VIDEO: Norman Finkelstein’s harsh words for the BDS “cult”

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Harsh, harsh words. Finkelstein has never been important to me and this video is the first time I’ve seen or heard him. Here, he expresses some surprising and intense frustration at what he perceives as the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement’s “dishonest” and “cult” behavior.

In this interview, Finkelstein faults his BDS-sympathetic interviewer for a failure of pragmatism. By not taking a position on Israel, he charges, the BDS movement has foolishly taken a very public stand against a “non-starter” of the general public: the State of Israel’s survival as the homeland of Jews. If they don’t believe in a state of the Jews, he repeats, then the movement should just say so. It will remain hypocritical and irrelevant, but at least it won’t be dishonest. The international community has established through law the State of Israel, which the BDS movement silently opposes. Finkelstein doesn’t impune their methods or their morality, but their dishonesty. He says if the movement wants to be effective in persuading the broad global public, then it should continue to boycott, divest and sanction but only as far as forcing Israel to reach a two-state compromise.

Those of us in the mutually pro-Israel, pro-Palestine camp have always felt this about the pro-Israel right-wing and the pro-Palestinian left-wing: the ideologues on both sides are willingly intellectually dishonest and morally single-sided. Pro-Palestinian advocates, like pro-Israel boosters, selectively view international law and morality, often ignoring how ethnic conflicts the world over are solved in common practice.

I think about this often. I’m not someone that’s comfortable with ethnic nationalism, of any stripe. But philosophically, either you believe in collective rights or you don’t. Nationalism is one form of collective rights. Opposing collective rights requires the upending of whole canons of international law. It is a major plank of global legal adjudication. Law that those of us who care for Palestinian independence rely upon inseparably for its statehood and a redress of Palestinian life and property losses in 1948 and 1967.

There is indeed a tension between collective rights and individual rights, one that frustrates anybody who cares about justice for individuals. But successfully solving ethnic conflict usually requires “class action” solutions where often millions of competing individual claims are resolved en masse, albeit imperfectly. For example, many survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants never reclaimed their personal property from European governments, but Germany and European nations paid massive reparations to the State of Israel and Jewish global communities. Likewise, many Palestinians will not receive back their homes in Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem and some 200+ villages across Israel, but will receive other compensation. (Same with Jews expelled from Arab nations.) That is the inevitable compromise between these two negotiating bodies.

If one believes in collective rights, then one must stand behind the decision of the UN to partition two states for two peoples. One must also recognize that the State of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization were established as the collective bargaining entities of the two parties — Jews and Palestinians. And while one can organize to support a fair, stable deal between these two unequal parties, there is no way around that basic formulation. And if one does not believe in collective rights, then use of international law and its deliberations selectively is willfully hypocritical.

Oh look, it’s Alexander Hamilton

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Living in New York includes such weird moments as walking between meetings and passing a 300-year-old graveyard with America’s founding fathers buried there. In the midst of the Financial District’s skycrapers and under the shadow of the Freedom Tower construction. Poignant.

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Parshat Vayehi: Finding wholeness in a new minyan and a new (elections) year

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To better understand the Jewish scriptures cycle and my approach to my sermonizing versus my blogging, see my— explanation. This dvar Torah on Parshat Vayehi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) first delivered on January 6, 2012 at the second gathering of a new traditional, egalitarian minyan in Prospect Heights/Crown Heights.

I felt a need for more wholeness this Shabbat. We’re starting this new, as-yet-unnamed minyan in Prospect Heights; it’s a new year. And it’s an elections year, which always feel so divisive. So wholeness perhaps we can find in this week’s Torah parsha (Bible reading).

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Parshat Vayehi is the very last in the book of Genesis. The setting is Egypt years after Joseph of the Technicolor coat has risen to Pharoah’s vizier and been reunited with his brothers and his father Jacob, as Jacob utters his last wishes. Jacob’s final words are some of the most clever Hebrew poetry in the scriptures – and more cutting than reality TV elimination rounds. He bitterly denounces his least favorite sons, bestows blessings his favorites, and even promotes his favorite grandchildren above some of his own sons. Talk about family drama. Afterwards, the brothers take his body to Hebron for burial, where they and Joseph reaffirm that they’ve genuinely put aside that whole slavery business. The parsha concludes with Joseph’s passing, who asks too to be buried in Israel.

This parsha is about nationhood as much as it is about family. Scholars say Jacob’s screed (slash) loving blessing seems actually written in the time of the book of Judges – a period hundreds of years later — and is more likely a view of how 12 disparate tribes saw each other: quarrelsome, feuding, uncertain what they shared except common lineage, but genuinely hungry for a sense of unity. It was written to castigate the rights and wrongs of a divided political system of the day – perhaps also, to instigate a better day.

Two parts of the story are cited for that thesis, both vignettes I find moving:

In the penultimate scene, the brothers freak out that Joseph may now take revenge. Imagine this, the Grand Vizier of the Middle East’s superpower accompanies the body of his long-lost father from the metropolises of Egypt to the farm fields of Canaan. He returns, a midrash elaborates, along the very same route that slave traders carried him. He is reliving his own life in reverse.

His brothers see him standing alone thinking and come to investigate. Lo and behold, what did Joseph find to cause him to stop? The pit. Joseph had stumbled across the pit into which his brothers had thrown him. The brothers fear that he is consumed with anger. But instead of revenge, he was reflecting on the unexpected twists in life that had enabled him to save his family from famine.

The other allusion to tribal reconciliation is when Jacob offers his blessings to Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. The rabbis say it no accident that this is the first time in the Torah when the younger brother gets the better blessing without starting a new feud.

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To conclude, this year we establish this new minyan. So far we are still coming into clarity about who we are, disparate elements yet to be a whole. We want for this sacred space a reflection of what we want of our country: welcoming, egalitarian, altruistic, diverse, inspiring, spiritual without coercion, educated without elitism, value-driven without dogma.

And while we’d all like our particular American tribe – or alliance of tribes, as party politics feels these days – to get the better blessing in November, we know that we need no new feuds. We know that often history is driven by unseen and ineffable forces that surprise us with unexpected twists. And that we’re hungry for a day where there is more unity between all the tribes.

It’s Shabbes. It’s the day of wholeness. And in this space, we build a home that is like the one we wish to see out there. Thank you for joining us tonight and Shabbat shalom.