“If I was looking for a popularity contest, I would have chosen another cause.” Extended interview with Professor Norman Finkelstein on BDS zealotry, international law and its infamous non-adherents, the right of self-defence and the problem with ideological language when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As violence broke out in Jerusalem and the West Bank this October, the world watched wearily as the sparks of a seventy-year conflict, entrenched in a fifty-year occupation, once again released its singeing burn upon everything within striking distance. As the scenes of brutality, blood and tribalism played out across smart-phones and television screens, a collective sigh from the international community was almost audible over the furious chants, slurs and spats taking place between authoritarian adherents from either side of a decades long divide.
Because, according to Norman Finkelstein – regarded by both his admirers and fiercest detractors as an expert on the oft-erupting powder keg that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the crux of the half-century occupation that fuels the recurring battles which form the constant nature of this conflict, and its yearned for resolution, lies simply and only within the law as set down by the highest legal authorities of the developed world.
“The first obligation under International Law if you are an occupying power is that you’re supposed to leave at some point. That’s the nature of occupation. The primary characteristic of an occupation is-and I’m not being facetious, I’m being literal-under international law, it’s supposed to be temporary. That’s what distinguishes an occupation from an annexation.”
Speaking over Skype from his home in Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, New York, Finkelstein’s words echo that of two American Jewish professors, Steven Levitsky and Glen Weyl writing in the Washington Post last week. In a joint statement announcing their intention to boycott Israel, the two academics who identify themselves as ‘life long Zionists’, say that they had always believed in the necessity of a Jewish state “to protect our people from future disaster,” and that such a state was supposed to be “democratic, embracing the universal values of human rights that many took as a lesson of the holocaust.”
But, they write, “We must face reality: The occupation has become permanent” and that the “Undemocratic measures undertaken in pursuit of Israel’s survival, such as the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the denial of basic rights to Palestinians living there, were understood to be temporary.”
“It is clearly not temporary,” Finkelstein concurs, “After a half century, if you haven’t left, and you haven’t shown any intention of leaving, then it’s de facto an annexation. And that’s illegal. That’s breaking the law.”
After a month of violence that has left seventy Palestinians and nine Israelis dead, over a thousand Palestinians and a hundred Israelis injured, one is left to wonder who exactly is applying International Law in the current state of affairs-and has been for the duration of the occupation beginning in 1967.
“Well the Palestinians have no say, they can’t do it right or wrong under an occupation. They have no ability, really, to apply international law. Israel is an occupying power and under international law as an occupying power it has certain rights perhaps, and that means certain obligations.”
He outlines the basic framework constituting these obligations – put forth by the International Court of Justice, “the most distinguished legal body in the world”, the UN General Assembly, “the most representative political body in the world”, and human rights organisations – as “two states on the 1967 border and a just resolution of the refugee question.”
“Those are the terms for resolving the conflict, they are common to all the major third parties to the conflict. So, lets leave aside what Israel says and just assume its going to be self-serving, say like the husband in divorce court, let’s leave aside what the Palestinians say, lets assume it’s like the wife in divorce court, it will be self-serving, and let’s limit ourselves to what the international organisations have to say.”
But surely, those august bodies recognise that somewhere within the law, both players within the conflict possess to some extent the right of self–defence. Pro-Palestinian groups say Palestinian can engage in legitimate resistance, whereas the United States says that Israel has a right to defend itself. Who is right by the law?
“Both statements are correct. Palestinians have the right under international law to use force to end an alien occupation. Israel under international law has the right to defend itself. But Israel has no right under international law to use armed force to perpetuate an illegal occupation or an illegal siege of Gaza. If Israel wants to defend itself, that’s its right. But the West Bank and Gaza are not Israel.”
Many supporters of Israel would beg to differ. Israel is not the only one who engages in violence. How about Palestinians throwing stones?
“Any people under occupation have the right to use armed force to end their occupation and in the case of Gaza it’s not just a fifty year-long occupation, but superimposed on that occupation has been a decade long illegal, immoral and inhuman siege. So they have the right under international law to use force. Is it a smart thing to do? That’s a separate question. You’re asking me do they have the right under the law; the answer is yes.”
How about Hamas shooting rockets?
“If you really deplore Hamas rocket attacks-as they are called, they are not rockets, they are fireworks-there is a very easy way to stop them. Even Israel’s most vocal supporters said that Hamas is using these projectiles because it wanted the end of the siege. That was the uniform interpretation. The Human Rights Council recently declared its latest report on Gaza that the siege must be lifted, and now I’m quoting them, ‘immediately and unconditionally’. So if you want to end the Hamas rocket attacks, there’s a very simple way to do it. All Israel has to do is obey the law.”
And the knife and car attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians in the recent spate of violence?
