Norman Finkelstein Visit to Los Angeles, March 2010

Norman Finkelstein visited Los Angeles in mid March 2010 to deliver a lecture to the Students for Justice in Palestine at USC on his new book "This Time We Went Too Far" about last winter's Gaza bombardment, and to do a Q&A after a screening of "American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein." Finkelstein's comments during the Q&A were elaborated during a private meeting with LA Jews for Peace. This summary of Finkelstein's visit is divided into five parts: (1) Finkelstein's chief points about the Gaza Bombardment, (2) Finkelstein's take on, and advice about, the present political situation in fighting for justice and peace, (3) Rick Chertoff's optimistic viewpoint based on Finkelstein's comments, (4) Duncan MacKay's detailed summary of Finkelstein's talk about the Gaza Bombardment, and (5) Dick Platkin's critique of Finkelstein's world view.

Main Points from Finkelstein’s USC Talk about the Gaza Bombardment. In many ways Finkelstein's talk was a summary of the Goldstone and other Human Rights reports on the Gaza Bombardment.

What we learned from Norman Finkelstein; Summary of Comments on the Struggle for Justice and Peace

Rick Chertoff’s View Based on Finkelstein’s Comments.

First, since last week the prospect of a seismic shift in US-Israel relations is possible. AIPAC has climbed out on a limb ignoring the question of Israeli ethnic cleansing and blatant arrogance in a) endangering US troops, and b) insulting an American Vice President on a State visit; Unprecedented. In light of this new volatility all bets are off. Also, I don’t think it is correct to state that Norman “believes” in a Palestinian state. I think he finds it effective to take a position in accord with accepted norms, such as the consistent US and internationally accepted principles and agreements, as a way of conducting a rational discourse with which reasonable people can agree. Talking about his discourse in terms of “belief”, or calling him a “nationalist” misses the point; he is proposing a solution that IS possible, even if there are grave difficulties with it. Those difficulties could be surmounted given the right conditions. For example, if the US says “no more settlements or no more money” /political support, all kinds of things might become possible.

Regarding “technically removing the settlers”, there are many ways to skin a cat; for example, Israel withdraws to its border and the settlers can become part of Palestine, with rights guaranteed but based on equality. If they don’t like it they can leave. The army would not need to be involved. That whole business of the soldiers pulling people out was for show anyway- just another Israeli Kabuki dance.

Summary of Norman Finkelstein March 11, 2010 lecture at the University of Southern California
By Duncan MacKay

The occasion of Finkelstein’s talk was the eve of the publication of his new book This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion. He addressed the two latter rubrics—truth and consequences—in turn, and finished with recommendations for strategies in advocacy. In the truth section he counterposed the dominant conception of the lead-up/invasion against the contrary findings in the documentary record as rendered by elements of the Israeli press, human rights groups and, crucially, the Goldstone Commission. His review of consequences notably featured an acceleration of the shift in American and particularly Jewish-American public opinion, plainly a topic of primary concern for members of LA Jews for Peace. His discussion of strategy emphasized learning and dispassionate dissemination of the factual record on the Israel-Palestine conflict.


Finkelstein reviewed the dominant (in the media, commentary and so on) narrative of the lead-up to and rationale for the attack on Gaza, which is as follows. In 2005 Israel under PM Ariel Sharon’s newly formed Kadima party evacuated Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza as a goodwill gesture to the Palestinians. Despite Israel’s magnanimity, Palestinians voted for the Islamic terrorist organization Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections. In 2007 Hamas staged a violent coup d’etat in Gaza and began rocketing nearby Sderot and Ashkelon, in response to which Israel put necessary controls in place to stem the flow of weapons into the territory. Smuggling tunnels from Egypt allowed Hamas the materials to continue rocketing. After repeated warnings Israel, its diplomatic options exhausted, was reluctantly compelled to go to war in Gaza to put a halt to the rocketing.

