This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on January 20, 2015. Dr. Finkelstein says the BDS movement must take a position on Israel’s right to exist as a state.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay. The boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement has claimed quite a few successes in the last year or two. For example, in December 2013, the Netherlands’ largest supplier of drinking water said it was severing ties with Israeli national water company Mekorot (I’m sure I’m butchering that) because of the political context of Israel’s West Bank settlements. This is again December 2013: the American Studies Association members voted in favor of endorsing the academic boycott of Israel by a two-to-one margin, making it the second major U.S. scholarly association, after the Association for Asian American Studies, to do so. January 2014, the Netherlands’ largest pension fund management companies decided to withdraw all its investments from Israel’s five largest banks because they have branches in the West Bank or are involved in financing construction in the settlements. February 2014, two leading international companies bidding to build private seaports dropped out of the government’s tender due to concerns over the political repercussions. June 2014, Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. voted to divest from three companies that sided for profiting from the occupation. August 2014, the Ontario branch of the Canadian Federation of Students, representing more than 300,000 university students in the province, unanimously passed a motion to boycott Israel. December 10, 2014, University of California graduate student worker union voted in favor of a resolution supporting an academic boycott of Israel. The union represents 13,000 student workers in the University of California system. All of this leads up to the next segment of our interview with Norman Finkelstein. Norman is known to be a critic–and we’re going to kind of discuss all of this–of the BDS movement. And he now joins us in the studio.
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN, POLITICAL SCIENTIST, ACTIVIST, AND AUTHOR: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
JAY: Thanks for joining us. So once again, Norman’s an academic, one of the best-known critics of Israeli policy. His most recent book is Method and Madness: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Assault on Gaza. So–well, what is your position on the BDS movement? What do you make of it?
FINKELSTEIN: Well, first of all we have to be clear what we mean by the BDS movement. If you mean boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, of course I support them. I was actively involved, for example, in petitioning the Presbyterians in 2005, in 2006 in Birmingham, to get them to divest from their holdings, which implicated the West Bank and–I don’t know if Gaza at the time. I think the West Bank. So I’ve always been an active proponent of the boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. But that’s not BDS with a capital B, upper case B, upper case D, and upper case S. BDS says that those aren’t just boycotting acts. (That’s the expression they use.) But they say BDS is a platform, and the platform, they say, is anchored in international law. They say that the international law guarantees the rights of Palestinians to self-determination, which is true. That was upheld by the International Court of Justice in 2004. And then they derive from this right of self-determination three other rights. And the three other rights are Israel has to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. There has to be implementation of the right of return. And there has to be equality of citizenship for Palestinian Arabs in Israel. And all of that is correct. But there is one thing that’s left out under international law: Israel is also a state. And BDS is, as it likes to say, quote, we take no position on Israel. Now, that doesn’t make any sense to me. I told you before, number one, I’m a stickler about international law. You have to be consistent. I can’t publicly argue a position any longer. I did as a young man, for those who want to see the old segments of this interview. But as an adult, I no longer can argue positions which are, in my view, intellectually either inconsistent or disingenuous, which is just a euphemism for dishonest. Israel is a state under international law. You can’t claim rights for yourself but then, when it comes to the rights to the other party to the conflict, to claim to have no position. That doesn’t make any sense to me. If you claim, as BDS does–the first sentence of their call from 2005–the first sentence of their call says, we’re anchored in international law. Then they purposely time the call for–it was July 2005. It was one year after the International Court of Justice advisory opinion on the legality of the rule that Israel is building in the occupied territories. And they said, we’re organizing BDS because everyone’s ignoring the ICJ opinion and we are trying to enforce the law. Fine, but the ICJ opinion, the very last sentence in the ICJ opinion says, we look forward to two states: an Israeli state side-by-side with a Palestinian state. So you can’t be agnostic on the question–.
JAY: Why can’t you be?
