Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Report from the Norman Finklestein meeting at Queens University Belfast 6/2/12

For those of you reading this blog who don’t know who Norman Finklestein is exactly it is worth saying a few things by way of introduction.

The son of two Holocaust Survivors, a thorough academic debunker of the Zionist creation myths, someone who has been described by his enemies as a “self hating jew” and who lost his tenured position at a top American university because of his principled stance on the Palestinian issue, Prof. Norman Finklestien is one of the most important critics of Israel and the Zionist project working today. He is a fiery and fearless public speaker who doesn’t take any shit from his critics on the right (as you will see from this clip) who utterly hate him for his work against their favoured beat stick against their critics, the conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. When Alan Dershowitz lies about your mother being a Nazi collaborator, you must be doing something right.

So, when I heard he was speaking in Belfast I was naturally quite excited and managed to score a ticket to what was a packed event, the best attended political lecture I’ve seen since Chomsky spoke at the Belfast festival. You can imagine my surprise then when I left the lecture feeling somewhat disgruntled at what I’d just heard.

The subject of the talk was that of solving the conflict. This was somewhat off the topic of Prof. Finklestiens’ usual public speeches about the nature of Zionism and the Zionist state, assuming (quite correctly) that since the talk was co-hosted by the Queens PSC he would be speaking to a crowd of pro-Palestinian activists and therefore preaching the converted. So instead of that what he did was make a really hard argument for the tactical necessity of the international Palestinian solidarity movement adopting a two state solution as the stated aim and end goal of the Palestinian liberation struggle in order to win popular support from the masses.

He did this in two ways. The first was to make a legalist argument, that if you are going to argue against Israel based on the illegality of the settlements and their complete disregard for international law in their numerous military escapades one the one hand, then on the other hand you can’t deny the legitimacy of some sort of Israeli state on the other hand, which means that some sort of two-state solution is the only option. To support this he pointed out, quite correctly, that the two state solution is what has come out of the process of negotiations between the Palestinian leadership and the Israelis, that it is the solution officially supported by every country in the world except Israel and America when it gets put to the vote in the UN (including Iran and the other Arab states) and cited the very detailed and hard-fought land swap deal as the basis for an honourable settlement, which would mean that 63% the Israeli settlers could stay on the west bank, in exchange for the same amount of land in Israel to be given to the Palestinian Authority on the west bank and the settlement block system (i.e the way the roads and highways between the settlements are used to control the movements of Palestinians) would be dismantled.

Secondly, the way in which he did this, the theoretical justification for the specific arguments, was by evoking the spectre of Ghandi and using the parallels between the life and political practice of the Ghandi’s INC and the Palestinian liberation struggle to drive each of his points home. Again in all fairness to Prof. Finklestein he goes beyond the usual bourgeois liberal stock use of Ghandi to criticise proponents of armed liberation struggles and he does defend the right of an oppressed people to take up arms, as you’d expect from someone both of whose parents fought in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis, and he’s actually quite critical of that sort of nonsense.

In my opinion the main point of this was where he drew a distinction between the two lives of Ghandi, as a leader of the Indian national liberation movement and as the head of an Ashram. As the leader of the Ashram, Ghandi was a hard core ascetic, no drugs, no alcohol, no idle joking and no sex even between married couples. As the head of the national liberation movement on the other hand he was happy to work alongside Muslims, Sikhs, other Hindus who weren’t quite as hard core as himself etc. In doing so I think we reach the crux of the argument he was trying to make, that he is equating support for a one state solution, with personal morality, i.e. it may be a deeply held personal conviction and you may even be right, for whatever that’s worth, but since the legalistic argument against Israel seems to be making headway in the international community you need to put it aside and for tactical reasons go with what will appeal to the broadest mass of people as your stated end for the Palestinian struggle.

As I see it there are two major things wrong with the whole argument. One of these things he actually hit on himself at one point in the talk. When he was making the point about Ghandi he said that Ghandi was always against the partition of India, but he eventually came round to accepting the existence of Pakistan as a fact, even if he didn’t accept its legitimacy. The thing about that is, wasn’t Ghandi quite correct in not accepting partition. The partition of India was a catastrophe in human and political terms. Surely the fact that Ghandi, against his better judgement, was forced to accept the existence of the Pakistani state is something we should be mourning rather than replicating?