Finkelstein then offered an opposing analysis of this period, largely sourced from the Israeli press. In this analysis, Israel removed settlers and soldiers from inside of Gaza in a strategic decision to facilitate consolidation of its control over the West Bank. Palestinians, frustrated by the PA’s incompetence and corruption through the Oslo years and the Second Intifada, voted for Hamas in parliamentary elections widely seen as free and fair. Israel greeted the election result by imposing a blockade on Gaza. In 2007 Hamas foiled an attempted putsch by the PA and wrested full control of Gaza, and Israel’s blockade intensified, depriving Gaza’s population the essentials of living. Hamas began rocketing Israel as a desperate but nonetheless criminal protest against Israel’s blockade and the international community’s effective consent for it. In June 2008 a ceasefire was established, the parameters of which were that Hamas would discontinue the rocketing and Israel would gradually ease the blockade. Hamas was careful to adhere to the ceasefire terms in the following months; Israel did not ease its blockade. On November 4 as America was consumed with the election of Barack Obama, Israel launched a strike against Gaza, killing six militants. Hamas responded by renewed rocket attacks, but repeated offers to renew the ceasefire if Israel were to implement its previous commitments with regard to the blockade. Israel rebuffed the ceasefire offers, demanding unilateral cessation by Hamas. Israel then launched its invasion on December 27.

As for a rationale for the invasion, Finkelstein posited that it Israel sought to increase its “deterrence capacity”. He pointed to an Israeli official’s earlier remarks extolling the region’s “fear of [Israel]”, which had eroded substantially after Israel’s failure to route Hezbollah in 2006.

Regarding the invasion itself, the centerpiece of Finkelstein’s remarks was an examination of the term “war” as applied to the events of December 27 to January 18. Those events, he said, have been referred to as a “war” by the virtually all press, by Israeli and Western officialdom, and so on. The term “war”, he argued, has been applied to the Gaza invasion propagandistically rather than descriptively. He pointed out that while “war” suggests a battlefield in which two opposing military antagonists are fighting, this does not reflect the actual character of Gaza invasion.

The statistics Finkelstein listed in support of this were dramatic. On the Palestinian side, approximately 1,400 people were killed between December 27 and January 18, the majority of whom were civilians, 400 of whom were children. Six thousand homes were destroyed. On the Israeli side, thirteen people were killed, ten of whom were combatants, four by “friendly” (Israeli) fire, and one home was damaged.

Finkelstein quoted accounts by Israeli soldiers highlighted by the Breaking the Silence campaign. Here the soldiers described the violence as nearly uniformly one-sided. Rather than two military powers confronting one another, the Gaza invasion felt like “hunting season”, or like “a Play Station [computer] game”. One soldier said he felt like a child with a magnifying glass burning ants. There were complaints of boredom for lack of enemy; there was simply no return-fire.

On contrast, Finkelstein continued, the violence coming from the Israeli side was described by Israeli soldiers as utterly overwhelming. Repeatedly in Breaking the Silence testimonies, soldiers described Israeli fire power as “insane”, so intense that Israeli soldiers were ordered to vacate their commandeered Palestinian home because the quite distant Israeli shelling was causing the home to shake and it risked collapse.

Finkelstein pointed out that the rocketing from Gaza into Israel during this period (December 27 to January 18), whatever its moral level, was of an ambiguous legal status. Due to Israel’s indiscriminate targeting of civilians in Gaza, the rocketing from Gaza into Israel constituted “belligerent reprisal”. There is no consensus position on the legality of belligerent reprisal; some states, The United States for example, maintain that the practice is legal (although the US did not vocalize this position with regard to Hamas’s rocketing of Israel).

With regard to the “war” from the air, said Finkelstein, complete one-sidedness in violence obtained. Israel flew approximately three thousand sorties (combat missions) during the Gaza invasion. Not one plane was downed, he pointed out, and not one was damaged.

With so much fire power directed at Gaza and virtually no enemy fighting back, Finkelstein posed, what was Israel taking aim at? Finkelstein recited what was destroyed during “hunting season”: medical facilities; mosques (particularly the minarets which due to their narrowness could have only symbolic—not military—significance); factories; farmland; police stations; ambulances, homes; and humans. In short, summarized Finkelstein quoting the Goldstone report, it was aimed to “punish, humiliate and terrorize” Gaza’s civilian population.