FINKELSTEIN: You can’t, because you can do one of two things. You can say–which is a perfectly reasonable position–you could say to hell with the law, I don’t care what international law says, International law is made by privileged states, it’s made by imperialists, it’s made by–so on and so forth. You know the rhetoric, so I don’t have to go through it with you. You can take that position and say, we don’t care about international law, we don’t care if international law recognizes Israel. We don’t. That’s fine. Or we don’t take a position. Or the second option is you say you are anchored in international law, but then you have to take the good and bad in the law. You take it as a package. You can’t say, for example, I have the right to walk at the green, but I have no opinion on the red. A law is about–law consists of two things: rights and obligations, rights and responsibilities. You can’t just claim rights for yourself but then claim to be agnostic or, quote, I don’t have an opinion on your obligations to others. That’s not the law. That’s cherry-picking the law. That’s what Israel always did. Israel kept saying to the Palestinians, you have to recognize us, you have to recognize us. But they refuse to recognize the Palestinian right to self-determination and statehood. If it was wrong for Israel to do that because it demanded the right for itself but not its obligation to the Palestinians, it’s wrong for the other side to do it.
JAY: There’s many examples of broad fronts, united fronts being organized, where there’s all kinds of disagreement about what comes next. And you can go back to the Kuomintang and Chairman Mao’s army, the Chinese Liberation Army. You can go to the United Fronts in Europe against fascism. It’s actually the whole nature of a broad united front that people disagree about all kinds of stuff. But you can find enough common ground to have an effective policy. Well, then you do that. So what’s wrong with BDS? Now, I have no idea how the BDS people will or will not respond to you. I’m just giving you my own view.
FINKELSTEIN: Well, they’ll never respond, because they know what I’m saying is true. They’ve been asked–they’ve been asked–.
JAY: No, but–no, wait a sec.
FINKELSTEIN: Listen. They’ve been asked to debate me. I can tell you for a fact Omar Barghouti, he has been asked to debate me on Democracy Now! And his answer is, Finkelstein’s not important; let me talk to important people. They won’t debate me on the issue, because what I’m saying is so transparently true, unless you want to make the preposterous argument, as some tried to do when I was at Oxford a few months ago with Nefti Hassan on head-to-head, and there were people who were trying to tell me Israel’s not a state. That’s just so ridiculous! How can you argue with people like that? That’s a cult. You understand what a cult is? A cult is when you simply by fiat, by fatwa, you deny a reality. And among your group you simply, whatever the guru says, you nod your head. I was in it. “Chairman Mao says.” So now there’s another guru. And you just pretend that the rest of the world is not out there.
JAY: But they’re not saying they don’t recognize Israel and the state.
FINKELSTEIN: Of course they are saying that.
JAY: No, they’re saying they won’t say it.
FINKELSTEIN: Of course they’re saying that. Of course they’re saying that. Have you read, for example, the commentator from Chicago–I won’t name him–very active in BDS, who attacks Sweden for recognizing the Palestinians because it’s two states? It attacks the French, attacks the Irish, attacks the House of Commons, attacks them all. Why? Because they’re calling for two states. Of course that’s the reason. Now, you have the right to that opinion. I’m not contesting it. I’m not disputing it. I’m not denying it. But what you can’t do from the point of view of elementary intellectual consistency is to deny the state of Israel and then claim all you’re asking for is what you’re entitled to under international law. That’s not consistent. Number two, you’ve made an important point. You said that people form coalitions from the point of view of finding common ground in order to reach a broad public. And that’s correct. I agree with that. But I have a lot of experience. I’m not trying to lord it over you, but I have 32 years’ experience how you try to reach a broad public, how you break out of your cocoon and you reach a broad public.
JAY: But, look, these are successful–.
FINKELSTEIN: I’m going to get to that. I’m going to get to that in a moment.
JAY: And by the way, just for people that don’t know, I’m pointing at the piece of paper I was reading off the top here.
FINKELSTEIN: I’m going to get to that in a half-moment. Now, there’s no way. If you are trying to reach a broad public and you say you have no position on Israel, you lose them.
JAY: No, no position on the issue of whether it’s one state or two state or the legitimacy of the state.
FINKELSTEIN: No, you have no position. You have no position on Israel. The standard response is, the stock response is, we take no position on Israel. You try to reach a broad public by saying we take no position on Israel.
