Q&A: Noam Chomsky on U.S. Colleges, Israel-Palestine Conflict

Noam Chomsky, a linguist and philosopher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, outspoken
political commentator, and activist, has been perhaps the most well-known intellectual critic of U.S. and Western foreign policy. For over 70 years, Chomsky has been a critic of the borders drawn between Israel and Palestine. In an interview over email with reporter Julian Jacobs,
Chomsky discusses the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) in relation to the Claremont Colleges and other U.S. universities, U.S. support for Israel and possible solutions to the conflict.

Julian Jacobs: Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)–and other related clubs–have been censored and disbanded across the U.S. by numerous school administrations. What makes the Israel-Palestine conflict such a contentious issue at American colleges, even at liberal colleges like the Claremont Colleges?

Noam Chomsky: I don’t know the statistics, but while it’s true that SJP is commonly under attack, at many colleges the attacks have been resisted and it’s flourishing.  And in fact the situation has changed considerably in recent years.  I can see it easily myself.  Not very long ago when I gave talks on Israel-Palestine there was constant police protection, which I didn’t want but which the campus and city police insisted on because of threats they were picking up.  But that is a thing of the past.  By now Palestinian solidarity is a major issue on campuses, with enormous student support.  Meetings, which used to draw a small and mostly hostile audience, and were sometimes broken up by angry protestors, now tend to be overflowing, with audiences that are engaged and committed, even at institutions where security measures were extreme not many years ago, some not far from you.  I’m quite surprised by the reaction at Claremont.

On why it’s a contentious issue we have to go back to the nature of US-Israeli relations, which, since 1967, are unlike anything in the world and historically unprecedented.  That’s an interesting and important topic, worth thinking about seriously.  The policies both contribute to and draw from mass popular dedication to Israel – which is diminishing, particularly among the younger generation and Jewish youth.

It’s also well to remember that confrontation with state policy is rarely easy.  Take Boston, one of the most liberal cities in the country. I was very much involved in efforts to develop opposition to the US attack on Vietnam from the early ‘60s.  It was very difficult.  In October 1965, we tried to have the first public demonstration against the war.  It was broken up violently, with bitter condemnation of the demonstrators in the liberal press.  That was after years of murderous US assaults against South Vietnam and extension of the aggression to the North as well.  And it continued that way for some time.  The same tends to be true on other issues.

The forces that are seeking to suppress advocates of Palestinian rights are fighting a losing battle, and their leadership at least is well aware of it.

JJ: You have long argued that Israel is a client state of the U.S. and that this has emboldened it to take an uncompromising position in its ambitions for a greater Israel. To what extent has this longstanding relation fueled racist and xenophobic elements in Israeli society? To what degree are these elements driving Israeli policy itself (independently of the client state relationship)?

NC: Israel’s sharp drift to the jingoist right is no secret.  It’s reached the point that one of Israel’s most distinguished intellectuals, Israel Prize laureate Zeev Sternhell, warns that Israel is moving towards fascism. At the outset of the occupation, one of the most respected figures in Israel, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, warned that the effect would be to turn Israelis into “Judeonazis.”  Harsh words [that are] being fulfilled before our eyes.  US support contributes to these ugly developments.  Forty years ago I wrote that those who regard themselves a supporter of Israel are in fact supporters of its moral degeneration, increased isolation, and possible ultimate destruction.  I hate to be proven accurate, but it is foolish to deny the tendencies.

JJ: Given the advance of Israeli settlements and other “facts on the ground”, is it time for the peace movement to abandon a two state solution and focus a single secular state solution? What would such a model look like?

NC: The question presupposes that “a single secular state” is a live option.  It isn’t.  The two-state option has overwhelming international support, and it is hard to implement because the US has stood in the way.  A single secular state has essentially no support, and will therefore be vastly more difficult to try to implement.  Abandoning a two-state solution means, in practice, supporting the only live alternative that remains: that Israel continues its illegal takeover of the occupied territories with continuing US support.

