Ubiquitous anti-Israel activist Norman Finkelstein stirred up the blogosphere last week. In a YouTube interview with pro-Palestinian advocate Frank Barat, Finkelstein said—in his aggressive, condescending way—that members of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), which Finkelstein has prominently supported, care less for human rights than they do for Israel's destruction. When Finkelstein saw the reactions, rumor has it he tried to get Barat to take the video down.
But Finkelstein's angry comrades didn't understand what he was really admitting.
Finkelstein got into trouble when he said that some people in BDS "don't want Israel." He lectured his BDS colleagues:
Stop trying to be so clever, because you're only clever in your cult. The moment you step out, you have to deal with Israeli propaganda . . . They say, "No, they're not really talking about rights; they're talking about they want to destroy Israel." And in fact I think they're right, I think that's true.
In fact, Finkelstein said, it is "not an accident, an unwitting omission, that BDS does not mention Israel": They "know it will split the movement, because there's a large segment—component—of the movement that wants to eliminate Israel."
You can see why anti-Israel people were offended to hear this from Finkelstein, of all people. Yet Finkelstein was not revealing some deep secret about the motives of those BDS-ers. Anyone who has listened to their leaders, read their papers, seen them at play, or checked out their circle of acquaintances, supporters, and collaborators can hardly be surprised.
Finkelstein made his truly subversive comments elsewhere in the interview, and—perhaps not accidentally—they have provoked much less reaction from anti-Israel opinion. BDS is "a cult," Finkelstein said:
And I personally, I'm tired of it. I went through my cult stage. I was a Maoist. . . . I'm not going to be in a cult again. I'm not going through that stage again, with the gurus in Ramallah, you know, giving out marching orders. And then if you disagree, they say, "10,556,454 Palestinian civil society organizations have endorsed this."
Who are these organizations? They're NGOs in Ramallah, one-person operations, and they claim to represent what they call this thing, "Palestinian civil society." . . . [T]hen why can't they ever organize a demonstration of more than 500 people? . . . [They] represent absolutely nothing.
The interviewer defended BDS, saying it was "attuned to the international community" rather than Palestinian groups. "That, to me, is a problem," Finkelstein said:
If you're an indigenous organization in Palestine, you should be organizing your people, and it's our job, to organize from our side. I went through many solidarity movements. The Vietnamese never gave us marching orders. The Nicaraguans, the El-Salvadorians, they didn't tell you what to do. They organized their people. And as a solidarity movement abroad, we were supposed to make the judgment about how best to organize ourselves. And it's a very strange thing when the people there, who claim to be the leaders of civil society . . . can't organize a demonstration of 500 people among themselves, but they're telling everybody else abroad what to do. That's a weird inversion.
This, in my view, is the real dynamite. Finkelstein is saying that one-man Palestinian non-governmental organizations in Ramallah are grossly misrepresenting themselves—and that they control BDS and other "international" human rights groups. If I said these things, I would be branded an Israeli propagandist. But Finkelstein knows them as an insider. These are truths slipped out to us through the holes in the internet, and they can help us understand the grossly disproportionate amount of human rights activity in Israel.
Let us begin with Finkelstein's accusation about the self-inflated one-man NGOs. Why their proliferation? The reason is money, lots of it.
Here's how it works. Many Palestinians have poor, hard lives—high birth rates, low job qualifications, few income sources. Politically, they are caught between hammer and anvil: They are subject to both a traditionally Arabic "hamoola" system of lawless tribal power and the Palestinian Authority, which Finkelstein has called, not without reason, a "gang of corrupt, wretched collaborators." Industries that bring in work and foreign money will thrive.
One such industry is international charity. Large, mostly Western donations flow through a web of international organizations to fund the fight against Palestinian suffering, distress, and brutalization under Israeli occupation. The more suffering, distress, and brutalization, the more money. The army of one-man NGOs is the fruit of this incentive system. If you're the first to report injustice by Jews to Palestinians, you attract the cash.
So, low-level NGOs gather, report, and pay for these stories, true and false. The stories are picked up by larger human rights NGOs, like Amnesty International, B'tselem, Gush Shalom, and Human Rights Watch, whose staffers are not too picky about including uncorroborated testimony in their reports. The reports then go to UN agencies. They become the "facts" of media coverage, public debate, further UN actions. A story unearthed by a one-man NGO in Ramallah may reverberate throughout the international system.
If someone happens to double-check, he asks the same one-man Palestinian NGOs to supply the research. There is little risk of exposure: The entire process, bottom to top, is controlled by anti-Israel personnel, many of whom are actually Palestinians. Who was ever punished for fabricating allegations of Israeli human rights violations? In sum, heavily relying on local Palestinians to supply information, this system of incentives rewards and propagates almost all stories without providing sanctions for fabrication.
This is terrible news for the good, concerned people who want to understand the reality of the occupation: One cannot tell the difference between a true and a false human rights report. A hate industry manufactures the product; the West buys it, providing incentives for further production. We know the most notorious examples: the Goldstone report, the "murder" of Muhammad Al-Durah, the alleged Jenin massacre. But these are only symbols of a fabrication process that taints all human rights activity in Israel.
Then there is Finkelstein's second accusation—that groups like BDS are effectively led by the "gurus in Ramallah." It is true. European politicians and human rights organizations make pilgrimages to Ramallah and provide loyal soldiers for the Palestinian propaganda war machine. The real question is, why do we not hear about these relationships?
There are two answers. First, Palestinians think knowledge of these connections would tarnish their sympathetic image as weak, suffering victims. Second, it is valuable to have international organizations wearing the mask of impartial observers while lending their authority to Palestinian claims. Knowing the degree of Palestinian control over them would destroy this useful fiction.
It is this mask of impartiality that Finkelstein tore aside, revealing for a brief moment the tip of an iceberg—the Europeans, Americans, even Israelis who follow Palestinian "marching orders" while pretending to be free Western agents of truth and morality.
The buck, Dr. Finkelstein, does not stop at the one-man Ramallah NGOs or the international organizations that support them. The same "10,556,454 Palestinian civil society organizations" that you say represent "absolutely nothing" are the source of every report you have ever quoted in your attacks on Israel. And the facts show that we should trust them just as much as you do when it comes to their self-portrayal.
The Soviets named the country's only legal newspaper Truth (Pravda). Soon enough, everyone knew you could find no truth in Truth. In the Mideast, human right activists do the same disservice to the idea of human rights.
Ran Baratz, a Ph.D. in philosophy, is the executive director of the Tikvah-Bar Ilan summer program in political thought, economics, and strategy.