Why Finkelstein is wrong: rights for Catholics did not destroy N. Ireland
For background to this article see Fall-out with Finkelstein on Palestinian political strategy
By Ali Abunimah, Al Jazeera
Chicago, IL – In a recent and highly controversial, Norman Finkelstein, long a scourge of Israel, turned his guns on Palestinians and their supporters. He accused the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement of being a “cult”, and claimed that its achievements were mostly exaggerated.
But what exercised Finkelstein most was his conclusion that if implemented, the demands of the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for BDS, would amount to “the destruction of Israel”.
Finkelstein lay into the three “tiers” of the BDS call: that Israel end its occupation of Arab lands conquered in 1967; that it end all forms of discrimination and guarantee equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and that it respect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees, including the right of return.
“They don’t want Israel,” Finkelstein declared, “They think they’re being very clever. They call it their three tiers… We want the end of the occupation, we want the right of return, and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel. And they think they are very clever, because they know the result of implementing all three is what? What’s the result? You know and I know what’s the result: there’s no Israel.”
Finkelstein demanded that Palestinians drop this programme, “Because, if we end the occupation and bring back six million Palestinians and we have equal rights for Arabs and Jews, there’s no Israel.” He also insisted that a “two-state solution” was the only outcome supported by international law.
Putting the BDS call to the test
For the sake of argument, let’s put Finkelstein’s thesis to the test. But before I do that, let me make clear where I stand. As is well known, I support, and believe, that the eventual outcome in historic Palestine will be a single state.
Many supporters of the BDS movement, including some of its founders are on record calling for the same. But the BDS call itself is agnostic, focusing on the rights of Palestinians, not on state arrangements – something Finkelstein insisted was mere deception.
Here, I am going to do what I normally never do. Argue the case for a two-state solution that meets all the demands of the BDS call. Moreover, it should meet fully with Finkelstein’s approval as well, because it will be based on a solution that he himself endorsed.
“I just came back from Northern Ireland,” Finkelstein said in his interview, “They found a settlement. You talk to Protestants, you talk to Catholics. Most people are willing to live with it. You know there are some people who find it unacceptable. But [for] most people, it’s ok, we can live with it. I think you can find a settlement to Israel/Palestine that virtually everybody, particularly Palestinians, can live with.”
The question then will be whether Finkelstein and his new Zionist champions (his interview was widely and gleefully distributed by anti-Palestinian websites and commentators) could accept a solution that applies the very same principles in historic Palestine as were endorsed on the island of Ireland.
A quick history: Settler colonialism and partition
Conflicts in Ireland and Palestine are the legacies of settler-colonialism facilitated by Britain. In each case, the settler-colonial intervention created two mutually exclusive claims to sovereignty, legitimacy and self-determination underpinned by two diametrically opposed narratives, and a material reality of one community long monopolising state power, resources and symbols to dominate and denigrate the other. In both cases, the British imposed or facilitated partitions, which rather than resolve the underlying problem, simply converted the conflict into new forms of antagonism.
Every historical situation, including those in Palestine and Ireland, is distinct, yet comparisons are possible and useful, and in these two cases the similarities are more important than the differences.
Irish nationalists point to an 800-year history of British colonialism, but the modern conflict can be traced to the colonisation of the northeast part of the island, beginning in early 1600s.
As British authorities granted land to Protestant settlers from England and Scotland, native Catholics were forcibly displaced in large numbers, a process very similar to how Zionist settlers displaced, and continue to displace, Palestinians.
Although Britain annexed Ireland in 1801, repeated Irish nationalist rebellions made the question of granting Irish “home rule” the central controversy in British politics through much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Unionists, generally comprised of the ascendant and long-settled Protestant population, were adamantly opposed to home rule, fearing it would threaten their privileged status. In 1912, Unionist militancy, military preparations and threats of violence succeeded in forestalling British attempts to implement home rule.
Meanwhile, Irish nationalists, predominantly Catholic, gained increasing support for independence – especially after the British executed the leaders of the failed 1916 Easter Rising in which an “Irish Republic” was proclaimed. In the 1918 election to the British parliament, the republican party Sinn Fein won a landslide of Irish seats on a platform of total independence from Britain.
Following a guerilla war between British and republican forces that ended in stalemate, the sides signed the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty establishing the Irish Free State, an autonomous “dominion” of the British Empire, that eventually became the Republic of Ireland.
But its territory covered only 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties. To appease unionists, the British simultaneously partitioned the island, forming Northern Ireland, an autonomous self-governing state linked to Britain, gerrymandered to have a two-thirds Protestant majority.
