Comment | Reflections on the Finkelstein Controversy: BDS and the Palestine Solidarity Movement

In an exclusive essay, Anaheed Al-Hardan argues that the Norman Finkelstein interview controversy has created the perfect opportunity for the Palestinian BDS National Committee and activists worldwide to critically engage with, and reflect on, the challenges and prospects facing the Palestinian advocacy movement.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, April 26, 2012 0:00 - 5 Comments

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In an  interview with the coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in February of this year, Norman Finkelstein, long time critic of the Israeli state as well as its fraudulent academic apologists, critiqued the main campaign that the broad transnational movement, known to activists as the Palestine Solidarity Movement, employs as a strategy with which to advance political solidarity with Palestinians in practice, namely the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS).

The interview, and the controversy surrounding it, have engendered a much needed debate within the movement about BDS as a campaign and as a strategy of political solidarity with Palestinians that, two months later, is still ongoing. This debate demonstrates the urgent need to address the campaign’s giant elephant in the room, which at its core is the very legitimacy of exclusive Zionist colonial-settler statehood at the expense of the indigenous Palestinians, as well as the representational and accountability structures of the campaign’s Palestinian leadership.

Further, if the interview is understood as an example of the way in which the movement translates political solidarity into a praxis of solidarity through its varied repertoire of contention, or the language, means and resources which activists deploy in order to advocate for Palestinians, then the extent and the nature of the controversy is also testament to the potentially problematic ways in which the movement itself relates to and constructs its primary object of solidarity: Palestinian political demands and subjectivities.

The interview demonstrated just how problematic this relationship could be, albeit during an extreme yet very instructive example of the total effacement of Palestinian political demands and subjectivities while allegedly furthering their cause by otherwise well-meaning movement activists and “stars”.

BDS as Strategy of Political Solidarity

The BDS campaign is based on a BDS call issued in 2005 by a coalition of political parties, unions, associations and organisations representing the three main segments of the Palestinian people: the refugees, those living under military occupation and the Palestinian citizens of Israel. The call’s three demands for the return of the refugees, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and an end to the occupation are based on international law and universal principles of human rights.

Largely inspired by the anti-Apartheid movement, the call urges global civil society to adopt BDS as a tactic to pressure Israel to comply with the aforementioned demands. The call is therefore rights-based and provides grassroots activists with an expedient political strategy of solidarity with core Palestinian political demands, a campaign with which to further these demands and the human rights and legal language with which to advocate for the rectification of the symptoms of Zionism’s colonial-settler history in Palestine, though the call does not tackle the question of Zionism itself.

Two years after the BDS call was issued, a Ramallah-based BDS National Committee (BNC) emerged in order to coordinate the worldwide campaign.  In his interview (video below), Finkelstein declared that he has “no problem” with what is now the principle political strategy of solidarity for the broad coalition that makes up the solidarity movement. Rather, his main contention is with the BDS campaign’s “disingenuousness” as far as its ultimate goal is concerned.

According to Finkelstein, one cannot advocate for the BNC’s holistic three-tiered rights-based approach while claiming that the campaign is neutral on what the result of the realisation of these three minimum demands means in practice for the Zionist character of the state of Israel. He made his argument by claiming that activists trying to build a mass movement cannot go beyond what an imaginary mainstream “public” is willing to accept. If one attempts to go beyond this glass ceiling, he argued, one is essentially building a “cult” rather than a movement .

The glass ceiling of Finkelstein’s imaginary public is international law, and this law is “a package deal” insofar as the two-state solution, the settlements, the occupation and the division of al-Quds/Jerusalem are concerned (minus the right of return). Finkelstein argued that the BDS campaign is in effect selective with the law; as international law also enshrines Israel’s right to exist as a Zionist state. Further, international law says nothing about Palestinian citizens of Israel, yet more proof for Finkelstein that activists want to “drag in the kitchen sink” for the purpose of achieving the BDS campaign’s secret and conniving goal, which, in his words, is to “destroy Israel.”

Finkelstein asked for the interview to be pulled shortly after it was posted online because it “did some harm”, as quoted on the interviewer’s Facebook page, preferring to leave the object of this harm ambiguous. Many activists voiced their objections in the social media sphere to the retraction of the interview. Finkelstein’s wishes, however, took precedence. Some activists objected  by noting the necessity of a debate on BDS while others noted that the (impossible) retraction of the interview in cyberspace will lead and was already leading to accusations of criticism censorship by the movement’s anti-BDS adversaries.

