The lecture given on November 21st by Norman Finkelstein, a scholar, writer, and activist on the conflict in Palestine, was inconsistent in its arguments and demonstrated clearly the arbitrary limits of his “radical” politics. For most of his talk, Finkelstein did what he does best — questioning central premises of mainstream arguments on Israel and Palestine. He challenged the framing of major international condemnations of Israeli violence in Gaza, such as those of the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, which have tended to recognize an Israeli right to use proportional violence in self-defense while condemning specific instances of Israeli violence as disproportionate. Finkelstein argued persuasively that such debates over the proportionality of Israeli violence in Gaza are irrelevant from the perspective of international law. Israel's blockade of Gaza is illegal, so no degree of violence can lawfully be used to perpetuate it.
He found this same flaw in calls by such bodies for both sides of the conflict in Gaza to disarm or cease violence, stating that in such a situation international law requires only that the occupying power — Israel — cease violence, and affirms the right of an occupied people to pursue self-determination without prohibiting the use of violence in the struggle for self-determination. Through these points, Finkelstein forcefully demonstrated that such supposedly neutral institutions base their evaluations less on the objective principles and more on the subjective whims and powers of the parties involved. He further argued that discussion of these conflicts must not be so limited by apparent pragmatism that they lose sight of universal moral necessity.
Yet Finkelstein himself seemed to forget these lessons as soon as he finished defending them. The last portion of Finkelstein’s lecture dealt with changing American perspectives on Israel and potential solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Finkelstein argued that the responses to the most recent Gaza attack by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Sanders’ general campaign position on Israel and Palestine, represents a meaningful shift in American public opinion toward the conflict. Therefore, he proposes, anti-Zionists should moderate their positions to meet this shift and prepare to work alongside American governmental institutions for a brokered peace.
In short, he considers the current position of the progressive wing of the Democratic party — a skepticism toward current, largely unconditional, American aid to Israel, a broad humanitarian interest in immediate Palestinian well-being, and support for a brokered two-state solution — as the best set of goals the anti-Zionist movement could hope to achieve, the “limits of the possible,” in his own words. To maintain ultimate hope in a more radical and historically just outcome, one that threatens the fundamental logic of settler-colonialism and the nation-state, is merely a distraction from an opportunity organizers cannot miss.
In the question and answer period following his talk, Finkelstein elaborated upon this thesis. He dismissed the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a Palestinian-led effort to extract greater compliance with international law from Israel through economic pressure, as unpragmatic and insignificant to the conflict on the ground. He ridiculed broad opposition to settler-colonialism, claiming that no one in his audience would dismiss wholesale the legacy and founding principles of American settler-colonialism as irredeemable (many indeed would). He endorsed the framing on the part of American liberals of Israel as having progressive founding values from which it has strayed on some issues in recent years.
These remarks seem wholly inconsistent with Finkelstein’s main theses. If the current operating consensus of most international arbiters on Gaza is not a neutral, disinterested stance but one objectively invalidated by international law and universal morality, then why must the current operating consensus of mainstream American progressives be accepted as the only solution? Soon after calling for debates in Gaza to be determined objectively by international law, Finkelstein instructed anti-Zionist activists to respect “limits of the possible” subjectively determined by the current norms of the powers that be. He rebuked multiple international bodies, taking them to task for assuming the Israeli military's supposed right to self-defense in Gaza to be obvious and universally accepted without regard for the principle of international law which ought to determine their judgement. He then proceeded to assume the value of the founding ideals of settler-colonial states to be obvious and universally acknowledged by his audience without regard to the principles of anti-colonialism by which many in attendance do, in fact, abide.
Finkelstein’s conservatism on these issues is not an inevitable product of his age or temperament. However, it should not be entirely surprising either, and represents a phenomenon common enough that the contemporary left should understand it. At the start of his talk, Finkelstein made light of his youthful belief that the dictatorship of the proletariat was “imminent.” This is telling. Finkelstein’s generation of radicals came of age politically at a time when raid and immediate change, exemplified by the optimism of the New Left and the successes of the civil rights movement, seemed possible and realistic. This left many people largely unprepared for decades of disappointment as leftist movements around the world faltered and neoliberalism prevailed. Now, when the beginnings of a resurgent global left are apparent, Finkelstein unfortunately appears to have returned to the short-sightedness of his youth, placing practically all of his hope in the immediate victory of a progressive electoral movement.
Finkelstein’s essential problem is not that his audience of young activists are better equipped than he to estimate the “limits of the possible” for the near future, but that no political strategy so dependent upon such prognostication is very useful. The gradual shift in American public opinion, and thence American foreign policy, against unchecked Israeli expansion which Finkelstein predicts may come to pass, or it may not. In either case, the global anti-Zionist movement shouldn't be so caught up in temporal optimism or pessimism that we lose sight of our ultimate goal — an end to the current order of settler-colonialism and occupation. We must remain wary of anyone, whether a supposedly impartial arbiter of human rights or a supposedly radical activist, who seeks to tell us what is and is not possible.