May 25, 2010

Word reached these shores last week that Professor Noam Chomsky—the celebrated public intellectual, activist, linguist, philosopher and all-round “left-wing” critic of U.S. foreign policy—had been detained for five hours by border guards, and then denied entry to occupied Palestine. Chomsky was attempting to reach the West Bank on May 16 from the Allenby Bridge, spanning the river Jordan, which is the only border crossing from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to Palestine. He was scheduled to give a lecture on the wide-ranging topic of “America and the World” at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah. In addition, he had an appointment to see the Palestinian Authority’s “Prime Minister”, Salam Fayyd, to discuss the current status of the two-state “peace process”.

Chomsky was informed by his interrogators that he had “written things that the Israeli government did not like.” Hence, the hold-up. Chomsky was last spotted in Israel in 1997, when he gave a talk at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion University as well as at Bir Zeit. Occupation authorities were apparently puzzled that Israel proper was not part of his itinerary this time, and Chomsky speculated that they wanted to demonstrate Israel’s right, as the military occupying power, to determine which outsiders would be allowed to speak at a Palestinian university. Is this incident important in the grand scheme of things? Probably not, but it does say something about Chomsky and the ongoing experiment of Zionism.

There is a thread of competing ideas at work in this episode. The thread runs all the way back to the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917 and to the Balfour Declaration of November of the same year. The 1920 article by Winston Churchill in the Illustrated Sunday Herald entitled “Zionism versus Bolshevism” noted the forces in play at that moment in time. We are living in a postscript. This incident at the Allenby Bridge can be viewed, in the aftermath of the 20th century, as a residual confrontation of Right versus Left.

I’m no leftist, so I have spent little time reading Chomsky. From the material I have seen, he appears to follow the garden variety narrative of left-wing intellectualism, coming out of a Jewish environment and upbringing. I was overexposed to species of it—from “liberalism” to Maoism—at Columbia University some time ago, in the midst of the Cold War. It posited an explanation of human activity as viewed through the prism of “imperialism” and “empire”—all offshoots of “capitalism”. It is a variation on a theme by Karl Marx. In retrospect, it was banal and largely irrelevant, but it did provide a moyen de vivre, an attempt to make sense of the world, mostly for individuals in their salad days.

This narrative was more about those preoccupied with it than the content. In days gone by, some of these advanced thinkers—I won’t name names—graduated from being self-proclaimed Trotskyites to unabashed Neocons and roustabouts. They followed their ego where it led them. Although America is still agog with party politics—the pointless contest between Republicans and Democrats—the era of Leftist ideologies is over, or should be. We in the West no longer have the time or the luxury. We should be getting down to brass tacks. Chinese Communists and those in Russia and Eastern Europe did that when they abandoned Communism, to face the real world. Moreover, you do not need to be an expert to see that everything is out of kilter in Europe and America. There is no Right or Left, there is only right and wrong, the authentic and the bogus. It is not terribly difficult to recognize one from the other. Take, for instance, modern-day Israel.

Chomsky has addressed that thorny subject many times, most recently on April 27, in an essay entitled “A Middle East Peace That Could Happen (But Won’t)”. I could barely disagree with a single sentence in it, and this could be the reason why Chomsky is regarded as a troublemaker by Tel Aviv’s security forces. From their point of view, he is. All resistance constitutes a security threat. Every sane individual is a potential target. You can find Chomsky’s essay on a liberal website,, but please note that Chomsky does little more than point out what is obvious to any observer of U.S. policy in the Middle East who has not drunk the White House-Capitol Hill-Neocon Kool-Aid. His essay is a description of recent human tragedies in the Middle East—most notably the IDF assaults on Gaza—orchestrated by Tel Aviv and Washington, all of which have been counter-productive to truth, justice, international law, sanity, and common sense.

“Chomsky avoids fundamental issues with respect to Israel, preferring instead to emphasize the American empire aspects of the problem.”

Such an accounting is important, of course, because these events have been routinely distorted, camouflaged, and misrepresented by Tel Aviv and Washington, working in tandem, to suit themselves. But Chomsky gives no real insight which would inform lesser mortals why such outrageous things are happening, aside from his default assumption, to wit, that Washington’s geopolitical antics are part and parcel of its evil empire, with Tel Aviv acting as a surrogate for made-in-Washington policy, largely based on oil and corporate interests. That explanation, alas, is no longer credible. In effect, Chomsky gives Zionism or Israel a pass, because he assigns it the role of a dutiful nephew of Uncle Sam.

