July 05, 2012

Norman Finkelstein continues to spread disinformation about BDS

Norman Finkelstein continues to spread disinformation about BDS. In a new interview, by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, Finkelstein repeated the accusation that "BDS is a cult," this time in a measured and composed way, not as an "outburst". Parenthetically, the interview itself, in its structure and the kind of questions asked and not asked, suggests that Finkelstein himself is fashioning his own persona as a cult leader. But let's get back to the specific accusation. Finkelstein claims that "[t]he movement is riddled with flagrant hypocrisy." He offers three examples:
a) a leader calls for the boycott of all Israeli universities while he himself studies at Tel Aviv University, (b) a leader claims that BDS doesn’t target individuals or an individual’s beliefs, only institutions, but he then calls for a ban on Daniel Barenboim, because Barenboim is a “Zionist,” c) BDS did not call for a ban on [the film] Five Broken Cameras although it was produced in conjunction with an official Israeli film society.

None of these three examples represent any shred of hypocrisy.
1.
Finkelstein refers, strangely without mentioning the name, to Omar Barghouti, who is a citizen of Israel and a student at Tel Aviv University. One of the three demands of BDS is equality of Israel's citizens. BDS is not a call for segregation, and obviously opposes the variety of measures used by Israeli universities to make Palestinian students feel unwelcome at Israeli universities and to reduce their enrollment numbers. Access to higher education is a fundamental civil right. We are fighting, among other things, so that more Palestinians in 48 Palestine can go to universities and study without being harassed, isolated, silenced, etc. It would be plainly counter-productive for Palestinians to assist Israel in the denial of their rights by giving them up on their own initiative. Precisely because BDS is not a cult, but a movement organized on principles of rational strategy, that no such demand for students to boycott themselves exists.
Indeed, there is likewise no BDS call for Israeli Jewish students to avoid studying at Israeli universities. The BDS call against Israeli universities is a call for world institutions and academics, demanding that they sever institutional ties. Not only there are BDS adherents who are students at Israeli Universities, but there are some, like Koby Snitz and Anat Matar, who are professors there as well. To accuse students and professors of Israeli Universities of hypocrisy for supporting BDS is akin to demanding that workers picketing their employers must first quit their job in the name of "moral consistency." It is plain silly. Omar Barghouti is calling for other institution to boycott the university where he is a student on the basis of a certain demands. That is perfectly legitimate.
With this accusation Finkelstein is belatedly joining a smear campaign launched against Barghouti in 2009. At the time, PACBI issued a statement clarifying why this smear campaign was wrong on every count, noting that

