Mainstreaming Finklestein

10.08.12

Not Trying To Cause A Big Sensation

Alan Dershowitz would have been disappointed. Not only did Dershowitz's occasional debating partner, Noam Chomsky, have to cancel his New School appearance on Saturday (laryngitis, we were told), but his adversary, the controversial scholar Norman Finkelstein, was positively mainstream in his own remarks. Those who are quick to vilify Finkelstein—variations on “self-hating Jew” represent the typical charge—might do well to listen again.

Despite Chomsky's absence, The New School's Tishman Auditorium was filled to capacity for an event billed as “The Jewish-American Relationship with Israel at the Crossroads." While perhaps presumptive in its definitiveness—i.e. "the Crossroads"—the panel name was inspired by the subtitle of Finkelstein's latest book, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel Is Coming to an End.

Finkelstein played the role of the jaundiced radical, continually calling for practical measures (June '67 borders, respect for international law, etc.) and claiming that vague discussions of Jewish peoplehood and the definition of Zionism are unproductive.

“Politically I don't see any utility in talking about Zionism these days,” he said. “Most people think Zionism is a hair spray.”

Finkelstein appeared alongside Anna Baltzer, a Jewish-American activist for Palestinian rights and author of "Witness in Palestine." Both Finkelstein and Baltzer took to a podium to speak before settling down at a panelists' table. The two represented a generational contrast: Baltzer is in her early thirties and more immersed in the Palestinian scene than Finkelstein, whose scholarship has focused on Jewish-American treatment of Israel and the Holocaust.

Baltzer, contra Finklestein's pragmatism, was comfortable with postmodern abstractions, tending to speak a bit airily, though with a great deal of conviction. She spoke forcefully about lobbying for Palestinian rights but rarely about which rights. She claimed that “Jewish voices eclipsing Palestinian” ones represented “a dangerous phenomenon.” She offered some clarification, adding that some ostensibly sympathetic audiences tell her that they find Jewish narratives more credible than those from Palestinians. But, she also announced that “the traditional gatekeepers of the conversation are in crisis.” She believes that the BDS movement, which she supports, had succeeded in changing public discourse about Israel and Palestine.

Finkelstein might agree with Baltzer that the terms of public conversation about Israel and Palestine are shifting—Finkelstein's "Knowing Too Much" claims that American Jews are too aware of conditions on the ground to ignore Israeli human rights abuses—but he has no patience for BDS or its leadership.

“There are many versions of BDS out there,” Finkelstein said, before lambasting the movement for refusing to take a stand on the existence of Israel. It's this agnosticism, he argued, that leaves BDSers open to accusations that they want to see the country destroyed. He also criticized the movement for celebrating when Qatari authorities canceled a performance by Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

“Is Daniel Barenboim the enemy now?” Finkelstein asked.

I found Finkelstein convincing on this, particularly when Baltzer offered bromides like, “I don't think it's my role to advocate for a particular solution. I don't have the same stake in it as Palestinians and Israelis.” For someone who's invested much time in meeting with Palestinians and Israelis and surveying the region, this seems like an unnecessary abdication.

While he has long supported a “lower-case BDS,” Finkelstein places his rhetorical energy behind reaching a broad public, which he calls “my only criterion, my only concern.” He believes that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is clear: one grounded in international law, along the June 1967 borders, with equal land swaps as laid out in past negotiations. He continually refers to the international consensus and cites the International Court of Justice as the ultimate legal authority on the subject.

The problem with enacting this solution, Finkelstein claims, is that the Occupation is currently “cost-free” for Israel—European funds run the PA, the PA polices its people, and the U.S. helps maintain the political status quo. Unless there is a change in the “calculus of costs,” he believes, the Israelis will not feel any impetus towards ending the Occupation.

There is an unexpected pragmatism in Finkelstein's arguments, standing in contrast with some of his past statements on Israel. Perhaps he has borne his political battles roughly—certainly he has paid a price for his iconoclasm, from his difficulty in obtaining his PhD at Princeton to the denial of his tenure bid at DePaul. Indeed, Finkelstein spoke with a knowing sarcasm about “what's left of my career.” And while he still quotes Mao (“Unite the many to defeat the few”), he does so with dripping irony; his revolutionary instincts have been sublimated into a relentless drive for what is possible, rather than what might be ideal.

This, though, strikes me as a return to Finkelstein's roots as a political scientist, one who made his name first by embarking upon a thorough, empirically minded deconstruction of Joan Peters' book "From Time Immemorial," which had cherry-picked and manipulated demographic evidence to claim that most Palestinians were recent arrivals to the region. Almost thirty years later, deracinated, unaffiliated with any institution, Finkelstein is once again focused on details, on practical ends. It's that mindset that allows him to praise Baltzer on one hand—and to affirm that his friendship with her is unshakeable—and then to scabrously criticize her forays into questions of Zionism and identity politics.

“This is not a debating society,” Finkelstein declared, sounding almost exasperated. “This is politics, this is people's suffering.”

Finkelstein still retains some of his habitual bluntness, which—along with the long list of antagonists he's accrued—may yet keep him out of the mainstream of American Jewry. For example, his comments included jabs at Israel's "egregious illiberalism" and its "ethnic chauvinism," and he quoted a scholar who claimed that none of Israel's wars, with the possible exception of its 1948 War of Independence, were wars of necessity. (He offered no elaboration.)

But it's hard not to think that Finkelstein and some portion of the Jewish-American public are on converging vectors. Finkelstein's message has become more tightly focused—his emphasis on appealing to a broad public and his repeated calls to return to the '67 borders practically constitute a stump speech—and he displays a wit that builds off of his obvious cynicism. "Until recently most American Jewish scholarship on Israel read like Leon Uris' Exodus with footnotes," he crowed. Later, he quipped, "Israel has been a stage on which American Jews have played out their fantasies of toughness—often from Martha's Vineyard."

It may be braggadocio, but these are the sort of remarks that win over a crowd. On Saturday, they responded with eager laughter and applause. Finkelstein only narrowed his eyes; he didn't smile.