As anticipated, the interview is still floating around in full, owing to its championing by anti-BDS advocates and in large part as a consequence of Finkelstein’s destructive and condescending tone  and his full-blown attack on the solidarity movement and the BNC. The interview and its failed retraction created a controversy and a flood of responses here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here over a very short period of time, all robustly dealing with various facets of his argument.

The sheer volume of responses and counter responses, as well as the heated debate among movement activists in the social media sphere, are collectively telling of the way in which the interview ushered in what was in fact a much needed debate on BDS as a campaign and a political strategy of solidarity for the broader movement. This debate underscores that it may indeed be time for the BNC and for movement activists to engage in dialogue about ways in which to move the campaign forward by tackling what are essentially tactical questions that arise from the BDS call’s alleged/inherent anti-Zionism.

That the call’s alleged/inherent anti-Zionism is a question of tactics rather than ideology stems from the fact that many movement activists are not shy about their anti-colonial, anti-racist and thus anti- Zionist ideals. Rather, political solidarity activists as activists cannot decide the political demands underpinning solidarity with Palestinians (even though Finklestein would like to).

Moving forward, therefore, entails that the campaign’s leaders and movement activists together envision ways in which to tackle the question of Zionism itself head-on, shifting the terms of the discourse on Palestine even further. This dialogue is also crucial given the legitimate concerns that were raised by activists about the BNC’s representational and accountability structures during the controversy, and the urgent need for the BNC to address the concerns of activists involved in a campaign that it leads.

It is also necessary as it will allow for a conversation about the BNC’s modus operandi, which is currently a focus on external at the expense of internal mobilisation, and how to move forward on this crucial point through possibilities of complementing these two facets of mobilization.

Translating Palestinians as (non) Objects of Solidarity

Beyond BDS as such, the Finkelstein interview also shed light on the way in which the movement itself translates a political strategy of solidarity into a practice of solidarity, and where and how Palestinians figure in this translation. The interview was, after all, recorded and posted on the internet as it was thought to constitute and advance political solidarity with Palestinians.

In view of these goals, the interview also highlights how the movement, through its activists and, in this case, even “stars”, relates to and constructs those it is supposed to be in solidarity with. If Palestinians were meant to constitute the interview’s object of solidarity, this makes the ways in which they were figured, related to and silenced in the interview troubling, raising myriad questions about what exactly constitutes political solidarity for those who claim to practice and advocate solidarity with Palestinians.

To begin with, two out of the three main political demands of Palestinians, as illustrated above, were muted. Moreover, the Palestinian leadership of the BDS was derided by Finkelstein as being encapsulated by “the gurus in Ramallah giving out marching orders” to a movement that essentially constitutes a “cult”, as demonstrated, in his words, by the endorsement of the BDS call by “one person operations” claiming to constitute “this thing called Palestinian civil society”.

When Palestinians were figured and made present beyond the “gurus” in the interview, they were the self-serving and corrupt Palestinian Authority (PA). This first took place when Finkelstein bizarrely argued that the solidarity movement’s problem is that it is a mirror image of the PA – a body whose function as no more than a civilian and security sub-contractor of the occupation is highly suspect – thus begging the question as to the purpose of conflating the movement with the PA, and why it was this particular body that was evoked to lambast the BDS campaign’s allegedly conniving anti-Zionism.

The Palestinians were also figured and made present while Finkelstein explained that the PA has an interest in not mobilising the poor and hapless demobilised Palestinians in wait of some external salvation-cum-mobilisation. This problematic construction of the supposed object of political solidarity essentially erases Palestinians as active agents and leaders of grassroots resistance and myriad forms of self-mobilisation as they respond to the daily onslaught against their communities by the Israeli military-colonial machine.

Palestinians were also conjured by Finkelstein as the “four million people” of Palestine à la the Israeli six-decade old policy of “conquer, divide, conquer again and further divide”. In other words, Palestinians are only those in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territories.

Just as he defined and decided who constitutes a Palestinian, he also dismissed the question of the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel as being part and parcel of the broader question of Palestine. He did this through resorting to the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) Declaration of Independence as having dropped these Palestinians from its political program, essentially overriding what Palestinian citizens of Israel may themselves say about their own political aspirations for a non-racial state and their own national belonging as Palestinians; despite and because of the PLO’s post-1993 transformation.