PACBI has never called upon Palestinian citizens of Israel and those who are compelled to carry Israeli identification documents, like Palestinian residents of occupied Jerusalem, to refrain from studying or teaching at those Israeli institutions. That would have been an absurd position, given the complete lack of alternatives available. Successive Israeli governments, committed to suppressing Palestinian national identity in their pursuit of maintaining Israel’s character as a racist state, have made every effort possible to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian university inside Israel. The only choice left to Palestinian students and academics in Israel, then, is to go to an Israeli university or leave their homeland to pursue their studies or academic careers abroad -- often not possible due to financial or other compelling reasons. In fact, the Israeli authorities have consistently worked to strip Palestinians from occupied Jerusalem of their Israeli ID cards and thus their residency rights while they study abroad, thereby prohibiting them from returning.(PACBI statement
I find it hard to believe that Finkelstein is not aware of this statement, and either way, it is inexcusable that he ignores it.
2.
In 2010, PACBI issued an opinion that Bareboim's WEDO orchestra was boycottable. This was a controversial question, because the case of WEDO and the role it plays politically is both marginal and complex, and there were conflicting views about it. The argument against WEDO, whether one agrees with it or not, was not about Barenboim's opinions, or indeed about Barenboim at all, given that WEDO is an institution in which people other than Barenboim hold decision making positions. It was a question of whether WEDO as an institution meets the criteria of the cultural boycott that have been laid down over a year earlier. PACBI's position was that it did:
Based on quotes from the Orchestra's own programmatic statements, PACBI concluded that WEDO's
...self-definition turns occupation and colonial oppression into a mere "problem" or “barrier” to be discussed between "traditional rivals" who hope to settle their "differences" and build "bridges" of understanding through music and dialogue to encourage "listening to one another" and to set "a good example of democracy and civilized living."
By promoting this false symmetry or balance between the "two sides," WEDO is indeed promoting normalization. The Divan refuses to even recognize, let alone oppose, Israel's ethnic cleansing, occupation and system of racial discrimination as the root causes of the Arab-Israeli colonial conflict, sanitizing the very real oppressive reality on the ground with benign terms that are intended to project symmetry between oppressor and oppressed and moral parity between colonizer and colonized. This conforms to the definition of normalization, a term used across the Arab World, especially in Palestine, to describe joint Arab-Israeli projects that ignore or bypass the reality of oppression altogether, and/or fail to contribute to the struggle to end it, hence presenting to the world a deceptive image of "civilized" coexistence despite Israel's patently uncivilized colonization and apartheid system (PACBI statement).
However one's personal tolerance for political views than one deems offensive, a question of temperament, it is an undisputable fact that the PACBI boycott guidelines, on which the case against WEDO was made, do not cite Zionism, or any other held belief, as a ground for boycott. While Finkelstein feigns not to be aware of that, anybody with an internet browser can verify it.
Finkelstein's claim that Barenboim was boycotted for his "Zionism" repeats without attribution Mariam Said's accusation against PACBI. In claiming that the issue was Barenboim's Zionism, Said paraphrased a PACBI statement to the Qatari government that is not available in electronic form. Therefore, I cannot say whether Said's paraphrase has substance. It doesn't bother Finkelstein to cite an unsubstantiated accusation, that PACBI subsequently denied, as if it were established fact. However, two more general points are worth making in that context.
First, even if Zionism isn't the criterion for boycott, the question of where institutional agents stand politically is certainly within the scope of a relevant analysis. For understanding better the political context in which this debate took place and Barenboim's opinion were cited, I recommend reading Raymond Deane's article about WEDO as an institution. However, if indeed the original statement was not as clear on the grounds for boycott as PACBI's subsequent clarification, the only conclusion one could draw from that legitimately would be one that every activist knows from experience. political positions, arguments and principles do not come down from heaven in a perfect state, but are constantly clarified and developed in the process of struggle itself. It is precisely because BDS is a political movement and not a cult that this is true of it.
Second, among all those who profess some kind of adherence to the BDS call there are, inevitably, different tendencies and interpretations. Part of the evolution of every political formation is a certain conflict within cooperation over those tendencies and interpretations. There are BDS supporters like Mariam Said and Virginia Tilley who want relaxation of certain anti-normalization criteria. There are others who want boycott of all Israelis based on nationality. The 2006 case of the boycotting of Juliano Mer Khamis by some activists raised a storm and was instrumental in building cohesion over the BDS attitude on Israeli artists. Mediating such conflicts creatively while building essential unity is part of the function of leadership, and the credibility of leadership is in large measure dependent of its ability to solve these contradictions in ways that are acknowledged by all parties as conducive for the movement's shared goals. Of course, this does not always involve compromise. Sometimes, it also involves taking a clear stand against misguided attempts that would derail these goals if they were to gain the upper hand.
3.
The third accusation against PACBI, for failing to call for a boycott against the film Five Broken Cameras for being co-produced and co-directed with Israelis is the most bizarre. I haven't yet seen or studied the film, so what follows is preliminary. Obviously if an argument were advanced that a certain film should be boycotted, it would take some time to reach an informed decision, and Five Broken Cameras has barely been out. But on preliminary grounds, it seems quite obvious that the film is not boycottable for the exact same reason that WEDO is. The film is a work of resistance in itself, and a documentation of the resistance along the Apartheid Wall. Far from boycotting Israeli participation in Palestinian resistance, the BDS call "invite[s] conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace". The PACBI guidelines for cultural boycott specify this exception clearly:

