Debate: the Palestine solidarity movement and political strategy

By Jamie

10 October 2012

Very useful debate between Norman Finkelstein and Anna Baltzer, moderated by Adam Shatz, held last week at The New School in New York:

The thrust of the discussion, in which Norman and Anna took strongly opposed positions on several issues, focused on the appropriate political strategy for the Palestine solidarity movement, the implications of international law as an anchor for that strategy, and the issue of activist privilege, i.e. the extent to which solidarity activists ought to defer to Palestinians in setting the movement's political objectives. There was also some interesting disagreement on what the movement against apartheid in South Africa has to teach us, politically.

Both Norman and Anna gave very strong representations, though unfortunately the debate ended just as I felt they were about to really address the core disputes between them head on. Still, worth a watch.

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4 Comments on "Debate: the Palestine solidarity movement and political strategy"

By James Arnold, on 12 October 2012 - 01:36 |

Jamie: Out of interest, what more do you feel could be said beyond what Finkelstein and Balzer already covered?

For what it’s worth, in my judgement, Finkelstein was clearly right to insist on focusing on what is politically possible, which is essentially what corresponds to international law as determined by the main judicial bodies, human rights organisations and global opinion as expressed in the UN General Assembly. Again and again, Balzer kept avoiding this central point—the need for political realism—and as a result her position came across as quite weak from the perspective of what is actually attainable.

I should add, I think that Balzer’s book is very good, and that she has done an enormous amount to educate the American population about the reality of Israeli occupation. I hope that she and others like her can be persuaded to take a stance on the legality of the state of Israel (with the proviso that the Jewish identity of the state and discrimination against Palestinians in Israel are nevertheless to be opposed).

By JamieSW, on 12 October 2012 - 07:49 |

I share your sympathies in the debate, James. Though I do like Anna.

I felt like a couple of issues kept being raised either implicitly or explicitly that weren’t fully addressed. First, the issue of ‘privilege’ which Anna raised a couple of times: the claim being that if a large swathe of Palestinians mobilise behind a particular strategy or set of objectives, it is for American activists to do what they can to support them, and that’s it. Now as a strong claim I think this is clearly false - I could well imagine strategies that Palestinians could adopt, e.g. suicide bombings, that I would feel no obligation to support. But as a general principle the idea that people ought to be allowed to take the lead in struggling for their own rights is an appealing one. And while suicide bombings are objectionable in themselves, what if the question were changed to: do solidarity activists have an obligation to simply get behind any Palestinian strategy, if that strategy is legitimate in itself and is aimed at securing recognised Palestinian rights? (Like, for instance, BDS). The difficulty in this case comes from the fact that Palestinians don’t have the leverage on their own to overthrow the occupation, which means that it will be necessary, for any strategy to work, to get the ‘broad public’ in the US and Europe on side. This does inevitably meaning giving the latter significant consideration when shaping strategy, but I don’t see how that can be avoided.

A lot of this was left kind of implicit in what Anna and Norman said and I wish it had been laid out more systematically. Underpinning Norman’s argument was: if (1) Palestinians don’t have the leverage on their own to end the occupation, let alone any more expansive goals; (2) the support of a ‘broad public’ in the US and perhaps Europe is required, in addition to Palestinian resistance, to achieve an end to the occupation, and anything beyond that; and (3) a broad public will, at most, mobilise behind the international consensus two-state settlement and international law; then (4) solidarity activists should advocate for a two-state settlement based on international law. I guess Anna would contest (3), and add that in any case it’s not for us to be having these discussions in the first place.

The other issue was that of how public opinion changes. Norman of course argues on the basis of ‘international consensus’, ‘public opinion’, the ‘enlightened horizon of public opinion’ and so on. Anna’s response, which is a common one, is: sure, but public opinion changes doesn’t it? In this debate Norman didn’t reply to this, though I think he has talked about it in the past: how yes, public opinion and international consensus can change, but not randomly, and not quickly.  

By James Arnold, on 13 October 2012 - 00:48 |

Thanks for that Jamie. I agree with your spelling out of the differences between them, and what they each might say further in support of their positions.

Incidentally, I’m currently trying to organise a Norman Finkelstein talk in London for the 25th October. If everything goes according to plan, should be good!


By JamieSW, on 13 October 2012 - 08:37 |

Cool, that’ll be great. If/when it’s finalised do let me know and I’ll link to it on our twitter (and book myself a ticket).

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