Faithful Circle

A Response to Noam Chomsky's Book "Fateful Triangle"

Hypotheses and Tests

1. Hypotheses

Dear Mr. President: We write to affirm our support for our strategic partnership with Israel, and encourage you to continue to do before international organizations such as the United Nations. The United States has traditionally stood with Israel because it is in our national security interest and must continue to do so. Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East and a vibrant democracy. Israel is also a partner to the United States on military and intelligence issues in this critical region. That is why it is our national interest to support Israel at a moment when Israel faces multiple threats from Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the current regime in Iran.
– Jewish Virtual Library ((US Senate Resolution.))

This is the beginning of the resolution passed by the US Senate on June 21 2010, supporting Israel’s attack on a convoy of unarmed aid ships headed toward Gaza, which killed nine people.

It begins with four sentences, each one of which asserts that Israel is a strategic asset of the USA. But if Israel is such an ally, why the need to emphasise it? It’s as if the senators are arguing with someone who says that Israel is NOT as useful as we tend to believe. Whoever that is, it’s not Noam Chomsky. Both left-wing thinkers like Chomsky and establishment politicians reinforce the idea that US interests coincide with those of Israel, though they differ on how good US interests are. Sometimes, when people say something too stridently, it is because they secretly know that it is false.

This review was sparked off by an online critique of Noam Chomsky’s views on the Middle East by Jeff Blankfort, a reply to it, and the internet discussions around them. ((Jeff Blankfort.)) , ((Jeremy Hammond.)) Several contributors to these discussions come from traditional anti-racist left-wing backgrounds, but, unlike most of the left, have taken it to its logical conclusion, opposing Jewish power as the most important form of ethnically-based oppression in the West today.

Chomsky fan Hammond ((Jeremy Hammond.)) urges Blankfort’s supporters to read Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle. ((Fateful Triangle, Noam Chomsky, South End Press, 1999.)) So I did. I am not impressed by Chomsky’s fame nor by the book’s approximately two thousand references. I look at the arguments.

Professor Chomsky made one of the greatest discoveries in twentieth-century science, the language instinct, in a 1959 critique of psychologist B. F. Skinner. (( “A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior,” Noam Chomsky.)) Because he’s a genius, we expect more of him than unsubstantiated platitudes. But everyone makes mistakes. Einstein spent the better part of his career trying to explain why the universe is not expanding, and Chomsky didn’t figure out that there are genes for grammar. ((The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, November 2000.))

He flayed Skinner on the vagueness of his terms, and for changing the meaning of words when convenient. Chomsky therefore knows that vagueness makes a hypothesis untestable, and therefore unscientific.

Chomsky brought clarity to the science of language development, but he is surprisingly contradictory on the politics of the Middle East, for a man with such a scientific, logical brain. For example, on the one hand, he denies the importance of the Israel Lobby. After all, if Israel is helping US ‘elites’ maintain their ‘hegemony’ in the ‘region’, they would hardly need a lobby to remind them of it. Universities and co-operatives are tentatively discussing a boycott of Israel. Chomsky argues against a boycott of Israeli produce, because the Lobby would call us ‘hypocrites’, unless we boycott the US too. ((Alison Weir, radio interview with Noam Chomsky.)) So he thinks this ‘unimportant’ Lobby could undermine a boycott of Israel by mere accusations.

By page 4, Chomsky already makes it clear that he defends the Jewish State. He criticizes its current policies, which he says are caused by American Zionists, who cause its “moral degeneration and ultimate destruction”. In my pamphlet The Mass Psychology of Anti-Fascism, I sarcastically cited Stephen Zunes (( “How Washington Goaded Israel Into War,” Stephen Zunes, August 2006.)) for claiming America was responsible for pushing poor little Israel into Lebanon in 2006. I didn’t realize how close Zunes’s attempt to make excuses for Jewish murderers was to Chomsky’s position until I read Fateful Triangle. Chomsky and his followers want us to believe that Israeli ethnic cleansing has ‘degenerated’ since 1948 because of American influence. This means the Deir Yassin massacre of 1948 was morally superior to those in Lebanon in 1982, but the Hanukkah slaughter of 2008-9 was worse.