In general, it should be second nature to activists to keep clear about a distinction between proposals and advocacy.  We can propose that everyone should live in peace.  It rises to the level of advocacy when we sketch a path from here to there.  A single secular state – in any realistic interpretation, a binational state – is what I’ve personally favored for 70 years. I’ve repeatedly written about how I think the prospects can be advanced, with modifications as circumstances have changed.  I still think there is a realistic form of advocacy, but in stages.  If there’s another way, I haven’t heard of it.

JJ: How do you recommend building a robust BDS movement in the face of Israeli interests on campus? How can it be effective?

NC: By keeping to a principled stand.  BDS actions directed against the occupation are entirely appropriate, in fact morally obligatory.  The case is very strong, and easily understood.  And by undertaking them one is joining with very broad international opinion, including major human rights organizations and even the European Union, which has called for boycott of any Israeli institutions that are involved in the occupation.  In the occupied territories, Israel’s actions are in gross violation of international law, as determined by the UN Security Council and the World Court.  Furthermore, we should not stop there.  The main target for us should be the United States.  The Presbyterian Church divestment decision, quite correctly, targeted US multinationals that participate in the occupation.  There is very good reason to organize to support Amnesty International’s call for an arms embargo.  In fact, US arms to Israel are in direct violation even of American law (the Leahy Law), and should be opposed.  To build a powerful movement it is necessary to focus on issues that are clear, well supported by fact and law, and understandable to the audience one is attempting to reach.  That’s how it was done in the case of South Africa, and after many years, the actions had some success.  The same can be true here.

JJ: You mentioned that Israel-U.S. relations have taken on an unprecedented form. How do you think American support for Israel formed and what makes their relationship so unique? Has Israel been romanticized by the United States for cultural reasons or calculated political ones? To what degree do you think these motivations inform one another?

NC: I’ve written about it extensively. In its current form, the support dates from 1967, when Israel performed a huge service to the US and its Saudi ally by destroying secular Arab nationalism, which threatened to wrest control of ME energy resources, which Washington regarded as “a stupendous source of strategic power” and the greatest “material prize” in history. Further similar services followed. Thus when Congress prevented Reagan from participating directly in the virtual genocide of Mayans in Guatemala, he was able to call upon Israel to provide the arms and training. Same with South Africa, when Congress prevented Reagan from providing direct support to the apartheid state. [There are] many other cases. To the present, Israel is regarded as a highly valuable strategic ally, by now tightly linked to US intelligence and military in a crucially significant region of the world. We just saw that again during Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza. Israel was running out of munitions and called on the US for more. They were supplied, from US stocks pre-positioned in Israel. Pre-positioned, for eventual use by US forces. Israel is furthermore a rich western country with a highly trained scientific elite and work force, so a fine target for US investors in high tech industry. Warren Buffett recently spent severable billion dollars to buy a major Israeli company and described Israel as the best investment opportunity in the world outside the US. [This is] one example of many. There is a long tradition of Christian Zionism, going back before Jewish Zionism, biblically based. That’s been particularly strong as an elite phenomenon in the US, and in recent years had been strongly buttressed by the vast fundamentalist right Christian movement, by now the base of the Republican Party (one reason why the Republicans, not the Democrats, were lined up uniformly against the Hagel nomination). It is, furthermore, notable that the strongest international support for Israel comes from the US, Australia, and Canada, three settler-colonial states that decimated the indigenous societies. Since that was obviously right (we did it), it follows that it’s right for Israel to do the same, particularly when we add the strong religious element, particularly in the US, one of the most extreme fundamentalist religious societies in the world. In addition the Israeli lobby includes strong elements of the Jewish minority, not very numerous but educated, plenty of wealth, and very active politically. If major sectors of US power objected to it, they could of course put it out of business in 5 minutes. In contrast the Palestinians offer nothing: no wealth, no power, just a nuisance. Hence [they have] no rights. It might be different if the oil dictatorships, the countries the US really cares about, offered strong support for the Palestinians apart from words. But they don’t, for reasons that are somewhat similar. [It] goes back to ’48 in interesting ways. That’s the story in brief. Details are of course more intricate.

JJ: In light of the growing disapproval for the Israeli government by younger generations, do you think an end to the Palestine-Israel conflict is in sight? If so, how far away do you think a resolution to it is and what steps still need to be taken?

