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Keeping the Record Straight


Much has been said and written about Noam Chomsky’s May 2010 trip to the Middle East. Factual errors, omissions, and out-of-context quotations in media reports were frequent during the trip itself. They were repeated and amplified by others later, often tailored to fit preconceptions of what Chomsky says or believes.

I was involved in the organization of the trip from beginning to end, in consultation with the local hosts in Amman, Beirut, and Ramallah. The original plan was to start in Ramallah in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) on May 16 and finish in Beirut on May 27. We flew in from the US to Amman in the late afternoon of May 15, then drove to the Allenby Bridge in the morning of May 16. As it happened, Noam Chomsky was denied entry into the OPT at the Allenby Bridge and, with him, the three others in his company: his daughter Avi, Irene Gendzier, and myself. Our half-day transit through Jordan into the OPT was thus extended into an impromptu three-day stay in Amman, and then two days were also added to the original Lebanon portion of the trip.

We organized the trip in response to two separate invitations, one from Birzeit University in the OPT and one from al-Leqaa Association in Beirut. Chomsky was scheduled to give a series of lectures in both places. Beyond the lectures, we planned to make side trips and meet people, all with a political dimension and in the company of the local hosts. For guidance and suggestions in the OPT, we mostly relied on the Mubadara (the Palestinian National Initiative) headed by Mustafa Barghouti, and in Lebanon, again on al-Leqaa Association. Relying on the Mubadara and al-Leqaa was a deliberate decision reflecting our political affinities. The late Edward Said was a founding member of the Mubadara in 2002. Writer and historian Fawwaz Traboulsi, a founding member of al-Leqaa, was an old friend and political comrade. 

Despite the setback at the Allenby Bridge, or because of it, the trip and its after-effects have been overwhelmingly positive, well beyond all of our expectations. Chomsky lectured to overflowing halls, his whereabouts were given front-page coverage in the local press, his interviews were circulated and commented widely. Inevitably, there was the usual Chomsky-bashing from the right — and, from the left, discordant notes from the holier-than-thou types.

In what follows I address confusions and distortions that were elicited by some of Chomsky’s comments and presumed positions during the trip.

‘Fayyad’s policies of developing facts on the ground are sensible’

After several hours of intermittent interrogations at the Allenby Bridge, as soon as it became clear they would not allow Chomsky to enter the OPT, and the rest of us with him, [1]  I was working our mobile phones to alert those in Ramallah waiting for us. Mustafa Barghouti immediately contacted the press. Back in Amman two hours later, in the evening of May 16 and all day on May 17, Mouin Rabbani and I were working the phones to coordinate a continuous stream of interview requests, close and far — from New York to Doha and beyond — in person or by phone or by Skype.

Only two parts of our aborted OPT program were salvaged from the Israeli ban: a meeting with Salam Fayyad and the Birzeit lecture. The latter was video-conferenced from Amman on May 18, with only a 24-hour delay from its originally scheduled time, thanks to the efforts of Abdul-Rahim al-Shaikh at Birzeit University. [2]

On May 17, at about the time of the canceled appointment with Fayyad in Ramallah, they called up from the latter’s office and asked if Chomsky was available for a conversation on the telephone. An exchange of about 45 minutes ensued during which Fayyad explained the policies he is pursuing to counter the occupation. Later on the same day, in an interview with Democracy Now! from New York, Chomsky mentioned the exchange and said:

“[Fayyad] is pursuing policies which, in my view, are quite sensible, policies of essentially developing facts on the ground.” 

That was enough to raise the hackles of several who cannot fathom anything good coming from the PA, or Fatah, or anything connected with either one.

How could Chomsky give his stamp of approval to Fayyad? Why would Chomsky consider meeting Fayyad in the first place? No, Chomsky was not siding with Fayyad against other Palestinian leaders and factions. No, Chomsky was not scheduled to meet only Fayyad, he also planned to meet with several political figures across the political spectrum, including a Hamas parliamentarian, and the Mubadara was due to guide him on site visits. And, no, Chomsky does not agree with the economic theories of the World Bank (of which Fayyad was an official for many years) any more than he espouses Hamas’ Islamist ideology.

