British Writers In Support of Palestine

November 12, 2011

Norman Finkelstein: Playing Jenga with the Struggle?

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’. 

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November 18, 2010

Launch of European PACBI

Filed under: Boycott Israel — Naomi Foyle @ 12:42 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

November 8th 2010 saw the launch of the European Platform for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. This historic development follows an inspiring meeting of academic boycott activists from 9 European countries in Paris in September. Even a year ago such a meeting would have been unthinkable; this meeting demonstrates the widening and deepening of the academic and cultural boycott movement across Europe.

Further news is available at www.epacbi.eu. And if you have time today to be truly inspired by the commitment and achievements of international BDS campaigners to date, please check out the lastest special issue of the BRICUP Newsletter, which in conjunction with AURDIP (Association
des Universitaires pour le Respect du Droit International en Palestine), announces in detail the founding of EPACBI and its guiding principles and priorities.

July 16, 2010

Call to support PACBI members conference travel expenses

Filed under: Boycott Israel,Call to Action — Naomi Foyle @ 1:42 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I am forwarding this message from BRICUP – please help if you can.

Support is needed for a European initiative. AURDIP, BRICUP’s French sister organisation, is convening a conference on academic boycott in Paris this coming September 25-6. The aim is to bring together the several organisations in Italy, Catalonia, Britain and France now in existence, to forge relations with smaller academic groups elsewhere in Europe, and to improve our coordination and effectiveness. Academics from Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have already indicated their intention toparticipate.

Of course it is essential that PACBI should be directly involved in the conference. Three PACBI members, two already in Europe, one inRamallah, have indicated their wish to attend. They will be able to stay with French supporters, but shortage of funds could make it difficult for them to make the trip. Current estimates suggest that about £600 is needed to defray their basic travel costs.

BRICUP itself operates on a shoe-string, and does not have the funds to support this expense. Can you help? We hope that individualsupporters might be able to donate £20, but please don’t feel prevented from giving less (or more). We can’t be sure how much we willreceive, or precisely how much the PACBI expenses will be. If there is a deficit BRICUP will have to stump up. If there is a surplus we guarantee to put it to good use.

If you wish to support this activity please either send a cheque to the Treasurer at BRICUP, BM BRICUP, London WC1N 3XX, UK
or
make a bank transfer to BRICUP at Sort Code
08-92-99 Account Number 65156591
IBAN = GB20 CPBK 0892 9965 1565 91
BIC = CPBK GB22

So that we know it is on the way it would help if
you could drop a line to treasurer@bricup.org.uk

June 13, 2010

BWISP Letter to The Independent on Sunday, June 6 2010

The following letter expresses the support of the signatories for the cultural and academic boycott of Israel.  A shortened version appeared in the IoS 6.6.10.  

Dear Editor

The murder of humanitarian aid workers aboard the Mavi Marmara in international waters is the latest tragic example of Israel’s relentless attacks on human rights. But while violently preventing the free passage of medical, building and school supplies to Gaza, Israel continues to pride itself as a highly cultured, highly educated state. In solidarity with Palestinian civil society and its call for a Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, we the undersigned therefore appeal to British writers and scholars to boycott all literary, cultural and academic visits to Israel that are sponsored by the Israeli government, including those organised by Israeli cultural foundations and universities. (This boycott does not include courageous independent Israeli organisations who openly oppose the occupation.) We also ask that writers, poets and British funding bodies actively support Palestinian literary events, such as the Palestinian Literary Festival and the Palestinian Writing Workshop.

Materially and ideologically, state-sponsored Israeli academic and cultural events both prop up and mask the continuing brutal occupation of Palestine. Israeli universities are key players in the creation and dissemination of government policy, and while some Israeli cultural foundations may promote ‘dialogue’ between the two peoples, there can be no true dialogue when one party is a military superpower and the other a nation of second-class citizens, refugees and virtual prisoners. Appearing as an international guest at all such Israeli cultural and academic events helps to divert attention from, and normalize, Israeli war crimes in Gaza; the annexation of East Jerusalem; and the on-going illegal settlement of the West Bank. Such appearances will also help to normalise Israel’s recent abhorrent military actions at sea.

More information on the cultural and academic boycott of Israel may be found at http://www.pacbi.org and http://www.bricup.org.uk. But in brief, we the undersigned do not wish to lend our presence or approval to cultural or academic events underwritten by the State of Israel, nor do we wish to help sustain the deliberately fostered illusion of moral and military parity between the two actors in this conflict. Rather as Britons and British residents, we believe that we have a historical and moral obligation to support the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people in their struggle for long-denied peace, justice and self-determination.

Yours,

BWISP (British Writers In Support of Palestine)

Prof Mona Baker (scholar)

John Berger (novelist, art critic, essayist, poet, Booker Prize winner)

Lauren Booth (writer and journalist)

Prof Marilyn Booth (scholar, literary translator)

Kevin Cadwallender (poet)

Jimmy Powdrell Campbell (writer)

John Chalcraft (scholar)

Leena Dhingra (novelist)

Jenny Diski (novelist, essayist, travel writer)

Dr Hugh Dunkerley (poet and scholar)

Prof Rasheed El-Enany (scholar)

Prof Hoda Elsadda (scholar)

Alison Fell (novelist, poet)

Naomi Foyle (poet, novelist and BWISP co-ordinator)

Prof Patrick Ffrench (scholar, writer)

Maureen Freely (novelist, translator, academic)

Prof Ian Gregson (poet, literary critic)

Prof Peter Hallward (scholar)

Rumy Hasan (scholar)

Mischa Hiller (novelist)

Aamer Hussein (writer)

Ewa Jasiewicz (writer and journalist)

Fred Johnstone (poet, novelist and translator)

Dr Ghada Karmi (writer and scholar)

Judith Kazantzis (poet, novelist and BWISP co-ordinator)

Mimi Khalvati (poet)

Eleanor Kilroy (journalist)

Wendy Klein (poet)

Stephen Knight (poet and critic)

Zoë Lambert (writer and scholar)

Diane Langford (novelist)

Tom Leonard (poet and critic)

Dr Les Levidow (scholar)

Alistair Ligertwood (scholar, literary translator)

Catherine Lupton (writer)

Lauro Martines (writer, socio-political and historical scholar)

Mike Marqusee (writer)

Prof Nur Masalha (scholar)

China Miéville (novelist)

James Miller (novelist)

Alan Morrison (poet and editor)

Dr Dalia Mostafa (scholar)

Ali Nasralla (scholar)

Sybil Oldfield (academic, scholar, feminist historian/biographer)

Julia O’Faolain (novelist)

Jeremy Page (poet, editor, critic)

Thomas Pakenham (historian)

Dr Ian Patterson (poet and scholar)

Prof Jonathan Rosenhead (scholar)

Dr Khadiga Safwat (writer and scholar)

Prof Myriam Salama-Carr (scholar, translator)

Dr Duncan Salkeld (literary scholar)

Seni Seneviratne (poet)

Kamila Shamsie (novelist)

John Siddique (poet and writer)

Mark Slater (scholar, critic and writer)

Catherine Smith (poet and writer)

Dr Derek Summerfield (writer, scholar)

David Swann (poet and writer)

Tom Vowler (writer)

Kate Webb (writer, critic)

Irving Weinman (novelist and BWISP co-ordinator)

Hilary Wise (scholar and writer)

Eliza Wyatt (playwright)

Evie Wyld (novelist)

Robin Yassin-Kassab (novelist)

(66 signatories)

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