All such events and projects that bring Palestinians and/or Arabs and Israelis together, unless the Israeli side is explicitly supportive of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people and unless the project/event is framed within the explicit context of joint opposition to occupation and other forms of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, are strong candidates for boycott. (my emphasis)
Criticism can sometimes be harsh and uncompromising and yet valuable. Therefore, I wouldn't want to hold it against Finkelstein simply that he is very harsh. Yet I find it hard to belief that Finkelstein, who is known for reading everything and checking every un-dotted i and uncrossed t in what he reads, can be so egregiously unaware of the basic principles laid out by the people he criticizes. By this stage, I find it unavoidable to conclude that Finkelstein is engaged in a politically motivated campaign of disinformation aimed at destroying BDS, rather than any form of conscientious, informed criticism of it. Anyone who gives him a podium or interviews him without being prepared to challenge him when he is simply making stuff up is effectively helping such a disinformation campaign.

II
I picked on these accusations because they were the most malicious. There is a lot more in the interview that I disagree with, and I would like to briefly refer to two more points about BDS being "like a cult."
The movement functions in a cocoon world where the incantation of mantras – “BDS,” “One State” and “Israeli Apartheid” – has replaced a political analysis of what’s possible and likely to reach a broad public.
It would be indeed a problem if that were so. Yet this is no more than one biased outsider's impressionistic claim, backed with nothing. I'd rather be concrete with a counter example. BDS Switzerland, in which I am active, reached "a broad public" by two organized campaigns in the last year. In one, we got over 170 artists, including some of the most well known in the country, to join the cultural boycott on the basis of an explicit reference to the Right of Return. getting signatures was easier than expected and certainly does not back Finkelstein's claim that RoR is a non-starter with the public. In the second, we collected 12,000 signatures in front of supermarkets, calling the major chains to destock Israeli products. Our campaign pressured the largest local chain to begin labeling products as "produced in settlements." Although it was less than our full demand, it was an important achievement that raised and changed the tone of mainstream public debate. We constantly analyze the public arena in order to identify what is "politically possible." We never had a discussion of "one state," and we have no campaign advocating one state, regardless of our personal opinion regarding what is more or less desirable. While I won't vouch for the political maturity of every group that launches a BDS campaign, it is my personal impression that my experience of BDS is more widespread than Finkelstein's.
III
The last point is more abstract, but worthy of discussion because it feels like it has some theoretical and experiential plausibility. Finkelstein claims that
Self-proclaimed leaders of the BDS movement claim to speak in the name of “Palestinian civil society” or “the Palestinian people,” although they have no basis to make such a claim. They then use this fraudulent claim as a club to silence any opposition to their diktat;
The reason this seems to be valid is because political representation is a fraught, contested, and constructed process, often misrepresented in the media as well as the political culture in general as a straightforward and objective relation. Thus, in liberal democracies, we have a number of institutions that function as "representations" of the populace, primarily through elections. By this stage in history, many people are keenly aware of how problematic the representative claims of even legally organized representative functions such as parliaments, elected presidents, councils, etc. are. Yet it is hard to deny that officially elected "representatives," however compromised, do carry a certain level of legitimacy that their draw from "representing" a people, faction, district, etc., through institutionalized elections. Thus one the one hand, it has become fashionable among some to reject any representational claim and insist that people only "speak for themselves." On the other hand, the legitimacy of liberal democratic representation is often contrasted in the public discourse with the lack of legitimacy of radical challenges to the political system, protesters, occupations of public spaces, revolts, strikes, etc., who are not backed by elections. Together, these two widely shared ideas contribute to weigh against any form of effective popular resistance to power.
It is both this liberal institutional discourse, which is crumbling around us, and the individualistic, existential riposte, that Finkelstein invokes implicitly when he denies the BDS organizers in Palestine the right to speak in the name of the "Palestinian people." In contrast, I would suggest an alternative conception of representation. To be active politically, that is, to make an intervention in the public realm regarding a collective choice, is inherently to claim representative status of the concerned public, either directly, or through a proxy reference (X is representative and I support X). Arguments about political claims are inherently invalid unless they represent a public as a collection of people with certain concerns that unite them behind that claim. Thus, it would be both impossible and inadmissible for anyone to make a political argument about Palestine without such an argument citing some representational power. Indeed, Finkelstein himself cites representational power when he defends his views as both widely supported by Palestinians and objectively in their interests.