It would be presumptuous for Chomsky or, for that matter, any American friend of Palestinian rights to set criteria of Palestinian patriotism. [3] Siding with Hamas in its defense of Gaza, or condemning the PA’s collusion with Israeli security forces in tracking down Hamas militants, does not negate agreement with some of the PA’s other policies. The blanket condemnation of Fayyad becomes all the more illogical when we recall that plans of creating facts and boycotts had been urged by other Palestinian groups and their international supporters prior to their adoption by Fayyad. Should Fayyad be encouraged or should he be reproved — by American visitors, no less — when the sole focus is on these plans which he and other groups have embraced?

It is worth elaborating the reasons behind Chomsky’s favorable statement about Fayyad’s “policies of developing facts.” I quote at some length from another interview Chomsky had a few days later: [4]



“About ten years ago, there was advice from Israeli industrialists to the government, saying that in the West Bank they should move, in their phrase, from ‘colonialism’ to ‘neo-colonialism’. That is, they should construct neo-colonial structures on the West Bank. Now, we know what those are. Take any former colony. Typically, they have a sector of extreme wealth and privilege that collaborates with the former colonial power, and then a mass of misery and horror surrounding it. And that’s what they suggest, and that’s what’s being done. So if you go to Ramallah — I wanted to see it for myself, but I didn’t get there — it’s kind of like Paris, you live a nice life, there are elegant restaurants, and so on, but of course if you go into the countryside, it’s quite different, and there are checkpoints and life’s impossible. Well, that’s neo-colonialism. There’s only totally dependent development, and they will not allow independent development, and they’re trying to impose a permanent arrangement of this kind.”

 

“Salam Fayyad, who I had hoped to meet in Ramallah — we talked by telephone — has described his programmes, which sound sensible to me. First of all, calling for a boycott of settlement production, which I think is very sensible, and I think that should be done all over the world, while trying to arrange for Palestinians to have forms of employment other than working in the settlements so they don’t contribute to settlement growth: taking part in non-violent resistance to the expansion and doing whatever construction they can manage to do within the Israeli framework, maybe even in Area C, the Israeli-controlled area, and just taking small steps towards trying to lay the basis for a future independent Palestinian entity.”

 

‘No, that’s quite false, … I regard myself as a supporter of Israel’

By itself, this is a loaded statement. Chomsky made the statement in a televised interview with Israel’s Channel-2 TV,  recorded in Amman on May 18 and partly broadcast on May 22, facing an interviewer who was more interested in Chomsky’s “undermining Israel’s existence” (as if that were ever in his magical power!) than his views on world affairs. Wrested from its context, the statement lent itself to several hostile comments. Some picked on it as contrary to things Chomsky said and wrote elsewhere. More insidiously, others accused him of harboring secret Zionist sympathies.

There is no written transcription of the entire Channel-2 interview, and only part of it was broadcast, which makes it easier to produce careless or malicious distortions and more difficult to check them out.

Let me refer to the written record first, more reliable and readily confirmed. Consider the concluding paragraph of an article Chomsky wrote after Israel’s lopsided devastation of Gaza in January 2009: [5]

 

“Decades ago, I wrote that those who call themselves ‘supporters of Israel’ are in reality supporters of its moral degeneration and probable ultimate destruction. Regrettably, that judgment looks more and more plausible. Meanwhile we are quietly observing a rare event in history, what the late Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling called ‘politicide,’ the murder of a nation — at our hands.” 

How then can Chomsky regard himself a “supporter of Israel” (in the Channel-2 interview) when he denounces those who call themselves “supporters of Israel” (in the preceding paragraph)? You cannot claim both, unless the same expression “supporter of Israel” refers to two opposite realities, his and theirs. The Israel whose interest he has at heart is not the state but the people living in it, foremost the disenfranchised among them, including the sizable minority (about 20 percent) which is Arab. This is perfectly consistent with Chomsky’s political philosophy for whom the state, any state, is an instrument of coercion to beware of and guard against. The Israel whose interest they have at heart is the state, a powerful Jewish state that commits “politicide” against the Palestinians and draws its privileges and propensity for violence from its junior partnership with the US.

