve into a single (officially)non-racist binational state. Chomsky, like Finkelstein, has argued that BDS positions have the vulnerability of playing into the hands of Israeli propagandists. It has this vulnerability because pro-Israel assumptions are so deeply ingrained in American public opinion and there has been no successful campaign to mobilize and educate any significant sector of American public opinion about the Palestinians.  Chomsky dosen't deny that every single Palestinian refugee has the right of return in the abstract. However, I think he (and Finkelstein)would argue that advocating the Right of Return for every single refugee–or even the majority of refugees–would allow the predominant Israeli propaganda machine to poison public opinion against pro-Palestinians by screaming that BDS people want to destroy Israel, drive the Jews into the sea, etc. It's not that people advocating this position really do want to exterminate Jews, but since a substantial right of return would involve the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state, that is how the position would be spinned by pro-Israel swine. This spin would probably be very effective.

I am a great admirer of Finkelstein's intellect but his imperious manner in his debate with Barat seems to cloud the effectiveness of his arguments. This, possibly, is why Finkelstein apparently requested that Barat remove the video of the interview from Barat's website. Apparently Finkelstein recognized that the interview was ineffective. But whatever might be said about the heavy presence of vitrol in Finkelstein's polemics, it is simply not accurate to suggest that he is a defender of the legitimacy of Israel or believes that a UN backed two state settlement is the final world on Palestinian rights. He explains in the video that as  he constructs his replies in his debate with Mouin Rabbani–to be embodied in a forthcoming book about tactics to achieve Palestinian rights–he does not take into consideration wihether tactics advocated by Rabbani are just or moral. Rather, he considers what impact such tactics might have in the real world. He hyperbolically charges BDS with being a "cult", arguing that it consists of activists who live in a dream world and have no regard for how their actions and opinions impact the real world. The real world is a place where the Palestinians are extremely weak, isolated and despised by the public opinion of the most powerful nation on earth. This most powerful nation on earth fully backs Israel's degradation of the Palestinian people. It would certainly be ideal that Israel be replaced with a society and government that treats all nationalities equally. However that position has no chance of gaining traction for the forseeable future. It is most definitely apt to be exploited by Israeli propagandists for use in their familiar narrative that pro-Palestinian people want Israel destroyed so that they can drive the Jews into the sea. This pro-Israel propaganda is a very overwhelming presence in the world and it is important for pro-Palestinian activists to think how to effectively battle it.

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