Finkelstein next turned to the media coverage of human rights violations during the war, drawing upon a variety of press and commentary which accused Hamas alone of violations including use of human shields, use of ambulances and mosques for military purposes. In opposition to these claims Finkelstein cited the Goldstone Commission, which “found no evidence” that Palestinian combatants mingled with the civilian population with the intention of shielding themselves from attack, or that mosques were used store weapons as had been repeatedly claimed. As for the claim that Israel’s targeting of multiple ambulances was due to their being used illegally by Hamas combatants, Finkelstein again cited the Goldstone Commission which “did not find any evidence…that ambulances were used to transport combatants or for other military purposes”.


Finkelstein detailed the consequences incurred by Gazans in the Israeli attack, which are briefly sampled above, which have been unsurprisingly catastrophic and are doubtless well-known to members of LA Jews for Peace.

However he discussed additional consequences, ones he said should hearten the activist community and which suggest directions for strategy. The main theme of these additional consequences was that “this time [Israel] went too far,” that Israel’s attack on Gaza was a tipping point for a large swath of public opinion—in particular Jewish-American public opinion, particularly among young people—who can no longer bear to support Israeli policy. (The phrase “This time we went too far” is from a column by Ha’aretz reporter Gideon Levy who was writing in support of the Goldstone report in hopes that the report would lead to change within Israel.)

Major factors in this shift of public opinion, Finkelstein proffered, have been the Goldstone report and in particular Goldstone himself. Finkelstein pointed out that Jews in the United States are overwhelmingly liberal—that they respect the rule of law. In this context he noted that Goldstone, a “distinguished jurist” with extensive experience also happens to be a Jew and an avowed Zionist who has “supported Israel and its people all [his] life,” and therefore cannot be easily dismissed as anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, or other inappropriate criticisms deployed by American Jewish organizations seeking to discredit critics of Israel. Finkelstein estimated that this explains the hysterical tone of criticism of Goldstone in Israel and among Israel’s “so-called supporters” in America.

This is therefore an opportune moment, Finkelstein continued, for activists to advance a dialog with people from groups who have traditionally supported Israeli policy, and we should do so using the lexicon of international law. It should be borne in mind that international law is not itself an instrument which will compel Israel; rather, international law is a framework of discussion which appeals to liberals, including Jews, and is a solid tool in effectuating the change in popular consciousness that is the prerequisite for political change.

Finkelstein recommended intellectual rigor and emotional sobriety when addressing supporters of Israeli policy. He acknowledged the difficulty that we all experience from time to time when we encounter people who distort the record, deliberately or not. As an antidote to this kind of frustration, Finkelstein advised carefully reviewing and memorizing the broad important facts relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict, explaining that a usually portion of that frustration is attributable to our inability to readily and factually refute misrepresentations by others.

Finkelstein finished his lecture with his trademark encouragement that if we hold on to principles of truth and justice, “we can win.”

Dick Platkin's Critique

    To evaluate Norman Finkelstein’s presentations in Los Angeles in March 2010, including the showing of a new documentary on his life, we should contrast Dr. Finkelstein’s “realistic” and "pragmatic" two state position based on international law to what other analysts have to say on the same questions.

  1. FACTS ON THE GROUND: Both Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and Meron benVenisti, scholar and former Jerusalem Deputy Mayor, argue that the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem is so far advanced that a viable, sovereign Palestinian state is no longer possible because of “facts on the ground.” Diana Buttu, Ramallah-based Palestinian journalist and attorney, also says these facts on the ground, not any deep political ideology, are pushing some Palestinian intellectuals toward a one state solution in which Israeli citizenship would be granted to West Bank residents (and presumably to Gaza) after a determined civil rights struggle. While references to the Geneva Conventions and UN resolutions going back to the original partition plan are historically important, they have no enforcement authority to change the occupation’s hard reality.

  2. UNIQUE POWER OF THE U.S. GOVERNMENT TO RESOLVE THE CRISIS: Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center and Columbia University Middle East historian Rashid Khalidi argue that the only external force capable of ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem is the U.S. government. Therefore, -- at least according to Waskow -- this is primarily where political criticisms, mobilizations, and pressure should be placed. Based on this view, the focus of organizing should be to change U.S. government policy towards Israel and Palestine, not abstract appeals to international law.

