Thanks for Nothin’ Norman

Boy, when you start sounding like Norman Finkelstein (or, more specifically, when Norman Finkelstein starts sounding like you), it’s clearly time to retire.

By now, my regular reader will have heard that Finkelstein, the bad boy of the Israel-hating network, has lashed out against BDS, condemning it as a “cult” (more specifically, a dishonest, marginal cult that has no hope of swaying public opinion).

On one hand, I could hardly agree more than BDS is the biggest loser tactic anti-Israel advocates could pick (which kind of makes this site counter-productive since the best thing for the Jewish state would be to see the Israel dis-likers double down on this failed strategy for another decade or three).  And while I choose the word “fantasist” to describe those who dwell on Planet BDS, a land where some unknown food co-op on the other side of the country removing Israeli ice cream cones from their shelves represents imminent victory over the dreaded Zionist entity, the term “cult” (as well as Finkelstein’s overall description) certainly describes the BDS phenomenon adequately.

Now if I followed BDS Rhetorical Strategy 101, I would scream across the Internet “BDS must be a loser – see even Norman Finkelstein say so!”  But as much emotional satisfaction there is to be had in seeing the gander getting the same sauce as the goose, I just can’t bring myself to score cheap points if it means drawing Norman Finkelstein even an inch closer.

You see, Mr. Finkelstein (or, should I say, Professor Finkelstein – well, Associate Professor anyway – meowwww) is probably best thought of as the ultimate anti-Israel hack.

Leveraging a legacy he in no way contributed to (as the son of Holocaust survivors) Finkelstein wanders the world, seeking to win for himself the mantle (given up by Israel Shahak upon his death) as the planet’s most Israel-loathing Jew.

In the early phase of his career, he hit upon a technique to generate headlines by turning himself from Dr. Norman Finkelstein to “the controversial Dr. Norman Finkelstein” by attacking the work of Harvard Professor Daniel Goldhagen whose 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners fingered the German populace for active involvement in the Holocaust (vs. simple complicity or fellow victimhood at the hands of the Nazis).  As you can imagine, Finkelstein’s rebuttal tome-ette A Nation on Trial was a big hit in Deutschland, particularly among audiences who didn’t care much that Finkelstein’s “research” was conducted without review of any actual source material (given that Herr Professor is not only NOT an historian, but doesn’t’ read a word of German).

I bring up sources since Finkelstein’s one contribution to scholarly technique grew directly out of Microsoft’s decision to add the “Insert Table” command to Word, allowing him to grab a snippet of a quote from his victim’s work (ripped entirely out of context, of course), place it in a table column alongside an equally edited damning counter-quote, with Fink’s self-serving interpretation appearing in the third column.

Norman tried the same tricks on Alan Dershowitz years later, accusing him of plagiarism as well as bad scholarship and fraud.  Unfortunately for him, Mr. Dershowitz was unwilling to roll over and play dead and instead lashed right back, accurately tagging Finkelstein with terms that resonate with the brief bio I’ve provided on this blog.

Having failed to achieve tenure at any university, Norman now walks the earth, trying to find a home among just the right Israel-loathing community, an odyssey that has brought him to (among other places) Iran which hosted a conference dedicated to proving that the Holocaust that almost killed parents never occurred.

Maybe you begin to see why Dr. Finkelstein’s embrace of the Divest Thismessage of BDS as a loser warrants, at best, a “thanks but please go away.”  For (and apologies for using complex psychological terminology), whatever fucked up shit is going on in Norman Finkelstein’s head, the further away he is from the rest of us the better.

Back to the topic at hand, I strongly suspect that this lashing out at BDS as a “cult” (presuming it’s not driven by personal eccentricity) comes at the end of a “finger-in-the-wind” experiment that convinced Finkelstein of something those of us who dwell on Planet Reality have known for quite some time: that BDS bites as a political strategy and stands the chance of bringing the whole de-legitimization edifice down with it as it prepares to crash and burn for another ten years.

If this interpretation is correct, Norman hopes to be hailed as a seer when BDS goes into remission (as it did in 2006) or, preferably, disappears from the landscape altogether.  And despite what I said above regarding BDS being a gift from heaven to Israel’s supporters, I still can’t wait to see the end of it (if only because whatever tactic may replace it stands the chance of leaving other people – including my old neighbors in Somerville, MA – alone).

So even if BDS gets deeped sixed, and even if credit for its demolition flows to Norman Finkelstein’s “cult” death stroke, the only thing that deserves to be yanked off the world stage with a vaudeville hook more than the BDS “movement” is Professor Finkelstein himself.

7 thoughts on “Thanks for Nothin’ Norman”

  1. Oh, hell Jon. I was just planning on scoring some cheap points with Norman Finkelstein's backtracking, and you've taken all the fun out of it.

    Darn “Divest this” and its moral high ground.

    Fine. I'll just look at photos of kittens on the web instead…..

  2. This is a really interesting video with very good sound quality. It is really worth listening to if you have the half hour to spend. It is only talking heads, so you can fold the laundry or something while listening.

    I learned 2 good arguments from Norman and 2 interesting things about him.

    1) BDS selectively applies international law.
    2) The equal right for Arab Israelis is a non issue.
    3) Norman was a Maoist, which he now thinks is silly.
    4) He repeatedly misuses the word “agnostic” when I think he means “ambivalent”

  3. I think his emphasis on BDS “cult” is very astute. It is a cult, a process for ashamed enjoyers of Western first world good life (“privilege”) to seek redemption from that post-modern “original sin.” It has real parallels to a religious process for the participants.

    And this makes understandable their indifference to Darfur, daughter-slaughter, etc, etc, etc, when one understands just what their relationship to Israel-hating is, what they're questing for by their “activism.”

    Expiation, or redemption, for privilege is briefly experienced when they “morally finger wag” (ideally with outraged emotions) at something that can be identified with THEIR culture and society. That means someone “white,” “western,” and “Christian,” that is regarded as “oppressing” or “colonizing” someone brown, non-Christian, and/or non-Western. Extra points for Islam, whose violent norms win it extra “noble savage's free pass on behavior standards” points, from these types.

    Of course Israel can be thought of as rather “not white,” “not Western,” and surely “non Christian,” but the requirements for “redemption by condemnation” are loose this way. It more the presence of brown non-Westerners claiming victimhood.

    I don't know to what extent the Jew-bash aspect adds to the attraction for perhaps some. I think the “redemption from their privilege” via costless ostentatious outraged solidarity with the “victim-other” is the major vector.

    But by his comparison to a distinctly self-absorbed religious process, I think Norman Finkelstein is really hitting on something.


  4. @Johnny: I was under the impression that the most numerous group of people involved in BDS are Arabs, followed by Jews as the next most numerous. If that is the case, then I am not so sure about the privilage/redemption narrative as the most relevant explanation for their embrace of this quixotic and hateful course.

    I think that rather the people involved have a much simpler axe to grind: simple parochialism, mixed with a very under-developed ethical sense. Just my hypothesis though – you may be right.

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