Chomsky and Palestine: Asset or Liability?

When Noam Chomsky was stopped at Jordan’s Allenby Bridge and prevented from entering the Palestinian West Bank by Israeli occupation forces in May, the widespread condemnation of that action extended even into the mainstream media which in the past has paid little attention to his comings and goings and even less to what he has had to say. Chomsky, who has visited Israel on a number of occasions and lived on a kibbutz in the 1950s, had been invited to give a lecture at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah and had also arranged to meet with Salam Fayyad, the unelected prime minister of the Palestine Authority and a favorite of both Washington and Israel and, it would appear, of Chomsky. The negative publicity arising from the incident caused the Israeli government to reverse its position, blaming its refusal to admit Chomsky on an administrative error. Chomsky was not mollified and decided to forego the trip to the West Bank and present his talk to the Bir Zeit students by video from Amman. When interviewed by phone the following day from New York by Democracy Now! on which he is a familiar presence, Chomsky noted that “I was going to meet with the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, I couldn’t. But his office called me here in Amman this morning, and we had a long discussion. He is pursuing policies, which, in my view, are quite sensible, policies of essentially developing facts on the ground. It’s almost – I think it’s probably a conscious imitation of the early Zionist policies, establishing facts on the ground and hoping that the political forms that follow will be determined by them. And the policies sound to me like sensible and sound ones.” Unfortunately, Chomsky was not questioned about his support for the nation building priorities of the earlier Zionists nor if he considered the Palestine Authority’s endorsement of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, of its attempts to suppress a UN investigation of the Goldstone Report, and of the role played by its US-trained militia in protecting Israel, to be also “sensible and sound.” Missing from the discussion about what was made to appear a blunder on Israel’s part was a much more important issue: Why had Chomsky been invited to speak at Bir Zeit in the first place? For those puzzled by that question, be assured that it is meant to be taken quite seriously.

Once upon a time Prof. Chomsky was considered by many to be the most important spokesperson for the Palestinian cause. It was a position he attained largely on the basis of his writings and activism in opposing the Vietnam War and US intervention in Central America in which, unlike the case with Israel, he had no personal vested interest. That Chomsky has maintained that position despite the presence in the US of a number of distinguished Palestinian professors, among them the late Edward Said, who were and are more knowledgeable about the subject and could speak from personal experience that does not include prior service as “a Zionist youth leader” – Chomsky’s background – is a reflection of the political culture of the American Left which was and remains substantially if not predominantly Jewish, particularly in its leadership positions. Support for Israel had become so ingrained and fear of anti-Semitism so deeply embedded in the psyche of American Jewish Leftists in the aftermath of World War 2, that if the Jewish state was to be criticized it had to be by someone from within the tribe who unequivocally supported its existence. Unfortunately, to the detriment of the Palestinians and the building of a viable Palestinian solidarity movement within the United States, that mindset persists to this day and largely explains why Chomsky maintains his reputation despite public utterances over the past half dozen years that have done more to undermine the Palestinian cause than to help it.

I examined Chomsky’s history in some detail in an article that I wrote for Left Curve in 2005 that called attention to the destructive role he has played regarding the Palestinian-based boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting Israel and the equally destructive impact of his dismissal of the pro-Israel lobby as an influential force in shaping US Middle East policy. That he is still at it, and that his influence among what are considered “progressives” has lessened only imperceptibly, requires another look at the professor’s fierce and unyielding opposition to the BDS campaign launched by the leading organizations of Palestinian civil society. This movement has been gaining support in the world that exists outside of the United States, particularly among trade unions, a fact that is causing considerable concern within Israel and among its lobbyists/agents around the world who claim it is a campaign to “delegitimize” the Jewish state.

Within the United States, however, this campaign challenging Israel has frequently and in certain instances, intentionally, been confused with a vastly different, US-centered, campaign that avoids penalizing Israel while targeting US companies that provide goods and services that assist Israel in maintaining the occupation. This latter campaign Chomsky does support as does the leading Jewish peace group, Jewish Voice for Peace which has recently been conducting a drive to get 10,000 signatures for its campaign to pressure Caterpillar to stop selling bulldozers to the Israel military which it has used to destroy Palestinian homes. While this is a worthy endeavor, does anyone seriously think that a refusal by Caterpillar to halt its sales to Israel would change the current situation for the Palestinians in any significant way? Or are we seeing something else here on the part of both Prof. Chomsky and JVP with their competing campaign, namely, damage control on Israel’s behalf?

