Finkelstein’s Pessimism and Optimism

Philosopher Paul Ricoeur identified Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche as three masters of suspicion in the modern West.  Over the last three decades, Norman Finkelstein has shown himself to be a contemporary  maven of suspicion when it comes to  such matters as the Holocaust Industry,  Middle East scholarship applauded by the mainstream, and Israel’s policies that torment the Palestinian people.  His most recent book, Method and Madness:  The Hidden Story of Israel’s Assault’s on Gaza, continues in this vein, by critiquing Operations Cast Lead (2008-2009), Pillar of Defense (2012), and Protective Edge (2014).  In addition to his rebuking of the official story, Finkelstein offers a political vision that calls for resistance in practical, not merely discursive, terms.

Seeing the title, I immediately think of Polonius’s observation of Hamlet: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.”  After the 2008-2009 Israeli Operation Cast Lead in  Gaza, Finkelstein referred to Israel as lunatic state.   Simply put, Israel’s devastating attacks on Gaza  were based on pretexts so as to achieve political goals.  For example, he notes, “If Israel had wanted to avert the Hamas rocket attacks, it would not have triggered them by breaking the June 2008 cease-fire with Hamas. Israel also could have opted for renewing—and then honoring—the cease-fire.”   Israel is evidently “mad” not to pursue such a rational course for de-escalating tensions.

But Israel’s aim is a demonstrative one, reminiscent of what U.S. president George Bush announced at the time of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait:  “What We Say Goes.”  The massive blood shed by Israel is intended to send a clear message to the Palestinians, the Arabs, and beyond: Israel is trying to make credible its deterrent power to any perceived threat, including sane and pragmatic diplomatic overtures made by Palestinians.

And yet, even with the overwhelming military power repeatedly unleashed on Gaza, the Palestinian people exhibited, as Finkelstein notes (perhaps echoing Mohandas Gandhi*), an “indomitable will” (a phrase he uses three times in the book): “Gaza’s steadfastness until the final hour of Operation Pillar of Defense did demonstrate the indomitable will of the people of Palestine.”  He then points out how the Palestinians can build on that resistance and the role global citizens could play: “If this potential force can be harnessed in a campaign of mass civil resistance, and if the supporters of Palestinian rights worldwide do their job of mobilizing public opinion and changing government policy, then Israel can be coerced into ending the occupation, and with fewer Palestinian lives lost than in armed resistance.”

Later in the book, Finkelstein imagines how the growing number of people committed to Palestine could embody solidarity in the streets: “What if the vast reservoir of Palestine’s international supporters simultaneously converged, in the hundreds of thousands, on UN headquarters in New York and Geneva, enveloping and blockading the buildings?”  In a burst of Gandhian optimism, he envisions that “mass nonviolent resistance can end the [Gaza] blockade if, in one last exertion of will, Palestinians [in the Occupied Territories] find the strength to sacrifice, and the rest of us flood the streets surrounding the UN, ready to risk arrest and injury.”

Starting in the 1980s, the premise of the U.S. Central America solidarity movement was that U.S. citizens could use their U.S. privilege to position themselves between, say, in Nicaragua, the civilians and the contra terrorists funded by the US.  The contras thought nothing of killing Nicaraguan health workers and campesinos.  But they would likely think twice about staging attacks where Americans could be harmed and so be dissuaded from wreaking havoc in certain villages.  A similar commitment has been part of the International Solidarity Movement.

In the current context of Israel’s occasional operations resulting in mass death and its daily institutionalized violence against Palestinians, Finkelstein notes, “However unfair, it remains true that a higher value is attached to some lives—and deaths—than others; that Palestinian lives are expendable, while the lives of foreigners are not… The inequality in valuing  life should outrage, but it should also prod us to redouble our commitment because the presence of a ‘higher-graded’ life can direct attention to an atrocity that would otherwise go unnoticed.”

Finkelstein’s latest work in infused with the spirit of  Antonio Gramsci’s maxim, “Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will.”   Finkelstein’s demystifying analysis of  Israeli power and its lethal effect on the Palestinians can certainly instill a strong degree of bleak pessimism in anyone willing to face the facts.  The “indomitable will” of the Palestinians under siege and murderous attack ought to inspire citizens around the world to be as deliberate, daring, and methodical in resistance as the Israeli state is in its oppression.

*Mohandas Gandhi, “Strength does not come from physical capacity.  It comes from an indomitable will.”  See Eknath Easwaran, Gandhi the Man: The Story of His Transformation, p. 87.

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