Transcript of Q&A following a public lecture
First of all, just as a factual matter, I’m not against boycotts, I’m not against divestment, and I’m not against sanctions. Long before there was a BDS movement I was involved—and it’s on the public record—in trying, for example, to get church organizations to divest their holdings from companies that were doing business in the occupied territories.
So the issue of the tactic Boycott Divestment and Sanctions—on the tactic obviously there is no dissent by me, it’s a perfectly legitimate, reasonable, useful, and productive tactic. The question is not the tactic, the question is the object, the goal.
Now BDS claims it’s not just a tactic, it’s also a platform, it has a political platform. And BDS, like myself, believes that the only way to reach a broad public is by anchoring your platform in international law. That has been my opinion for the last 10 or 15 years, and anyone who’s read what I’ve written will know that overwhelmingly I rely on human rights organizations and international law to make my case and to try to isolate Israel as a serial violator of human rights law and of international law when it comes to the Israel/Palestine conflict.
So on that point, on that score, there’s no difference at all between BDS and myself in terms of the goal. In fact, with all due modesty I would say that BDS and much of the Palestine support/solidarity movement finally came around to the position that I first set out.
The question then is: BDS originated on July 9th 2005, one year after the International Court of Justice opinion on the wall that Israel was building in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. And it says we as an organization, BDS, has emerged, because international law is not being respected. Here’s what the ICJ says, the wall is illegal, the wall has to be dismantled, but the international community is not doing it. Therefore we, BDS, have to do it. We have to bring to bear boycott, divestment, and sanctions.
There’s no difference (with Finkelstein). There’s nobody who wrote more extensively on that ICJ opinion than myself, no one. And now they say, based on international law, we claim for Palestinians three rights. They say right #1, that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has to end; I agree with that. Right #2, there has to be full equality of Palestinian-Israeli citizens in Israel; of course, I agree with that. Right #3, under international law, there has to be the Right of Return, that has to be implemented. That’s the law, I argued it long before BDS ever argued it, and of course there’s no disagreement.
But now a problem arises. BDS is asked: Where do you stand on Israel? And they say: We take no position. They say: We’re agnostic on the case of Israel. We take no position. Some people as individuals will say: Well we support one state, but as an organization we take no position. Everybody’s familiar with that, I suppose, in this room.
Well, we have a problem here. The problem is, you might not take a position, but international law does take a position. You say you’re anchored in international law. Look at the U.N. General Assembly. It has an annual resolution: Peaceful Settlement of the Question of Palestine. It calls for two states on the 1967 border.
About 160 countries each year support that resolution, about seven oppose it: the United States, Israel, the South Pacific islands of Nauru and Palau, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and usually either Australia or Canada, depending on the year. Israel’s allies are seriously diminishing because of global warming. Nauru and Palau won’t be around much longer, which is one reason they (Israel) should oppose Donald Trump, because Donald Trump doesn’t believe in climate change, but climate change is accounting for the fact that they’ll be losing half their allies in the next couple of years.
In any event, they (the U.N.) say two states, that’s the law. Turn to the International Court of Justice. It was on the basis of the ICJ opinion that BDS was formed, and the opinion says—the last line—we look forward to the creation of two states—a Palestinian state beside Israel. That’s what they say. That’s the law.
Now, you have the option, you have the choice (of saying) I don’t give a darn what the law is, the law is colonial law, it’s racist law, it’s imperialist law—you have that option. But what you don’t have, unless you’re a hypocrite, what you don’t have is the option of saying you support international law, but you take no position on Israel; that’s not the law.
Now, BDS agrees with me and I’m going to put it that way because I said it a long time before BDS. In the United States, for better or for worse, the only way you can reach a broad audience is by appealing to the law, and saying Israel is a lawbreaker. George Khoury (in the audience) was telling me, correctly, in 1971, when he was at Berkeley, there was an Anti-imperialist Coalition, and there were all sorts of Communist organizations, and Socialist organizations, and there was a Soviet Bloc, and there were National Liberation movements, and there were all sorts of other things. There was something else you could appeal to: you could appeal to class struggle, you could appeal to anti-colonial struggle.
That era, for better or for worse, it’s a mixed era, that era is over. The maximum you can hope to reach is what I would call the horizon of progressive political opinions. What is that horizon? The General Assembly, the International Court of Justice, the human rights organizations.
