Professor Norman Finkelstein stormed UK campuses in the week to November 11, lecturing to packed auditoriums in London, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham on How to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict.
His main message was that since Israeli settlement, occupation and denial of rights to Palestinian refugees are all acknowledged as illegal under international law, the campaign on these points is as good as won.
He said that Tzipi Livni, when serving as Israel’s foreign minister, had declared:
“I’m a lawyer – and I’m against the law, international law in particular.”
She had good reason for saying that because under international law “Israel loses, on Jerusalem, on the West Bank and Gaza, on settlements and right of return for refugees,” said Finkelstein.
The relevance of this to the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) was teased out in discussion between Finkelstein and Professor Jonathan Rosenhead, chair of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) on Friday afternoon, Nov 11, at UCL.
Rosenhead opened with a review of the history of boycott as a weapon available to the weak oppressed by the strong, as in Ireland in the 1880s and in South Africa in 1960s-90s.
He said boycotts targeting Israel, begun in 2004, combine “symbolic protest, material intervention and political action.” The overall aim was ending the Israeli system of oppression, as called for by Palestinian civil society.
Rosenhead said freedom of expression in academia was a vital principle, but it was not absolute and could conflict with a higher principle, such as freedom and self-determination for an oppressed people.
Finkelstein said he supported the BDS campaign as a legitimate and potentially effective tactic. But he locked horns with Rosenhead and many in the audience when he argued that to go beyond goals that were enshrined in international law was to lose the possibility of reaching a broad public.
If your target is all Israeli institutions and your goal is an amorphous “system of oppression”, he said, the campaign may be morally pure, but it will be politically useless – a sect.
“The public will want to know, you are asking us to boycott until when? Until the Occupation ends, as defined in international law, or until Israel ends? If the latter, you will have no possibility of reaching beyond the people in this room,” Finkelstein said.
From the audience, Naomi Foyle of British Writers in Support of Palestine (BWISP) referred to the principles laid down by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), setting out the aims of BDS based on international law and human rights and including “dismantling the Israeli system of apartheid”.
She argued that Israel fits the United Nations definition of apartheid and that far from this position distancing us from the public, explaining the many ways in which Israel behaves like an apartheid state resonates within huge numbers of people.
Frank Barat, coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, read out the findings of the Tribunal session held last week in Johannesburg. The judgement said that Israel’s “rule over the Palestinian people, wherever they reside, collectively amounts to a single integrated regime of apartheid.”
Abe Hayeem, of Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine, said the boycott campaign laid considerable stress on the legal arguments when taking its message to the public. ”But governments don’t uphold the law, so civil society has to pressure Israel to come to its senses,” Hayeem said.
Tony Greenstein, anti-Zionist blogger and founding member of J-BIG, wrote later that Finkelstein’s focus on international law and institutions was misplaced.
Analysing Finkelstein’s evening lecture, Greenstein said: “Not once in his speech . . . did Norman Finkelstein mention the word ‘Zionism’. It is as if Israel magically appeared. As if its behaviour towards Palestinians is some form of aberration. As if the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is out of character. And as if Israel, once it hands back all the 1967 territories, will become a normal state.”
“The real task ,” Greenstein wrote, “is to de-Zionist Israel and the creation of one unitary, secular and democratic Israel/Palestine.”