This is an elementary distinction between Chomsky’s reality and that of his critics — plain enough for anyone who cares to review the record honestly — and it is the only way to make sense of the alleged contradiction in Chomsky’s position.

I lift another statement by Chomsky from the very same Channel-2 interview, less than two minutes after the “supporter of Israel” statement:

 

“I don’t think it [Israel] should exist as a Jewish state.” 

Another loaded sentence by itself. A minimal reading of it is that Chomsky is opposed to Israel as a state of Jews only, or as a state that treats Jews preferentially, which seems to contradict his earlier “supporter of Israel” statement — unless, to spell it out unambiguously once more, Chomsky’s support is not for the state with all its instruments of internal oppression and external violence, but for the fate of its citizens. 

But out-of-context statements are treacherous and open to deceptive use. For a more honest reading, I  transcribe below a longer passage from the Channel-2 interview, with quirks and all. [6] Consider the situation: Chomsky is facing an interviewer who is obsessing about his Jewish loyalties. He is trying to address wider political issues that the interviewer does not seem to care for, as the interviewer keeps raising the accusations that he is anti-Jewish and wants to harm Jews. Emphasis is mine, ellipses between square brackets are my omissions of various lengths, including interruptions by the interviewer: [7]

 

“Interviewer: On the one hand you speak Hebrew, you come from a Jewish family, you talked about antisemitism when you were young, you lived on a kibbutz [in the 1950’s] and you actually considered staying […]. On the other hand you are the most outspoken critic of Israel, and you are undermining Israel’s existence, and —

“Chomsky: No, that’s quite false, I don’t regard myself as a critic of Israel. I regard myself as a supporter of Israel. The people who are harming Israel, in my opinion, as I said many times, are those who claim to be supporting Israel […] Let’s go back a step. You said I am calling for the destruction of Israel or some words to that effect. Well, I don’t think it should exist as a Jewish state, [just as] I don’t think the United States should exist as a Christian state […] Insofar as [Israel] is not a state of its citizens but a state of a special category of its citizens, I object to it in principle. […] Though I was opposed to the existence of a Jewish state [before 1948], […] once it was formed in 1948, my position has consistently been that Israel should have the rights of every state in the international system, no more and no less. Now Israel demands more and I don’t agree with it.” 

‘Why not no-state?’

Chomsky’s lecture in Beirut was at the UNESCO Palace, the largest in the city, in the evening of May 25. Hundreds had packed the hall full, some sitting in the aisles, some standing throughout, and many others waiting outside who were not able to enter.

After the lecture, many of the questions from the audience were unrelated to things Chomsky had talked about. A few seemed dead-set on challenging Chomsky on his presumed positions on “one-state versus two-state” and on the “BDS campaign,” neither of which he had addressed in the lecture itself.

One questioner extolled the high virtues of a single democratic state in Palestine. Another asked why Chomsky is so firmly committed to a “two-state solution” (he is not).

Chomsky started his answer by asking rhetorically, “Why not no-state?” Several in the audience applauded. Some others laughed, thinking it was a pun on that increasingly inane question (“one-state or two-state?”), but it wasn’t entirely. The pun reflected his view that the states of the Middle East, the product of a power game between colonial empires in the Twentieth Century, have been singularly detrimental to the well-being of its peoples. A pun, but a wish for the long-term future too, if the Middle East is to eventually overcome the pathologies of its state system.

Chomsky’s line of argument in his answer went like this: Proposals are easy to make, effective advocacy is something else. If you want a one-state solution in Palestine — a single democratic state, a bi-national state, or whatever your ideal form is — then you need to trace a path from here to there. These are nice proposals, the sentiments behind them are all honorable, but an effective strategy starts from a recognition of present conditions and a realistic assessment of the next possible step. In his own words elsewhere: [8]

 

“Advocacy requires more than just proposal. It means setting up your goals (proposal), but also sketching out a path from here to there (that’s advocacy). And the path from here to there almost invariably requires small steps. It requires recognition of social and economic reality as it exists, and ideas about how to build the institutions of the future within the existing society […] . That means steps have to be taken that accommodate reality, which don’t deny its existence (‘Since I don’t like it, I’m not going to accommodate it’). These are the only ways to be effective.