Take our own political situation. What is the most left progressive alternative in the UK that has a reach to a broad audience? Well, it’s obvious, the answer is Jeremy Corbyn, who likely will be the next Prime Minister of the UK. What is the leftmost progressive movement in the U.S. that can reach a broad audience? The answer is simple, it’s Bernie Sanders, who possibly, there’s a realistic possibility, obviously no certainty, that he will be the next President of the United States.
Now Bernie and Jeremy, they’re very firm: You have to recognize Israel. If you don’t recognize Israel, don’t talk to me. Literally, don’t come to my office, don’t talk to me. It’s a non-starter.
Now, you want me, or this movement (BDS) wants to saddle me with a platform that can’t reach anybody, and I’m not going to do that. I want to reach people. I’m 64-years-old; I started this when I was 29. I am not doing this to cast poses, to be more radical than thou, to be more pure than thou. I want to achieve something.
Now there are a lot of professors, who have tenure, who go around now saying I (Norman Finkelstein) am a “liberal Zionist,” and they are radical and pure. Really? Well, you guys have tenure. I spoke my mind, and I’ve been unemployed for 11 years. I have worked four weeks in the last 11 years, four weeks in Turkey. So nobody’s going to tell me, or give me lectures, about me being a “liberal Zionist,” whatever that crap happens to mean.
I want to reach people, I want to help people, I want to help the people of Gaza, I have no interest in spouting empty, vacuous, pointless slogans, in between attending wine and cheese parties at your department meetings. That’s not what I’m about. I am well past the age of belonging to a cult, which I belonged to as a young person; I was a Maoist, a follower of Chairman Mao. “Mao Zedong, live like him, dare to struggle, dare to win.” I passed that phase. I thought I was doing good. I did believe the world revolution was on the horizon; I did, I was wrong, and I’ll freely admit it, I was wrong.
But part of growing up is learning from your mistakes. As Cassius Clay, as he was called then, later known as Muhammad Ali, the boxer, said: If you think at age 40 exactly what you thought at age 20, you’ve wasted 20 years. And I’m 64. I’m not going to waste those years, I want to learn from my errors.
I’m as radical as I was back then, but it depends on what you mean by radical. Does radical mean looking in the mirror and seeing how wonderfully pure you are? Does radical mean trying to achieve the maximum that’s possible within the circumstances that have been set for us? And that to me is radical; I’ll reach for the maximum, but I’m not going to reach for something that’s going to end up isolating me with a sect of totally ineffectual—not to mention totally hypocritical—purists.
You go around saying you support international law, and then when it comes to Israel you take no position? Well then what’s everyone else going to say? They’ll say when it comes to Palestine, I won’t take a position either. If you don’t take a position on Israel, then why do I have to take a position on Palestine? If you say Palestine has a right to self-determination, Palestine has a right to statehood, then you have to say the same thing for Israel, that’s the law. That’s the law, I can’t change that, and I’m not going to be a hypocrite. I can’t defend something I don’t believe in.
If I have any persuasiveness among the public, it’s (1) because of my mastery of the facts, and no false modesty, I’ve studied enough. I spent 35 years just reading these reports. I don’t know why God—you know, everybody has a purpose in this world—I don’t know why God gave me that purpose; really, I don’t understand it. These reports are so boring.
But the other reason I have credibility is people know I’m not going to lie, I’m not going to be a hypocrite. I’m not going to pretend to something that’s not true. I know what the law is, I’ve studied the law. Look at the back of my book. I did not study law professionally. I sat down and I learned it, because I felt it was the only way to reach people. And the top international lawyers in the world, John Dugard, Alfred de Zayas, they all attest to my grasp of the law. I’m not going to start betraying all of my study with this kind of hypocrisy that says: We’re anchored in international law, but we take no position on Israel. That’s not tenable, and it’s totally hypocritical. You don’t have to applaud; you asked me my position, you don’t have to agree.
The first question (two states-one state) is what I want to focus on, and then the second question (the situation in Gaza) comes into play.
Kareem says that the two-state settlement is dead for various reasons, why not one state? Whether the two-state solution is dead is a factual question. As it happens, factually, the settlements occupy approximately 5% of the West Bank; there’s a lot of exaggeration and lack of understanding. It is true that there are 600,000 or more settlers there. In order to achieve a reasonable settlement, it would require the removal of about 250,000 of those settlers, otherwise it’s impossible to have an equal and fair land swap, but 250,000 settlers would probably have to be removed.