“Random killings, unless they eventually crystallize into an organization, a platform, all the rest, they don’t last very long. People just give up. And there’s a very efficient, Jordanian, CIA trained Palestinian police force, repressive, security apparatus, which will be able to crush a basically anguished despondent, hopeless reaction by people, which is what knifings are.
So when does lawful resistance and self-defence become terrorism? Finkelstein is frank.
“Listen. I have an upstairs neighbour. For about three months, they were banging, banging, banging on my ceiling, driving me crazy. I was hoping and praying a truck would crash into their car and kill them, okay? There were moments when I wanted to take a meat cleaver and cut off their legs. Right? These are not very moral thoughts. I won’t even begin to tell you some of the other thoughts I’ve had about them. Not the nicest thoughts. So who am I to lecture Palestinians on how they should act and react, to a fifty-year long occupation that day in and day out, systematically wrecks and destroys their lives? I’m not going to condemn them. I can’t, because you have to be morally consistent. You lose me. Not because I don’t have a moral sense, but because my first precept in life is, ‘There but for the grace of god go I’-what would I do in those situations? And judging by how I currently feel about my upstairs neighbours…”
But it’s precisely this kind of language that has conferred upon him the reputation of radicalism among his critics. Doesn’t he think that this kind of language is what leads some to brand him a “self-hating Jew”, or a supporter of terrorism?
“It has nothing to do with Israel. It has to do with an occupying, immoral, illegal occupation. I don’t care if it’s Israel, I don’t care if it’s Jewish. That has nothing to do with it. You think I had warm feelings about my country, when they were bombing Vietnam? We were all called back then, ‘anti-American’, ‘self-hating Americans’, I did the same thing here.”
Speaking of non-conforming opinions, he is not very popular among the pro-Palestinian BDS movement either, which claims to speak for Palestinian civil society in its call to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel until it ends the occupation.
“If I was looking for a popularity contest I would have chosen another cause.”
So what are his qualms with the movement?
“The BDS platform strikes me as wholly hypocritical because you can’t claim to be anchored in international law and then proceed to claim that only Palestinians have rights under that law. The law includes rights, that’s for sure, but it also includes responsibilities. It also includes obligations. And if you want to claim a right to self-determination and statehood for Palestinians you can’t then proceed to be agnostic on Israel’s right to self-determination and statehood. The very same law that grants those rights to Palestinians, grants those rights to Israelis. That’s the law. If you don’t like the law, fine. You can say ‘I consider the law to be capitalist, racist imperialist, Zionist, white supremacist’ and all their other stupid epithets. But you can’t claim to support the law and then ignore the parts of the law that you don’t like; because that’s exactly what Israel does.”
And of Professors Steven Levitsky and Glen Weyl’s decision?
“They didn’t say they were going to boycott Israel in order to implement BDS, they demitted themselves to what Israeli conduct is illegal under international law. They recognise Israel’s rights within the parameters of the law. That’s not BDS. BDS recognises no rights for Israel. Limit yourself to the law. Because these two people explicitly said they limit themselves to the law.”
So he doesn’t oppose boycotts without the BDS tag or…?
“A boycott is a nonviolent tactic; it is accordingly legitimate under any interpretation of international law. The question, then, is its potential efficacy; this is a matter of judgment, not principle. In my opinion, specifically cultural/academic boycotts (not boycotts in general) inevitably divert public attention away from the occupation and instead turn into learned–and irrelevant–disquisitions on academic freedom.”
Does he believe that boycotts can work, then?
“God helps those who help themselves; I say that as a resolute atheist. Palestine will be liberated when the people of Palestine find it within themselves the strength and the willingness to end the occupation. Here, outside Palestine, we can play a critical role in supporting them, that’s for sure, but the idea that you can liberate Palestine from the outside by academic boycotts and some such things, in my opinion has no basis in history as far as I understand it, it has no real basis and common sense.”
And how will the Palestinian people “liberate themselves”?
‘In my opinion, the clearest model and precedent for achieving their legitimate goals is the first intifada.”
Is the term ‘Zionist’ offensive to use as an insult, as it often is?
“Look, I don’t care about Zionism. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the topic so I should care about it but I don’t care about it. Because right now we don’t have to use this ideological language which most people don’t understand and even fewer people care about, and those who do understand it don’t much care about it. You can use basic language, which everybody can understand. “You can use language like ‘occupation’, you can use language like ‘illegal Jewish settlements’, you can use language like ‘an illegal blockade and siege’, you can use language like ‘targeting civilians’, you can use language like ‘killing five hundred infant children during the last Israeli assault on Gaza’, you can use language like ‘destroying nineteen thousand homes in Gaza’, everybody understands that, everybody relates to that, everybody’s moral sense will resonate with that kind of language.”