 

“[A long-term strategy] is concerned with mild reformist tactics. That’s not a criticism. […] That’s what it should be concerned with, if you want to advocate long-term, significant social change towards a more free and just society […]. Otherwise, the insistence on purity of proposal simply isolates you from effectiveness in activism, and even from approaching your own goals. And it does lead to the kind of sectarianism and narrowness and lack of solidarity and common purpose that I think has always been a kind of pathology of marginal forces, on the left in particular.” 

How then to “trace a path from here to there?” The following is excerpted from Chomsky’s answer, after the lecture at the UNESCO Palace: [9]

 

“It’s much better to have no state than one state. […] There are in fact developments in that direction elsewhere. In Europe it’s called devolution. […] So, let’s propose a no-state settlement. But if you want to be serious about it, how do you get there?

“Same with the one-state settlement. It isn’t that good, but better than a two-state settlement. Again, how do you get there? […]

“The only form of advocacy [towards a one-state settlement that] I have heard is in stages. Given a two-state settlement, which is not pretty but is within reason, it could reduce the level of violence and hostility, it could lead to more interchange, […] it could move on towards some form of integration […] in fact, at a regional level.

“If there is another form of advocacy, I haven’t heard it.” 

For Chomsky, therefore, a two-state settlement is effective advocacy towards a one-state settlement and beyond.

For my part, I will add one thought. A state or a government is not an end in itself, justice and equal rights are. It has become a kind of frivolous and wasteful obsession to think that justice for the Palestinians can only be served by a state, some state, and nothing else will do until then. A state will not be the end of the road. The fact is that many Palestinian rights will have to be achieved well before, and many other rights will remain to be won after any new state is formed. That obsession about a state among some has become frivolous because it diverts attention — and wasteful because it diverts energy — from far more urgent and immediate tasks.

There is no foretelling now the successive shapes that justice will take for the Palestinians (and all their neighbors) as their struggle unfolds. Whether it will pass through a small Palestinian state on part of old Palestine, or a little larger bi-national state, or some other unitary state — none will obviate the necessity of going beyond to a future, however distant, when the Middle East will be free of border restrictions, free of distinctly pathological states and governments (each in its own way), and Palestinian rights are equal to any other people’s rights.

Boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS)

Perhaps the most visible recent case in the BDS campaign in the US was the motion submitted to the student senate of the University of California in Berkeley in April 2010. It was widely covered in the US, both in the mainstream media and in alternate news outlets. The student senate held several all-night sessions on a proposal calling on the university to divest from two US companies “materially and militarily profiting” from the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Though defeated at the end — the senate majority of 13 to 5 was not sufficient to overturn its president’s veto — the measure rallied a wide array of progressive organizations and individuals. Noam Chomsky was among prominent intellectuals who lent their encouragement to the Berkeley measure. His letter of support, and letters from others, were read aloud during the debates.

Anyone who followed the Berkeley episode could not fail to take note of Chomsky’s position. Nonetheless, out of ignorance or carelessness, there are people who persist in asserting Chomsky is against BDS. Someone in Beirut seemed to have seized on that misrepresentation and, at the end of the lecture at the UNESCO Palace, challenged Chomsky to take a stand on BDS. Chomsky answered by saying:

 

“Some forms of BDS are constructive, some are not. […] There are some forms of BDS which are very harmful to the Palestinians, [when] they become weapons in the hands of the [Zionist] hardliners. […] If you want to help people, you have to make decisions — which you always have to make about tactics — which ones are constructive and helpful, which ones are harmful.” 