NC: Prediction in human affairs is a very low probability enterprise.  Too much depends on will and choice.  It seems fairly clear that as long as the US provides decisive support – military, economic, diplomatic, ideological – for Israel’s programs of taking over whatever it finds of value in the occupied territories, then Israel’s policies will persist, and Israel will move on to becoming a pariah state, morally and politically degenerating within.  If so, then the most important steps are to end US rejectionism, in virtual international isolation.

JJ: There seems to be a historical trend that brutalized populations tend to become more radical (e.g. Soviet war in Afghanistan birthing Al-Qaeda). Do you think the Palestinians are victims of this tendency and, if so, how should anti-occupation advocates account for this?

NC: It is in general true that when peaceful means to attain legitimate ends are barred, people may turn to violence and extremist doctrines.  Palestinians in the occupied territories have been remarkably resistant to these natural tendencies, though they have been developing. Anti-occupation activists should respond by overcoming the causes of these dangerous tendencies: the obstructionism of those who hold the club.

JJ: How far along is the advocacy process? Have you noticed any general timeline on how activist movements grow or fail to eventually influence policy? Similarly, what do you think makes them fail? Do you believe a one-state solution will ever be a feasible option?

NC: In the past 10-15 years, activism – much of it among students – has brought about very substantial changes.  Merely to illustrate from my own experience, for many years I had police protection when I gave talks on Israel-Palestine, even at my own university.  Those days are over.  By now talks attract large and engaged audiences, and there are no longer threats of disruption or worse.

As for approaching a “one state solution” – more realistically, some kind of binational state – there is only one substantive proposal on the table, to my knowledge: in stages, beginning with a two state settlement in terms of the overwhelming international consensus, followed by gradual erosion of highly artificial borders and closer integration as the two communities come to realize common interests.

Successes and failures have many reasons.  One common cause of failure is unwillingness to distinguish clearly between proposals and genuine advocacy, which requires sketching out a realistic path from here to there.  Proposals are easy; advocacy is hard, but meaningful.

JJ: Ideally, what does an effective anti-occupation group do at an undergraduate institution? What are its goals and to what degree do you think it’s helpful to have a dialogue with pro-Israel advocates?

NC: Dialogue is always not just helpful but essential.  And it is possible too, with care and understanding.  The primary goal of any activist movement is education, in this case, bringing to the campus an understanding of the history and current realities, and in particular, of the crucial US role – the one factor we can hope to modify, hence the most important one for us, even apart from its overwhelming significance.  Educational efforts can have a mutually supportive relationship with actions designed both for outreach and for influence of policy.   There are many possibilities.  One important and I think realistic task would be to organize efforts to impose an arms embargo, as has been called for by Amnesty International and other human rights organization. Ending arms transfers to Israel would, in fact, conform to US law – the Leahy law.  And I think it should be possible to organize significant support for it.  The impact, even of organizing efforts, could be quite significant.   It would also be important, and significant, to adopt the guidelines of the European Union, and to break relations with any Israeli institution involved in the occupation by boycott and divestment.  And there are many other possibilities, depending on the circumstances.

JJ: Can states that identify so distinctly with specific religious and cultural groups peacefully exist in the twenty-first century and beyond? How do you think the Israel-Palestine conflict will influence future ethno-religious struggles?

NC: We should, I think, strive for the ideal of secular states that are states of their citizens, not of some privileged group within, religious or other.  It’s possible for states that deviate from that idea to co-exist.  The unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict is one of many factors enflaming the Middle East region.  Mitigating or ending the conflict should have a positive impact, how much is hard to guess.

JJ: In your 70 years as a critic of Israeli policy and Western intervention,  have your views on the nature of injustice and oppression changed? Do you believe younger generations are inheriting a world with less oppression than the one you grew up in, or are we doomed to a similar future? 

NC: My views have of course changed somewhat over the years as circumstances have changed and as I’ve come to learn and understand more.  Over time, the general trajectory seems to me positive, with substantial steps towards overcoming injustice and oppression, not without regression of course.  We’re only “doomed” to the extent that we are unwilling to take steps that may be difficult but are feasible – and necessary.

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