Pragmatism in the service of imperialism
Norman Finkelstein admits he has switched from,in his own words, being a critic of Israel to a diplomat who wants to resolve the conflict. Tony Greenstein looks at the issues
On November 11 2011, Norman Finkelstein gave a talk at the Institute of Education in London. It was a sell-out. Every seat was filled and a thousand people attended. Finkelstein came on half an hour later, like a rock star, to rapturous applause. The event was sponsored by the Palestine Return Centre and Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods.
However the Norman Finkelstein who spoke was a different person from the person who had written The holocaust industry: reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering (London 2000). The latter was a savage critic of the way the Zionist movement and US imperialism have used and exploited the extermination of European Jewry in the service of settlement, expansion, war and genocide. One example of this was the refusal of Elie Wiesel to pressurise the Israeli government into ending the supply of weapons to the Guatemalan junta, which murdered up to 200,000 Mayan Indians in the 1980s. Genocide is fine by Zionism’s favourite Auschwitz survivor, as long as Jews are not the victims.
Norman Finkelstein was the brightest star in the firmament. His searing academic dissection of Zionist propagandists and frauds was second to none. Joan Peter’s fraudulent From time immemorial, which asserted that the Palestinians were recent immigrants to Palestine attracted by the Zionist economy, was blown out of the water.  Among the many jewels in Peter’s crown was her citation of the medieval Arab historian, Makrizi, who died in 1442, as an eye-witness to mid-19th century population movements!
Finkelstein’s critique of Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s willing executioners: ordinary Germans and the holocaust (London 1996) - which blamed the holocaust on something inherent to being German, holding that Nazism was benign except for the Jews - was clinical and merciless. For Goldhagen the problem was not fascism or Nazism, but “eliminationist” anti-Semitism.  When Metropolitan Books agreed to publish Nation on trial: the Goldhagen thesis and historical truth by Finkelstein and Bettina Birn, it came under massive pressure not to publish - Birn was chief historian of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Canadian justice department. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League proclaimed that “the issue … is not whether Goldhagen’s thesis is right or wrong, but what is ‘legitimate criticism’”. Publisher Sara Bershtel’s response was that the former was “precisely the issue”. 
Finkelstein, a political scientist, went head to head with Zionism’s holocaust historians, for whom all criticism of Zionist behaviour during the holocaust or their use of the holocaust as a propaganda weapon is ‘illegitimate’. With two parents, both survivors of the Warsaw ghetto and the extermination camps, he was able to command authority when he wrote on the subject. Finkelstein understood how Yehuda Bauer, Yisrael Guttman, Ghili Fatran et al of Yad Vashem, the Zionist holocaust propaganda museum, used the extermination of over five million Jews to intimidate and silence all those who did not accept Zionism’s sanitised history. Instead of being a movement of collaboration, Zionist fiction was that it had led the resistance and been proved ‘right’ when it said that Jews could never live among non-Jews.
Yad Vashem created the ideological underpinnings for the use of the holocaust to justify Israel’s war against an indigenous Palestinian population. Finkelstein showed how Zionist organisations that claimed reparations from Germany - in particular the Jewish Claims Conference - had stolen and defrauded the survivors, via expense accounts, lawyers and ‘educational projects’, whilst the survivors had to don yellow stars and pyjamas and take to the streets to protest about the theft of their money and resulting poverty. 
Finkelstein provided us with the absurdity of how Ronald Reagan - who in his Bitberg speech in 1985, had described the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS as “victims of the Nazis as surely as the victims of the concentration camps”- was awarded by the Simon Wiesenthal Center the title of ‘Humanitarian of the Year’ in 1988, while the Anti-Defamation League of Abe Foxman gave him the ‘Torch of Liberty’ in 1994.
But the Socialist Workers Party disagreed. The SWP lives in hermetically sealed ideological spheres - one marked anti-fascism and holocaust, the other ‘anti-Zionism’ - and ne’er the twain shall meet. SWP guru, professor Alex Callinicos, declared that Finkelstein was “dangerously close to giving comfort to those who dream of new holocausts”.  The tunnel vision of the SWP prevents it from understanding the difference between the holocaust and the holocaust industry, that Zionism’s misuse of the holocaust is a real comfort for holocaust deniers.