BDS is a means to an end and, like any other tactic, is as good as its effectiveness. It is not a principle or a litmus test to judge other anti-occupation activists. Tactics, if effective, produce tangible results and change with them. Reasonable disagreements in evaluating particular cases should not prevent joining forces on other cases in pursuit of the common goals of supporting Palestinian rights.

Without imputing malicious intent to anyone, part of the confusion is that BDS actions have not always been evaluated carefully for what they can accomplish. At times there has been a deliberate fuzziness about what BDS tries to achieve and there have been vague formulations confounding otherwise sympathetic listeners. [10] 

Chomsky’s position is to refrain from pursuing “feel-good” but ultimately quixotic tactics. At the UNESCO Palace lecture, he said he is all in favor of “boycotting US corporations that operate in the occupied territories” because they do so in violation of US and international law. As such, this kind of boycott can be pursued to draw a wide range of support and be very effective. But he also questioned other tactics, more likely to fizzle out or backfire:

 

“[…]  You have to ask yourself, is an academic boycott of Tel Aviv University helpful to the Palestinians or harmful to them?  If you boycott Tel Aviv University, then why not Harvard [which is as complicit in its tacit support of US-Israeli policies]?

“If Tel Aviv University is targeted for an academic boycott, it can rally Harvard and a whole array of equally-complicit universities in its defense. Is this a fight worth fighting? And on what grounds, in the absence of explicitly broken laws?” 

Later in his answer, Chomsky asked about the effect of calling for the boycott of an Israeli dance company. In the same vein, we can ask about the effect of boycotting a performance by the Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim. Or should we make an exception for Barenboim only because of his friendship with the late Edward Said? We are not talking about a musical performance doubling as a fund-raising event for the Israeli military or the Zionist Organization of America, in which case boycott is certainly called for.

In a recent interview, Chomsky elaborated his views on BDS in detail — “a tactic, one of many, and not a doctrine of faith” — and warned against equating careful evaluation of tactical choices with lacking principle.[11] 

*** 

Many other questions were raised during the trip. Some came up in small meetings, in conversations, or on the margins of interviews. Discussions were often compressed and left unfinished because of the intense schedule.

If there was a common thread to all of Chomsky’s political statements on that trip, it is his conviction that it is not his role to lecture the Palestinians on what they should do. That is the Palestinians’ responsibility and it is up to them to decide. His responsibility, and that of supporters of Palestinian rights in the US, is to “educate and organize the American public and to develop popular forces that can overcome the dominant propaganda images that sustain the US policies that have been undermining Palestinian rights.”

 

Notes

1. Noam Chomsky and his daughter Avi had their passports stamped with an explicit denial of entry. They did not stamp Irene Gendzier’s passport and mine the same way, in fact they did not stamp them at all — no approval and no denial. The border inspectors interviewed us separately and more than once. When they interviewed Irene Gendzier and me, they asked if we would consider entering Israel separately — they referred to Israel only, not the OPT — without Noam Chomsky and his daughter. Needless to say, we refused, insisting that either we enter as a group of four or else we all go back to Amman.

2. The lecture was video-conferenced from an auditorium at the University of Jordan, in Amman, transmitted live to an auditorium at Birzeit University. It was certainly in the Israeli authorities’ power to stop or jam the transmission. But by then, two days after the deportation order at the Allenby Bridge, they were reeling from the worldwide clamor and, no doubt, careful not to cause another PR fiasco. The lecture was attended by hundreds in the Amman auditorium, the Birzeit auditorium, and simultaneously transmitted by satellite TV (al Jazeera).  At the end, the impact was far greater than we could have ever wished for, had Chomsky been allowed to enter the OPT and deliver his lecture at Birzeit itself.

3. The presumption is just as out of place for an Arab-American like myself, notwithstanding my own personal connections with Palestine.  Apart from everything else, it reveals a remarkable arrogance to set oneself up as the censor over whom others are allowed to speak to and over how to judge the different groups struggling for Palestinian rights.

4. David Tresilian, “Noam Chomsky: speaking of truth and power,” interview, al-Ahram Weekly, 3-9 June 2010, Issue No. 1001. 