There’s no question that that’s a very tough thing to accomplish, and I don’t want to pretend that it’s all easy as pie and I have the magic formula, pull out the rabbit from the hat; no, it’s going to be tough.
That’s not the issue. The issue is, if the two-state settlement is dead, is the one-state settlement alive? So let’s look at it. First of all, there’s a tendency to see things, if they’re logically sensible, then they must be politically sensible. So let’s take something that’s logically sensible: There are 30 millions Mexicans who live in the United States; 30 million Americans of Mexican descent. Then there are millions of Mexicans who live here as undocumented workers. Then there’s the fact that Mexcians—Mexico’s economy each year is dependent on about $20 billion in remittances from Mexican workers who are in the United States and send back money to their families in Mexico. Then there’s the fact that we stole half of Mexico including where we are right now.
So from a moral point of view, the theft; a practical point of view, the demographic and economic integration of the two places—Mexico and the United States—obviously, or as Kareem would say, why not just one state between the U.S. and Mexico to solve the whole immigration problem?
It makes moral sense, it makes practical sense, but as a political matter it has a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding. So people have to, if you want to address the immigration problem, you have to look for some forms of immigration reform which as I said represent the maximum amount of justice within the circumstances in which we currently live.
You can’t set up these abstract categories that say it’s morally right and even practically sensible if politically there’s no possibility. So let’s turn to that one state.
You say two states are dead. Okay, ask yourself a simple question. It couldn’t be more simply put. Which is Israel more likely to do? Is it more likely to give up the settlements, or give up its Jewish state? Which is it more likely to do? Give up the settlements, or give up the Jewish state? Now you say, two states is dead because of the settlements. I recognize that the settlements are a big obstacle—at least 250,000 settlers would have to be removed by the best estimate that I’ve read by people whose judgment I trust.
But if that’s impossible, according to you, then one state is many times more impossible. Then all you’re saying is no solution is possible, and you’re dooming the Palestinians to a damned life. I’m not ready to do that. I’m not prepared to do that. Yes, it’s true that two states is a tough, uphill battle, no question about it, but one state is just jumping over the precipice, there’s nothing there.
Ask yourself that question. We’re talking about politics, not what’s right, not what’s practical, let’s ask about politics. Is there one state—there are 190 and more states in the world, is there one state—one—that supports one state in Israel-Palestine? Iran does not. Iran is among those 160 countries which each year vote for two states in the U.N.
Is there one state? No. Take the leftist-most political movements: Corbyn in the U.K., Sanders here. Do they support one state? No. You’re putting forth a formula that has—it’s easy to calculate—it has zero support in the world. Zero. Zero support. Is that politics, or is that a cult? A cult says, to hell with reality. I read a leader of the BDS movement—he’s recognized as the leader of the BDS movement—and he writes on a website, he says: Israel is facing imminent collapse. Does that have any correspondence with the real world? That BDS has brought Israel to the point of facing imminent collapse?
Israel, whether you like it or not, has one of the most thriving economies in the world. Imminent collapse? This is fantasy. It has no connection with reality. It was just like in my day when we talked about the dictatorship of the proletariat and armed struggle in the middle of Brooklyn. I can’t go there.
Comment from audience: Zionism by definition is a racist ideology and like apartheid of South Africa was a racist ideology, it has to collapse, and it did collapse. We have been living as Palestinians in one state since 1948. We’ve been discriminated against since 1948. What we are calling for right now is the end of Zionism when we can all live together in a democratic, secular state. It’s not too complicated, it’s legal. What I’m talking about is legal. On the ground right now, people migrate for one reason or another; Mexicans come to the U.S.A., the Jews move to Palestine for one reason or another, Zionists contribute to the immigration of Jews to Palestine, we have to reconcile. I’m not going to carry the burden of the past. We have to reconcile, we have to move forward and establish…
You know what troubles me? You know the expression déjà vu, you’ve heard it before? George (Khoury) certainly goes back far enough to remember the PLO charter from 1969 upwards was advocating one state, one democratic state. The same slogans, the same complete disconnection from reality. Finally the Palestinians recognized it’s an impossible battle. So they then revised their goal, and now all these people are coming along and they’re reinventing the wheel. They’re talking as if this slogan is new: one state, one democratic state.
How many people in this room who are Palestinian or Arab, who go back to the 1970s, don’t remember that slogan? Who remembers it? Raise your hand up high. Don’t be so embarrassed. Is this new? Is this a revelation that somehow this never occurred to anyone until BDS came along for one state? Hasn’t this been argued and debated now for 50 years? And now you want to start up with this again, and it’s logical and it’s perfectly sensible?