Finkelstein’s second book, Beyond chutzpah: on the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history (Los Angeles 2005) proved that The case for Israel, the book written by Harvard professor of law Alan Dershowitz, was plagiarised. He had faithfully copied Zionist mistakes! One of the consequences of his attack on Dershowitz, was that Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University.
But Finkelstein is a man in a hurry. In his own words, “I switched hats from a critic of Israel to a diplomat who wants to resolve the conflict.” 
Norman Finkelstein has had a remarkable academic career. The warmth of the audience at the Institute of Education was testimony to that fact. Yet he has taken advantage of his reputation in order to promote an imperialist settlement of the Palestinian question.
Today Finkelstein does not mention the word ‘Zionism’. Israel is just another state gone astray. Its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is an aberration. Its treatment of Arab Israelis merely another example of how states (mis)treat their minorities.
Finkelstein’s problem is his lack of any class analysis. He sees the United Nations as representing the ‘community of nations’. International law is his panacea. But international law is helpless against US drone attacks on Pakistan’s north-western frontier. It is might and might alone which lies at the heart of imperialist power relations with their client regimes in the underdeveloped world. Even in the imperialist metropolis, when the bankers and capitalists are challenged, the police resort to naked and brutal force against peaceful protest, as when the Occupy protestors were pepper-sprayed in Oakland, California. Of course, the law gives a semblance of authority and rationale to the rule of capital. It legitimises the US’s actions and those of western imperialism through institutions such as the UN. But the UN can only act when the USA allows it to. That is why Israel is allowed to break international law with impunity and, just to make sure, the US vetoes all resolutions which are critical of Israeli actions.
The UN has a human rights council and commissioners. Not one country has proposed that the UN reverse its policy of opposition to torture, yet a large majority of its members practise torture as an act of state policy. Yet this is the body which Finkelstein argues can impose a just solution to the Palestinian question. The same UN which was responsible for endorsing the creation of the Israeli state and which has never proposed a single sanction against Israel for disregarding its resolutions on the refugees, settlements and occupation.
Every year the United Nations passes by an overwhelming majority a motion calling for a just solution to the refugee problem and proceeds to do nothing. The UN is a gang of thieves and cut-throats. Its representatives include all the world’s butchers. In the 1970s, at the US’s insistence, the representatives of Pol Pot and the genocide of up to two million people in Cambodia also took their rightful seats in the assembly. The only people who are not represented in the UN are the poor and impoverished. The UN is a parody of a democratic world society - in practice it is controlled by the security council, on which the major imperialist powers have a right of veto.
Finkelstein puts his eggs in the basket of international law. Yet the whole concept of international law is dubious. Who legislates for the ‘international community’? How is international law implemented? Who is accountable? What body impartially administers it? The International Criminal Tribunal and Court prosecute only anti-western war criminals. Bush, Blair and Pinochet have nothing to fear. Only secondary war criminals get their collar felt.
Finkelstein argues that one should not be “selective with the law”, which is “a package”. But this is not true. Most people understand that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor:
They hang the man, and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.
Law is not neutral. It reflects the interest of the ruling classes in society, the powerful and rich. This is even more true of international law than domestic legislation. Law in capitalist society is concerned not with human rights or justice, but property. We can see that in the complicity of New Labour and the execrable Jack Straw with extraordinary rendition. Torture is illegal, but never has it so thrived.
The fact is that Norman Finkelstein is not an anti-Zionist. He sees Israel not as a settler-colonial state, but just another normal western state. But in most European countries there is, at the official level, at least an attempt to eradicate direct and obvious racial discrimination. In the European Union there have been race directives and legislation aimed at outlawing racial discrimination. Anyone living in Britain today knows that racism on the football terraces is clamped down upon, whereas Jerusalem’s Beitar football team openly refuses to play an Arab and its supporters can stage an anti-Arab pogrom, unhindered by the police.  In Britain the Scarman report deemed the cost of racism as being too high.
