lan Dershowitz’s opposition to the recent BDS panel discussion at Brooklyn College was easy for many people to dismiss, correctly, as Zionist chutzpah, but Norman Finkelstein’s sharp attack on the BDS movement (see his You Tube interview here) as “disingenuous” and “silliness, childishness and a lot of leftist posturing” deserves more attention from those of us who support the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement.
Finkelstein’s argument goes like this:
- To end the Israeli Occupation requires mobilizing millions and millions of people around the world against it—a mass movement.
- The great majority of people in the world decide what is morally right or wrong according to what is in compliance or not in compliance with International Law.
- The existence, per se, of the state of Israel defined as a Jewish state is in compliance with International Law, even if some things that it does (such as the Occupation, the settlements in the West Bank, the seizure of East Jerusalem, etc.) are not in compliance.
- BDS says its aims include the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees to their homeland inside Israel.
- The consequence of granting the Palestinian refugees their Right of Return is, as everybody knows, the end of a Jewish majority population inside Israel and hence the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
- BDS denies that it opposes the existence of Israel. This is disingenuous because its demand for the Right of Return is equivalent to a demand that Israel (as a Jewish state) cease to exist.
- By demanding Right of Return and hence implicitly denying the right of Israel to exist, and in turn, therefore, demanding something that has nothing to do with demanding compliance with International Law, the BDS movement abandons the only appeal to the world’s people that can resonate with them—the appeal for compliance with International Law. This mistake by the BDS movement reflects its “silliness, childishness and a lot of leftist posturing.”
This argument by Finkelstein is not a single argument but actually two independent arguments blended together. It is an argument for the claim that the BDS movement is disingenuous. And it is, independently, an argument that the BDS movement has adopted a strategy that cannot succeed (a silly, childish, left-posturing strategy).
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I think Finkelstein has a point about the disingenuousness, but he’s wrong about the strategy not being able to succeed.
The reluctance of people in the BDS movement to state unambiguously that they oppose the existence of Israel (as a Jewish state) stems, ironically, from confusion about what is wrong with Finkelstein’s preoccupation with basing everything on International Law. To the extent that one feels obliged to argue strictly from International Law, it is indeed awkward to say forthrightly that Israel does not have a right to exist. So let’s examine Finkelstein’s key premise—that if one wants to successfully appeal to the world’s public then one must argue strictly from International Law.
This premise is absolutely false! Most people in the world don’t know what International Law says and certainly don’t base their opinions about what is right or wrong on whether something does or does not comply with International Law.
Most people in the world base their moral opinion on the Golden Rule and key principles that follow from it, such as equality and mutual aid (solidarity). People don’t necessarily articulate their moral beliefs explicitly in these terms, but these are the fundamental moral ideas that they are based upon. All of the world’s great religions embrace the Golden Rule (because if they did not they would not have any credibility.) The idea of equality is stated and defended in many different ways, but a very common one around the world is that all men are created by the same god.
Most people in the world understand that it is wrong to drive people off the land where they and their ancestors of many generations lived, and to refuse to let them return and live as equals with others under the law, just because they are not Jewish. Most people around the world, when they know the basic facts of the situation, have no problem understanding that the Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return, and if that means Jews are no longer a majority then so what! Most people agree that it is wrong for a state to discriminate against an ethnic group, and if its self-definition includes such discrimination then it has no right to exist. This is why people have no problem seeing that the Aryan Third Reich based on the master race theory, and the apartheid South African Government based on white superiority, and the American Confederacy based on slavery all had no right to exist. In Norm Finkelstein’s weird take on reality, however, most people would say that these racist states all had a right to exist because International Law does not say they don’t.
I think the BDS movement will gain strength from forthrightly explaining why Israel has no right to exist, because it defines itself as a Jewish state that must do whatever it takes (including ethnic cleansing) to ensure that Jews will always be at least an 80% (David Ben-Gurion’s figure) majority (Israeli Basic Law) of the Israeli population. It will also gain strength from recognizing, and appealing to, the moral values of most of the people of the world, and understanding that these values do not come from International Law.
International Law is the product of the world’s ruling elites. In the 1990s a huge global movement rose up against capitalism; it was often called the “Anti-Globalization” movement, and it explicitly opposed the World Trade Organization, which was a creature of International Law. International Law is designed to make the present world order—every nation ruled by a wealthy and privileged dominating elite—seem “fair and just” to the people of the world, and at the same time to provide a legal framework for the elites to dominate the people of the world. That is why International Law has aspects that seem positive and aspects that seem negative.
Finkelstein argues that if you’re going to base your claims on International Law then you can’t pick and choose which parts of it you obey and which parts of it you disobey. He’s right. And this is another reason why it is a big mistake to appeal to the authority of International Law. The Golden Rule and equality and mutual aid trumps International Law any day, and we should be forthright in saying so.