American political scientist and author of the “Holocaust Industry,” Norman Finkelstein - known for his outspoken criticism of Israel and advocacy of Palestinian rights – showed his own fear of the paradigm shift in discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when he called the BDS movement a ‘cult’ last week
By Sean O’Neill
The interview with Norman Finkelstein that circulated all over the web on Wednesday, in which he calls the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel a “cult” and compares it to Maoism is, I think, a milestone of sorts. Or, more accurately, the symptom of a milestone – a sign that the ground is shifting on Israel/Palestine issues.
Normal Finkelstein has made a career out of being the son of holocaust survivors who doesn’t shy away from picking a fight with Israel’s backers, and who unabashedly defends the rights of Palestinians. At times his controversial positions have set his career back, as when he was denied tenure at DePaul University. However, on balance he has certainly benefited, as a less combative scholar would today likely be simply one of thousands of obscure political science professors.
Everything about the interview is classic Finkelstein: his demeanor, his tendency to raise his voice, his adversarial, passionate approach, everything, that is, except for the things he’s saying. In a bizarre turn of events, he comes off as a Zionist bully, or for that matter, any other angry right wing pundit. He accuses activists for Palestinian civil rights of having a secret agenda, that of destroying Israel. He seems obsessed with some overarching concept of the Law as final arbiter in all matters, as though in this case we weren’t talking about a variety of laws, many of which at times contradict each other, and as though there isn’t a history of the law being written, enforced, and misinterpreted by political actors at the expense of the weak. His complaint that solidarity movement activists want to cherry pick which laws they respect is reminiscent of the claims made by white religious leaders that Dr. Martin Luther King so famously refuted in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Moreover, Finkelstein conveniently ignores the fact that international law recognizes refugees as having a right to return to their homeland. When the law is inconvenient, Finkelstein employs another classic conservative tactic, insisting that the public simply won’t accept the demands of the activists, that they need to be more pragmatic. Again, see “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for an eloquent refutation of such logic.
Finkelstein even resorts to the desperate tactic of denial. When the interviewer puts forth his contention that the BDS movement is growing in popularity, Finkelstein rejects the idea out of hand, comparing the movement to some Maoist group he apparently was affiliated with at some point in his more idealistic youth.
I recently witnessed BDS’s growing clout at a meeting I attended with a woman working with an Israeli artist helping set up a series of salons in New York to explore and question the Birthright Israel programs, and the idea of a “birthright” in general. The project sounds very interesting, but the woman was visibly frustrated at their inability to find people willing to work with them in the city. “Salons: Birthright Palestine?” is co-presented by the New Museum and Artis with additional support from the Ostrovsky Family Fund and the Israeli Lottery Fund, and as a result have had the proverbial door shut on them by activists, artists, and professors, Arab and Jew alike. This would have been incomprehensible five years ago, when I first heard of the BDS movement at the annual Bil’in conference and it was, at that point, divisive even among conference attendees.
Here is where things stand now. There is a paradigm shift in the works in how the Israel/Palestine conflict is understood and approached. There is an increasing consensus among Israel’s critics to see the issue as one of civil rights, rather than a conflict between two nations. Indeed, some BDS activists harbor a desire to see the end of the Jewish state, and others believe this is the inevitable outcome of a civil rights movement, whether they desire it or not. But many others, I would argue most Palestinians among them, simply don’t care about this abstract One State v. Two State argument. They just don’t think civil rights - indeed human rights - can be trumped by someone’s nationalist claims.
Finkelstein’s sudden hostility to the solidarity movement is a symptom of this paradigm shift. It is easy to rail against Israel when the existence of a Jewish nation-state seems guaranteed in perpetuity. But that guarantee seems to have eroded a bit. For some this will be scary. But then change always is. It was scary in South Africa. It was scary in the Jim Crow American South. For others it is liberating, and you can count among these an increasing number of Israelis who see coexistence – real coexistence, not the tenuous kind that reigns in Jaffa, among other places – as a more attractive guarantee to their security than the ethnocratic state. As the ground continues to shift, some of those who are afraid will flinch, and retreat to safer, more moderate arguments. Finkelstein flinched.
Sean O’Neill worked for Christian Peacemaker Teams from 2006-2009 in the South Hebron Hills supporting Palestinian-led nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation and continued settlement expansion. He is currently an MA candidate at New York University in Near Eastern Studies and Journalism.