In Israel the state and its parties compete as to who is the greatest racist. The state introduces legislation which is overtly racist, such as a citizenship law which prevents an Israeli Arab living with another Arab in Israel. Clayton Swisher has described how foreign minister Tsipi Livni has been negotiating with the Palestinian Authority about the transfer of Israel’s Arab citizens into any future bantustan.  To pretend that Israel’s racism is no different from other countries is to fail to understand the nature of Zionism.
In an Israeli newspaper Finkelstein is quoted as saying that “Nobody really defends Israel any more”- apart from a few Zionist zealots. That is why “I switched hats from a critic of Israel to a diplomat who wants to resolve the conflict”.  It is true that Israel is losing the propaganda battle. The reason is that deeds outweigh words, despite the best efforts of the BBC. The idea of a little David (Israel) against the Arab Goliath has not been heard of for some time. But winning or losing public opinion, which to Finkelstein is so important, is only half the battle. Opinion polls in the US support taxing the rich, but congress simply ignores it. The idea that western foreign policy is opinion-driven is but one of Finkelstein’s mistakes.
But support for Israel is not negligible. There is a close linkage between western economies and that of Israel. If the political case against Israel has begun to be won, it is because of the reality on the ground and the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). A campaign that Finkelstein opposes.
There has also been a process of political clarification. Support for the Palestinians comes primarily from the left. It is the right, including the British National Party and English Defence League (and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty!), which support Israel. Thirty years ago, stalwarts of the Labour Left like Tony Benn and Eric Heffer were members of Labour Friends of Israel. Support for Israel was a defining hallmark of New Labour. Today it is the preserve of western elites. As oil supplies decrease, the militarisation of the Middle East proceeds apace - and with it Israel’s utility to the west. Although most western countries would concede a two-state solution, they are not prepared to pressurise their watchdog. The settlements and confiscations are Israel’s political price.
It is true that “young liberal Jews have difficulty defending the use of cluster bombs in Lebanon or supporting the Israeli settlements”.  But it was always a fiction that support for Israel depended on a ‘Jewish’ vote. Jews and the holocaust were the cover for imperialist interests. This is not new. Britain expanded its empire at the same time as its navy patrolled the African coast seeking to intercept slave boats. Very few imperial powers have justified what they did in terms of naked interests.
Without a doubt the loss of Jewish intellectual and political support for Zionism heralds the beginning of the end. That is why it is important to be clear that seeking to repartition Palestine represents a continuation of the conflict.
The weakness of Finkelstein’s politics is exemplified by his adoration of Mahatma Gandhi. Ghandi represented the rich peasants and Indian capitalists in their battle with the British. He was extremely wary of the use of the strike weapon for nationalist ends and called off the mass ‘no tax’ Bardoli campaign in 1922 for fear of its success. George Orwell wrote:
“Gandhi has been regarded for 20 years by the government of India as one of its right-hand men. I know what I’m talking about - I used to be an officer in the Indian police. It was always admitted in the most cynical way that Gandhi made it easier for the British to rule India, because his influence was always against taking any action that would make any difference.
The reason why Gandhi when in prison is always treated with such lenience and small concessions sometimes made when he has prolonged one of his fasts to a dangerous extent is that the British officials are in terror that he may die and be replaced by someone who believes less in ‘soul force’ and more in bombs.” 
Gandhi was a friend of the jute mill and steel owners and despite his ‘pacifism’ recruited for the British army during World War I, as well as accepting Britain’s communal electorates that paved the road to the butchery of partition in 1947. Ghandi’s mythical status owes much to a British wish to deceive people that passive resistance won out over a cold and calculated decision that Britain was no longer able to afford to hold on to India.
So too with the Palestinians. An independent state alongside a militarily powerful Israeli state would be the Palestinian Authority writ large. It would be a travesty of independence and make the apartheid-era bantustans seem like models of independence. Most people in the boycott campaign do not support a two-state solution because such a solution is an apartheid solution. It will leave intact a ‘Jewish’ state based on the idea that there will always be a Jewish majority.
