Reflections on a Finkelstein who once claimed to ‘Israel-bash’

Norman Finkelstein has spoken again after remaining noticeably silent since the day his remarks about BDS went viral. In an exclusive Haaretz interview, Finkelstein addresses each of his audiences—his fans, his enemies—as one and announces that he will no longer “be an Israel-basher”. Instead, he says, he will resort to diplomacy, making it a priority to find a viable solution as soon as humanly possible.

Because I like to be honest with readers, I will admit that I’m not quite sure how the rest of this piece will turn out. It isn’t that I’m at a loss for words, but Finkelstein’s interview strikes close to home for a number of reasons. Addressing each point with a fair and critical eye will not necessarily be a challenge but it might turn out a bit disorganized. Forgive me for this, but please do expect unadulterated honesty.

In the beginning

The name “Norman Finkelstein” evoked awe when I was a freshman in college just two years ago. I had heard his name mentioned a few times before but it wasn’t until months after the invasion of Gaza that I actually had the opportunity to see him in person. What inspired me the most about him wasn’t his uncanny ability to properly deliver a speech in a voice at least two octaves higher than mine, but rather his synthesis of the very facts I had been searching for. The Amnesty International quotes, the statistics from international observers, the responses from governments overseas—he consolidated it all into a package that was easy to digest and, more importantly, capable of motivating me to become more active and even more critical.

That was what he was all about: well-founded criticism, not bashing. After all, he was one of the greatest professors DePaul University ever had.

Since then, his status seems to have waned within the pro-Palestine community. People weren’t necessarily discontent with his dedication. He committed most of his adult life to the cause, even sacrificing his career for it. His methodology wasn’t the issue either. Still to this day, he is very systematic, careful, and calculated. But from what I could tell, Finkelstein was driven by objection. The more people disagreed with him, the harder he worked. And so it came as no surprise to me to see that ultimately, his stance on the Palestine-Israel issue fell flat when it came time to discuss geopolitical endgames. Israelis said no; Palestinians said no. Finkelstein had found his niche.

Finkelstein’s return to DePaul

I had the opportunity to meet Finkelstein again just weeks before he referred to BDS as having a cult following. We were back in Lincoln Park in Chicago’s North Side. This time, though, he was speaking at DePaul’s campus, his first time since 2007.

His first of two lectures was strictly about his idea for a resolute end to the Palestine-Israel conflict. Admittedly, his logic was simple enough to understand: if one wants to refer to international law to make a case for Palestinian independence, one must accept the same international laws that birthed Israel. To him, it all boiled down to Israel’s right to exist. The law would have to be applied to the Palestinian case, but it already existed naturally for Israel’s sake. It was a subtle double standard that kept me from agreeing with him.

This same double standard, I soon realized, is what led much of the pro-Palestine community away from his calls for a two-state solution. Although Finkelstein is under the impression that an ideological nationalism is what drives most people to support a one-state solution, I found it to be the opposite. A two-state solution was once the more likely option but seeing how Israel consistently abuses the law and seeing how its society has further embedded itself within a social hierarchy in which Arabs, specifically Palestinians, are at the lower tiers, a viable two-state solution just can’t exist.

His clever rewording of his position, though, gave the impression that something big was in the making. He didn’t even use the words Zionist or Zionism at all in his speech. It made part of the crowd hopeful. The other part wondered why history, or the contextual backbone of the law, didn’t receive any of his attention.

His second and final lecture dealt with his unwarranted release from DePaul. Finkelstein always struck me as someone who kept his passions and his emotions hidden from view. He is stone-faced because he as to be, because it provides the credible authority that is required for an academic and a scholar. In this speech, which turned out to be one of the most moving I’ve ever heard, he detailed his last few weeks at DePaul, capping each experience with a personal reflection. Towards the end, as he identified without using names all of those who played a role in ending his career, he reminded himself and the audience to remain professional so as not to ‘stoop to their level’. It was a classy talk.

No politics at the dinner table

I was invited to eat dinner with him. My intentions (and if he ever reads this, I apologize in advance) were to grill him on the spot, right as he took his first or second bite. Finding loopholes in his arguments were difficult, especially because I am not at all at his level. But I was adamant that by the end of the night, I would convince him that if applying justice was his ultimate concern, he would abandon his “international law” charade and actually stand before the realities that far surpass the guiding power of international law. We are dealing with, I thought, something that international law itself can’t wrap its head around, particularly because it isn’t applied for one side and because the other side defies it on a regular basis.

But the conversation went the other way. He smiled the whole way through. I remember him being exceptionally warm and receptive, hugging his former students and thanking them repeatedly for standing up to DePaul’s administration on his behalf. He even hugged me, thanking me for finding friendship with those who did all that was in their power to give him one last fighting chance. Politics aside, he’s undoubtedly a genuine man.

Making use of his frustration with BDS

And then ‘BDS-Gate’ happened. After sitting through the first seven minutes of his filmed interview, I had had enough. Twitter had beaten me though; my initial concerns had been tweeted and retweeted.

At one point, Finkelstein was called a Zionist. One person even wondered if he had been secretly spying for Israel all along. Others questioned his allegiance to peace. The reaction his interview drew convinced me that people wanted to see him tried in a criminal court. Not a single person I know showed him any sign of support.

The debate was not a debate at all. It was a bashing. (Finkelstein, if you’re reading this, you knew it was coming.) Very few people chose to respond to him in a professional manner. Those who did, I applaud. Finkelstein’s outlook on BDS was misconceived and quite disrespectful to the pro-Palestine community. He even implicitly targeted many of the movement’s greatest leaders. Although I wouldn’t argue that the video merited crazed and, in many cases, violent responses, it definitely deserved a lot of the heat it received. But those whom he targeted responded back, and they did so in a much more professional and logical way.

