Live Blog: Controversial Political Scientist Norman Finkelstein on Israel

Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine (SPJP) invited controversial political scientist and Holocaust scholar Norman Finkelstein to talk at Swarthmore about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Finkelstein, a son of Holocaust survivors, is best known for his book “The Holocaust Industry,” published in 2000, where he criticized the commercialization and exploitation of the memory of the Jewish tragedy by the American-Jewish community. He has been lauded by scholars such as Noam Chomsky, and criticized by historians such as Omer Bartov. His loud feud with jurist Alan Dershowitz was highly publicized.

Finkelstein, a self-described communist,  is a staunch critic of Israel, especially the Israeli Defense Forces and their human rights violations.  He’s been recorded saying Israel is a “Satanic state,” and issuing statements of support of Hamas and Hezbollah.

The event is co-sponsored by the Forum for Free Speech (FFS)

Note: This logs in this post have been reversed after the lecture

4:35 Science Center 101 is about 3/4 full. Elowyn Corby of FFS is introducing Finkelstein. “One of the most prolific and respected scholars in the field of the study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

4:36 “I know I’m competing with the weather, I know this is a very stiff competition, so thank you for coming.” Finkelstein cracks jokes about Swarthmore’s financial diversity.

Finkelstein was first involved in [studying] conflict during the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war. “More than half of my life has been consumed by it. In the past years I’ve seen my mandate as straightforward.” He would juxtapose the scholarly study and media representation of the conflict. “There was a deep chasm between the two representations.”  He decided to abandon this path in recent years. “Most people recognize Israel’s culpability. There is no need for someone like me to recite the historical and human rights record.

4:44 “People in the future will look back and think- how is it possible that this tiny conflict wasn’t resolved. There seems to be a new historical situation, there is a possibility to resolve the conflict. It has gone on so long, people have developed a stake  in perpetuation of the conflict. Those who have developed this stake will wake up one day and see ‘Oh my God, the conflict is resolved, what do I do now.”

4:47 “We have to fix ourselves.” Finkelstein criticizes “peace processors” – “we do not need understand, debate, negotiate, we need to resolve it.”

4:48 Finkelstein speaks of the Arab Spring, and the new realities of the Middle East. Turkey is no longer an ally of Israel. “The second defection occurred in Egypt.” Finkelstein talks of “Operation Cast Lead II,” but decided to abandon the operation due to fear of backlash.

The international perception of Israel has changed . Finkelstein cites the BBC poll about states which have had a negative impact on the world: “North Korea, Iran and Pakistan will not surprise you. The fourth state is always Israel. (…) The press coverage for Israel is much more favorable than for the other three countries.”

4:55 “When the Palestinians put forward their bid for statehood, the BBC asked about the support for the Palestinian bid.”  The majority or plurality expressed their support for the Palestinians. “Surprisingly, or bewilderingly, the majority of the United States’ public was among the supporters.”

But, as Finkelstein says, all political actors and the media in the United States denied support for the Palestinians.  ”The American people saw through the media’s lies and deception. (…) There has been a fundamental shift in the public.” Finkelstein speaks of the American Jewish community, “who has begun to distance themselves from Israel.”

5:00 Finkelstein speaks of the paradox of the voting habits of the American Jews, who are both a primarily wealthy and liberal ethnic minority. “It is impossible for anyone to call themselves liberal and still embrace the policies of Israel. American Jews just know too much. There was a moment in time where Israel controlled the image of what was happening in that part of the world. The times have change, they no longer have control.”

5:03 Finkelstein cites and sings John Lennon’s sentiment “give peace a chance,” which the baby boomers have grown up with. But there is a state “which says give war a chance. It is very hard to reconcile your liberal convictions with the way this state carries on.”

5:05 Finkelstein gives a background on the 2006 Lebanon war, and the 2009 Israeli assault on Gaza. “Before the bodies are cold, before they are buried, Israel now talks about Iran.”

In 2003, Saddam is a new Hitler. “We cannot appease another Hitler (…) now they are saying Iran will launch another Holocaust. War, war, war, war.”

5:07 “Chris Rock, the comedian, has a Michael Jackson routine – he comes out and screams- ‘Another kid?! Another kid?!” (…) Finkelstein says it reminds him of Israel- ‘Another war?! Another war?!’

Finkelstein portays a  typical Swarthmore student- “you are young, you are Jewish, you are liberal.”

“In 2006 Israel fires 4,000 000 cluster ammunition on Southern Lebanon. It was a macabre. You do not want to come before an audience like this (young, Jewish, liberal) and defend that action.”