In 1948 three quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs were expelled in order that a Jewish majority could be created in Israel. As the Arab population has grown, Israel’s racist demographers, such as professors Arnon Sofer and Sergio Della Pergola, argue that a two-state solution is necessary in order that Israel can remain a ‘Jewish’ state. What Finkelstein is saying is that Zionism should be allowed its victory with the resulting apartheid discrimination against Israel’s 1.5 million Arabs. Not only should the exile of three million refugees be ignored, but the Zionists should effectively be allowed to repeat the process, since two states is an open invitation to expel Israeli Arabs from the first into the second.
The demographics of Israel are different from South Africa. Within the area of Palestine/Israel there is a rough parity between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. In South Africa whites were outnumbered at least six to one. After the war against Angola was lost and then the formation of Zimbabwe, South Africa was never again able to dominate its neighbours. In the Middle East the Arab spring has been absorbed and diverted by imperialism. Israel has remained largely untouched except for its first mass movement, the tent protests.
At the heart of Finkelstein’s advocacy of two states lies his own political confusion. Israel is abnormal, a state not of its own citizens, but of the ‘Jewish people’. He devoted a chunk of his speech in November to the inability of Israel’s most ‘liberal’ chief justice, Aharon Barak, to reconcile the irreconcilable - that Israel is both a Jewish and a democratic state. Yet he drew no conclusions from the fact that, even though democracy means that Palestinians have the right to form a majority, Israel’s status as first and foremost a ‘Jewish’ state, a state which accord privileges to those defined as Jewish, means that it can never be democratic. As Meir Kahane, the neo-Nazi Zionist member of the Knesset, used to say, either Israel is a Jewish state or a democratic state. It cannot be both.
In fostering illusions in the 42-year-old ‘peace process’ Finkelstein helps provide a fig-leaf for occupation. Even open anti-Arab racists like Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, support a two-state solution. But because Zionism’s goal is the occupation of the entire biblical land of Israel, any Palestinian state is anathema. A Palestinian statelet can only be a temporary solution until such time as it is reconquered and its inhabitants expelled across the Jordan.
As Moshe Dayan explained, “Fundamentally, a Palestinian state is an antithesis of the state of Israel … The basic and naked truth is that there is no fundamental difference between the relation of the Arabs of Nablus to Nablus and that of the Arabs of Jaffa to Jaffa … And if today we set out on this road and say that the Palestinians are entitled to their own state because they are natives of the same country and have the same rights, then it will not end with the West Bank. The West Bank together with the Gaza Strip do not amount to a state … The establishment of such a Palestinian state would lay a cornerstone to something else … Either the state of Israel - or a Palestinian state.” 
Finkelstein sees ‘statehood’ as an end in itself. He makes no attempt to spell out what a two-state resolution would mean in practice. Hence his ‘diplomacy’ never extends to asking why Israeli Jews and Arabs should live separately in different states. Are they mutually incompatible, as used to claimed by the whites of South Africa in relation to blacks? This is not nationalism, but racism of the nationalist variety. Far from achieving ‘peace’, all the racial fantasies and fears of ‘dirty Arabs’ will build up behind the border. Partition has an unenviable record. A response to the calamity of colonialism, it has been a terrible failure, whether in Ireland, India or Cyprus. Yet the cerebral Finkelstein does not even acknowledge the possibly calamitous consequences.
Israel/Palestine is already an apartheid unitary state, with half the population deprived of all political and civil rights. The real task is to de-Zionise Israel and create one unitary, secular and democratic Israel/Palestine. Like all settler peoples, the Israeli Jews are Jewish Palestinians.
Finkelstein’s attacks on the boycott movement for not supporting a two-state solution is as breathtaking as it is misplaced. It is Palestinians who call for boycott - the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel first made the call. He has found the magic bullet and expects Palestinians to fall in line. He compares his formative political influences in Maoism - in his words a political cult - with the boycott movement. Finkelstein expects Palestinians to pay the price for his political gymnastics.
In an interview with activist Frank Barat, Finkelstein says: “Yes, BDS has had some victories, but … it’s a cult. I’m tired of it. I went through my cult stage. I was a Maoist. There were two competing possibilities - you can be a Maoist/Leninist and waste 20 years of your life; [or] you can work with Ralph Nader - lot of bills through congress ... I’m not going to be in a cult again.” 