I’ve got news for you. The United States—excuse me, the world—is a tiny pebble spinning in the Universe. Do states make sense? Do 190 fragments in this tiny pebble make any sense? But is there anybody in this room who thinks it’s a feasible practical solution now to advocate the abolition of all states? Is that reasonable? Is it practical? I don’t understand what’s happening here. People are losing all political sense and advocating things that have no possibility whatsoever of doing anything to help people who are suffering terribly, and it’s really morally offensive to be advocating these things from beautiful San Diego. There is something really wrong with that.
Kids are being poisoned before our eyes, and you’re talking about slogans that have nothing whatsoever to do with reality. That’s just flat out wrong.
Question: So what is the most practical, effective, methodical way the Palestinian can resist the occupation?
Okay, and that’s a good way to end, and that’s the second question I wanted to address, which is the situation now in Gaza and the campaign that’s begun–which began on March 30th and it’s going to go on for the next six weeks.
When I was a Maoist, obviously I made a lot of mistakes, but there were a lot of things that Mao Zedong said that made perfect sense. He was obviously a smart guy and a shrewd political analyst and a shrewd military analyst, and he said the object of politics is to unite the many to defeat the few. You have to create as big a coalition as possible in order to isolate your enemy. And then if you want to isolate your enemy, you have to look at the place where they’re weakest, what you might call the line of least resistance.
Where is Israel weakest right now? Well it’s very weak on the question of the blockade of Gaza, the siege of Gaza. International law is totally against it; Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Committee of the Red Cross, everyone has said the blockade is illegal under international law. It constitutes a form of collective punishment.
They’re very weak on the blockade, and it also happens to be that the blockade is the major cause of the misery that the Palestinians have endured for the last 11 years. So, sensibly, you carry out a campaign of mass, non-violent resistance, which they’re doing now, and you have to focus on the demand where Israel is going to be the most isolated and most likely to have to succumb to international pressure; as the killings continue, as gradually the cameras shift to what Israel is doing, they will come under a lot of pressure on the question of that blockade, that siege. The kids can hold up signs, we’re being poisoned to death, which is literally true; the blockade has to be lifted immediately and unconditionally–that’s what the U.N. Human Rights Council said, the blockade is illegal, that’s what Amnesty said, that’s what Human Rights Watch said.
We have here a campaign (with) which we as supporters have a real chance to reaching the public, a million children are being poisoned, that’s something that can reach the public. So I totally support the nonviolent civil resistance. But you have to remember that nonviolent civil resistance, in order to be effective, it has two parts.
The public has to see the means as legitimate, and of course they see non-violent mass resistance as legitimate; but they also have to see the goal as legitimate. That’s perfectly obvious, everybody understands for example if you support the right of abortion and a thousand supporters of right to life, they surround an abortion clinic, and they say, we’re going to go on a hunger strike until this abortion clinic closes down, if you’re a supporter of abortion you can say: I don’t care if you drop dead, because I support it.
You have to set an objective and a goal that’s also supported by the public. You can reach the public now on the question of ending the siege and ending the blockade. Is it a realistic expectation that you can reach a broad public now on six million Palestinian refugees returning to Israel? Is it realistic? No.
Any sensible person knows that Netanyahu will go on and say, what do you expect us to do, they want six million refugees to flood our country, we’re only six million Jews here, and now they want to bring in six or seven million refugees; he’ll claim the right of self-defense, and the whole international community will support him.
But if you say we want to lift that siege, that illegal, immoral, criminal siege, you have a possibility. Now unfortunately, the leadership right now has decided not to focus on the siege and has instead decided to focus on the right of return, and I think that’s a complete disaster because you can’t get public opinion behind it. You can’t reach people. Even if it’s legally their right to return, and it’s morally their right to return, there is that political fact. Politically, it won’t fly.
Anybody who has contact with anyone outside their tiny little cocoon knows it won’t work, and so it has to be to those people (Palestinians), so many kids, are going to die. In the next six weeks, at least set a goal that will redeem that death, and not for it to be wasted, like the 350 kids that were killed during Operation Cast Lead, the 550 killed during Protective Edge, another bloodletting for a goal that’s completely, totally beyond reach in our country at this time, or in Europe at this time.
Very painful, very frustrating to observe.
Transcribed by David Green, Champaign, IL