Political scientist, activist and author of the Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah, the famous Dr. Norman Finkelstein was in Belgium, to talk about his recent book on Gandhi. I attended the talk.
The comment was merely an aside in a longer response to a question from the audience about cowardice, but Finkelstein was passionate in his condemnation of the US president's drone policy: "He's running for president for the second term and he wants to show he's being tough, so he sends out his campaign manager to tell the New York Times that he [Obama] sits around with his baseball cards deciding who he's going to kill this week and next week.....I've no doubt in my mind that the perpetrator of violence - especially remote controlled violence - is the most wretched of all cowards on earth."
Finkelstein is best-known for his activism against Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory, and, although this talk was intended to be about what Gandhi really thought about political action, Israel, Palestine and the Middle East soon took centre stage.
Finkelstein applied Gandhi's views on effecting practical, political change to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He said: "For Gandhi, [the issue] was how you get people to act on what they already know is wrong." The solution, Finkelstein said, was to carry out acts of non-violent, civil disobedience: "Seeing other people suffering usually gets the public to act." To illustrate the point he told the audience how he had been moved to become involved in the Occupy movement in New York after seeing non-violent protesters arrested and pepper-sprayed.
In the case of the Palestinians, said Finkelstein, their goal "has to be what the public is prepared to accept as being legitimate." He pointed to the opinions of both the United Nations and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as being representative of what the majority regard as a fair solution to the conflict: "a two state settlement along the June 1967 border and a just resolution on the [Palestinian] refugee issue. That is the limit."
The major obstacle to achieving this, said Finkelstein, was Israel, backed by the US. "According to the ICJ," he said, "Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are all occupied Palestinian territory." He pointed to the West Bank separation barrier (constructed by Israel but condemned as illegally built on occupied Palestinian territory by the UN, the EU and numerous human rights organizations) as an example of where the "whole world is on one side and Israel, the US and the South Sea islands are on the other."
It was now widely recognised by the public, Finkelstein said, that "Israel refuses to obey international law."
Finkelstein said that violence was not a viable option for the Palestinians if they wanted to end the occupation. Instead, he said, they should embrace Gandhi's idea of non-violent disobedience. This part of the talk provided the most arresting image of the night as Finkelstein described an imaginary scene of civil disobedience in the West Bank:
"If the Palestinians were to march, en masse, on the wall (the West Bank separation barrier) - a hammer in one hand and a copy of the ICJ's opinion [on the occupation] in the other - and they were to say 'We are only doing what the ICJ says had to be done,' I think that would resonate, it would win over the public."
"Of course," he added, "Israel is going to react with violence. It might kill 100, 200, 250 people....[but] I'm not telling anyone to go to their deaths...I would never tell others to take risks and make sacrifices."
However, said Finkelstein, there is no way the occupation can be ended "unless the Palestinians mobilize."
Finkelstein also spoke about the recent Israeli General Elections. He criticised the strong rightward swing of the country's politics over the last few years and said that the occupation had hardly been an issue in the political debates leading up to the vote. Illustrating the country's political shift, Finkelstein referred to Ariel Sharon, the former right-wing prime minister of Israel who has been in a coma since 2006, and who was judged by his own government to bear 'personal responsibility' for the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres of refugees: "If Sharon woke up [today] he'd find himself an extreme leftist," said Finkelstein.
Finkelstein also said that Israel had "the good fortune of having a cost-free occupation: the Palestinian Authority does all the dirty work, the arresting, the killing and torturing; the EU pays the bills; the US does all the political work blocking sanctions [on Israel]."
Asked by a member of the audience to compare coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the US and European press, Finkelstein said that of the European media coverage, he only followed the UK press. To know what the public thought, he said, one only had to look at the opinion polls:
"Just look at the polls - the annual BBC poll - where people are asked to rate countries in terms of their negative or positive contributions to the world: the bottom four are always Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and Israel."
According to Finkelstein, Israel was now "a lunatic state."
However, Finkelstein was more optimistic than he has been in the past. If the Palestinians mobilize, he said, with public opinion generally on the side of ending the occupation, the "prospects of [a peaceful and just settlement] are good."
There were also some light-hearted moments during the evening.
Commenting on the difference between North American audiences and European ones, Finkelstein quipped: "I can't see anyone text-messaging while I'm talking - you must be in a pre-civilized state of development."
And referring to Gandhi's obsessive writings about diet and home-cures, Finkelstein jokingly described the Indian leader as a "premature Oprah."