At the end of the day though, his remarks about BDS led many to look inwards for ways to improve the tactic. Omar Barghouti spoke at a Chicago fundraiser just weeks ago and reminded the audience that BDS is constantly improving. As a result, it is steadily gaining traction. Granted, Finkelstein lost many more of his supporters after the video went viral but the smartest in the bunch used his words to the movement’s advantage. It wasn’t his goal but in a sense, his critique gave BDS an added boost.

Fighting my own battles

The disrespect and apparent condescension, however, still bother me. Having interacted with him outside of his uptight politics-on-a-pedestal environment and after witnessing what I’m convinced is a genuine care for the Palestinian people, I don’t understand why his tone consistently strikes me as disapproving and unappreciative.

As I’m sure he understands, the movement for Palestinian rights existed well before he tore Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial to shreds. Although he contributed greatly to the cause, his suggestions are not entitled to full agreement and immediate enactment. And more importantly, he should not view dissenting opinions as mere nationalistic follies. We may not all be PhDs but a PhD is not required to defend human rights, to support refugee rights, and to combine historical models with logic and common sense to recognize just how unrealistic a two-state solution is.

I, for one, don’t need someone telling me how to fight my battles, no matter how respected this ‘someone’ is.

Finkelstein’s name has come up much less now. Finalizing his preparations for three new publications to be released this year, I can imagine him being too busy to stir things up again. At the same time, his tone and his final solution (which, to be honest, isn’t as novel as he suggests) have forced many to abandon him for good. I am well aware that I come off as a mean-spirited hothead but I chose to go against the current. He is undoubtedly disagreeable but I couldn’t view him as an enemy. Still, I found myself referring to him less and less.

But Haaretz graced me with a special surprise and after reading the interview with bewildered eyes, the first thought that came to my head was quite vulgar. Basically, I wondered why I had even bothered giving Finkelstein another chance in the first place.

This isn’t ‘Israel-bashing’

It took two or three more run-throughs for me to digest what he was saying. After reading through Haaretz’s classically sensationalist headline and subtitle, I concluded that Finkelstein will forever be an academic, and that’s who we’re going to have to live with.

In the interview, Finkelstein says that he will no longer engage in Israel-bashing. “[T]he spectrum has moved,” he says. Plus, “[n]obody really defends Israel anymore”. He alludes to Israel’s new rebranding campaign where soldiers are sent to campuses across the nation to speak about why Israel’s military is the most moral in the world. He also refers to the growing walk-out trend where students tape their mouths shut and leave the room mid-speech. He says that this atmosphere—in which the Israelis can no longer find excuses and in which the Palestinians exploit their poor defenses—leads to a festival of bashing, simply because it has become to easy.

Here is where Finkelstein is entirely wrong, and I don’t think it’s a perception issue. The Israeli soldiers aren’t coming to show that some soldiers are indeed nice and civil individuals. They’re coming to deny accountability for their actions against Palestinians and to discredit Palestinian suffering as a by-product of some political misunderstandings.

Similarly, the walkouts aren’t exploitative nor are they done because they are “easy”. Logistically speaking, they are not at all easy to pull off. More importantly though, they are not purposeless. These are the actions that open the eyes of the ‘young Jews’ and the uninformed Americans that he mentions time and time again. These serve as avenues of civil disobedience, the same sort of motivated activity that led many historic movements to success, especially here in the United States.

In other words, is solidarity activism for Palestinian really just lazy “Israel-bashing” or has Israel put itself in a position where the fight for justice and equality results without fail in a bashed-up Israel?

Finkelstein as an academic and not an activist

The sixth word in the previous run-on sentence though reveals why Finkelstein is unable to answer this question. Activism: what Finkelstein doesn’t do.

We look to Finkelstein to be an activist, to be at the front of every rally and to rally the world with fiery words. But he is not that. Finkelstein is an academic. His attachment to Palestine is not physically tangible but he genuinely believes in the Palestine struggle. He is a scholar who does a better job analyzing reports than building rapport with his allies. Maybe that’s his fatal flaw but it could be ours too if we continue making him into what he can’t be and then throwing him to the dogs for it.

Finkelstein may not be the asset he once was. Personally, I find Finkelstein to be in his best form when he finds inconsistencies within military reports or when he cites death ratio statistics. But that isn’t to say that he doesn’t provide any value. That would be both wrong and rude of me to say. Again, he is immensely disagreeable but he is not an enemy. Goldstone is an enemy, Goldstone fell through the cracks, but Finkelstein does not pander to anyone. He just feels an adrenaline rush when nobody agrees with him.

His Haaretz interview only reaffirmed just how much I disagree with him. If a two-state solution is ever manifested, the socioeconomic reconfiguration of three distinct territoires will cause it to fail so fast that we will within moments return to square one. Unless his novel approach is a three- or four-state solution (both of which have been suggested by others, namely Americans, in the past), the only other route to take is the one he adamantly rejects. It will take him time to accept but assuming this plays out the way I’m calling it, he will be forced to acknowledge that we all ultimately want peace.

On the other hand, I dare to say that Finkelstein’s interview shares one glaring reality. We’ve done well so far—Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people are gaining exposure. The world is becoming more aware. True, college administrators, for example, typically condemn anything that is minutely critical of Israel. But on those fronts where the movement has breached the status quo, it is time to carry that momentum further.

At the end of the day, we don’t ‘Israel bash’ out of convenience, Israel bashes itself. We don’t call for a one-state solution because we want to oppose Finkelstein, we call for it because it’s the only solution there is.

Sami Kishawi

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