The other point is the unproblematized appeal to a legalistic argument. There is a very important question here about what the law actually is and how international law operates. China Mieville, when he’s not being a multi award winning Fantasy fiction author, is an expert on the subject of international law and in his book he makes the point that the reason why the law functions in the context of a bourgeois democratic state is that the state exists as the final arbiter of the law. It’s not necessarily a good arbiter or an unbiased one (far from it) but because it exists as a higher power to be appealed to between competing interests the law works to the extent to which it does. In the context of international law there exists no such final arbiter. What international law amounts to is, to put it as crudely as it actually is, “might makes right”.

There are few examples of this more blatant than the Israel Palestine conflict. Frankly, I think that this is where Finklesteins argument for the two state solution, even as a tactical position, falls down. Israel uses international law and uses these negotiations with whatever section of the Palestinian leadership it fancies talking to at any given time in a cynical way to prop up its own legitimacy. It’s a game that only one side are playing for real. It’s a game that the Palestinians are winning in its own limited terms, to the extent that all those votes going through the UN and being blocked only by Israel the US and whoever they can corral into their side count for anything. He seems to believe that this game can through international public pressure be transubstantiated into something real that the Israelis will have to abide by.

Contrary to this I would posit the old Marxist theoretical position on treaties and settlements (which I believe may come from Lenin but I’m happy to be corrected) that any negotiated settlement only represents the balance of forces as they exist on the day the treaty is signed and by extension that they only matter as long as the facts on the ground remain. Within the context of the current balance of forces between the Zionist project and its supporters and the Palestinians a two state solution may well be the limit of what is achievable in the immediate short term. But that doesn’t mean that the balance of forces will remain as they are forever or that we should abandon hope in a single secular democratic state.

Basically this is the old argument that has existed forever on the left between ‘Reform’ (i.e. achieving what is ostensibly theoretically possible through the current system) and ‘Revolution’ (i.e. realising that the current system is temporal and temporary and looking beyond it towards what should be rather than what is). Not out of some sense of moral or theoretical absolutism either, but because we know and we have seen countless times across a myriad of issues that the system of bourgeois parliamentary democracy relies on the myth of its own fairness in order to survive and in actuality many things that are theoretically achievable under this system are actually impossible for reasons that are deeply rooted in the nature of the system. Most of those involved in the Palestinian solidarity movement are various shades of radical Left and it is in our nature to look to what should be rather than to just go for whatever bad compromise can be extracted from the current system. It is for this reason that asking us to abandon the idea of the only good solution to the Palestinian issue is never going to work.

At the end of the talk I went up to Professor Finklestien and tried to put some of this to him in a nice way while I was getting my copy of his book signed. I made the point about international law that in Irish history we had a situation with regards to our national question where by the middle of the nineteenth century the case for an Irish home rule parliament had been won in Ireland and to a large extent in Britain too. It was a contentious issue among the imperial ruling class but the majority of polite society were on the side of what was called “home rule” with the first bill being put to the British parliament in 1886 and while it was narrowly defeated most people knew that some form of self government for Ireland was an inevitability. And yet Ireland did not achieve any form of self government until four decades later and that was after a revolution and the entire world being turned upside down by the First World War. I asked him that considering that we are living through a time when the entire edifice of American capitalism is hitting the wall to the extent that they may well no longer be able to afford to keep subsidising Israel and the middle east is being turned upside down by the Arab Spring, why accept a deal based on yesterdays realities when who knows where we’ll be in six months time?

He smiled sadly and said that he thought that even to get a two state solution would take a revolution.

Personally I’m not so hopeless for the situation in Palestine. I believe that there is a future where Israel goes the way of other racist imperialist colonies, from the first Crusader kingdom in the holy lands in the middle ages to the European colonies in Africa and be wiped off the map, its institutions dismantled and replaced with something not based on racism and the god given right of some of its citizens to the land. To paraphrase Haile Selasie (via Bob Marley), until that philosophy that holds one people superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned then everywhere is war. Until there are no longer first or second class citizens, until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed this is a war. And until that day, the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a dream, a fleeting illusion to be pursued but never achieved.

This isn’t an ideological shibboleth, it’s just a self evident fact. A state based on Zionist principles will never be a good home for its Muslim and Christian Arab populations and conflict will be inevitable. As an activist though, if ending Zionism means working alongside people who are for a two state solution either as a short term solution or a final settlement then I am happy enough to do so and organise on the basis of mutual respect. I will be prepared to argue the case for a one state solution with them but it should not be a pre condition for joint action. It is sad that in Palestine itself there are few looking towards that future but things are tough out there. That debate has to take place somewhere though and if it is here among the international solidarity movement that it has to happen then so be it, maybe that’s what our job is now, to be the imagination of the struggle and to hang onto the idea that another world is possible and maybe the road to it lies through Tahir Square, through the occupy movement and whatever may come out of that.


