On Friday Nov 11 2011, at UCL, world-renowned scholar and activist for Palestinian rights Prof Norman Finkelstein appeared in conversation with Prof Jonathan Rosenhead of BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine), discussing the proposition:
The Palestinians having being denied justice for 63 years, those who support their rights must endorse their call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), including academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
Prof Finkelstein also gave a public lecture in the evening, which unfortunately I could not attend. Following is my report on the afternoon conversation, which turned into a debate. A detailed account, and video, of the discussion can be seen here My own intention is summarise the main disagreement between the speakers, and give my reaction to it.
Jonathan Rosenhead opened with a clear historical overview of boycott as a strategy, and ended by saying that in the case of Palestine, it should continue until the Palestinians ask us to stop supporting it – that is, until the system of oppression they suffer under has ended. Norman Finkelstein responded by arguing forcefully that the Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign should work toward goals based in International Law, not some vague, impossible to define, outcome; and that we shouldn’t feel obliged to follow the Palestinians’ lead, as previously this would have obliged us to support suicide bombing. He said much else, including giving a review of the state of International Law on Palestine, and the helpful advice to cite this more in our literature, but I want to focus on this essential point of discord.
Frankly I was very surprised to hear Prof Finkelstein’s criticism of BDS. I, and others, spoke from the floor, reminding both speakers that the demands of the BDS movement, as stated by PACBI, are clearly based on International Law:
[that] Israel withdraws from all the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem; removes all its colonies in those lands; agrees to United Nations resolutions relevant to the restitution of Palestinian refugees rights; and dismantles its system of apartheid.
Prof Finkelstein responded by saying that while the first three demands are sound in law, the last, the demand for Israel to dismantle its system of apartheid, is not, because Israeli apartheid hasn’t been recognised by the UN or other bodies of International Law. He claimed that without this legal underpinning, the goal of ending apartheid in Israel is counter-productive – that it ‘turns people off’; that BDS will never become a mass movement if we try to get people to sign up to tampering with the state of Israel itself.
I also tried to discuss this with him afterwards. I asked him why, if the situation in Israel fits the UN definition of apartheid, we shouldn’t work toward getting iron-clad legal recognition of this fact. But Prof Finkelstein rejected this approach, saying ‘ that would take 100 years’.
Underlying Prof Finkelstein’s hostility to this key plank of the BDS movement appears to be the fear that the demand to end Israeli apartheid is a disguised call to ‘end the state of Israel’, rather than ending the way the state is currently organised, which is how all the people I know interpret the demand. After all, South Africa still exists as a state. Personally, I think Prof Finkelstein is sadly out of touch with the robust health and rapid growth of the BDS movement.
Far from being a threat to building a mass movement, the demand to end Israeli apartheid is one that everyone can understand – every ordinary person on the streets of the UK knows what South Africa was like; all they need is some basic education about Palestine to see that apartheid is operating there as well. Especially considering that the South Africans themselves are taking such leadership in BDS, and separate campaigns to End Israeli Apartheid are evident all over the internet, it’s a nonsense to say that the demand is unrealistic. On the legal front, the very recent Russell Tribunal on Palestine Capetown Session has recommended (among other pertinent goals):
The UN General Assembly to reconstitute the UN Special Committee against Apartheid, and to convene a special session to consider the question of apartheid against the Palestinian people. In this connection the Committee should compile a list of individuals, organisations, banks, companies, corporations, charities, and any other private or public bodies which assist Israel’s apartheid regime with a view to taking appropriate measures.
In my view, the current BDS strategy is right on target, and I wish Prof Finkelstein would put his considerable legal chops in the service of the goals of the Russell Tribunal.
I also wish to respond to his second criticism of the BDS movement – that it takes its leadership from the Palestinians. To deal first with his counter-example – in my view, the BDS movement is not at all comparable to the suicide bombing campaigns, which made no formal call for international support, and were never, to my knowledge, endorsed by any UK solidarity group. Rather, solidarity works to provide and support democratic alternatives to such desperate, tragic, violent and, indeed, as Prof Rosenhead stated, politically counter-productive measures. The Palestinians themselves have turned en masse away from suicide bombing as a strategy – as comedian and ‘extreme rambler’ Mark Thomas recently recounted in his recent Walking the Wall tour, countless Palestinians get through holes in the wall daily, not to bomb civilians, but in order to work illegally in Israel. Instead, Palestinian civil society has overwhelmingly endorsed BDS, and taking our leadership from them is an essential part of the moral legitimacy of the campaign.
First, if BDS was just a matter of personal conscience, then indeed I would be a hypocrite for spending so much time promoting the boycott of Israel and not other countries with terrible human rights records. Second, as I have stated before, it is not up to us in the West to dictate to the Palestinians how they should run their campaigns. Instead, we can choose which campaigns we want to support, and then do so wholeheartedly, and in a spirit of solidarity, dialogue and willingness to learn. I don’t believe in capital punishment for any crime, and would never endorse any kind of violence that was not clearly in self-defense, in the strictest sense of the term. But as I have argued before on this blog, Palestinian violence must be seen in the context of 62 years of oppression, and ending that systematic injustice, in a way that is 100% consistent with the principle of Palestinian self-determination, is the only way to end that violence.
By criticizing this key demand of the BDS movement, and dismissing the paramount importance of the need to work in solidarity with the Palestinians, Prof Finkelstein is playing Jenga with the Palestinian struggle – poking and pulling away the foundational planks of its existence. We don’t need that at this time. We need an atmosphere of mutual support and co-operation between the legal, civil disobedience, and BDS strategies. I thank Prof Finkelstein for his very useful summary of the legal position of the Palestinian cause and Prof Rosenhead for his profound commitment to the principle of solidarity, and I place these thoughts on record in hope that they may contribute to a spirit of unity in the popular movement for Palestinian human rights.
Note: Jenga is a game played with wooden blocks, which players take turns to remove from a tower and balance on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable structure that eventually collapses. The word is derived from the Swahili term for ‘to build’.