Finkelstein appears to believe that he has wasted his life on a cause that is not bearing fruit. Banished from Israel and the West Bank, he is turning on the solidarity movement and BDS, looking for a pragmatic solution within imperialism and capitalism. He has become attracted to what he believes is immediately achievable - hence Ralph Nader is his consummate political hero. Finkelstein has grown cynical of revolutionary change, which is what the liberation of Palestine demands. He is not so far from the reactionary, cultish Maoism he purports to abjure.
Finkelstein says: “If you are serious about politics you can’t go beyond what the public accepts, and that is international law.”  This is his most important and enduring political mistake. Israel does not today rule over 4-5 million Palestinian Arabs because ‘international law’ granted them permission to do so. It does so because Zionism was based on “creating ‘facts on the ground’”.  From this there came the law.
Finkelstein insults and caricatures the BDS movement as a “little ghetto”, a “cult”. If this were so, it is hardly likely that the knesset would pass a law which effectively criminalises calls for a boycott of Israel. Israeli propaganda now focuses on ‘delegitimisation’ of Israel. BDS has forced Zionism onto the back foot. It throws into question the legitimacy of the Zionist state and its apartheid institutions. Finkelstein belittles its accomplishments, but BDS has made a significant impact - not only economically but in the academic, cultural and political arenas.
Veolia has just suffered a £500 million loss of contract in west London and is trying to withdraw from the Jerusalem light railway project. The decision of British and Irish trade unions to support BDS has hurt the morale of the Israeli state. Our task is to turn these resolutions into reality. The growth of supermarket boycotts is a reflection of the growth in support for Palestine. A range of artists and musicians - Elvis Costello, Roger Waters, Santana - have supported the cultural boycott and refused to play in Israel. Others have disrupted Israeli concerts in London. There is even a Boycott from Within group in Israel itself.
Of course, the Palestinian struggle faces major problems in comparison with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The liberation movement there was based on the black working class and the Communist Party leadership. The Palestinian leadership is made up of collaborators and wannabe oppressors. The Palestine Authority in Ramallah tortures those under its control, as does Hamas. Both opposed the movement against Mubarak and suppressed demonstrations against the tyrant. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the last resort of the Egyptian military, are the parents of Hamas, who only joined the demonstrations against Mubarak at a late stage.
Norman Finkelstein has abandoned support for the right of the Palestinian refugees to return. He asks whether a “person in the public” would find it “reasonable for six million Palestinians to descend on a country which right now has 1.8 million Palestinians and five and a half million Jews”.  Put in those terms, probably not, but that is not the choice. Most Palestinians, given the chance to return, will not take it up. They will likely choose to stay where they are, but they should have the right if they so wish. Most European and American Jews will likely return to Europe. Already many of them possess two passports. Israeli Jews are increasingly seeking an escape route.
Finkelstein says: “If we end the occupation and we bring back six million Palestinians and we have equal rights for Arabs and Jews we have no Israel. That’s what it’s really about. And you think you’re fooling anybody?” It is hard to disagree. If equal rights for Arabs and Israelis means no Israel, then that is a price well worth paying.
1. See C Hitchens and E Said (eds) Blaming the victims: spurious scholarship and the Palestinian question chapter 2, London 1988.
2. ‘Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s “crazy” thesis: a critique of Hitler’s willing executioners’ New Left Review July-August 1997.
3. See N Finkelstein The holocaust industry London 2000, p66.
5. Socialist Worker July 22 2000.
7. See http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/beitar-football-fans-stage-pogrom.html.
8. C Swisher The Palestine papers London 2011.
9. ‘Norman Finkelstein bids farewell to Israel bashing’ Ha’aretz April 5: www.haaretz.com/blogs/focus-u-s-a/norman-finkelstein-bids-farewell-to-israel-bashing-1.422684.
11. The collected essays, journalism and letters of George Orwell Vol 2, London 1970, p136.
12. Ha’aretz December 12 1975.