"Conquer All the Violence": Three Questions for Norman Finkelstein
by Michelle J. Kinnucan
Well, Norman G. Finkelstein has thrown down the gauntlet for a "public brawl" by his decision to make public his resignation from the Gaza Freedom March coalition. Finkelstein says, vaguely, he resigned because: "During the week beginning August 30, 2009 and in a matter of days an entirely new sectarian agenda dubbed 'the political context' was foisted on those who originally signed on and worked tirelessly for three months." Apparently, two Palestinian activists, Omar Barghouti and Haidar Eid, living in the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, had the incredible gall to insist that the US-based, Code Pink-backed International Coalition to End the Illegal Siege of Gaza should deviate from the standard Left Zionist American line by clearly acknowledging "that Palestinians have for over six decades been denied their basic rights that they are entitled to under international law, including the right of return, and the fact that Palestinian civil society has adopted Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as one of its main civil resistance strategies against Israel’s occupation and other injustices."
The coalition's newly adopted "Statement of Context" does indeed mention the Right of Return and BDS. This crossed one or more of Finkelstein's red lines. Now, I've read at least three books by Norman Finkelstein and I've heard him speak on two occasions. Additionally, I've watched debates and interviews with him and read some of his shorter online writings. Finkelstein has shown real courage and made important scholarly contributions to understanding Zionism and the Jewish state. It is unfortunate then that even as he has repeatedly been a victim of Zionists, Finkelstein is himself functionally a Zionist of the Left-liberal persuasion.
He does untold harm to the Palestinian people and the justice and peace movement by peddling his 'softer' but disguised Zionism to his adoring fans in the cloak of "the international consensus," etc. This makes him much more dangerous to the Palestinian solidarity movement than people like Netanyahu or Dershowitz because so many folks are unable or disinclined to see past the impressive surface to the heart of Finkelstein's pro-Zionist discourse. As Malcolm X once said, "I'd rather walk among rattlesnakes, whose constant rattle warns me where they are, than among those ... snakes who grin and make you forget you're still in a snake pit."
Not so long ago, but before Finkelstein's recent resignation, I had the occasion to view Finkelstein's November 13, 2008, speech on "Resolving the Israel-Palestine Conflict: What we can learn from Gandhi." This speech is still featured prominently on the front page of Finkelstein's personal web site. You can watch a video of the speech here or read the text here. Drawing upon that speech and other works of Finkelstein with which I am familiar, I address three questions/comments to Dr. Finkelstein. In the light of his public resignation from the Gaza Freedom March coalition, I think now is a good time to reevaluate his role in the larger movement and the shaping of its discourse. (Except where otherwise noted all Finkelstein quotes below are from "Resolving the Israel-Palestine Conflict: What we can learn from Gandhi").
First, you say:
If I propose that Palestinians adopt Gandhi's doctrine of nonviolent civil resistance, it is ... because of a compelling pragmatic insight of his. There is nothing violence can accomplish, Gandhi maintained, that nonviolence cannot accomplish—and with lesser loss of life. ... Palestinians have little to show for the violent resistance; indeed, nearly all the reckonings after eight years of bloodletting fall squarely in the debit column. It is at least arguable that the balance-sheet would have been better had Palestinians en masse adopted nonviolent civil resistance.If you truly believe this then why is it that with scant exceptions you have never made it a point to speak directly or forcefully in favor of the ongoing, nonviolent Palestinian boycott campaigns against Israel? Specifically, I am referring to the 2005 call by 171 Palestinian political parties, unions, NGOs and networks for for broad boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and the 2004 Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
Second, you characterize "the occasional calls for eliminating the 'Zionist entity' and embracing a 'one-state' solution" as "not command[ing] international legitimacy" and "enjoy[ing] exactly zero international support." You ask: "Where is the legal or moral precedent for dismantling the 'Zionist entity' ... or a 'one-state' solution ... ?"
Why do you not acknowledge that at any time in the last forty-one years the Israeli government had the power to let Palestinians try to form a Palestinian state? The Israelis chose instead to colonize the occupied territories. Why do you not acknowledge that the "two-state solution," aside from being arguably unworkable now, is the very epitome of apartheid and that the global South African anti-apartheid campaign provides us with the applicable legal and moral precedent? Why don't you just avoid the "sterile debate" of one vs. two-state by embracing the goals of the Palestinian BDS campaign? They are:
1. Ending Israel's occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;Third, you state:
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.
The Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire once wrote, "There's room for everyone at the rendezvous of victory." Late in life, when his political horizons broadened out, Edward Said would often quote this line. We should make it our credo as well. We want to nurture a movement, not hatch a cult. The victory to which we aspire is inclusive, not exclusive; it is not at anyone's expense. It is to be victorious without vanquishing. No one is a loser, and we all are gainers if together we stand by truth and justice. "I am not anti-English; I am not anti-British; I am not anti-any government," Gandhi insisted, "but I am anti-untruth—anti-humbug, and anti-injustice."(188) Shouldn't we also say that we are not anti-Jewish, anti-Israel or, for that matter, anti-Zionist? The prize on which our eyes should be riveted is human rights, human dignity, human equality. What, really, is the point of ideological litmus tests such as, Are you now or have you ever been a Zionist?At not inconsiderable cost to yourself, you have undertaken to expose the "Holocaust Industry" as an ideological construct used to, among other things, mask human rights violation by Israel. Isn't it ironic that having taken on this loaded subject you are now counseling others to disregard Zionism, another ideological construct?
