Thursday, 16 February 2012

Is Norman Finkelstein right to criticise the BDS movement?

A lot of online heat has been generated by Norman Finkelstein's disparaging comments about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The American writer and scholar is well-established as a critic of Israel and supporter of the Palestinian cause. It has therefore come as a surprise to activists to hear him describe the BDS movement as a 'cult'.

What is especially regrettable is the ammunition it has handed excitable supporters of Zionism, who are now crowing that even a pro-Palestinian writer has 'admitted' the 'ugly truth' about the BDS movement. Finkelstein knows enough about the dirty tricks of pro-Israeli propagandists to be aware of how his comments would be manipulated.

The 'cult' comment is offensive and appears to have been a 'heat of the moment' error. It has, inevitably, triggered a lot of denunciation of Finkelstein among pro-Palestinian activists. I don't, however, think it is especially constructive for offended activists to treat Finkelstein as a pariah. There's also a danger of that four-letter word obscuring the actual arguments that Finkelstein has, however incoherenty, expressed.

These arguments are wrong, but they are worth engaging with. The substance of Finkelstein's critique has two main elements, both of which reflect an essentially conservative position on Palestinian politics. Before commenting on these, I should note that Finkelstein is justifiably fiercely critical of the Palestinian Authority, as well as an uncompromising opponent of Israeli aggression and systematic abuses of human rights.

This debate really concerns differences of opinion among supporters of the Palestinian cause. Finkelstein has also made it clear he isn't actually opposed to BDS practices; rather, he rejects BDS as a central strategy for the Palestine solidarity movement.

Nonetheless, in two important respects he holds positions that lead him to misguided criticism of BDS. Firstly, Finkelstein supports a 'two-state solution' and argues the BDS movement is based on advocating a 'one-state solution'. This is an important difference concerning political analysis and solutions.

Secondly, he differs from the BDS movement on the question of political strategy for the solidarity movement. The BDS movement doesn't propose that BDS is the only approach, but it does (correctly in my view) give it central importance in promoting international solidarity. Finkelstein argues, by contrast, that our main tactic should be to articulate the langauge of 'law', for example raising awareness of the ways in which Israeli actions violate international law.

There is a connection between these two elements. Put crudely: acceptance of Israel's 'right to exist' (and rejection of a one-state solution) encourages an emphasis on opposing specific vilolations of international law by Israel, but without challenging Israeli occupation of Palestinian land at a deeper level.

These comments from last year give a strong sense of Finkelstein's views on BDS.

Before responding, let's quickly re-cap the BDS case. Ben White puts the arguments eloquently here. The call for an international BDS movement originates with Palestinian civil society. It is therefore compatible with Palestinians' own struggles, and provides them with practical and political support. It is truly international as well as ongoing and sustained, rather than dependent on responding to particular events. The wide-ranging nature of BDS - academic, cultural, economic etc - means it is inclusive and far-reaching.

BDS combines making an economic and political impact on Israel with awareness-raising, as well as helping de-legitimise Israeli occupation among millions of people. It links argument and action. As White puts it (in the context of higher education, but the point applies more broadly): 'BDS educates. Palestine solidarity actions, including those using the tactics of boycott and divestment, stimulate debate and discussion on campus, and provide an invaluable opportunity to increase awareness about the facts on the ground.'

South African apartheid is generally cited as the precedent for BDS. The anti-apartheid movement internationally exerted pressure on South Africa through similar campaigns, ranging from individuals participating in consumer boycotts to demands for government-level action. This pressure combined with the collective resistance of black South Africans themselves. However futile such action may have sometimes seemed at times, in the long term it played a huge and positive role in ending a racist regime. 

So, is Finkelstein correct to say that BDS depends upon advocacy of a one-state solution? No. People get involved in BDS campaigns regardless of their views on solutions. What is true, though, is that BDS is simultaneously broad and radical.

The logic of BDS is to challenge Israel at a systemic level: its three stated aims are 'ending the military occupation, equality for Palestinians inside Israel, the right of Palestinian refugees to their homes and properties.' The second of these is clearly compatible with those who advocate a two-state solution - it presupposes the existence of Israel - although many of us would say Israeli society is structurally incapable of actually granting such equality. But what's really vital here is that the overall effect is to broaden our horizons from simply criticising particular violations. The movement's aims point to the systematic nature of the oppression of Palestinians.

They also serve to unite the Palestinian people. Notice that between them the aims encompass those living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians within Israel and the vast Palestinian diaspora. This breadth directly cuts against the divisions fostered by the Oslo process in the 1990s, which promoted the idea of the occupied territories as a separate issue from Palestinians living inside Israeli borders - and from the Palestinian refugees. BDS therefore re-inforces pressure for unity of the Palestinian people, supported by an international movement.

Finkelstein is therefore distancing himself from those of us who challenge the existence of a colonial settler state built on stolen land and the forcible expulsion of those who lived there. He is determined to rebuff any argument that, ultimately, only a single secular state in historic Palestine can remove the systematic oppression that has always accompanied Israel.

This leads on to the issue of political strategy. There is nothing inherently wrong with appealing to notions of international law. Indeed it is part of the tactical armoury of the whole movement. But Finkelstein's argument - that deploying the rhetoric of upholding international law should be our central task - is wrong.

It seems to me that it is naive on a purely pragmatic level. Finkelstein's conviction that the vast majority of people will be galavanised to support Palestinian rights by an appeal to 'law' isn't supported by the evidence. There are numerous other ways of raising awareness and articulating the arguments.

More seriously, however, it is founded on support for a two-state solution - on a fatalistic acceptance that a colonial-settler state will continue to exist. The point is merely to assert certain legal norms as a riposte to the worst elements of Israeli practice, most obviously the separation wall and the settlements which clearly violate international law.

We need sustained campaigning against these particular atrocities, but a preoccupation with legal arguments is liable to limit our horizons. It's also a strange focus because most people aren't appalled by the separation wall because of its legal status: that is, for most of us, secondary to our outrage at how it divides people, restricts freedom of movement, carves up the land, treats Palestinians as second-class, and so on.

Beyond the passing online storm - generating more heat than light - we can therefore identify genuine issues that are worthy of debate and reflection. Finkelstein's rejection of BDS strategy is rooted in his political weaknesses. We need to reassert the central role of BDS in building a mass international solidarity movement and articulate the ideas which underpin it.

Note: the online video interview in which Finkelstein made his controversial comments has already been removed.



  1. Palestinian civil society appealed to us to implement a boycott and we responded. It's called solidarity.
    Finkelstein's view was very plausible 10 years ago However things have changed. It is not the solidarity movement that makes the two state solution unworkable, it is the settlements and Israeli facts on the ground.
    If Norman was right, the Zionists would be relieved to see people backing an "impossible" one state solution, but in fact it terrifies them, because it scuppers the Zionist dream of a state exclusive for Jews.
    Just this week Zionist Federation vice Chair Jonothan Hoffman has written a blog demanding that Rabbi Danny Rich be expelled fron the ZF for expounding the "anti-semitic" one state solution.
    You couldn't make it up

  2. The video is watchable here:

    and here:
    but far be it from me to blow my own trumpet.