Thursday, February 16, 2012

#Finkelstein on #BDS

Originally posted by Lenin's Tomb at

Brought to my attention by @bangpound via Twitter

I suppose the least that could be said is that this wasn't a well thought out intervention by Norman Finkelstein.  He knows this, which is why he asked for the original video of the interview to be taken down - a futile gesture on the internet, but a meaningful one inasmuch as he acknowledges the harm done, and also an important one inasmuch as Finkelstein will continue to be an asset to the pro-Palestine movement.  However, as Finkelstein's position is inescapably 'out there', as it is already sending the pro-Israel commentariat into gyrations of pleasure, and as the air is already thick with the smell of burning bridges, I feel no compunction about adding to the blogorhoea generated by the interview.  There are two basic points which I think are worth making.  The first is that insofar as there is a substantive strategic argument, it is incoherent.  And in saying so, I am not denying the presence of his usual strengths: forensic scholarship, moral commitment, and candour.  The second is that insofar as it consists of invective, it is a hypertrophied manifestation of the worst aspects of Finkelstein's polemical style, and is a gift to the Zionists.  These are not unrelated points, as will become clear as I unravel them.

Finkelstein's strategic posture is roughly as follows.  If you are serious about engaging in politics, and building mass movements, you cannot go further in your demands than the public is willing to go.  You have to calibrate your goals.  You have to calculate what will be acceptable to a viable mass of public opinion.  The public is presently willing to support a two-state settlement based on a rock solid international legal consensus.  This would be a liveable settlement, acceptable to Israelis and Palestinians, and moreover is within reach because Israel's position makes it increasingly isolated in the international system.  It would be possible to leverage the international legal consensus to force Israel to accomodate a Palestinian state based on the June 1967 borders.  Any movement of solidarity which attempts to go beyond this isn't going anywhere, because the public is unwilling to accept a one-state solution.  The BDS movement, despite having the correct tactics, leaves itself wide open to Israeli propaganda counter-offensives, because it has the wrong goal.  Implicitly, it favours measures that in their totality would mean Israel would cease to exist (as a Zionist state): end the occupation, recognise full equality for Arab citizens of Israel, and respect and implement the 'right of return' for Palestinian refugees.  By contrast with this 'leftist posturing', it should clearly and explicitly state that it favours a two-state settlement in accordance with international law.  Otherwise it will be seen to be cherry-picking those parts of the law that it supports in order to smuggle in an agenda of destroying Israel, and as a consequence will squander an historic opportunity.


The first argument hits upon an important strategic consideration in any movement, which is how to pose demands that relate to the balance of opinion, forces etc. in wider society rather than to the minute doctrinal fissures among the movement's organised core.  To this extent, Finkelstein is quite right.  A participating group in such a movement can argue for their own position, but their orientation should be toward taking the movement forward, not simply taking themselves forward within the movement.  So, I understand exactly what he means when he says that he evaluates his colleagues' positions not primarily in terms of their morality or accuracy, but above all in terms of whether they can be 'defended' in public.  Having said that, this is exactly where Finkelstein's argument begins to collapse into messy self-contradiction.  

First of all, it fails because Finkelstein is known to contribute ideas and polemical over-statements that neither could nor should be defended in public.  He has been unfairly attacked, and just as vigorously defended by many of those now unfortunately labelled 'cult' members.  His book The Holocaust Industry was mostly unfairly criticised in my opinion.  But it is also true that he has sometimes said or done things that didn't help.  So, if one is in this position, a little bit of humility - even for a thirty year veteran - is surely called for when strategy and tactics are under discussion.  This is particularly so since the nature and tone of his intervention here is hardly calibrated to take the movement forward.  It places his own sense of exasperation with the movement ahead of its success. 