It was not only Finkelstein, however, who muted Palestinians’ political demands and political subjectivities in the process of constructing them and relating to them as objects of solidarity. When the Palestinian refugees’ unequivocal demand for the implementation of the right of return was discussed, even the interviewer-activist declared that people, presumably activists, are “very educated on the refugee issue”, and as a result, would never really demand the return of six million Palestinians; forgetting for a moment that the right of return is about the refugees and not the activists that are supposed to be advocating on their behalf.

When Finkelstein disagreed, noting that activists insist on the right of return of not six but even seven million refugees, the interviewer declared that:

“that’s people talking on behalf, in a way, of them. I mean, talking to Palestinian refugees, some of them know that there’s also a compromise, some of them [say], “we’d like to return”, some of them…”

Thus, it is not only the figure of “the activist” as the spokesperson for the refugees that is foregrounded over and above the refugees’ political subjectivities, but the activist voice also erases the refugees’ voices. There was another implicit point to this self-referential and politically effacing maze of spokespersonship. It was to affirm that Palestinian refugees are perfectly reasonable people; since reasonable people presumably know that there is a compromise to be made. The need to affirm the refugees’ reasonableness is of course itself filled with loaded assumptions. Unsurprisingly, Finkelstein responded to the statement by declaring: “Fine! And I think Palestinians are perfectly reasonable”.

Solidarity with the Colonisers or the Colonised?

In contrast to the problematic conjuring of Palestinians and the silencing of their uncomfortable political subjectivities, for Finkelstein, the mainstream public was a definite actor, which he used and foregrounded not only to build his argument insofar as international law and a mass movement are concerned, but also as a benchmark for selling the end-goal of what being in political solidarity with Palestinians should be all about.

This is achieving two-states, regardless of the fact that whether Palestinians want one or two states is for them and only for them to decide. It is instructive to ask who exactly constitutes this imaginary public and why it takes primacy over the political demands of a people one is meant to be in solidarity with? For a start, this imaginary public is one which is definitely sympathetic to Zionism. We know this because Finkelstein declared that “you can give them [the public] every fact behind the creation of the refugees and they’ll still see the Israeli position, that that’s not tenable”.

This pseudo Zionist imaginary public therefore not only takes primacy over Palestinians, but it also serves the role of a (Zionist-sympathetic) standard with which to assess the feasibility of the three central Palestinian demands encapsulated in the BDS call. The use of this public in order to render Palestinians not only mute but also invisible was taken further in the interview as it blurred into a benchmark of what constitutes the limits of acceptability insofar as Israeli society’s racist colonial-settler sensitivities are concerned. “I don’t know what you’re trying to do!” Finkelstein snapped at the interviewer, “do you want to resolve the conflict or do you want to create terror in the heart of every Israeli?!”

This “terrorization” of Israelis by equality for the three components of the Palestinian people was brandished as a normative statement, couched in the language of common sense. There is no need to question the “reasonableness” of this feeling of terror or the “reasonableness” of a society petrified by equality for the indigenous inhabitants of a land that it settled and colonised. There is also no need to evoke the terror that the prospect of the continued existence of the militarised, belligerent and ruthless Zionist character of the Israeli state instills in the heart of the colonised Palestinians, and in fact instills on a daily basis, in both 1948 and 1967 occupied Palestine.

Finkelstein’s self-declared newfound post-interview role of a “diplomat who wants to resolve the conflict” notwithstanding, if the interview has served a purpose for the solidarity movement – beyond opening a discussion on BDS’s end goal, the BNC’s weaknesses and ways in which to move forward – it is to show how the translation of even well-meaning political solidarity into a practice by movement activists who see themselves as conduits of the Palestinian struggle for liberation can, in fact, have the effect of silencing and even erasing these very Palestinians.

The interview should give all those heavily invested in the movement much food for thought in terms of the practices that are deployed to advance solidarity, and where and how Palestinians figure in these practices. Questions need to be asked about why certain voices are privileged when championing the Palestinian cause by the movement, how these voices relate to Palestinian political demands and whether these voices in fact inadvertently serve to discursively reproduce the very colonial relationships of power that the movement seeks to dismantle.