One might certainly draw that conclusion from comments Chomsky has made over the past several years and most recently in interviews with Israeli television (clip1) and with Alison Weir of If Americans Knew, the newly appointed president of the Council for National Interest (CNI), on Jerusalem Calling, the CNI’s online radio program. In the interview with Alison Weir, Chomsky not only repeatedly attacks advocates of an Israeli boycott as being hypocritical, he accuses them of doing damage to the Palestinian cause. “What I have opposed,” says Chomsky, “is BDS proposals that harm Palestinians. If we are serious about BDS or any other tactic, we want to ask what the consequences are for the victims. We have to distinguish always in tactical judgments between what you might call ‘feel good’ tactics and ‘do good’ tactics. There are tactics that may make people feel good in doing something, but maybe they harm the victims.” Pushed on the subject by Weir, he repeats that a boycott of Israel is “harmful to Palestinians and the reason is harmful is very obvious.” And what is obvious about it, Chomsky tells us in the very next sentence. “It is so hypocritical that it discredits the whole effort. I mean,” he says, “why boycott Israel and not boycott the United States? The US has a much worse record.”

When reminded by Weir that “Palestinian civil society issued a call, signed by dozens of diverse organizations calling for a boycott of Israel,” Chomsky was dismissive and condescending. “There are groups who call themselves Palestinian civil society who are calling for a boycott,” he responds, “and I think they are making a mistake and I’ve explained why. I’m not going to take, adopt positions which have already been and will continue to be quite harmful to Palestinians.” “If you want to, then do it,” Chomsky adds, upbraiding Weir and by implication, the Palestinian people themselves, “but it’s clear why the call for a boycott [of Israel] has been harmful for Palestinians and will continue to be.” “The reason,” he repeated, “is very simple. It’s so utterly hypocritical that it’s basically a gift to the hardliners. They can say, ‘Look, you’re calling for a boycott of Israel, but you’re not calling for a boycott of the United States which has a much worse record, in fact, it’s even responsible for most of Israel’s crimes. (My emphasis) “So therefore, if your position,” and from his tone of voice he is clearly jabbing a verbal finger at Weir, “is that hypocritical, how can we even take you seriously? That’s like giving a gift to the hard-line elements.

One might be forgiven for thinking that when Chomsky says “we” and refers to “hard-line elements” he is speaking of himself. He seems to confirm that later when, continuing his attack, he tells Weir:

I find your commitment to harming Palestinians surprising. It is quite obvious why a call for a boycott of Israel is a gift to AIPAC. It’s a gift because they can point out that it is utterly hypocritical” and again, like a well rehearsed mantra he repeats, “We are not boycotting the United States, for example, which has a much worse record and is responsible for a lot of Israel’s criminal behavior.

“I can give you cases if you want [but he doesn’t offer any] where the calls like the one you’re advocating have, in fact, for good reasons, harmed Palestinians,” and he repeats once again that Weir’s “support for the efforts which are basically gifts to the hardliners…”

Let’s stop a moment before going on and ask ourselves some questions about what Chomsky has been saying. One, shifting blame for Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians to the US (the Nakba?, the 1967 capture of the West Bank and Gaza?) he argues that rather than calling for a boycott of Israel, Palestinians should be calling for a boycott of the United States. Apart from the failure patently inherent in such a campaign, what does Prof. Chomsky believe would be the response of the majority of Americans to a call by Palestinians for such a boycott? Or, for that matter, a call by supporters of the Palestinians in the United States for a boycott of their own country? Beneficial for the Palestinians, Professor Chomsky, or harmful? Or just plain stupid? Since the answer to that question is obvious, genuine supporters of the Palestinian struggle who still see Chomsky as an ally need to ask themselves why he would call for a campaign that would bring further disaster down upon the heads of the Palestinians.

Now think about his main argument that boycotting Israel as opposed to the United States is hypocritical; that the “hardliners,” in which he specifically includes AIPAC – which otherwise he dismisses – will use this against the Palestinians by pointing out that the US has committed far greater crimes than Israel. While there are some Jewish American settlers who have taken this position, referring to the Vietnam and Iraq wars, does Chomsky seriously believe that AIPAC or any major American Jewish organization would make this argument and compare America’s crimes to Israel’s? Again, the answer is obvious. But why does Chomsky insult our intelligence by asking us to believe such a fatuous claim? Why do those who know better let him get away with it? The answer to the first question was given by Prof. Chomsky to the interviewer from Israel’ Channel Two television station who paid him a visit in Amman on May 19, two days after he was turned back at the Allenby Bridge.