  1. Hi there,

    I didn't get along to the talk myself, but I am familiar with Prof. Finkelstein's arguments. First let me say I have nothing but respect for his work as a scholar and activist in the Palestinian-Israeli theatre, and he is a man who has unquestionably suffered for his principled work.

    However, I both agree and disagree with parts of his (and by extension your) analysis.

    First, I think for solidarity activists, the one or two state issue shouldn't be a major concern. Personally, I was an 'ideological' two-stater, converted (ironically enough) by Israel's "facts on the ground" into a 'pragmatic' one-stater (ie, I don't think the settlements are going anywhere, and I don't think Israel will allow the creation of a genuine Palestinian state in the WB and Gaza).

    My analysis in this respect is the opposite of Finkelstein's - I see pragmatism in the one-state, and folly in the two-state. But this is a PERSONAL opinion. For solidarity movement, one vs two states is not our concern, it is the concern of the Palestinian people and it is they who will ultimately decide. Even if we think we have the answers, the Palestinians' own lived experiences, frustrations and willingness to struggle will determine what an end game looks like. Therefore I think to advocate one or two states is not where the international solidarity movement should focus its energies, and it is not where Palestinian civil society has asked us to focus anyway. They have asked us to throw our weight, such as it is, behind the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

    So that's where I sort of agree, but also disagree with both your and the Prof's reasoning. Where I disagree with you again, is on the issue of International Law.

    Everything you've said about IL is of course true. Certainly true to a Marxist or Anarchist anyway. But certain aspects of IL are very useful ideological weapons for the solidarity movement, indeed, it is only really since taking a "rights based approach" backed up with BDS that we've made any serious headway (and there is a LONG way yet to go). If you're on an action, for example outside a shop selling Israeli products, it is far easier to engage with someone by using IL arguments (eg, Israel refuses to let the refugees return as required to do so under UNGA Res 194, or, Israel committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during the attack on Gaza) to convince them to become part of the BDS campaign, even if that is just by refusing to buy Israeli products. Without such arguments, you either have to make a revolutionary Marxist/Anarchist argument about Imperialism, capitalism, the deficiencies of IL and so on, or an entirely moralistic/humanitarian one, which often can deny Palestinian agency in their own struggle ("oh the poor Palestinians, they need your help, Israel is inhuman" etc).

    But you are right to point out that the world is constantly changing, and of course our arguments may have to change to suit new circumstances. But right now, I would say that your average person is more willing to listen to a _political_ (which solidarity work is) argument based on IL, rather than on a more revolutionary basis. Besides, the aim BDS is to be as broad-based as possible, it is not to be revolutionary (in an overthrow of capitalism type way).

    I don't know if it was raised at the talk, but I have also seen Finkelstein argue against using the "Israeli Apartheid" slogan, as there is no 'international consensus' on it (as there is, theoretically at any rate, re: the two-state solution) - or at least that was my understanding of his reasoning. However, I think the Apartheid slogan is both apt and useful, and indeed, Israel's policies against the Palestinian people fit the IL definition of the Crime of Apartheid.

  2. This is how I see the current phase of the international aspect of the Palestinian liberation movement anyhow, but who knows where the crisis of capitalism, or the actions of Palestinians on the ground, may take us in the future.

    As an addendum, I think the repressive, racist and anti-democratic nature of the internal Israeli state (1948 territories) is something that should be increasingly focused on by solidarity movements, as the constant refrain we hear is "yes what Israel does in the OPT is terrible and unjust, but Israel is a liberal democracy in an autocratic desert and we need to engage, not boycott it" (see any statement from any Irish government in the past decade).

    Thanks for your time.

  3. Indeed, I certainly feel that since the BDS is what the Palestinians themselves have asked for that should be the focus of activity. On the subject of one Vs two states and IL, I think there's a happy medium we can strike between being having strong principles and opinions with regards to those issues and being open to working with people from all shades of opinion as long as we agree on the fundamentals.

  4. In addition to the international arena, one should look at how the law has been applied within Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. It has been an unmitigated disaster for the Palestinians, as Zionists have used the US/European legal framework to justify their ongoing dispossession. Eyal Weizman's "Hollow Land" provides some good introductory material on this subject. Personally, instead of exalting the law as a basis for assisting the Palestinians, there is an urgent need to perpetually expose how it is manipulated to oppress them. Oddly enough, Finkelstein has done some good work in this regard.