He says US ‘support’ has blocked Israel trying more moral policies, to the ‘despair’ of progressive Israeli Jews, on page 442. There is a cruder version of this ‘corruption’ narrative. It is part of the almost universally believed story of Jews as eternal victims. It enables Jewish Americans to support apartheid whilst thinking of themselves as liberals. They blackmail the left into accepting a much softer attitude toward Jewish supremacy than toward white identity.

Chomsky is by no means the worst example of chutzpah in the left. He is contradictory rather than duplicitous. He exposes Jewish emotional blackmail. He is contemptuous of professional Holocaust survivors like Elie Wiesel. He is fearless and merciless at ridiculing the hypocrisy and hysteria for which American Jewish organizations are notorious, who claim that critics of the Lobby are anti-Semitic. Some on the left also harass and slander pro-Palestinian peace activists. Since Israel is the only beneficiary of these divisive tactics, we call them ‘crypto-Zionists’.

But Chomsky’s main weakness is his failure to scientifically test his assertion that Israel is an ally of the USA. On page 3, without evidence, he says that US policy favors “a Greater Israel that will dominate the region in the interests of American power”.

To this end, Chomsky assumes that Arab nationalism is anti-West, whereas Jewish nationalism is pro-West. The former was allied to the Soviet Union. But this is at root a circular argument – the US supports Israel because it is an ally, and Israel is an ally because the US supports it. The reason some Arab leaders temporarily turned to Russia is because they were rejected by America, and the main reason for that is the influence of Israel. Chomsky confuses cause and effect.

The phrase ‘control of the oil’ is thrown around by Chomsky and his circle as liberally as the word ‘region’. It’s a vague leftist feel-good dumbing-down designed to prevent us from thinking through exactly what ‘control’ means, why precisely cruise missiles are useful to oil companies, and if killing Palestinian children helps US interests.

At this point, I should define ‘US interests’. I mean the interests of the US capitalist class. Unconditional support for Israel is obviously against the interests of the majority of Americans, who belong to the proletariat. But in that respect, it doesn’t differ from other unethical US foreign policies. What differentiates Zionism is that it is opposed to the interests of most of the ruling class too.

I used a Marxist phrase there. Chomsky prefers saying ‘elites’ rather than ‘bourgeoisie’ in his bestselling books. Even if the ‘elites’ really do ‘perceive’ it is in US interests to throw seven million dollars a day into a black hole, they are mistaken, and Palestine Solidarity has the task of explaining that to them and to those who work and vote for them.

Chomsky claims that the US supports Israel because Israel supports US war crimes – “Israel showed how to treat third-world upstarts properly” (page 29). This puts the cart before the horse. Right after World War II, Zionists were third-world upstarts themselves, engaged in terrorism in Palestine against an imperialist power. President Truman supported these upstarts, and later, when they were no longer upstarts, president Eisenhower supported upstarts against them.

This shows two things:
1. America doesn’t automatically oppose upstarts, and
2. Israel persuaded America to support its fight against upstarts which threaten Israel, rather than America supporting Israel because it combats upstarts which oppose America.

Israel has never fired a shot in the defense of American interests. But its friends in the media make it look as if the two countries’ enemies are the same, by amalgamating very different Arab and Muslim causes and parties. Most of these oppose Israel in principle – only a very small subset are inherently anti-American. It is in America’s interests to divide them. It is in Israel’s interests to prevent this. And it is in humanity’s interest to divorce America and Israel.

Chomsky’s claim to be a Zionist means a binational state, with the right of ‘self-determination’ of the two nations within Palestine. It’s clear which of the nations would dominate the other, but Chomsky appears to be unaware of this.

To his credit, on page 442 of his book, Chomsky predicted the defeat of the Israeli Defense Forces, which didn’t happen until seven years later, in Lebanon, in 2006. The Gaza flotilla massacre of 2010 was another disastrous error for Israel, leading to a split with Turkey, formerly its most important ally in the ‘region’. There is an opportunity to start to undermine Zionism, the only remaining example of serious racial oppression in the Western world. Is Chomsky on board?