As the movement continues to evolve and change, learning from both its victories and failures, there is much room for the incorporation of a more critical relationship to the ways in which it translates political solidarity into a praxis, and the relationship with, and construction of, Palestinians in these practices.

Anaheed Al-Hardan

Anaheed Al-Hardan is a sociologist and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin, Germany, where she is writing a book on memories of the 1948 Nakba in the Palestinian refugee community in Syria. She's on Twitter @anaheedo.

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Frank Barat
Apr 26, 2012 9:49

Dear Anaheed,

Very good and timely analysis, thank you.
Regarding paragraph about the activist/interviewer (myself) that I pasted in full below, I could not agree more with you. To be totally honest, I have been kicking myself for replying to Norman Finkelstein in this way since interview came out. Not sure why I did respond in this manner. I do hope that this is not a subconscient patronising/orientalist view of mine. On a day to day basis, what I repeat constantly is that the bottom line is that the Palestinians have rights (including the most important one, the right of return) and that it is only for them to decide how they will implement it. If 6 millions of them do indeed want to return to Palestine, fair enough. That’s for them to decide.
I know that BADIL and Zochrot are at the moment working on a very interesting study that will examine what the right of return will mean in practice. I am sure that it will shed light on many myths surrounding this issue.

In solidarity
Frank

It was not only Finkelstein, however, who muted Palestinians’ political demands and political subjectivities in the process of constructing them and relating to them as objects of solidarity. When the Palestinian refugees’ unequivocal demand for the implementation of the right of return was discussed, even the interviewer-activist declared that people, presumably activists, are “very educated on the refugee issue”, and as a result, would never really demand the return of six million Palestinians; forgetting for a moment that the right of return is about the refugees and not the activists that are supposed to be advocating on their behalf.

When Finkelstein disagreed, noting that activists insist on the right of return of not six but even seven million refugees, the interviewer declared that:

“that’s people talking on behalf, in a way, of them. I mean, talking to Palestinian refugees, some of them know that there’s also a compromise, some of them [say], “we’d like to return”, some of them…”

Richard Lightbown
May 2, 2012 18:48

Sorry, I could not wade through the academic jargon beyond more than a couple of paragraphs. Ever heard of the plain English campaign?

Recommended reading: The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers.

DJL
May 3, 2012 17:33

I actually think this article is a really bad analysis of the interview. It was rather unfair to Finkelstein, as it badly misrepresents his points. Not only that, the article ends up as a collection of unsubstantiated criticism.

newsens
May 6, 2012 1:50

I agree with Richard Lightbown .
Too long, too much pseudo-academic verbiage.

Claudia
May 6, 2012 14:02

Here are the main points of this important article:

Israel’s right to exist as a Zionist state, in its current form, SHOULD be questioned, because it has always been and continues to be based on theft, ethnic cleansing and exclusivity given to Jews over non-Jews. Anyone who has a problem with questioning that also has a problem with universal human rights and International Humanitarian Law. 2000 political prisoners on hunger strike in Israel’s prisons is not something you see in a normal functioning state. Nor is it normal to have children routinely imprisoned without trial or charge. Israel is a seriously defective state and therefore a direct challenge to its legitimacy is an urgent necessity.

Leaving Palestinians largely out of the discussion on the strategy forward, as Finkelstein effectively did in that interview, is highly problematic.

One cannot help but conclude that human rights, when advocated by Palestinians, appear somehow less attractive to a Western intellectual audience. Is this not subtle racism?

– The argument that a “mainstream public” is not ready for anything more than the continuation of the two state farce, which is Finkelstein’s view, crumbles for two reasons. Firstly, just who is this “mainstream public” – does it really exist? If so point us to some scientific evidence Mr. Finkelstein. Secondly, even if such a “mainstream public” did exist, its opinion would still be trumped by the inalienable rights of the indigenous people of the land. Al-Hardan makes this point eloquently where she talks about Finkelstein’s “imaginary public”.

The main argument by Finkelstein that International Law is the only way forward for the Palestinians is a red herring. Really Mr. Finkelstein? Wow – thanks for enlightening us! We hadn’t noticed. BDS activists call PRECISELY for the implementation of international law, and are pursuing an awareness campaign to bring pressure to bear so that International Law CAN be enforced.

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