5:11 “If you are Rush Limbaugh’s son, Sarah Palin’s daughter, you will defend this. (…) But it is not a Jewish thing- you won’t do that.(…) “There is a broad awareness of something going awry in that part of the world, but that Israel’s bearing a significant burden for this. There is a public ready to hear. ‘OK, we agree, Israel’s part of a problem.” But the public, fickle and impatient is waiting for a proposal. Finkelstein is speaking of the solutions to the problem: one state, two state,  bi-national state, federal state. “When the public hears this cacophony, they turn their attention somewhere else.”

5:15 Finkelstein is calling for a unified, realistic proposal, in order not to lose the public. “What is that proposal? I pondered this quite a long time. A few years ago, I decided to go back to the source, to Mr. Mahatma, to Mahatma Gandhi, who faced a similar situation that the Palestinian do today.” He compares the situations of India and Israel.

5:17 Finkelstein is willing to bet no on has checked out any of the 100 of Gandhi’s works out of any academic library. Gandhi says that “politics is trying to get people to act on what they already know is wrong.” Finkelstein says that this notion was very different from what he perceived as politics in his youth.

“In college, me and my friends called ourselves “comrades” 0 who saw themselves as holding the truth, the scientific truth to bring light to the masses- we were supposed to illuminate them. (…) But Gandhi said, that people aren’t ignorant, they are lazy. (…) Most people vent, they are indignant, but most won’t get passed it. (…) The purpose of civil disobedience was to rattle the public, get them from being passive to being active.”

5:24 Finkelstein talks about Occupy, the arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge. “Why am I not doing anything? (…) I know about the economic disparities, about Wall Street.”

There is a caveat- “however moral your methods are, if the public doesn’t agree with your goals, your ends, non-violent civil disobedience won’t work.”

5:27 Finkelstein draws an analogy to the issue of abortion and pro-life and pro-choice activism. Will the methods of the pro-life  movement convince those that are pro-choice?  ”No they won’t.” “If you set the wrong goal, you end up creating a cult, and not the movement.”

5:30 Gandhi didn’t impose his strict moral way of life on his followers. This led Finkelstein to two conclusions.

1. Politics is not about what you think, it’s about what the public thinks.

2. Politics is not about your morality, it’s about the public morality.

5:32 Finkelstein is illustrating this notion with an example. “Mexican workers in my Brooklyn neighborhood do work that no New Yorker would do, and they send half their money back to their families in Mexico.” It’s freezing, but to accumulate some money they choose to live on the street. If you ask most New Yorkers to give them a spare winter coats, they would probably  do so. But if you ask them to give them a spare room, the situation would be different. “The people who ask for that spare room have the moral argument on their side. But there’s another side to it- I’m not ready to do it. (…) If you set a goal that is morally right, but is above the reach of the public, you lose it.”

Finkelstein is calling for a goal that the public is ready to embrace.

5:38 The only possibility for the conflict that can reach the public is a two-state solution, based on the 1967 borders and resolving the refugee question with enacting the “right to return. He enumerates the UN votes on the issue, saying that in 2010 we had a 165 to 7 vote – the whole world on one side, and the US, Israel, Australia, the US-dependent Pacific countries and tiny Palau on the other. He jokingly talks about Israel losing one of its key allies- Tuvalu- to global warming.

5:42  The International Court of Justice is the most respected legal body in the world, and it said that the West Bank and Gaza, East Jerusalem are “inadmissibly acquired by war occupied territories.”(…) Under international law, all the settlers are illegally situated in those territories. This was not a close vote – it was 15-0.” The court includes two Jewish, one American and one British judge and none of them questioned these principles. The refugee question has not been resolved by the ICJ.

5:46 Finkelstein cites statements from Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch which fully support the “right to return.”

He concludes that in the peace process, the four final status issues – borders, East Jerusalem, settlements, refugees0 are to be moved to the end of the negotiations,  because otherwise the talks will collapse. “But on the four questions, there is no controversy in the world.” He adds there is no real dispute, no controversy on these issues.

His second conclusion is that on each of the terms, Israel does not have a legal leg to stand on. “Israelis suffer from no illusions on that score.” He cites Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former foreign minister, who says that “she is a lawyer, but she is against international law.”

The third conclusion is that Israel is a state and it has the same rights and responsibilities as any other state under international law. “You can’t pick and choose- either you accept it as a whole, or you reject it.” (…) “If you have a right to walk on the green, you have an obligation of stopping at the red.”

5:55 “If you want to reject the law, what standard do you use to resolve the conflict?” Dennis Ross, one of the chief negotiators, in his book says ‘I don’t want to talk about the law, I want to talk about needs.’ “Obviously, if you abandon the law, and you talk about the needs, you have a basic problem- who decides the needs? Dennis Ross had a basic answer- I will decide,” said Finkelstein.