Contradicting his view that Israel obeys America, Chomsky refers to the normal state of politics in the USA as ‘complete obedience’ to Zionist opposition to freedom of speech, on page 337, under the heading ‘The West Falls Into Line’. He also says how the allegation of ‘anti-Semitism’ is used to blackmail the elite political spectrum in Western countries into supporting Jewish supremacy in the Middle East, but then he drops the ball, reiterating hackneyed rhetoric about US policy. It’s not really US policy. It is the policy of supporters of a foreign power pretending to be pro-American.

Note that my argument does not imply promoting patriotism. It means saying, in effect, IF you are a patriotic American, you should oppose your country’s ardent support for Israel. Neither does it imply anti-Semitism. It means recognizing that the interests of most of the inhabitants of the USA would be served by reducing support to Israel. The interests of the Jewish minority would be served by increasing it. This should not be controversial. In particular, the American left, with its keen awareness of ‘privilege’, should be able to listen to this argument. But mostly, it cannot.

At one point, Chomsky discusses the hypocrisy of the Israeli leaders in using pogroms against Jews in Russia in the nineteenth century as an excuse for doing the same thing in Lebanon in 1982. But he doesn’t try to question the view that Jews have always been victims, wherever they have wandered. This myth was reiterated by Republican president George Bush Senior when he was trying to defend himself against the ‘anti-Semitism’ slur by groveling to the Lobby in 1991.

On page 446, Chomsky describes young American Jews, raised on the handouts of the Anti-Defamation League, having a ‘corrupting’ effect on Israel. He must also be very aware of the corruption of Israeli teenagers effected by taking them to the ruins of German concentration camps and teaching them to hate, ((Defamation – a movie about the Anti-Defamation League)) or the Hillel Jewish campus organization which teaches young American Jews that Israel is their homeland. He doesn’t go far enough in criticizing the obsession with ‘the’ Holocaust which gets more intense the further it recedes into history.

After complaining about Israel’s rape of Lebanon in the nineteen-eighties for a few hundred pages, Chomsky resorts to the ‘region’ trick to try to explain it. Page 442:

The US has been more than pleased to acquire a militarized dependency, technologically advanced and ready to undertake tasks that few are willing to endure – support for the Guatemalan genocide, for example – while helping to contain threats to American dominance in the most critical region in the world, where ‘one of the greatest material prizes in world history’ [the Saudi oilfields] must be firmly held.

On page 462, he regrets Israel’s “dependence on the US with the concomitant pressure to serve US interests”. One would expect that the USA would not give a country $7 million a day, more than all other countries combined – without demanding that it serves its interests. But the predictions of this hypothesis fail. Israel feels no pressure at all to serve US interests, and Israeli politicians boast of American subservience, whilst their American accomplices harass those who state this simple truth. This is true whether you are a media mogul, a movie star, a politician, or an anti-war activist.

At the beginning of his book, Chomsky claims that Israel helps the US by protecting the Saudi oilfields. At the end, he says it blackmails the US by threatening to launch a nuclear attack on this great material prize. Iran could also greatly harm the Western world by blocking the Strait of Hormuz through which fleets of oil tankers pass – but somehow, America stands up to Iran. Why can’t it stand up to Israel? Because it’s an asset?

Chomsky expounds a deal of effort showing how the US media is biased in favor of Israel and against Palestinians, but he doesn’t call a spade a spade: the only serious racial prejudice left in America is pro-Jewish bias. That is why Israeli children’s deaths are reported at a rate seven times higher than those of Palestinians. ((If Americans Knew media analyses.))

2. Tests

I propose testing Chomsky’s views using the time-honored methods of asking

  • what does the theory predict will happen, and does it actually happen?
  • is the theory the simplest explanation of what happens?
  • what would we expect to happen if the theory was not true, and does it actually happen?
  • is there an alternative theory which better explains what happens?