Your invocation of Aimé Césaire and Edward Said is curious to say the least. Here is Césaire's poem in its entirety:
For it is not true that the work of man is finishedYes, there is "a place for all at the rendezvous of victory" but your words do a disservice to Césaire, Said, and Gandhi when you suggest that the violent ideology of Zionism should remain untouched and unchallenged and when you casually, but misleadingly, equate British colonial rule of India with the creation of the Jewish state--Israel--in Palestine. In the context of Palestine, ending or radically transforming Zionism is assuredly a key part of "conquer[ing] all the violence," as Césaire put it.
That man has nothing more to do in the world
But be a parasite in the world
That all we now need is to keep in step with the world.
But the work of man is only just beginning
And it remains to man to conquer all the violence embedded
in the recesses of his passion
And no race possesses the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of freedom
There is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory.
It is inconceivable that Said would agree with your exhortation to neglect or downplay the ideological component of the Palestinian struggle for justice and liberty. In his 1979 "Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims," Said writes:
... effective political ideas like Zionism need to be examined historically in two ways: (1) genealogically in order that their provenance, their kinship and descent, their affiliation both with other ideas and with political institutions may be demonstrated; (2) as practical systems for accumulation (of power, land, ideological legitimacy) and displacement (of people, other ideas, prior legitimacy). Present political and cultural actualities make such an examination extraordinarily difficult, as much because Zionism in the postindustrial West has acquired for itself an almost unchallenged hegemony in liberal "establishment" discourse, as because in keeping with one of its central ideological characteristics, Zionism has hidden, or caused to disappear, the literal historical ground of its growth, its political cost to the native inhabitants of Palestine, and its militantly oppressive discriminations between Jews and non-Jews. ...More recently in a 2003 interview with David Barsamian, transcribed in a chapter of Culture and Resistance entitled "At the Rendezvous of Victory," Said said:
The fact also that no Palestinian, regardless of his political stripe, has been able to reconcile himself to Zionism suggests the extent to which, for the Palestinian, Zionism has appeared to be an uncompromisingly exclusionary, discriminatory, colonialist praxis . So powerful, and so unhesitatingly followed, has been the radical Zionist distinction between privileged Jews in Palestine and unprivileged non-Jews there, that nothing else has emerged, no perception of suffering human existence has escaped from the two camps created thereby. As a result, it has been impossible for Jews to understand the human tragedy caused the Arab Palestinians by Zionism; and it has been impossible for Arab Palestinians to see in Zionism anything except an ideology and a practice keeping them, and Israeli Jews, imprisoned. But in order to break down the iron circle of inhumanity, we must see how it was forged, and there it is ideas and culture themselves that play the major role. ...
It is one of the most frightening cultural episodes of the century, this almost total silence about Zionism's doctrines for and treatment of the native Palestinians
Unfortunately, there's a significant number of Arab intellectuals who ... say "Let's stop talking about the evils of imperialism and Zionism. Let's start talking about our self-inflicted wounds." People like Fouad Ajami and Kanan Makiya . It's a profound self-abjection, which I deeply resent. It suits perfectly the neoconservative idea that people are responsible for their own disasters. As if imperialism never happened, as if genocide never happened, as if ethnic cleansing never happened. I just think it's outrageous.During Israel's Hanukkah Massacre in Gaza last winter, Ilan Pappe highlighted the importance of confronting Zionism. He writes in "Israel's righteous fury and its victims in Gaza":
There are no boundaries to the hypocrisy that a righteous fury produces. ...So, why is it that you, Dr. Finkelstein, have determined that Zionism is off-limits?
This righteous fury is a constant phenomenon in the Israeli, and before that Zionist, dispossession of Palestine. Every act whether it was ethnic cleansing, occupation, massacre or destruction was always portrayed as morally just and as a pure act of self-defense reluctantly perpetrated by Israel in its war against the worst kind of human beings. ... Today in Israel, from Left to Right, from Likud to Kadima , from the academia to the media, one can hear this righteous fury of a state that is more busy than any other state in the world in destroying and dispossessing an indigenous population.
It is crucial to explore the ideological origins of this attitude and derive the necessary political conclusions from its prevalence. This righteous fury shields the society and politicians in Israel from any external rebuke or criticism. But far worse, it is translated always into destructive policies against the Palestinians. With no internal mechanism of criticism and no external pressure, every Palestinian becomes a potential target of this fury. Given the firepower of the Jewish state it can inevitably only end in more massive killings, massacres and ethnic cleansing.
The self-righteousness is a powerful act of self-denial and justification. It explains why the Israeli Jewish society would not be moved by words of wisdom, logical persuasion or diplomatic dialogue. And if one does not want to endorse violence as the means of opposing it, there is only one way forward: challenging head-on this righteousness as an evil ideology meant to cover human atrocities. Another name for this ideology is Zionism and an international rebuke for Zionism, not just for particular Israeli policies, is the only way of countering this self-righteousness. We have to try and explain not only to the world, but also to the Israelis themselves, that Zionism is an ideology that endorses ethnic cleansing, occupation and now massive massacres. What is needed now is not just a condemnation of the present massacre but also delegitimization of the ideology that produced that policy and justifies it morally and politically. Let us hope that significant voices in the world will tell the Jewish state that this ideology and the overall conduct of the state are intolerable and unacceptable and as long as they persist, Israel will be boycotted and subject to sanctions. [emphasis added]