Has Norman Finkelstein, long reviled in the Jewish community as a vitriolic hater of the Jewish state, morphed into a defender of Israel's legitimacy? And what does Finkelstein's newfound "moderation" say about the current state of the anti-Israel left, exemplified by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement?
Over the course of three decades, Finkelstein achieved superstar status on the anti-Zionist left by writing a myriad of books and articles in which he declared Israel to be "an insane state" and charged Elie Wiesel and other pro-Zionist Jews with exploiting the memory of the Holocaust as an "ideological weapon" in support of Israel.
Given that stormy history, it was strange to attend an unabashedly one-sided discussion last Saturday afternoon at the New School in Manhattan titled "The Jewish-American Relationship with Israel at the Crossroads," and to hear Finkelstein denounce the BDS movement for refusing to affirm Israel's right to exist within the 1967 Green Line border. Sitting next to him on the panel was Anna Baltzer, national organizer of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and a top leader in the BDS movement.
Finkelstein argued that the movement's failure to take a clear stance on that issue will prevent it from bringing aboard the growing number of young American Jews who, he believes, have concluded that Israel's occupation is morally wrong and must be ended.
But while the overwhelmingly anti-Israel crowd of about 500 heard Finkelstein out respectfully, they ardently applauded Baltzer when she argued that BDS movement is growing in strength and stature despite its unwillingness to take the steps Finkelstein demands; those include official embrace of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The talk, which was moderated by Adam Shatz, an editor at the London Review of Books, and which took place before the end of the Sabbath, was supposed to have also included anti-Zionist avatar Noam Chomsky, who cancelled because of laryngitis. The event seemed conceived as an opportunity for Finkelstein to showcase the argument laid out in his recently published book, "Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End" (Or Books). In it he argues that a critical mass of young American Jews have concluded that Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is morally indefensible and that many of them can be brought into the BDS movement on behalf of Palestinian rights — as long as the movement makes clear its commitment to Israel's survival.
However, the afternoon came to feel like a symbolic changing of the guard on the anti-Israel left.
Much of the audience appeared dubious of Finkelstein's moderation and enthralled with Baltzer; she is an articulate and attractive 33-year-old St. Louis native who turned sharply to the left and made pro-Palestinian advocacy her top cause after being disillusioned with what she saw in Israel during a Birthright Israel trip in 2000. Her polished speaking style served to temper the impact of her full-throated advocacy for the right of Palestinians to return to within the borders of pre-1967 Israel (code to pro-Israel supporters for the destruction of the Jewish state), and her defense of Palestinian-Americans and others who refuse to affirm the right of Israel to exist.
Finkelstein stirred controversy on the anti-Israel left in February, when he gave an interview to an anti-Israel blogger in which he attacked the BDS movement as a "hypocritical, dishonest cult" that tries to mask its advocacy for the destruction of Israel with pro-human rights rhetoric. He also said the movement falsely claims to have achieved major successes in convincing religious groups and municipalities to disinvest in Israel, when such successes have in fact been few and frequently reversed.
Yet Baltzer, who affirmed that Finkelstein and Chomsky, who has also criticized BDS, "paved the way for many of us today," nevertheless went on the offensive. She said that for them to demand that members of the BDS movement accept that their demands are unrealistic and should be scaled back, amounts to an expression of "privilege … that is wrong and unacceptable."
She characterized the BDS the movement as "inherently strategic, flexible, diverse and inclusive," and insisted it has achieved major successes. She cited a decision last month by the U.S. Quaker movement to disinvest in firms like Caterpillar and Veolia Environment, which provide services to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and Hewlett-Packard, which provides information technology services to the Israeli Navy.
Finkelstein charged BDS with "a glaring contradiction ... in saying they endorse international law, but take no position on Israel. International law has no ambiguity about the right of Israel to exist. You may not like international law in this case, but can't claim it is agnostic on Israel. Nor can you reach a broad public on that basis."
Baltzer countered: "BDS doesn't take a position on this because different organizations take different positions and that's OK. Either one state or two states is fine as long as there is end of the occupation, [affirmation] of the right of return and an end to discrimination against Palestinians inside [pre-1967] Israel."
While audience members seemed to prefer Baltzer's approach, their positions didn't break down neatly along generational lines.
Lucien Rothenstein, 29, who works at a domestic policy think tank in Manhattan, said that he has shifted from a position like that of Baltzer's to one resembling Finkelstein's. "While I have long believed that the one-state solution is the most just way to resolve the situation, I have come to understand that given the intractability of the conflict, the only way to evolve in the direction of one state would be first to implement the two-state solution."
Yet Matty Gleason, 70, a retired city school teacher, said, "While I've always been a fan of Norman Finkelstein and have read all his books, today I found myself supporting Anna's position. Norman was a little contentious, while I like the approach to the issue that Anna and the BDS movement are taking."