JAY: No, come on. That’s not what they’re saying.
FINKELSTEIN: Of course that’s what they’re saying.
JAY: No, they’re saying boycott Israel. How can you not have a position?
FINKELSTEIN: No, no, no, no. They say we take–when you ask them, where do you stand on Israel, which comes up in any–
JAY: Meaning the state. –any public debate. Any public debate, once you break out of the cocoon and you try to reach out, everybody asks, where do you stand in Israel? And then to say, I have no position, you lose people. Now, you listed to me all of these victories, which are correct, they’re impressive, they are testament to the commitment, the conviction, the organization of the BDS movement. I will not for a moment dispute that. But what you miss is all of the victories you cited, they only target the settlements. They only target what’s in occupied Palestinian territory under international law. So if you read, for example, the Presbyterian settlement statement, which I read carefully, they always start out by saying, of course we support Israel, of course we recognize Israel, of course Israel has a right to exist. So, from the point of view of BDS, those are not–those are not BDS victories. They are victories for exactly what I support: boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel, where it’s breaking international law. But it’s not questioning Israel’s right to exist.
JAY: That’s not what they call for.
FINKELSTEIN: Of course they do. I mean–.
JAY: They don’t call for that.
FINKELSTEIN: Ask any person from BDS–well, forget about ask. Where is it in the platform? You say you’re anchored in international law. So where is Israel in the platform?
JAY: I’m saying the argument I would give if I were them–.
FINKELSTEIN: Mhm. They don’t give an argument.
JAY: Is simply that we’re not going to split this movement, ’cause there’s people on both sides of this question.
FINKELSTEIN: But, you see, Paul–.
JAY: Which is why it’s called the United Front.
FINKELSTEIN: Paul, Paul, Paul, you miss one point, which maybe I didn’t convey with a sufficient amount of clarity, so the problem can be mine. You’re worried about whether or not you’re going to split the movement. I’m worried about whether or not you’re going to reach a public. Can you reach a broad public? Do you read opinion polls in the United States? Can you show me an opinion poll which shows not even a majority? How about a small minority?
JAY: Oh, come on. You can’t tell me that the victories they’ve had with these organizations didn’t reach a broad public.
JAY: Tell me someone who’s having more effect. Who’s having more effect?
FINKELSTEIN: Yeah, yeah. You see, Paul, the problem is, when BDS organizes concrete campaigns, they never take an agnostic position on Israel. Look at the question of Berkeley. Berkeley was a very interesting case. Berkeley, when they passed the resolution, if you read the resolution, it explicitly distances itself from BDS, the actual resolution. It explicitly recognizes Israel, actually in ways which go beyond what I think is required under international law. Those are not BDS victories. Those are victories against the BDS. They explicitly recognize Israel. So you’re worried about splitting the movement, and I say, if you remain agnostic on the question of Israel, you may be able to hold together the movement–without me, but okay. You may be able to hold together the movement, but you’re never going to reach a broad public. They reach a broad public–which is correct; I agree with you–when they only target the settlements. That’s when they reach a broad public. The moment you start raising the idea of one state, you lose the public, whether you like it or not–and no doubt you don’t–whether you like it or not, the idea of Israel as a state is deeply entrenched in the consciousness–.
JAY: Don’t suggest what I like or don’t like. I’m asking you questions. I haven’t told you what I like.
FINKELSTEIN: It’s deeply entrenched in the consciousness of the West. Now, you may not like it, but that’s a fact. When you start throwing the question of Israel’s existence into doubt, as in we have no opinion, you lose the broad public.
JAY: Okay. Norman will come back. Norman’s promised to come back again, and we’re going to pick all this up, but maybe we will get somebody from BDS who can do this debate, ’cause right now I’m just asking questions. Thanks very much for joining us. So we’re going to kind of end this series for now, but we’re sooner than later going to pick up again. Thanks for joining us on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
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“Norman Gary Finkelstein is an American political scientist, activist, former professor, and author. His primary fields of research are the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the politics of the Holocaust. He is a graduate of Binghamton University and received his Ph.D. in political science at Princeton University.”