Do any Israeli parties feature in his hopes for the end to the occupation?
“There’s no statement by any major party in Israel that accepts the terms of the international community as put forth; a Palestinian state in the whole of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and Gaza and a just resolution of the refugee question. All the major Israeli political parties reject any claim of the Palestinian refugees and all of the major political parties claim Israel has the right to detain the major settlement blocs.
Even the Leftist Meretz?
“Meretz has the same position as Netenyahu on the question of the settlement blocs, they are a little different on Jerusalem and the question of the refugees. They may be against expanding settlements, but you already have five hundred and fifty thousand settlers there, and the settlement blocs take up about 10% of the West Bank; they bisect the West Bank in the North, they bisect the West Bank from Jerusalem to Jericho and they appropriate some of the most valuable land at the critical water resources. So you say Israel has the right to keep the settlement blocs, which is Meretz’s position, then there is no Palestinian state. What are they going to do with the five hundred and fifty thousand settlers?”
So, is he saying there is no hope within Israel for the end to this drawn out, bloody, soul crushing conflict?
“Israel has moved very far to the right, it’s a kind of lunatic country. And their prime minister is a certifiable maniac. You might say, well the United States re-elected Bush twice and that’s true, and Bush had a lot of loose screws upstairs, okay that’s fine, but in the case of Bush, at least you can say he was despised and loathed at the end of his second term of office, in fact he was the most unpopular president in American history by the end. But in the case of Netenyahu, each time he makes another lunatic statement, or carries on in a more lunatic fashion, his poll ratings actually soar. He is an accurate gage and reflection of the state of mind of Israeli society. And so to look for a hope there now to me is not really a rational way to perceive. There has to be sanctions applied to Israel, to make them experience that you pay a price for your lunatic carry on. And once you have to pay a price, you’ll be surprised how many lunatic people suddenly become very sober and rational. But if you can carry on that way with impunity, then yeah people will carry on that way, that’s the nature of being human. You unleash the beast in somebody when you let them carry on with impunity and without any consequences. But it’s also a remarkable fact that human beings, once they have to pay a price, they sober up.”
Progressive supporters of Israel may find his comments insensitive, including those who oppose the occupation, especially since they are directed at the only Jewish nation in the world. It could be seen as justified racism. Many may say sanctions mean punishing a whole people for the actions of their government.
“First of all there are sanctions being applied now against many countries; Russia is under sanction for its role in Ukraine. There are many countries that suffer sanctions. Secondly, nobody is punishing Israeli people, what you are telling them is, you can’t carry on in this way without consequences. When you no longer carry on in this illegal fashion, these sanctions will be lifted, there will no longer be a call for sanctions or if people call for sanctions they’ll be ignored by 99% of humanity which has other things to do. You’re not being punished, you’re being held to account for your illegal conduct. Or you’re being held to account for your indifference in the process of the illegal conduct being executed. Israelis want their cake and eat it; they want to have an illegal, immoral inhuman blockade of Gaza, and they want to be able to carry on as if Gaza doesn’t exist. Most people in Israel, when it comes to the occupation, it’s just not a part of their life, it doesn’t exist. So you want to be able to have the right-and this is not using hyperbolic exaggerated language-you want to have the right to torture a people. That’s what you want. You can’t have the right to torture a people. You don’t have that right. Sorry, you don’t have that right. If you want to have that right you’re going to have to deal with international opprobrium and you’re going to have to deal with sanctions.”
Holding such opinions, does he ever feel like a pariah within the Jewish community?
“I live in Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, New York. It’s all Jewish. There are more Jews here than there are in Israel. You know, nobody attacks me, nobody cares about me, I don’t know what you’re calling me a pariah for. I have very nice relations with everybody except my upstairs neighbour. And they are not Jewish. I would say half my correspondence nowadays comes from Jews. The other half comes from Muslims, but half of it comes from Jews. And we have a nice correspondence, I mean some of it can be nasty, but most of the times it’s not. Most of the time you know people recognise I’m not calling for Israel’s destruction, or crap like that, I just want the law to be implemented. And I’ve found that my correspondence, and in general in audiences, with the exception of a handful of lunatics, tends to be quite sober and reasonable.”
Speaking to this Brooklyn born, American-Jewish son of Holocaust survivors who has dedicated his whole life to the cause of resolving this conflict, the way to peace seems surprisingly unambiguous. One thing is for sure, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is a conflict the solution for which has already been decided by every independent legal body on earth. It’s a conflict that could be solved tomorrow, or this very minute, if only the powerful and the accountable had the willingness to implement the lawful rights of all those embroiled within its toxic hold.
And if, even as their bones were beaten till broke, someone was inexplicably, undeniably and ferociously brave enough to stand up straight once again.