  3. CLASS INEQUALITY: Diana Buttu also says that political formulas, whether one-state or two-state, which ignore the role of economic inequality and control are bound to lead to a South Africa solution. As Norman pointed out, the end of South African apartheid has ushered in greater not less economic (class) inequality because underlying economic issues were not addressed. Norman, however, seems to leave this important point hanging. He does not address the obvious corollary, that a new Palestinian state or a smaller Israeli state would not, in themselves, address the class question. They would continue to be economically stratified and politically dominated by foreign investors and meddling outside powers, at this point the United States. Any program of national self-determination which ignored the economic question would, therefore, have little real substance.

  4. NATIONALISM: Israeli historian Shlomo Sand argues that nationalism of all types is a modern political creation constructed by nationalist scholars and advocates. His case study is Zionism, but he quotes much new scholarship on nationalism to demonstrate that there is nothing unique about the creation of Zionism. Therefore, I think it worth examining some changes in Norman's position on nationalism. In a talk at UC Berkeley in the middle of this decade he made it clear that he was a lefty who had no personal interest in nationalism. Now, five years later, in public and in private, he is a strong advocate of the right of national self-determination (i.e., a political concept whose clearest advocate was Pres. Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Peace Treaty after the end of WWI!) for both Israelis and Palestinians. Norman's former internationalist outlook appears to have morphed into bourgeois nationalism without the dubious claim that anti-colonial nationalism is a transitional stage to socialism or to a "no-state" Middle East Union (Jeff Halper, Uri Avnery, Oren Yiftachel).

    One implication of Norman’s increased emphasis on separate nationalisms is that it is at odds with LA Jews for Peace support of movements and individuals who are dedicated to making greater connections between Israelis and Palestinians (ICAHD, Ronit Avni, Sabeel, etc.), to break down the exclusive nationalism welling up on each side. In this regard we have repeatedly said our organization is dedicated to building bridges, not walls, even if they are self-imposed.

    Furthermore, Norman makes it clear that his overall position is based on drawing the correct lessons from the Holocaust, especially anti-racism. But, another lesson from the Holocaust, the perils of nationalism and patriotic flag waving, as evidenced by both Germany and Israel, is an obvious Holocaust lesson which Norman rejects.

  5. IMPERIALISM: Rashid Khalidi argues that the Middle East, both historically and at present, has been more heavily penetrated and militarized by outside imperial forces that any other part of the world. This stems from its central geography, as well as the current importance of its vast oil and gas resources. Khalidi also argues that the different regions and issues in the greater Middle East are increasingly connected politically and militarily, as evidenced this week by Gen. Patraeus’s report to General Mullen that U.S. efforts to militarily occupy Iraq and Afghanistan are undercut by Israeli expansionism. On one hand, we have no doubt that this is the same position advocated by Walt and Mearsheimer in The Israel Lobby, and that it could be a critical development in undercutting long-term U.S. government support for Israel. On the other hand, Norman’s only comment on the role of outside powers competing to dominate the Middle East’s resources, as well as to successful challenges to U.S. hegemony, is that Walt and Mearsheimer exaggerated the power of the Israel lobby over U.S. foreign policy. These enormous historical events, rapidly unfolding before our eyes, are peripheral to his analysis.

  6. Bottom line: Norman is an extremely bright, engaging, and informed advocate of the two-state position, but his claim that his approach is driven by pragmatism is not based on the current realities of the Middle East. While his position is obviously effective for disarming conservative Zionist critics of his lectures on college campuses, he excludes so many critical factors from his analysis that I don’t its long-run usefulness as the Middle East becomes further enveloped in energy wars. His liberal appeals to international law are increasingly oblique to real world events.

    While I am not sure how Norman’s position will evolve in response to these regional trends, we should remember that his broad political outlook apparently grows from early political exposure to the politics of the old left. In the documentary on his life, the juxtaposition of his Paul Robeson (a CPUSA leader) records, book on Ben Davis (a NYC politician who was in the CPUSA), and his Marx quotation to his current focus on nationalism, public opinion and lobbying of politicians in Washington, and international law is a perfect fit. His current outlook is totally consistent with what, presumably, was his early political education. It is also doubtful that it will change.