A Protestant state for a Protestant people
Northern Ireland became a unionist-run, one-party state. Nationalist resistance to partition was violently suppressed by British forces and unionist militia. Within a year of partition, hundreds of Catholics were killed in Belfast, 11,000 were forced from their jobs, and 22,000 – a quarter of the city’s Catholic population – were driven from their homes.
In the widely quoted formula attributed to Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, Lord Craigavon, the state’s seat of government at Stormont Castle was a “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”.
Catholics experienced severe discrimination in employment, housing, and all aspects of political and cultural life. They viewed Northern Ireland as an illegitimate imposition, and its security forces as Protestant sectarian militia guaranteeing unionist dominance.
Unionism viewed any effort to create a united Ireland as a mortal threat. In 1990, for example, James Molyneaux, leader of the then dominant Ulster Unionist Party, described the Republic of Ireland’s constitutional claim to the north as “a demand for the destruction of Northern Ireland” that was “equivalent to Hitler’s claim over Czechoslovakia”.
This language resembles that used by Zionists and Norman Finkelstein to describe any fundamental reform of the Israeli state to end its systematic discrimination against non-Jews, let alone a one-state solution, as tantamount to Israel’s “destruction”.
Obsession with demography
At partition, Catholics were a third of the population in Northern Ireland. By 2001 they were 44 per cent.
Just as Israelis are obsessed with the “demographic threat” from the births of Palestinians, fear of a relatively high Catholic birthrate – which could provide the Catholic majority in the north needed to reunify Ireland – was a recurrent theme in unionist discourse. “The basic fear of Protestants in Northern Ireland,” a former prime minister said, “is that they will be out-bred by the Roman Catholics. It is simple as that.”
Equality for all or the ‘destruction of Israel’?
In the mid-1960s, after almost 50 years of unionist rule, nationalists mobilised a civil rights movement modelled on the one in the United States – demanding equal citizenship and an end to systematic discrimination against Catholics.
This departed from traditional republicanism, which had focused on ending partition, but the unionist state perceived even demands for equal rights within Northern Ireland as an attack on Protestant “identity” and the very existence of the state. Unionists responded to calls for equality and reform with violence, and, as in the 1920s, Catholics were once again subjected to pogroms.
During Israel’s December 2008 to January 2009 invasion of the Gaza Strip, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, the vast majority of which were civilians, veteran Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn wrote in The Independent that Israeli society reminded him “more than ever of the unionists in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s”. Like Israelis, he wrote, unionists were a community “with a highly developed siege mentality which led them always to see themselves as victims even when they were killing other people. There were no regrets or even knowledge of what they inflicted on others and therefore any retaliation by the other side appeared as unprovoked aggression inspired by unreasoning hate”.
Indeed, Israel’s reaction to Palestinian demands for equal citizenship mimics the unionist response to the nationalist campaign for equality in Northern Ireland almost precisely. Israel also characterises these demands as an existential threat, a tacit acknowledgment that inequality and discrimination are foundational elements of the Israeli state. As Finkelstein succinctly put it, “equal rights means the end of Israel”.
This is why Palestinian citizens of Israel and their representatives in the Knesset such as Hanin Zoabi, face ever more hostile rhetoric and discriminatory bills and laws – from loyalty oaths, to bans on commemorating the Nakba, to provisions reserving jobs and land for army veterans (effectively favouring Jews) to the Citizenship Law that makes it impossible for Israeli citizens to bring Palestinian or other Arab spouses to live in the country (Ben White’s new book Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy is an excellent primer).
In short, Israel has responded to calls for equal citizenship with the insistence that it must be recognised as a “Jewish and democratic state”. Just as Northern Ireland unionists insisted on a Protestant state for a Protestant people at the expense of Catholics and their human rights, 21st century Zionists demand a Jewish state for a Jewish people at the expense of Palestinians.
Unionists’ violent rejection of nationalist demands for equality in the late 1960s inaugurated the three-decade low-level civil war known as “The Troubles” in which more than 3,500 people were killed and 50,000 injured – nearly two per cent of the Northern Ireland population.
As violence escalated, the British abolished the unionist government in 1972, imposed direct rule from London, and sent in the British army. The unionist state had collapsed, but the unionist-dominated status quo was preserved, as the army, initially sent in to protect Catholics, quickly began to act and be seen by Catholics as an occupying force.
A reconstituted Irish Republican Army (IRA) resumed armed struggle, initially in defence of Catholic communities, but later went on the offensive against the police, army and unionist militia (known as “loyalists”). The IRA and other republican armed groups also carried out bomb attacks and political assassinations which killed non-combatants, including in Britain.