5. Noam Chomsky, “Exterminate all the Brutes,” ZNet, January 20, 2009.

6. The recording of the interview lasted a little more than an hour. Channel-2 edited and shortened portions of it. The part that was broadcast and is now publicly accessible (from the Israeli Occupation Archives and YouTube among other places) goes to about 22 minutes only. In the most dissonant portions, the interviewer seemed at her wits’ end, asking questions and the same again differently, all seemingly intended to entrap Chomsky. Nonetheless, the edited version gives a fair sense of how the full interview went. Here are the kind of questions which the interviewer repeatedly asked throughout: “In Israel they consider you to be someone who is harming Israel, does it hurt you personally?” “Are you upset that public opinion [in Israel] is against you?” And more in the same vein. Some of these can be heard in the 22-minute edited version.

7. On the 22-minute edited version, the part transcribed here starts around 3 min 30 sec from the beginning and goes to 7 min 30 sec. This is a 4-minute interval, of which the transcribed text here occupies less than one-fourth of it.

8. I transcribe here a passage from an interview Chomsky gave in early March 2010. Its recording is available on YouTube. The interview covered a wide range of issues, from cognitive science to politics and anarchism. The passage transcribed here (beginning at 6 min 10 sec from the start of the recording) reproduces the gist of one of Chomsky’s answers after the lecture at the UNESCO Palace in Beirut on May 25.

9. I transcribe from a recording of the whole lecture, kindly made available by Jinane Gemawi of the Beirut daily as-Safir.

10. I share this criticism, as many other supporters of Palestinian rights do. To take one example, here is what Norman Finkelstein had to say on this vagueness (emphasized parts are mine):

 

“[BDS] has, I think, two aspects to it: one aspect that targets Israel globally, saying anything and everything that has to do with Israel has to be boycotted, and a second that says we should focus on those aspects of what Israel does that are illegal under international law.  So for example, what the Methodist Church in Britain did: it did not pass a resolution saying we should boycott all Israeli products, even though there were some people pushing for that.  It passed a resolution saying we should boycott Israeli goods that come from the settlements, because the settlements are illegal under international law.  And then there are the initiatives of, say, Amnesty International that call for a comprehensive arms embargo on Israel because the transfer of weapons to persistent human rights abusers is illegal under international law.  Then there’s the targeting of Caterpillar because Caterpillar is involved in demolition of homes, which is illegal under international law, and so on.

“So there’s one subset of BDS that focuses not on Israel globally but on aspects of Israeli policy that violate international law.  There’s another subset that says everything having to do with Israel should be boycotted — its academic institutions, all of its products, and so on and so forth. Personally, I think that the first subset — namely targeting those aspects of Israeli policy that violate international law — has a much better chance of success because people understand international law.  When you start targeting everything having to do with Israel it begins to pose questions of motive — ‘OK, now, what exactly are we opposed to here?  Are we opposed to the occupation or are we opposed to Israel completely?’  And the global targeting is, I think, deliberately obfuscatory on that issue.”

The preceding is excerpted from an interview with Jamie Stern-Weiner, “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves: Interview with Norman G. Finkelstein,” MRZine, July 7, 2010.  To the preceding I would add the following, as suggested by Finkelstein himself later in the same interview: BDS should not be limited, as a matter of principle, to Israeli policies that are specifically illegal under international law. There are many beneficial actions that should be pursued though they cannot be explained as upholding international law or sanctioning an Israeli  government that explicitly breaks it. For example, when artists and intellectuals publicly express solidarity with the Palestinians by refraining from participating in officially-approved festivals or celebrations in Israel, this kind of boycott should be welcome and applauded, because it widens public awareness of the Palestinians’ plight and not because it upholds international law to which it is unrelated.

11. “Exclusive IOA Interview with Noam Chomsky: Israels War against PalestineNow What?Israeli Occupation Archive, 26 July 2010. Consider in particular Chomsky’s answer to the penultimate question on BDS.


Assaf Kfoury is an Arab-American political activist and Professor of Computer Science at Boston University. He grew up in Beirut and Cairo, and returns frequently to the Middle East.

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