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.
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