There are two rival hypotheses:
1. The main reason for the USA’s unconditional support for Israel’s unique persistence in imposing apartheid is that it is in US capitalist interests
2. The main reason for this support is the power of American Jewish organizations

Chomsky defends, with contradictions, the first hypothesis. Mearsheimer and Walt defend the second.

Let’s test each theory using scientific methods. Politics is not an exact science like physics, but we can at least try.

1. The basic principle of science: does Chomsky’s hypothesis ((Fateful Triangle, Noam Chomsky, South End Press, 1999.)) lead to a simpler explanation of events than Mearsheimer and Walt’s Israel Lobby theory ((The Israel Lobby, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 2007.)) ?

2. An abstract test. ‘Abstract’ does not mean ‘vague’, but is scientifically respectable. Without any concrete examples, one can test the Chomsky hypothesis as follows: it is reasonable to say that, for any two nations, they have areas where their interests coincide, and areas where they clash. The USA never acts against Israel’s interests, with some very minor exceptions. This means that, without giving any examples, we can say that America always supports Israel’s interests when their interests collide.

3. Falsification: ask what would be the case if Chomsky’s hypothesis is wrong. What would poor little Israel do if it were NOT serving US interests, if Americans ceased to corrupt it? Would it let the Palestinians back, decommission its nuclear weapons, and abandon its racial definition of citizenship?

4. Which of the arguments depends on the scientific methods outlined above, and which on vague, shifting definitions?

Chomsky makes, without argument, the assertion that if it were not for Israel’s ‘perceived geopolitical role’, a trite, content-free phrase, the Israel Lobby would ‘probably’ be unable to persuade the ‘elite’ to support Israel (page 22). So why do they bother, then? Why do Jews rant and rave in the media about ‘anti-semitic incidents’ whenever anyone in the US makes timid criticism of their country? It’s not that politicians perceive that Israel is an asset, it’s just that they know what happens to those who perceive otherwise – the Lobby makes some calls, and they lose their jobs. ((They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby, Paul Findlay, Lawrence Hill Books, 1989.)) Chomsky’s theory that Israel is an ally would predict the Israel Lobby would barely exist – real allies of the US like Japan don’t have energetic, well-funded lobbies in Washington DC, ready to call on hordes of faithful followers to phone politicians and write letters to newspapers defending their nations’ interests. They don’t need them. Chomsky’s theory fails the test.

There is more to it than just rich Jewish organizations like the ADL and AIPAC. There is social pressure not to mention the Lobby. Whereas no-one accuses Chomsky of racism for claiming that Jews suffer for the interests of other Western peoples, in complete defiance of the evidence, those of us who point out that the reverse is true, with the facts on our side, are accused of anti-Semitism. If Israel were an asset, there would be no need for this manipulation of our Western European culture, which has a unique record of abandoning racism, despite what the left tells us.

The ‘Israeli Sparta’ argument put forward in the Wall Street Journal etc. by Jewish neo-conservatives posing as classical scholars can easily be disposed of. Sparta defended Greece. Israel does not defend America. On page 21, ignoring the evidence, Chomsky agrees with the pseudo-Hellenists, saying that the Israeli Defence Forces provides a backup for the US armed forces. In fact Israel has never been able to supply soldiers for any US operation in the region. In the Iraq crisis of 1990, Syria gave military support to the US, but not Israel. Israel was unable to respond even when Iraqi missiles landed on Tel Aviv, because it would have split the coalition invading Iraq. Chomsky’s argument fails the test.

