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BDS Secrets

Ubiquitous anti-Israel activist Norman Finkelstein stirred up the blogosphere last week.  In a YouTube interview with pro-Palestinian advocate Frank Barat, Finkelstein said—in his aggressive, condescending way—that members of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), which Finkelstein has prominently supported, care less for human rights than they do for Israel's destruction.  When Finkelstein saw the reactions, rumor has it he tried to get Barat to take the video down. 

But Finkelstein's angry comrades didn't understand what he was really admitting.

Finkelstein got into trouble when he said that some people in BDS "don't want Israel."  He lectured his BDS colleagues: 

Stop trying to be so clever, because you're only clever in your cult.  The moment you step out, you have to deal with Israeli propaganda . . .  They say, "No, they're not really talking about rights; they're talking about they want to destroy Israel."  And in fact I think they're right, I think that's true.

In fact, Finkelstein said, it is "not an accident, an unwitting omission, that BDS does not mention Israel": They "know it will split the movement, because there's a large segment—component—of the movement that wants to eliminate Israel."

You can see why anti-Israel people were offended to hear this from Finkelstein, of all people.  Yet Finkelstein was not revealing some deep secret about the motives of those BDS-ers.  Anyone who has listened to their leaders, read their papers, seen them at play, or checked out their circle of acquaintances, supporters, and collaborators can hardly be surprised.

Finkelstein made his truly subversive comments elsewhere in the interview, and—perhaps not accidentally—they have provoked much less reaction from anti-Israel opinion.  BDS is "a cult," Finkelstein said:

And I personally, I'm tired of it. I went through my cult stage. I was a Maoist. . . .  I'm not going to be in a cult again. I'm not going through that stage again, with the gurus in Ramallah, you know, giving out marching orders. And then if you disagree, they say, "10,556,454 Palestinian civil society organizations have endorsed this."  

Who are these organizations?  They're NGOs in Ramallah, one-person operations, and they claim to represent what they call this thing, "Palestinian civil society." . . .  [T]hen why can't they ever organize a demonstration of more than 500 people? . . .  [They] represent absolutely nothing

The interviewer defended BDS, saying it was "attuned to the international community" rather than Palestinian groups.  "That, to me, is a problem," Finkelstein said:

If you're an indigenous organization in Palestine, you should be organizing your people, and it's our job, to organize from our side. I went through many solidarity movements. The Vietnamese never gave us marching orders. The Nicaraguans, the El-Salvadorians, they didn't tell you what to do. They organized their people. And as a solidarity movement abroad, we were supposed to make the judgment about how best to organize ourselves. And it's a very strange thing when the people there, who claim to be the leaders of civil society . . . can't organize a demonstration of 500 people among themselves, but they're telling everybody else abroad what to do.  That's a weird inversion.  

This, in my view, is the real dynamite.  Finkelstein is saying that one-man Palestinian non-governmental organizations in Ramallah are grossly misrepresenting themselves—and that they control BDS and other "international" human rights groups.  If I said these things, I would be branded an Israeli propagandist.  But Finkelstein knows them as an insider.  These are truths slipped out to us through the holes in the internet, and they can help us understand the grossly disproportionate amount of human rights activity in Israel.  

Let us begin with Finkelstein's accusation about the self-inflated one-man NGOs.  Why their proliferation?  The reason is money, lots of it.  

Here's how it works.  Many Palestinians have poor, hard lives—high birth rates, low job qualifications, few income sources.  Politically, they are caught between hammer and anvil: They are subject to both a traditionally Arabic "hamoola" system of lawless tribal power and the Palestinian Authority, which Finkelstein has called, not without reason, a "gang of corrupt, wretched collaborators."  Industries that bring in work and foreign money will thrive.

One such industry is international charity.  Large, mostly Western donations flow through a web of international organizations to fund the fight against Palestinian suffering, distress, and brutalization under Israeli occupation.  The more suffering, distress, and brutalization, the more money.  The army of one-man NGOs is the fruit of this incentive system.  If you're the first to report injustice by Jews to Palestinians, you attract the cash.  

So, low-level NGOs gather, report, and pay for these stories, true and false.   The stories are picked up by larger human rights NGOs, like Amnesty International, B'tselem, Gush Shalom, and Human Rights Watch, whose staffers are not too picky about including uncorroborated testimony in their reports.  The reports then go to UN agencies.  They become the "facts" of media coverage, public debate, further UN actions.  A story unearthed by a one-man NGO in Ramallah may reverberate throughout the international system.