5:58 There have been two major objections about the conflict. The Israeli objection was that the problem right now is that the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. “If Israel were to sign a peace agreement, it would not be the first, not the second agreement with an Arab neighbor [Egypt, Jordan]. Egypt never recognized as a Jewish state, neither did Jordan. “Why is this suddenly a precondition?”

“How can you expect Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state if Jews couldn’t agree for 3000 years on what is it to be a Jew? There is no consensus in Israel about what is a Jewish state.”

6:05 Finkelstein says the settlements issue is resolvable. He shows a map of Israel on a projector. “The maps Israel has presented are always the same. The settlements end up bisecting and trisecting the West Bank, and robbing it of water of resources. The Palestinians say- ‘if we give you that- there is no state.’ There is no Palestinian state without East Jerusalem – it is not spiritual, it is a geographical fact.”

6:08 “The Palestinians say- let’s swap 1.9% of the land. That 1.9% of the West Bank contains 62% of settlers. The Palestinians say  ’Look, we’re trying to be reasonable, in fact, under the law, we have a right to evict all 500 000 settlers. But we want to resolve the conflict. We will let 62% of the settlers stay.” During the negotiations, minister Tzipi Livni said that “No Israeli prime minister can present a map like that and stay in office.” Finkelstein says it is just a political problem. “It is our job to impose enough pressure on Israel, to conclude that it is time to go. I think it is possible. There is a public that is weary, and if we can reach the public, we can resolve this conflict.”

6:13 After 30 years, Finkelstein is wondering if spending this much time studying the conflict was a prudent investment, but he sees hope for taking the conflict out of the realm of current events and putting it in history books.

Finkelstein quotes scholar Edward Said, who, in turn, often quoted a Carribbean poet- “There is room for everyone at the rendez-vous of victory.”

“Just be fair, just be reasonable. There is a place for you, there is a place for everyone.” Finkelstein sees the map that the Palestinians propose as a reasonable solution. “I don’t know if I will be jogging there, or going there on a stretcher on life support, but I’m going to get there. And I expect to see all of you at the rendez-vous of victory.”

6: 18 The floor is open to questions. “I am waiting for dissenters, Finkelstein says. Audience member asks how to reconcile the right of return and the two-state solution as viable solutions under international law. He claims such reconciliation would create an apartheid  state.

“I never said [the solution is] Israel as a Jewish state. That is not the law. I don’t even know what it means for Israel to be a Jewish state. (…) The consensus of the international community is calling for a ‘just resolution’ based on the right of return and compensation, and not necessarily a full return. (…) If you are reasonable, there is a resolution. Know one knows how to resolve this. The fact is that the indigenous population was expelled. We can’t go back to 1947.”

6:25 Another audience member asks about the rockets that daily fall on Israel. He then poses a second question, a hypothetical. What if Israel was going to unilaterally give up parts of the West Bank – wouldn’t that have been a preferable solution to continuing the current situation?

Finkelstein is angrily talking about the 2007 Israeli blockade of Gaza and the cease-fire. “Hamas was careful to maintain a ceasefire, and Israel did not lift the blocade.” He proceeds to discuss Palestinian rocket attacks, and the Israeli response- launching an invasion of Gaza and breaking the cease-fire in 2008,  during the US election. He calls the invasion a “massacre,” citing the proportions of killed and wounded, which very heavily weigh on the Palestinian side. In reference to the second part of the question, Finkelstein says “this is not a salami that you can slice off. The Palestinians ceded the right to 78% of their territory. You want to play games? (…) This is not a game. You cannot play games with other people’s countries.”

6:25 Another audience member asks about the rockets that daily fall on Israel. He then poses a second question, a hypothetical. What if Israel was going to unilaterally give up parts of the West Bank – wouldn’t that have been a preferable solution to continuing the current situation?

Finkelstein is angrily talking about the 2007 Israeli blockade of Gaza and the cease-fire. “Hamas was careful to maintain a ceasefire, and Israel did not lift the blocade.” He proceeds to discuss Palestinian rocket attacks, and the Israeli response- launching an invasion of Gaza and breaking the cease-fire in 2008,  during the US election. He calls the invasion a “massacre,” citing the proportions of killed and wounded, which very heavily weigh on the Palestinian side. In reference to the second part of the question, Finkelstein says “this is not a salami that you can slice off. The Palestinians ceded the right to 78% of their territory. You want to play games? (…) This is not a game. You cannot play games with other people’s countries.”

6:35 “The Palestinians have been waiting since 1948. 90 countries got their self-determination. How long? Isn’t it long enough?” said Finkelstein.

6:40 Despite the long, over two-hour duration of the lecture, more than half of the audience stayed to listen to Norman Finkelstein. He was further challenged by questions from the audience.

