Finkelstein Seen As Moderate On Far-Left Panel

New School talk with Anna Baltzer finds him blasting BDS movement.

10/10/12
Special To The Jewish Week
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Has Norman Finkelstein, long reviled in the Jewish community as a vitriolic hater of the Jewish state, morphed into a defender of Israel’s legitimacy? And what does Finkelstein’s newfound “moderation” say about the current state of the anti-Israel left, exemplified by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement?

Over the course of three decades, Finkelstein achieved superstar status on the anti-Zionist left by writing a myriad of books and articles in which he declared Israel to be “an insane state” and charged Elie Wiesel and other pro-Zionist Jews with exploiting the memory of the Holocaust as an “ideological weapon” in support of Israel.

Given that stormy history, it was strange to attend an unabashedly one-sided discussion last Saturday afternoon at the New School in Manhattan titled “The Jewish-American Relationship with Israel at the Crossroads,” and to hear Finkelstein denounce the BDS movement for refusing to affirm Israel’s right to exist within the 1967 Green Line border. Sitting next to him on the panel was Anna Baltzer, national organizer of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and a top leader in the BDS movement.

Finkelstein argued that the movement’s failure to take a clear stance on that issue will prevent it from bringing aboard the growing number of young American Jews who, he believes, have concluded that Israel’s occupation is morally wrong and must be ended.

But while the overwhelmingly anti-Israel crowd of about 500 heard Finkelstein out respectfully, they ardently applauded Baltzer when she argued that BDS movement is growing in strength and stature despite its unwillingness to take the steps Finkelstein demands; those include official embrace of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The talk, which was moderated by Adam Shatz, an editor at the London Review of Books, and which took place before the end of the Sabbath, was supposed to have also included anti-Zionist avatar Noam Chomsky, who cancelled because of laryngitis. The event seemed conceived as an opportunity for Finkelstein to showcase the argument laid out in his recently published book, “Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End” (Or Books). In it he argues that a critical mass of young American Jews have concluded that Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is morally indefensible and that many of them can be brought into the BDS movement on behalf of Palestinian rights — as long as the movement makes clear its commitment to Israel’s survival.

However, the afternoon came to feel like a symbolic changing of the guard on the anti-Israel left.

Much of the audience appeared dubious of Finkelstein’s moderation and enthralled with Baltzer; she is an articulate and attractive 33-year-old St. Louis native who turned sharply to the left and made pro-Palestinian advocacy her top cause after being disillusioned with what she saw in Israel during a Birthright Israel trip in 2000. Her polished speaking style served to temper the impact of her full-throated advocacy for the right of Palestinians to return to within the borders of pre-1967 Israel (code to pro-Israel supporters for the destruction of the Jewish state), and her defense of Palestinian-Americans and others who refuse to affirm the right of Israel to exist.

Finkelstein stirred controversy on the anti-Israel left in February, when he gave an interview to an anti-Israel blogger in which he attacked the BDS movement as a “hypocritical, dishonest cult” that tries to mask its advocacy for the destruction of Israel with pro-human rights rhetoric. He also said the movement falsely claims to have achieved major successes in convincing religious groups and municipalities to disinvest in Israel, when such successes have in fact been few and frequently reversed.

Yet Baltzer, who affirmed that Finkelstein and Chomsky, who has also criticized BDS, “paved the way for many of us today,” nevertheless went on the offensive. She said that for them to demand that members of the BDS movement accept that their demands are unrealistic and should be scaled back, amounts to an expression of “privilege … that is wrong and unacceptable.”

She characterized the BDS the movement as “inherently strategic, flexible, diverse and inclusive,” and insisted it has achieved major successes. She cited a decision last month by the U.S. Quaker movement to disinvest in firms like Caterpillar and Veolia Environment, which provide services to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and Hewlett-Packard, which provides information technology services to the Israeli Navy.

Finkelstein charged BDS with “a glaring contradiction ... in saying they endorse international law, but take no position on Israel. International law has no ambiguity about the right of Israel to exist. You may not like international law in this case, but can’t claim it is agnostic on Israel. Nor can you reach a broad public on that basis.”

Baltzer countered: “BDS doesn’t take a position on this because different organizations take different positions and that’s OK. Either one state or two states is fine as long as there is end of the occupation, [affirmation] of the right of return and an end to discrimination against Palestinians inside [pre-1967] Israel.”

While audience members seemed to prefer Baltzer’s approach, their positions didn’t break down neatly along generational lines.

Lucien Rothenstein, 29, who works at a domestic policy think tank in Manhattan, said that he has shifted from a position like that of Baltzer’s to one resembling Finkelstein’s. “While I have long believed that the one-state solution is the most just way to resolve the situation, I have come to understand that given the intractability of the conflict, the only way to evolve in the direction of one state would be first to implement the two-state solution.”

Yet Matty Gleason, 70, a retired city school teacher, said, “While I’ve always been a fan of Norman Finkelstein and have read all his books, today I found myself supporting Anna’s position. Norman was a little contentious, while I like the approach to the issue that Anna and the BDS movement are taking.”