When challenged about statements he had made strongly criticizing Israel, Chomsky responded, “I don’t regard myself as a critic of Israel. I regard myself as a supporter of Israel.” Chomsky, who, in certain circles likes to boast of his early Zionist activities did so for both his Israeli interviewer and for Alison Weir. Noting that he had opposed the notion of a Jewish state in favor of a bi-national state, “once Israel was formed in 1948, my position has consistently been that Israel should have all the rights of every state in the international system, no more and no less. ” He would repeat exactly the same words when speaking with Weir six weeks later. Chomsky volunteered to his Israeli interviewer that up to five or six years ago, he had considered living there as an alternative to the United States and in the 1950s, “we had considered staying there, in fact.” In other words, he seems to have no problem with the Jewish “right of return” to what, until 1948, was Palestine, but considers a similar demand by the Palestinians who were actually born there to be not only unrealistic but potentially dangerous.

Although presented with an opportunity in both interviews to do so, Chomsky made no mention of the plight of the 750,000 Palestinians made refugees in the period of Israel’s founding nor of the more than 400 Palestinian villages that Israel purposely destroyed to wipe out their traces. In fact, that history and the situation of the now millions of Palestinian refugees today, is something he rarely, if ever mentions, unless asked about it. On one such occasion, when he was asked if the refugees would be obligated to give up their “right of return” under a “two-state solution,” Chomsky’s preferred outcome, he replied: “Palestinian refugees should certainly not be willing to renounce the right of return, but in this world – not some imaginary world we can discuss in seminars – that right will not be exercised, in more than a limited way, within Israel. Again, there is no detectable international support for it, and under the (virtually unimaginable) circumstances that such support would develop, Israel would very likely resort to its ultimate weapon, defying even the boss-man, to prevent it. In that case there would be nothing to discuss. The facts are ugly, but facts do not go out of existence for that reason. In my opinion, it is improper to dangle hopes that will not be realized before the eyes of people suffering in misery and oppression. (Emphasis added) Rather, constructive efforts should be pursued to mitigate their suffering and deal with their problems in the real world.” (Znet, 30 March 2004)

What Chomsky is saying to the refugees is that if they persist with their demand to return to Palestine, and should that demand, support for which is currently undetectable in Chomsky’s eyes, actually grow to the point where Israel feels threatened with an avalanche of returnees, it is likely to use its nuclear weapons and blow up the planet. So, for the sake of the “real world” that has ignored them and to keep Israel, a country that he unhesitatingly supports, from exercising the “Sampson Option,” the refugees should forget about going home and await some nebulous “constructive efforts… to mitigate their suffering.” I can imagine what most Palestinians would say to that but it is unprintable. When Weir asked if he had been aware of the Nakba in the days when he had been a Zionist youth leader, Chomsky acknowledged that he had been “well aware of that,” but rather than offer any opinion on it, he referred to his membership in Hashomir Hatzair which had supported a bi-national state and that he lived on a kibbutz which, prior to 1948, called for “Arab-Jewish cooperation in a socialist state.” He did not come to live on that kibbutz, however, until 1953, five years after the Nakba.

In speaking with Weir, Chomsky did not hesitate to defend Israel’s legitimacy.. “Within Israel,” he said, “within the so-called Green Line, the internationally recognized borders, it’s a democratic state in the sense of Western democracies. There are laws and more than laws, practices that assign second class citizenship to Palestinians. In that respect it is not different from the US and other Western democracies.” While there are few who will deny that racism exists in every Western (and non-Western) society and that it has often taken violent forms, Chomsky’s attempt to rationalize Israel’s ongoing discrimination of those Palestinians who remained after the Nakba, by lumping it together with the forms of racism practiced in the US and elsewhere, is too riddled with holes to analyze here but raises additional questions about on which side of the barricades he stands. The fact that he says “the occupation is simply criminal” as if Israel is not should not deceive us.

It should also be pointed out that Chomsky’s accusing Weir of harming the Palestinian cause is in keeping with the modus operandi he has employed when challenged from the Left regarding his stands on the Israel-Palestinian issue. With Alison Weir, it was the boycott of Israel, with Noah Cohen, in 2004, it was the latter’s advocacy of a single state and the Palestinian right of return. Chomsky accused Cohen of “serving the cause of the extreme hawks in Israel and the US, and bringing even more harm to the suffering Palestinians.”(Znet, 26 July 2004)

I have also been not immune from such an attack. On November 12, 2004, before writing my article for Left Curve and after I had written the professor, asking him a number of questions that I hoped would clarify his positions he responded in a letter thusly:

“I have never really understood why you consistently take positions that so severely undermine any hope of justice for the Palestinians, find truth so offensive, and work so hard to evade our own responsibilities in favor of the much more convenient stance of blaming others [Israel]. But that’s your business. I don’t write or speak about it.”

