US scholar and human rights activist Norman Finkelstein was in Ottawa this week as part of a 3 city speaking tour organized by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME). His powerful presentation was thought-provoking. He had strong words for human rights activists who have unrealistic objectives, and strong criticisms of the Palestinian Authority and the BDS movement itself. Read more
About 250 people crowded into First Baptist Church in Ottawa to hear well known American human rights activist Norman Finkelstein. Finkelstein, a Jewish American, has been banned from entering Israel ostensibly for meeting with Hezbollah officials in Lebanon, but mostly because of his strong criticisms of Israel in both books and presentations.
Finkelstein has also paid a significant personal price for his defense of Palestinian human rights – he has been essentially shut out of a university career, despite his obvious intelligence, academic rigour and powerful writings.
While Finkelstein’s presentation was entitled “Gaza”, it was clear that he wanted to deliver several other messages to the attendees, many of whom were already sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
We need a “dose of political realism”
Finkelstein started by trying to instill some “political realism” into the analysis of the Israel/Palestine struggle. In his view, there is now a world wide consensus around the illegality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. He noted that the occupation (which will be 50 years old in 2017) has less and less support among young American Jews and the broader American public. While the international community has so far done little to force an end to the Israeli occupation, Finkelstein believes that this a realistic objective.
On the other hand, Finkelstein pointed out that there is almost no support either among American Jews or elsewhere for “reversing the decisions of 1947/48” (i.e. the creation of the State of Israel itself.) In his view, trying to undo the creation of the State of Israel, is an idea that ‘won’t fly”. It’s not about what you want”, he sternly told the audience, “it’s about what will work.”
Finkelstein is a powerful and courageous critic of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and of what he describes as ‘murderous’ wars conducted against Gaza. But he feels that the only realistic solution is one in which Israelis and Palestinians each have their own state. When questioned about Israel as a “Jewish State’, he seemed to feel this is a distraction because “Israel itself has not decided what that means”. There was no reference in his remarks to the issues of the over 5 million Palestinian refugees, or what should be their fate.
The Palestinian Authority – “collaborators”
Finkelstein was also extremely critical of the Palestinian Authority, (PA) which administers part of the West Bank, including security. The PA was created as a result of the Oslo Accords. In Finkelstein’s view, the creation of the PA was presented as a positive step toward a future Palestinian State, but has in practice turned out to be a way for Israel to contract out its own security. As a result, a lot of the repression of legitimate Palestinian resistance is carried out by PA security forces, he said, thus shielding Israel from a good deal of international scrutiny. “While the PA imprisons and tortures Palestinian human rights activists”, he claimed, “it mostly goes unreported”.
BDS – “an unfortunate distraction”
Finally, Finkelstein outlined why he thinks the BDS movement has become a problem in the fight for Palestinian human rights. As Finkelstein sees it, every time Israel comes under attack for the occupation and for its massive denial of Palestinian human rights, it seeks to “change the conversation”. When Israel is bombing Gaza, for example it tries to focus international attention on a purported existential threat coming from Iran.
In Finkelstein’s view, because the BDS movement does not recognize Israel “as a state”, it has now unwittingly become a convenient excuse for Israel to shift the conversation onto the “existential threat” posed by the BDS movement.
As evidence of the success of this strategy, he pointed to the recent anti-BDS motion and debate in the Canadian Parliament. Instead of discussing Israel’s massive human rights violations, the Parliament was exclusively focused on the threat to Israel posed by the “anti-Semitic BDS” movement, he pointed out.
A thought provoking presentation
In discussing with audience members after the presentation, it was clear that while most respect Finkelstein for his dedication and commitment to Palestinian human rights, not everyone agreed with all of his views.
Do you agree with Finkelstein? Or not? And if not why not? The comments section are open for reasoned thoughts and arguments.Your comments either on this summary, or on Finkelstein’s views themselves are invited.