Secondly, and relatedly, it fails because of what it omits, or does not specify.  It does not specify the relevant 'public'.  In another discussion, he makes it clear that this public is construed either in terms of authority (human rights or legal bodies) or representation (the United Nations general assembly being esteemed the most representative political body in the world).  I don't accept this way of construing 'the public'.  The UN general assembly is not representative of anyone but national ruling classes.  Pressed on this, I expect Finkelstein would grudgingly concede the point, but would insist that the isolation of Israel among global ruling classes is a strategic opportunity, particularly if Israel's traditional supporters are becoming uneasy.  This may be true, but it doesn't follow that the 'publics' whom BDS activists want to reach are those represented at the UN general assembly, or in human rights bodies, or in the ICJ.  

I would argue as a counterpoint that the relevant publics for the BDS activists he is addressing are those based in the states supporting Israel - the US, Canada, the EU, and so on.  And in those societies, the public is not an undifferentiated, or unchanging mass.  Those who are most inclined to be sympathetic to the Palestinians will have been relatively unaware of the situation some years ago, or perhaps indifferent or hostile.  Public attitudes change, and sometimes you have to embark on an initiative without public support or legal backing, on the assumption that attitudes will begin to change in response to the struggle.  This was as true if you were a civil rights advocate in the southern United States during the Jim Crow period, or a supporter of women's suffrage in 1920s Britain.  Finkelstein has acknowledged this, but insists that they have changed 'within a framework', that of the two-state settlement, which legal framework has been static for decades.  This is casuistry, as it illicitly shifts the terms of the argument from a problem of persuasion and mobilization within the field of 'public opinion' to one of intervention in an international legal system where the congealed 'interests' and perspectives of the world's ruling classes are at stake.  There is no reason why the two-state idea has to be the final default of 'public opinion'.

Moreover, there's a conflict here between Finkelstein's insistence on reaching a public with a viable set of goals, and his insistence elsewhere on settling issues related to the conflict not by reference to the point of view of the oppressed, the Palestinians, but by reference to "justice and right".  But he immediately qualifies this by saying that he means "justice and right", not "in the abstract", but in terms of how the conflict is concretely understood - ie by the international legal consensus.  I'll return to this, but if you bear in mind that this - the final determination of justice and right by law - is the overriding political-strategic coordinate in Finkelstein's perspective, it helps to make sense of much else that he says.

Aside from attitudes changing, they have changed in an uneven fashion.  The most pro-Palestinian sections of the public will also be the more politically conscious sections of the oppressed and the working class.  Organising and educating those people is, I would suggest, the starting point for building any mass movement.  It is therefore significant that Finkelstein also overlooks an important condition of building such a movement: unity among highly diverse political forces.  There has to be some compromise within any movement.  He notes that an explicit endorsement of a two-state settlement would split BDS down the middle.  He is right.  A large number of those who are most active in the pro-Palestinian movement, and most educated about the situation of the Palestinians, are in favour of a one-state solution and think it more viable than two-states.  Not all of them are stupid, or less educated or insightful than Norman Finkelstein.  Yet they have arrived at a fundamentally different strategic perspective.  In this situation, suspending the question of whether the final settlement should be based on a one or two-state system is a compromise.  Without such compromise, the movement, such as it is, disintegrates into rivalrous factions.

But this is exactly what Finkelstein has a problem with, because it is a compromise in favour of orienting toward a series of objectives that operate on and expose the antagonism between Zionism and liberal-democratic norms.  He doesn't think that the movement should be focused on de-legitimising Zionism in this way, because a precondition for his strategic purview to be viable is that one must accept that Zionism - not merely a state called Israel in which some form of comity is achieved, but Zionism as such - will endure.  He thinks that the language of the 'rule of law' is "the dominant language of our epoch"; coupled with the "language of human rights", it is the language which liberal American Jews, and other significant sections of the public, most understand.  One has to work within the legal terrain, otherwise there is no possibility of advance.  The law is 'unambiguous': a two-state settlement, an end to the occupation, and a just settlement of the refugee question.  It means accepting Israel.  If you use the law as a weapon, you are also bound by its restrictions, otherwise you are dishonest.