Chomsky reviewed The Israel Lobby when it broke through the censors of the US liberal left. ((The Atlantic magazine rejected the original ‘Israel Lobby’ paper, on the transparently false grounds of ‘poor scholarship’. When it came out as a book, the authors toured the USA to promote it, but found that local papers didn’t send reporters to cover it. The Lobby demonstrated the authors’ hypothesis by trying to suppress it.)) “Another problem that Mearsheimer and Walt do not address is the role of the energy corporations. They are hardly marginal in US political life… How can they be so impotent in the face of the Lobby?” he asks. (( “The Israel Lobby?” Noam Chomsky, 2006.)) Chomsky’s review of The Israel Lobby implies the oil companies CANNOT be powerless in the face of a mere lobby. But the assumptions behind Chomsky’s question don’t stand up. Mearsheimer and Walt DO address the role of these companies, explaining how, if they had their way, US policy in the Middle East would change. Leftists in America half-adopt Karl Marx’s ‘materialist conception of history’ without naming it (they say ‘corporate greed’ instead). It is one of the few aspects of Marxism which can be tested, and it fails miserably to explain the US position on the Israel/Palestine question. The interests of big corporations do not lead to invading Lebanon, persecuting Palestine, and stirring up Islamic extremism.

Why has the US consistently supported Israel, and inconsistently supported Arab nationalists? Egypt’s Nasser, Iraq’s Hussein and Syria’s al-Assad all had a pretty good record of keeping down ‘upstarts’, particularly radical Islamic ones, so why not, according to Chomsky’s logic, ally with the radical Arab nationalist states? The US has allied with various Middle Eastern states at various times, but only its support for Israel is invariant. Again, these questions constitute a test of Chomsky’s hypothesis. You try to figure out what the hypothesis would predict, then try to find counter-examples, where the actual events are incompatible with the predicted ones. It isn’t difficult, particularly in this case.

Chomsky claims that one reason America supports Israel is because it is a ‘laboratory’ for US military and surveillance technology. This is easily tested by asking if any other country would be eager to take Israel’s place.

The argument that oil is the main reason for US support for Israel is too trivial to waste time on. When America attacks a Middle Eastern country, the left chants ‘no war for oil’. If the policy causes the price of oil to drop, capitalism benefits. If the price rises, the oil companies benefit. Either way, the left trumpets the evidence. The ‘oil’ explanation cannot be falsified. It is not wrong – it is not even a valid hypothesis.

In a similar violation of scientific methodology, Chomsky tries to use the fact that the USA approves of Israeli war crimes as evidence that the dog wags the tail, that Israel serves Uncle Sam. In fact, this ‘evidence’ contributes nothing at all to our understanding of the relationship between the two states. It is equally compatible with the two opposing arguments, so it is not a test which selects which of them are true. Chomsky does give some of the same examples of American subservience as Mearsheimer and Walt in The Israel Lobby:

– US presidents mildly criticize Israel building settlements on Palestinian land
– Israeli politicians express open contempt for the supposedly most powerful man in the world, bragging of how ‘The Jewish Lobby’ (their words) will bring this uppity goy into line
– And so it comes to pass
but Chomsky doesn’t ask the obvious question: is this all

1. an elaborate charade to make it look as if the Lobby can determine US policy regarding Israel in order to cover up for white/US/capitalist hegemony, by diverting attention to the Jews, or
2. is the most elegant/economical/likely explanation that Jewish power trumps Western European interests in the USA?

By means of the Lobby, the tail wags the dog. Its the simplest, clearest, and most economical explanation of the facts. This is how science progresses. A good example of why simpler is better can be found in a recent paper on the evolution of social insects such as ants and bees. ((“Natural selection alone can explain eusociality,” Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson.)) We should try to use the same criterion in the study of human societies.

Like everything else, the question of Jewish control of the media can be approached emotionally. I prefer the scientific approach. I approach the argument about Jewish control of the press, etc., on its merits, not on how much it reminds people of ancient Tsarist calumnies. Surely the most simple explanation of the fact that

Israel has been granted a unique immunity from criticism in mainstream journalism and scholarship. (page 31)

is because Jews are overrepresented in mainstream journalism and scholarship, and quite a few of these Jews defend Jewish interests. This kind of statement is acceptable in Israel, whose inhabitants are mostly proud of what they call ‘the Jewish Lobby’ in America. It is acceptable in countries like Malaysia. Why is it so difficult for us?

The answer is obvious. We are afraid of being anti-Semitic. I found a solution to this problem. I stopped caring about it.

  • First published at Palestine Think Tank.
  • Jay Knott wrote The Mass Psychology of Anti-Fascism. Read other articles by Jay.