3 comments

  1. James LaDogg

    He’s no Bobby Fischer or Benjamin Freedman, but I do hope that somewhere out there, a version of Earth exists where it is an annual tradition for Norman Finkelstein to address a joint session of Congress. That’s the USA I want to live in.

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  2. Dean Michael Jackson

    As a self-described communist Finkelstein is well-aware of the Communists’ ‘Long-Range [Deception] Strategy’, which all Communist nations adopted in 1960, as revealed by the near-perfect predictive record (94% correct, according to American historian Mark Riebling’s 1994 book, ‘Wedge’) of KGB defector Major Anatoliy Golitsyn; the new strategy being adopted due to the incompetence of Stalin’s foreign policy vis-a-vis the West.

    The Arab nations decided to follow the Communists’ example and initiated a strategy of stealth whereby instead of the Middle East crisis being seen as a conflict between the underdog Israel facing a menacing Arab world (which wasn’t doing the ‘Arab cause’ any good), the new strategy created the ‘Palestinian entity’. So in 1964, at the first Arab League summit meeting in Cairo, the PLO was created by the Arab governments to advance the new strategy. Now Israel would be the bully on the block, stifling the aspirations of the newly minted ‘Palestinian People’. But how to make this new strategy come to life? With a little help from the USSR, that’s how.

    In the mid 1960s Russia and the Arabs coordinated a plan whereby Russia ‘misleads’ Egypt that Israel is massing troops on the border with Syria. Egypt responds by entering the demilitarized Sinai Peninsula and massing its troops close to its border with Israel. Israel takes the bait and launches a preemptive attack against Egypt. Jordan then attacks Israel. In the end Israel wins back the West Bank and Gaza and all the baggage those conquests came with. The Arab-USSR plan, known to history as the Six-Day War, worked. The Arab nations could now step back into the shadows and allow the ‘Palestinians’ do their work in delegitimizing Israel in world opinion.

    The main reason for the Arab governments’ shift in strategy towards Israel in the early 1960s was the new military balance of power. Between the declaration of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 and the early 1960s, a critical event occurred within Israel that gave Arab governments pause in their quest to destroy Israel: Israel had acquired the nuclear bomb. Hence the urgency for the change in the Arab governments’ strategy towards Israel. Israel couldn’t nuke a PLO cell now, could it.

    After Israel acquired the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, to the world Israel pretended that the ‘Palestinian People’ canard was true (though in Israeli schools children are taught the truth that no such distinct Palestinian people ever existed in the Ottoman Empire), since if they didn’t that would make those Arab populations of the West Bank and Gaza Israeli citizens.

    Israel must cease allowing Arab strategy to dictate her Middle East foreign policy; Israel will not succeed in playing the Arab governments’ game. Israel’s military actions in recent years have been disastrous for her image. Whether it is assassinations, lobbing missiles into apartment buildings or piracy on the high seas, Israel behaves like a cornered animal, lashing out unthinkingly at her PLO/Hamas/Hezbollah adversaries. Such behavior is doing Israel more harm than Arab governments could ever hope to achieve by their own overt devises, which was exactly the raison d’etre for the Arab-USSR strategy that handed to Israel the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.

    As a first step in regaining the moral high ground, Israel needs to change the Middle East discourse in her favor by admitting what the main goal of her Arab neighbors is, as admitted to by high-ranking PLO officers during moments of candor:

    “Since we cannot defeat Israel in war, we do this in stages. We take any and every territory that we can of Palestine, and establish a sovereignty there, and we use it as a springboard to take more. When the time comes, we can get the Arab nations to join us for the final blow against Israel.” — Yasser Arafat, 1993.

    “The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct “Palestinian people” to oppose Zionism.

    For tactical reasons, Jordan, which is a sovereign state with defined borders, cannot raise claims to Haifa and Jaffa, while as a Palestinian, I can undoubtedly demand Haifa, Jaffa, Beer-Sheva and Jerusalem. However, the moment we reclaim our right to all of Palestine, we will not wait even a minute to unite Palestine and Jordan.” — Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee member Zahir Muhsein, as reported in the Dutch newspaper Trouw (March 31, 1977).

    The world will always be swayed by the underdog in a conflict; it is human nature. In the current Middle East narrative the misidentified ‘Palestinians’ are the David to Israel’s Goliath. As a corrective to reclaiming the underdog designation in this conflict, Israel must first make clear that there are no such persons as ‘Palestinians’, as admitted to by the PLO and known to those who know their history of the Levant pre-World War I; and secondly, expose the Arab-USSR strategy that made Israel a pariah in world opinion.

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  3. Madz

    with all respect, this conflict, is a never ending conflict, two people cant live on one land unless they eliminate each other, now would it happen I don’t think so. I was 15 years old during the 1982 war and I’ve seen what they are capable of. Not very human.

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