There is no need to get into hair-splitting arguments over whether the 'rule of law' is really as 'dominant' as Finkelstein suggests.  Nor will I linger on the idea that liberal American Jews are the privileged demographic we need to be reaching.  It suffices to say that Finkelstein's is partially a 'framing' argument, which works just as well against his position.  After all, the implication of stressing a legalist framework is that the acceptability or otherwise of certain positions depends in part on how they are articulated.  For example, the demand for the full equality of Palestinians in Israel with Israeli Jews may in the long-run not be consistent with Israel's 'right to exist' as a Zionist state - but then, as it happens, so much the worse for Zionism.  Few people in the core pro-Israel societies are so committed to Zionist ideology that they are prepared to support an ongoing system of apartheid in its name.  This is particularly true of those who are attracted by liberal-democratic and human rights arguments.  Let's be honest: a large number of people, including even some antiwar activists and peaceniks supportive of the Palestinians, have not the first clue what Zionism is.  This is a legacy of decades of disinformation, historical revisionism and the usual uneducating effects of the capitalist media.  This is why it is important that BDS targets its specific injustices rather than simply targeting the label 'Zionism'.


But it is on the question of the law itself that I find Finkelstein's position most problematic.  He insists that the law is not merely a terrain in which Israel is at a disadvantage, not merely one in which the public can be reached, but actually one in which there is no ambiguity.  This is the real framework within which international politics is conducted, the 'real world of politics' as he puts it, and it is unambiguously in favour of a particular final status as regards Israel and Palestine.  Accept it, or stop claiming to cite the law.  He is extremely learned, versed in every relevant piece of legislation, a close reader of the UN resolutions, the ICJ judgments and so on.  It is for this reason that he has annihilated Israel's vulgar apologists, time after time, making mince of the false controversies that they generate in the name of 'hasbara'.  He is also wrong.  First of all, as he himself acknowledges, several terms in the international 'consensus' are in fact highly ambiguous.  For example, the 'thorny' question of the refugees, and what constitutes a just settlement of their situation, is not unambiguous.  Second, ambiguity is not the same as dissensus.  If 99% of the states in the UN general assembly support one particular interpretation of the law, that lends strong credence to that interpretation, but it does not resolve the fact of there being an ambiguity, of there being multiple possible interpretations, of there being indeterminacy.  The only thing that does actually resolve this, is physical force: by this, I mean not merely violence, but all the material (economic, political, diplomatic etc) inducements or coercions that could be deployed.  

I would like to return to this in a future post, but for now I would just ask the reader simply to be positively disposed toward the thesis that, in the last analysis, the law is congealed class power.  In the international sphere, this is also imperialist class power, inasmuch as there is a chain of imperialist states and sub-imperialism whose ruling classes exploit a sequence of dominated formations.  The juridical forms of equality between subjects of the law, and of enfranchisement through representation, are just the legal forms that this domination takes.  I ask you to be positively disposed toward this thesis for now anyway, because it helps explain a set of concrete facts that are present in Finkelstein's case but nonetheless somewhat mystified.  It explains, for example, the fact that the international legal consensus to which Finkelstein refers has never been efficacious in stopping Israel's expansion for a second.  It explains why, contrary to all appearances, Israel is not remotely 'lost' when it comes to the law, and never has been.  It explains why Israel does not simply reject the terrain of the law, but rather insists on forcefully prosecuting its case and remaining a member of the relevant bodies.  It explains why the law can be made to ex post facto recognise, accept and protect a state of affairs that some years previously was considered legally dubious at best.  

Or, perhaps more urgently, it explains why the legal consensus to which Finkelstein refers was actually built on a series of ambiguities.  UN Resolution 242, in which the US and European powers were important negotiating parties, deliberately adopted a certain terminological inexactitude as regards what constituted occupied territory; as regards how and when occupation should end (negotiations and secure frontiers first, then withdrawal, is the usual formulation - which basically means that occupation can proceed indefinitely); and as regards the final status of the frontiers and particularly of Jerusalem.  This was not because the drafters liked to tease, but because the resolution reflected the emergence of a broad 'line' from the jostling and mutual struggle of the powers involved and because the US, as the dominant party framing the legislation, wanted a very wide space for manouevre on Israel's part.  Israel has had that space, and made ample use of it.  This is what "justice and right" means, not "in the abstract", but concretely. 

