Why and How Norman Finkelstein’s Anti-BDS position will split the Palestinian Solidarity Movement

The recent interview given by Norman Finkelstein will split the Palestinian solidarity movement clean in two. For links to the interview and responses worth reading, read Mondoweiss, the coverage there is good and I see no purpose in repeating it.

My analysis is simply this: that Finkelstein has brought out into the open an essential issue that has always lurked in the “rights based” approach of the BDS movement – he is simply working out the implication of according individual rights to all the members of a national community that have national as well as individual goals. If seven million Palestinian refugees return to their homes in the State of Israel and are accorded full democratic rights, it will not be long before the state is renamed “Palestine”, the law of return is repealed, and the institutionalized privileging of Jewish people and Jewish communities comes to an end.

So what will happen? On the one hand Finkelstein’s supporters will be “reasonable” and demand Palestinians give up the right of return. They will insist that Israel has the “right to exist” (a right which no other states in the International community are afforded), and that implicitly this means Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state, with institutionalized Jewish domination over other nationalities or minority groups. They will insist that this recognition is a precondition to peace, to ending the conflict (they will ignore that Israel already has peace, and that this is actually a barrier against ending the conflict). And on the other hand, properly committed Anti-Zionists, including the BDS movement, will continue to base their analysis of the situation on principles of both individual and national rights, even when it appears “impossible”. They will insist that a just solution to the Palestinian question include not only Israelis, but also all Palestinians, and that it is not acceptable to institutionalize any national domination or exclude any Palestinian from participating in the solution or in sharing from the peace dividend.

This split may appear to be a terrible setback, but in fact the Palestinians have always struggled against impossible odds. Who would have believed after the Nakba in 1948, or the Naksa in 1967 that the Palestinian people themselves would lead the charge seeking their own liberation and return to their homes? Who would have guessed that this dispossessed people had will and the mind to create a nationality in exile and mobilize an ever continuing armed and unarmed struggle which would catch the eye of the world?

So when moderates demand activists to “be reasonable”, and no longer conceive of the enemy as enemy, but instead point to international law which grants Israel the “right to exist” (in the same way it grants Canada a similar right to exist on colonized indigenous lands), this is a setback but this is not the end. We are at the brink of a shift in the way the public understands the oppression of the Palestinian people at the hands of their colonizers. The moderates, which are essentially conservative and reactionary, will say the conflict can be resolved if everyone embrace their ethnic nationalism – Israelis living in a land which continues to be ethnically cleansed of its arab majority, and a fragmentary Palestinian state without sovereignty and with no Jews. In other words, the Arab-Zionist conflict will be solved once the Palestinians have been sufficiently Zionised – turned into an exclusionary ethno-nationalist people so that their search for land itself becomes conceived of as colonization.  What is most telling about these racist remarks by the PLO is that they were not fully utilized by the zionists to discredit the Palestinian national cause. Why don’t they – one would imagine zionists would love to paint the Palestinian Authority as a bunch of racist terrorists? I think this is because moderate Zionists recognize that Palestinian racism against Jews guarantees their own right to an ethnically cleansed nation. Palestinian institutionalized racism vindicates institutionalized Israeli racism – and thus the dream of two exclusionary ethnic-nationalities living in peace, side by side.

In truth, what the Finkelstein-moderates want is the same as what the moderate zionists want: a resolution of the conflict based on two ethno-nationalist groups which are both permitted a modicum of racism as a a reasonable effect of having been at war for 63 years. Sure, Finkelstein and two-state solution Israelis have slightly different ideas about the border, but they both agree that ethno-national states, both which compromise on their territorial aspirations, are the best resolution to the conflict. This kind of solution privileges solving the conflict over and above the moral and historical-revolutionary potentialities which exist in the conflict. The fear of violence shuts off people’s minds, and encourages them to accept short term fixes which do not go to the root of the issue. It turns them into paternalistic oh dearists who forget to make the distinction between acting in solidarity with someone, and acting on behalf of someone when they haven’t asked you for anything. It turns Palestine into a charity case, pure suffering as suffering like a starving child who’s belly is surrounded by flies.

And yet, the two state solution does little for the Palestinians in greatest need – the refugees, especially those without citizenship in surrounding Arab states whose basic needs are provided through UNWRA but who continue to live largely in poverty and in overcrowded camps. But those refugees are not charity cases – it is from the camps that the resistance rose up, it is from there that gave birth to the political force of the PLO.

In a sense, as a non-Palestinian it is not my place to say what values are the correct ones, or even which solution is the one they should support. There are after all many reasons for oppressed people to compromise, to give up rights for better living conditions. But as a solidarity activist, I get to choose who I stand with, and I stand with principled opposition to institutionalized racism and the exclusion of indigenous populations. This means I decide to, inasmuch as I am able, stand with all the Palestinians – not just the few million in the West Bank.

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2 thoughts on “Why and How Norman Finkelstein’s Anti-BDS position will split the Palestinian Solidarity Movement

  1. Chomsky claims no state claims the “right to exist” except Israel. This doesn’t exist as a technical term in international law.

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