What we are dealing with in the case of Prof. Chomsky is nothing less than intellectual dishonesty parading as its opposite and the boycott issue has brought it to the fore.

A glaring but little known example of that came in a speech that Chomsky made to the Harvard Anthropology Dept. in 2003 shortly after the MIT and Harvard faculties issued a joint statement on divestment. It was gleefully reported in the Harvard Crimson by pro-Israel activist, David Weinfeld, under the headline “Chomsky’s Gift”:

MIT Institute Professor of Linguistics Noam Chomsky recently gave the greatest Hanukkah gift of all to opponents of the divestment campaign against Israel. By signing the Harvard-MIT divestment petition several months ago – and then denouncing divestment on Nov. 25 at Harvard – Chomsky has completely undercut the petition.

At his recent talk for the Harvard anthropology department, Chomsky stated: “I am opposed and have been opposed for many years, in fact, I’ve probably been the leading opponent for years of the campaign for divestment from Israel and of the campaign about academic boycotts.”

He argued that a call for divestment is “a very welcome gift to the most extreme supporters of US-Israeli violence… It removes from the agenda the primary issues and it allows them to turn the discussion to irrelevant issues, which are here irrelevant, anti-Semitism and academic freedom and so on and so forth.” [Harvard Crimson, 2 December 2003] (Emphasis added.)

The following year, Chomsky clearly stunned Christopher J. Lee, an interviewer for the Safundi: the Journal of South African and American Comparative Studies [10 May 2004] when in an exchange comparing Israel with the former apartheid regime, he again came to Israel’s defense and cast opposition to sanctions on Israel as a moral issue. “One of the important tactics against the apartheid government was the eventual use of sanctions. Do you see that as a possibility?” asked Lee. “No,” Chomsky replied. “In fact I’ve been strongly against it in the case of Israel. For a number of reasons. For one thing, even in the case of South Africa, I think sanctions are a very questionable tactic. In the case of South Africa, I think they were [ultimately] legitimate because it was clear that the large majority of the population of South Africa was in favor of it. “Sanctions hurt the population. You don’t impose them unless the population is asking for them. That’s the moral issue. So, the first point in the case of Israelis that: Is the population asking for it? Well, obviously not. “So calling for sanctions here, when the majority of the population doesn’t understand what you are doing, is tactically absurd-even if it were morally correct, which I don’t think it is. The country against which the sanctions are being imposed is not calling for it.” To which the bewildered Safundi understandably asked, “Palestinians aren’t calling for sanctions?” “Well,” Chomsky responded, as if he had been asked a stupid question, “the sanctions wouldn’t be imposed against the Palestinians, they would be imposed against Israel.” “Furthermore,” added, “there is no need for it. We ought to call for sanctions against the United States! If the U.S. were to stop its massive support for this, it’s over. So, you don’t have to have sanctions on Israel.”

It would seem from that exchange that Chomsky has more respect for the opinions of Israel’s Jews than those of his fellow Americans. In applying double standards to Israel and the United States, Chomsky has been consistent. After telling the Israeli interviewer that, speaking as an American citizen, “we are responsible for our own actions and their consequences,” in the very next breath he declares that “every crime that Israel commits is with US participation and authorization,” which, even if true, which it is not, presumably would make Israel culpable, but not apparently enough, in Chomsky’s eyes, to warrant a boycott.

At the end of the day, it is evident that Chomsky’s affection for Israel, his sojourn on a kibbutz, his Jewish identity, and his early experiences with anti-Semitism to which he occasionally refers have colored his approach to every aspect of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and explain his defense of Israel. That is his right, of course, but not to pretend at the same that he is an advocate for justice in Palestine. That same background may also explain his resistance to acknowledging the very obvious power of the pro-Israel lobby over US Middle East policy which he, like many others who share a similar history, interpret as “blaming the Jews,” a most taboo subject. It is, without a doubt, far more comfortable for him and his followers to continue insisting that US support for Israel is based on it being a “strategic asset” for the United States even when an increasing number of mainstream observers who are not linked to AIPAC or the Zionist establishment have judged it to be a liability. Should not Chomsky himself, on the basis of his own statements, be judged as to whether he is an asset or a liability for the Palestinian cause? If they have not already done so, serious supporters of that cause, including Palestinians, need to ask themselves that question.

  • First published at Pulse.
  • Jeffrey Blankfort is former editor of the Middle East Labor Bulletin, long-time photographer, and has written extensively on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He also hosts a program on international affairs for KZYX, the public radio station of Mendocino County, California. He can be reached at: jblankfort@earthlink.net. Read other articles by Jeff.