More sophisticated scholars of the U.S. Mideast policy have pointed out another explanation, one which is self-evident. At the forefront of these is the dynamic duo of Professors John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt, both of whom are refreshingly apolitical and non-ideological. They are self-styled “realists” dealing with the nuts and bolts of what passes for contemporary U.S. foreign policy. It is a thankless task. Their blockbuster 2006 essay “The Israel Lobby” in the London Review of Books was expanded into a book in 2007 entitled The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. They have concluded that the U.S. “has set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state” and that “the overall thrust of U.S. policy in the region is due almost entirely to U.S. domestic politics, and especially to the activities of the Israel Lobby.”

In sum, it’s not oil or empire. It’s politics and influence-peddling. Something we can relate to. M + W blame our hyper-expensive Iraq fiasco squarely upon the Lobby, not upon oil or the exigencies of empire. Perhaps the best single essay backing up the M + W thesis is “The Power of the Israel Lobby”, written by former senior analysts at the CIA, Bill and Kathleen Christison, for CounterPunch in May 2006, a few months after the original LRB article appeared. The Christison’s analysis is simply devastating. In passing, it deconstructs Chomsky and other “left-wing” American critics of Israel.

What are we to make of Chomsky’s reply in a 1997 interview with the German writer Ludwig Watzal? It can be found on Chomsky’s website. It’s there. “Question: Does Zionism have anything to do with the fate of the Palestinians? Chomsky: This is a very complex problem. It depends on what you mean by Zionism. I was a Zionist activist in my youth. For me, Zionism meant opposition to a Jewish state. (sic) The Zionist movement did not come out officially in favor of a Jewish state until 1942. Before this it was merely the intent of the Zionist leadership. The Zionist movement for a long time stood against the establishment of a Jewish state because such a state would be discriminatory and racist.”

Excuse me? Can you believe it? What is Chomsky talking about? Complex problem, indeed. Is he suggesting that he is for the disestablishment of Israel because it is discriminatory and racist? That would be a logical conclusion, because he claims that he was against the establishment of a “Jewish state” to begin with. But, insofar as I am aware, Chomsky advocates no such thing. In fact, Chomsky avoids fundamental issues with respect to Israel, preferring instead to emphasize the American empire aspects of the problem.

Contrast this with the straightforward conclusions of a fellow progressive with impressive credentials, the late Justin Keating, former Labor Minister of the Irish Republic and President of the Humanist Association of Ireland. These were expressed in his much-maligned 2005 op-ed piece in The Dubliner. “…like many young Europeans with left-wing views, as the full horrors of Nazi genocide became known, I supported the new state. But now I have totally changed my mind. I have reached the conclusion that the Zionists have absolutely no right in what they call Israel, that they have built their state not beside but on top of the Palestinian people, and that there can be no peace as long as contemporary Israel retains its present form.” I do not recall if Keating subsequently tried to cross the Allenby Bridge, but if he did you can be certain he would have been turned back in five minutes, not five hours.

Lastly and still in the realm of history and ideas, let’s note the passing of Orthodox Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, a longstanding confident of Yasir Arafat, who appointed Hirsch his adviser on Jewish affairs in 1993. Hirsch died this month in Jerusalem, where he was the leader of something called Neturei Karta, an anti-Zionist sect. He never became a citizen of Israel. From the Neturei Karta website, as quoted in the NY Times obit of May 4: “Neturei Karta opposes the so-called ‘State of Israel’ not because it operates secularly, but because the entire concept of a sovereign Jewish state is contrary to Jewish Law. The true Jews are against dispossessing the Arabs of their land and homes. According to the Torah, the land should be returned to them.”

Admittedly, the Rabbi Hirsch position is a minority viewpoint, since it is based on common sense and doing what is right. One wonders what Noam Chomsky thinks about it. Perhaps he and his interrogators covered that ground last week. We would need a transcript of the interrogation. You can be certain, however, that such sentiments of equity and restitution have found no place in U.S. Mideast policy, as executed at present and heretofore, because they are not based upon American domestic politics.


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!