Last Update:

09/04/2013 - 16:55

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"I have come to understand that given the intractability of the conflict, the only way to evolve in the direction of one state would be first to implement the two-state solution."

Yes, the Palestinians believe the same thing, the ones that believe in a "two state solution" see it as a stepping stone to a "one state solution" that is judenrein.

Ain't gonna happen.

BDS is a massive fail.

They don't seem particularly concerned that they hurt Palestinians more than they hurt anyone else (through the job losses they engender in their few successes).

The idea of a 1 state solution is idiotic.In Sudan it didn't work out very well as matter of fact we now have South Sudan,it's not working out too well in Syria is it.How about Iraq it's working out well there isn't it? Baltzer must be on anothe planet

Most commenters here seem to have not read Finkelstein's works nor have seen the bulk of interviews with him. They rather know him through other people's reporting of him, which at best is inaccurate, such as this article.

Finkelstein has never said Israel has the right to exist as he always said there is no such thing as a right for a country to exist. But as Israel already exists, it deserves state rights as any other country does according to international law. So unless there is a video of this one showing him saying in those words 'the right to exist', this would be the writer's interpretation.

Finkelstein has not said anything new, rather there is a new argument coming from the side of the BDS.

We are getting down to the "nitty gritty" here. It will take every last bit of wisdom, compassion, ingenuity...and humanitarian-ecological cooperation and planning to resolve this ethical, territorial, cultural, all-too-human tragedy. If Anna and Norman and a few others will keep "listening with their hearts" they may yet do what they are here to do--the impossible: save Palestine, the "Holy Land", humanity, the earth. Who will help? The Jews?

Mr Ruby states, without any supporting evidence, that Norman Finkelstein is "long reviled in the Jewish community"?

Surely, he meant to write that Finkelstein is "long reviled in the extreme right wing of the Jewish and fundamentalist Christian communities."

I always laugh at the attempts by the anti-Israel forces (let's not glorify them by calling them the "BDS Movement") to limit participation in their events by holding them on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays. This is a pathetic attempt to limit not only Orthodox Jews but non-Orthodox yet observant Jews who will not violate the Shabbat by attending a "trief" political event. If they were honest, the anti-Israel forces would hold this "event" on Sunday and open it to everybody so an honest debate could take place. Of course these people are not honest and their goal despite all of the spin they throw out is the destruction of the State of Israel and separation of the Jewish People from their homeland in the Land of Israel. Everything else is putting lipstick on a pig.

would you like to be stoned to death or shot? see. there you go. now. would you like 2 states, later to become the 23 or 24th arab judenrein state, or should we just start with 1 supplanting israel so that it is a democratic state representing all its arab citizens, once them damn jews have been, um, liberated. idiots.

All this talk about a 'right to exist' seems to miss the mots obvious point: a right to exist WHERE? Where exactly does Israel (or any country) have a right to exist?
No country has a right to exist on other people's land. And every country has to DECLARE its borders.

Finkelstein is an idiot. Why does he even try with his weak "consistent international law" argument. It's obvious that Israel exists. BDS doesn't "deny" that it exists, they just focus on a one state solution which, yes, aspires for Israel as a democracy and not a Jewish ethnocratic state. Finkelstein has been overshadowed by other figures and wants to have his own niche in which he is relevant. It sucks to be fired for your views and then to change them while seeking acceptance.

The BDS movement MUST recognize Israel's right to exist if there is to be any hope for peace based on two-states. Boycotting products in the West Bank made by illegal Israeli settlements is justice, but extending that boycott to Israel while Palestinians and Israelis struggle to achieve peace, is wrong. I welcome Norman Finkelstein's change. Many of his arguments about Israel are right on, but his ability to now call out the extremists in my community, the Arab fanatics in the Palestinian movement, could help remold the Arab left into a movement of justice rather than one of partisan hatred. Ray Hanania

finkelstein has always been a relatively conservative voice within the palestine solidarity movement, and has always been a two-stater, at least since his writings came to my attention more than a decade ago. so has the person you call an "anti-zionist avatar," noam chomsky. they are respected by the left because they treat palestinians as human beings with rights, and because they have been very effective at exposing the lack of intellectual and moral merit of right-wing zionist public figures. not because they have taken very radical positions. i believe finkelstein's attacks on the BDS movement are misguided and inappropriate, but since they are coming from a position of solidarity with the palestinians from a well-informed and highly analytical scholar, i treat them with respect.

Whether or not one disagrees with him, Finkelstein has earned the right to be given the benefit of the doubt. One should not assume immediately that he has become or has always been a closet Zionist (in supporting the desirability of a Jewish state). Unless proven otherwise, we should assume he is sincere and not actuated by ulterior motives.

"While I have long believed that the one-state solution is the most just way to resolve the situation, I have come to understand that given the intractability of the conflict, the only way to evolve in the direction of one state would be first to implement the two-state solution"

Exactly the Palestinian position - a two state solution is the stepping stone to eliminating Israel in favor of a Palestinian state.

And I don't know what planet these BDS people live on, but it's not planet Earth. Trade with US has been increasing each year in both directions.

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