British tactics included curfews, internment (imprisonment without charge or trial similar to Israel’s “administrative detention”, also a legacy of British colonial rule in Palestine), assassinations and extrajudicial executions, and there was extensive and now well-documented collusion between state forces and the loyalist militia that killed hundreds of non-combatant Catholics in brutal sectarian attacks.
A two-state solution in Ireland
In 1998, Unionists and Nationalists signed the Belfast Agreement. It established, in effect, a bi-national state in Northern Ireland where Irish nationalists share power with pro-British unionists.
It did not abolish Northern Ireland, but it did banish, once and for all, the “Protestant state” and enshrined equality as a fundamental principle.
The agreement notably does not resolve whether the six counties that form Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or rejoin a united Ireland, but it establishes principles and mechanisms for determining where sovereignty should lie and what would happen if it changes.
Crucially, it the agreement states whether Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, or becomes part of a united Ireland,
“the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities.”
Northern Ireland has no ‘right to exist’
This was made possible because the British effectively abandoned any claim that Northern Ireland as an entity had a “right” to exist. A breakthrough moment came in 1992 when the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland conceded that “provided it is advocated constitutionally, there can be no proper reason for excluding any political objective from discussion. Certainly not the objective of a united Ireland…”
As part of the agreement, nationalists conceded that the reunification of Ireland could only come about by the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland.
Consequently, the Belfast Agreement did not recognise any separate right to self-determination for unionists as unionists or Protestants as Protestants that would be analogous to a specifically Jewish right to self-determination within historic Palestine.
Unionists enjoy the right to participate in self-determination, along with nationalists, as legitimate residents of the territory. No more, no less.
Freedom of movement and citizenship
There is complete freedom of movement, residency and cross-border employment (something guaranteed in any case under European Union rules) between the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland and the right to full citizenship in either or both states. Moreover, such citizenship cannot be revoked from any person even if the status of Northern Ireland changes. There is nothing to stop Catholics moving north or Protestants moving south.
In order to reverse the long history of discrimination, public bodies and officials in Northern Ireland are under a statutory obligation to promote equality among individuals and communities, and safeguards enacted in British and Irish law are designed to ensure that practices conform to European and international human rights standards. Employment anti-discrimination measures in Northern Ireland are strictly enforced, and although Catholics are still, on average, poorer than Protestants, the gap has narrowed.
A form of 1980s solidarity activism in the United States – somewhat analogous to BDS – demanded that US firms doing business in Northern Ireland adhere to the MacBride Principles, which forbid any form of sectarian discrimination.
A model for historic Palestine?
The Belfast Agreement preserves an existing “two-state solution” in Ireland unless and until people in both jurisdictions choose any other arrangement. But in the meantime, it required one of the states – Northern Ireland – to transform into an inclusive democracy from an oppressive ethnocracy. The agreement also required the Republic of Ireland to strengthen its own human rights and equality guarantees.
So if Northern Ireland is the model, how would it transpose to Palestine? Clearly, Israel would have to become, like Northern Ireland, a bi-national state with strict equality and full representation for all citizens. All laws privileging Jews would have to be abolished and strong measures taken to redress historic and present injustices and prevent future discrimination. A Palestinian state would have to be no less committed to equality.
There would be complete freedom of movement and residency between Israel and the Palestinian state, and because ethnic and racial privileges would have to be abolished, Palestinian refugees could exercise their right to return to the state of their choice and gain citizenship in either.
The Republic of Ireland grants citizenship to any person from abroad with one grandparent born in Ireland, regardless of religion or ethnic background. A similar law could replace Israel’s racist “Law of Return” that grants citizenship only to Jews while discriminating against Palestinians.
Jews would have no separate right of self-determination, but like Protestants in Northern Ireland, would enjoy full democratic rights to participate in self-determination as residents of the territory.
All these principles underpin the Belfast Agreement and yet they did not mean the “destruction of Northern Ireland”. What they rightly did away with is ethno-religious privileges for Protestants at the expense of Catholics.
So the question then for Norman Finkelstein and Zionists who are horrified by the idea of a one-state solution, is: could they accept two states on such terms? If the answer is yes, then it is clear that the BDS call is completely compatible with a two-state solution, and Finkelstein should withdraw his claim that this is mere deception.
If Finkelstein and Zionists cannot accept a two-state solution on these terms, then we know it is not the number of states that concerns them. Rather, their priority is to preserve racial and colonial privileges for Jews at the expense of fundamental Palestinian rights.
That is something Palestinians and their allies, as with nationalists in Northern Ireland, can never – and must never – accept, no matter how many states exist in their respective homelands.
Ali Abunimah is author of One Country, A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. He is a co-founder of the online publication The Electronic Intifada and a policy adviser with Al-Shabaka.
Follow Ali Abunimah Twitter him at: @AliAbunimah