If someone happens to double-check, he asks the same one-man Palestinian NGOs to supply the research.  There is little risk of exposure: The entire process, bottom to top, is controlled by anti-Israel personnel, many of whom are actually Palestinians.  Who was ever punished for fabricating allegations of Israeli human rights violations?  In sum, heavily relying on local Palestinians to supply information, this system of incentives rewards and propagates almost all stories without providing sanctions for fabrication.

This is terrible news for the good, concerned people who want to understand the reality of the occupation: One cannot tell the difference between a true and a false human rights report.  A hate industry manufactures the product; the West buys it, providing incentives for further production.  We know the most notorious examples: the Goldstone report, the "murder" of Muhammad Al-Durah, the alleged Jenin massacre.  But these are only symbols of a fabrication process that taints all human rights activity in Israel.   

Then there is Finkelstein's second accusation—that groups like BDS are effectively led by the "gurus in Ramallah."  It is true.  European politicians and human rights organizations make pilgrimages to Ramallah and provide loyal soldiers for the Palestinian propaganda war machine.  The real question is, why do we not hear about these relationships? 

There are two answers.  First, Palestinians think knowledge of these connections would tarnish their sympathetic image as weak, suffering victims.  Second, it is valuable to have international organizations wearing the mask of impartial observers while lending their authority to Palestinian claims.  Knowing the degree of Palestinian control over them would destroy this useful fiction.

It is this mask of impartiality that Finkelstein tore aside, revealing for a brief moment the tip of an iceberg—the Europeans, Americans, even Israelis who follow Palestinian "marching orders" while pretending to be free Western agents of truth and morality.  

The buck, Dr. Finkelstein, does not stop at the one-man Ramallah NGOs or the international organizations that support them.  The same "10,556,454 Palestinian civil society organizations" that you say represent "absolutely nothing" are the source of every report you have ever quoted in your attacks on Israel.  And the facts show that we should trust them just as much as you do when it comes to their self-portrayal. 

The Soviets named the country's only legal newspaper Truth (Pravda).  Soon enough, everyone knew you could find no truth in Truth.  In the Mideast, human right activists do the same disservice to the idea of human rights.

Ran Baratz, a Ph.D. in philosophy, is the executive director of the Tikvah-Bar Ilan summer program in political thought, economics, and strategy. 

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Empress Trudy on February 24, 2012 at 11:39 am (Reply)
Except that if you watch Finkelstein on any of his innumerable videos, including this one, it's clear that all he is quibbling about is the method of genocide, not its intent.
M. Singer on February 24, 2012 at 2:41 pm (Reply)
Sorry, but Finkelstein and other idiots like him are not worth being spoken or written about. Don't give publicity to such ill minds.
Donald R Berlin on February 24, 2012 at 5:41 pm (Reply)
I am already receiving Jewish Ideas Daily. This article is interesting and needs to be digested so that those who distort Israeli issues are held accountable.
dutch on February 24, 2012 at 10:23 pm (Reply)
Regarding the "'hamoola' system of lawless tribal power," see Brandeis University, Crown Center For Middle East Studies, Middle East Brief, Clans and Militias in Palestinian Politics, Prof. Dror Ze’evi: "If it is to succeed in establishing a functioning government and in concluding an agreement, the Palestinian Authority may find it necessary to ally itself with the families of the West Bank and Gaza . . . . Yet, we should also bear in mind that sharing power with the clans comes at a steep price. . . . The price of this cooperation will be a society that is more decentralized, more conservative, and inimical to the politics of individual rights.
Henry Tobias on February 25, 2012 at 4:48 am (Reply)
Ran Baratz writes that the "entire process" is "controlled by anti-Israel personnel, many of whom are actually Palestinians." However, it is the Israelis, Peace Now, and Jews like Finkelstein and Chomsky who do the most damage.
Paardestaart on February 25, 2012 at 6:10 am (Reply)
Thanks for the quote. The people in the west waxing ecstatic over Arab seasonal upheavals, be they spring or perfect storm, seem to have forgotten about the unavoidable downsides of tribalism. What professor Dror Ze´evi says goes for all of the Arab world and all other primitive societies.
David on February 26, 2012 at 8:51 am (Reply)
Interesting article. You have to look under the surface to see what lies in the heads of those anti-Israel protesters. Money is one thing. Fame is the other. The facts do not confuse them: They know very well that Israel is a country surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs who seek its complete annihilation. They know the Palestinians claim in public that Israel should be wiped out of the map. They know that every other day, rockets are launched into Israeli territory. They know the IDF prevents hundreds of terror attacks each year. They know that under those circumstances, Israel is the most moral country in the world. But instead of sending this message to the world, Finkelstein and his friends prefer to advance Israel's destruction.

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