So, there are two problems here.  First, that in accepting the law as the only proper terrain of activism, he moralises and exalts it in wholly inappropriate terms, and avoids the power relations concentrated within the law.  This leads him to gloss over the problems with the 'international legal consensus' and the gargantuan obstacles (the size of the US military arsenal) to achieving anything on that terrain, and also allows him to gloss over certain inconsistencies in his own position: as in, 'I am not imposing my own morality, merely siding with justice and right as instantiated in multiple resolutions'.  Above all, it leads to a profound strategic and tactical conservatism: because the law is in fact congealed power, it follows that any consensus which emerges within it will reflect the priorities of those exercising power, rather than resisting it.  That is what entering 'the real world of politics' means.  Second, that in giving the law a spurious consistency and determinacy in his rhetoric, he fails to recognise that it is both a strategic stake and a strategic field of contestation, and that to fight within it there is no neutral, non-selective, non-partial way to interpret and decide between the relevant provisions and resolutions.  One can attempt to be more or less reasonable, more or less objective, more or less serious about the material: but any serious, reasonable and objective study will acknowledge that indeterminacy is structurally built into the field of international law, and deliberately inscribed in the relevant bases for the 'consensus'.  But construing the law as a consistent body of doctrine allows Finkelstein to belabour BDS for choosing to cite international law in its propaganda without explicitly endorsing the ongoing existence of Israel.  

Now, you may say that this sort of argument is all very well, but is conducted in a sort of arid, academicist, or even cult-like, sphere.  It may persuade some educated leftists, but there's no way to translate these sorts of arguments into slogans and demands for public consumption.  That is, it may be correct, but it is practically useless.  In fact, there's no difficulty here.  I am merely outlining a very rough theoretical basis for explaining certain observations, the veracity of which almost anyone can be persuaded of in short order: the law, however much you may wish it were otherwise, is completely hypocritical, riddled with ambiguities, and close to impotent unless the US authorises something (obviously that's putting it crudely).  For Finkelstein to depict the law as the source of justice and right is simply at odds with the evidence of one's senses.  For the UN to be seen as the motor of liberatory change in the Middle East, amid a series of revolutions, is equally counterintuitive.  Inasmuch as there is a strategically crucial conjuncture forming which could fatally weaken Israel, which is already weakening Israel, it is being significantly driven by the tumult in Tunisia and Egypt, while the UN is playing its usual role of organising imperialist responses to the situation.  It is not clear what agency or combination of agencies can be brought to bear to turn the 'international legal consensus' into an effective force other than those populations in the Middle East - and if they are already remaking the Middle East of their own accord, why on earth would they defer to this 'consensus' moulded by people who didn't have their interests in mind?  In fact, the more you study this lynchpin of Finkelstein's strategic perspective, the less it looks like the solution, much less something we must defer to without qualification.

Some of Finkelstein's defenders say "well, he's just saying what he's been saying for a while, and behind the invective is a real argument which people need to take on board".  In fact, it's true, he has been saying some of this for a while.  And while it hasn't always been as pungently overdetermined as this intervention (rich with contempt for his maoist past), it has tended to display the same polemical weaknesses as are evident here: a tendency to moralise, to rhetorically over-reach, to hector a little bit, to caricature his opponents, and so on.  It doesn't seem to be possible to disaggregate Finkelstein's position, and his arguments for it, from these tendencies.  His arguments for a two-state strategy are moralistic and browbeating, if sometimes witty and insightful; yet they are not "serious about politics", because they omit sustained analysis of the field in which he proposes to conduct this strategy, or any but the most vague outlines of the agencies he thinks BDS activists should appeal to, or any critical reflection whatsoever on the concepts ('the public', 'justice', 'legal consensus', etc) that he is deploying so loosely.

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