The status of a political function as representative is always contested . For the same reason that a political claim cannot be effective without representing a "people", the best counter claim against one is often the demolition of its claim to represent. An essential part therefore of making political claims is establishing representational power in practice. For popular challenges, such actions involve organizing people in a way that affirms the representational power of certain claims. Thus, for example, calling a strike builds representational power to the extent that people actually strike. In Switzerland, the act of collecting 12,000 signatures buttressed our claim that de-shelving Israeli products is not the personal affectation of a few activists but a broadly shared public request that our petition legitimately represented. Elections are a mechanism construed for institutionalizing such representative claims. However, far from guaranteeing representation, liberal elections invariably create conditions in which representational claims can be advanced fraudulently more easily. BDS is not a party vying for elections, and the leadership of the BDS movement does not claim to represent Palestinians in a governing function. This, however, especially in the context of the failure of liberal democracy more broadly worldwide, cannot suffice to deny the claim of representation unless one accepts either that representation is impossible or that governing through elections are the sine qua non of political legitimacy.
It seems to me that the representational claims of BDS are essentially twofold, that the three demands of the BDS call represent the historical demands of the Palestinian people and are widely supported by Palestinians, and that the strategy of boycott, including an anti-normalization stance, is widely popular and widely perceived as appropriate. The test of these claims is not whether PACBI was elected or not or about how many Palestinians are hypothetically willing, as Finkelstein believes, to give up the right of return. The test is in actual organizing in which support for these representational claims is established or contested in practice.
The 2005 BDS call, signed by over 170 organizations, including both Fatah and Hamas, is an example of a successful political organization that established precisely the claims of BDS to be representative of the Palestinian people. The success in organizing the cultural boycott, including the success in denying boycott breakers platforms in Ramallah and other places in the Occupies Territories, even and indeed precisely because such actions require mobilizing people and building popular and public pressure on the undecided, are further proof of BDS's legitimate representational claims. The absence of any Palestinian political force that calls for the renunciation of the Right of Return and the abandonment of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, as Finkelstein advocates, further buttresses the claim that the three BDS demands are indeed elements of national Palestinian consensus. It does not follow that there are no debates and disagreements. Debates about both goals and strategies have not ended, and the Boycott National Committee does not have the authority to settle these debates by declarative fiat. There are, for example, those who want a more relaxed boycott, and those, like Sari Nusseibeh, who are willing to give up the Right of Return. The question in such cases is not whether BDS is officially representing the Palestinian people, but which of the different positions has a better representational claim. This is, of course, a question to be decided by Palestinians themselves through political means, not by solidarity activists and outside intellectuals. Finkestein's argument is fallacious when he deduces from the contested nature of representation and the non elected position of the BDS leadership that the set of imposed demands and principles they advocate does not represent the Palestinian people. It does precisely to the extent that Palestinians have effectively and with wide consensus organized around them.
This is not to say that the status of Palestinian leadership is resolved. There seems to be a widely shared sense of the need to rebuild institutions in order to restore the level of cohesion and authority that was lost with the demise of the PLO through the Oslo process. In no way does the recognition of the need for better representational institutions justify the kind of blank dismissal advocated by Finkelstein. What Finkelstein advocates in practice is nothing other than undercutting and declawing of one of the most effective forms of Palestinian organizing within the scope of the Palestine liberation struggle in recent years. No conscientious person should allow herself to be seduced by that.

UPDATE: When you've read this, read this

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