Chomsky in Gaza: academic boycott “will strengthen support for Israel”

20 October 2012

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US scholar Noam Chomsky at the Islamic University, Gaza City, 20 October (Majdi Fathi / APA images)

Legendary MIT linguistics professor and political author Noam Chomsky has been visiting the Gaza Strip for a linguistics conference and as a demonstration of political solidarity.

The Electronic Intifada’s Rami Almeghari sat down with Chomsky in Gaza City to talk about his views on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the Palestinian Authority’s UN bid, and what a political settlement in Palestine may look like.

This is a rush transcript.

Rami Almeghari: Your current visit to the Gaza Strip is said to be within your own attempt to help break the Israeli siege of Gaza. Why has it taken place now?

Noam Chomsky: It has been a matter of arrangements and you know I am here taking part in the linguistic conference for the Islamic University of Gaza and this is a good chance for me to help break the blockade of Gaza .

RA: Do you agree with the international and Palestinian calls to boycott Israel academically and economically?

NC: So, in the case of South Africa, for example, in which I was involved in the boycotts, they were highly selective and they were selected in a way which would lead to help for the victims, not to make us feel good, help for the victims. The same in the case of the Vietnam war, where I was involved, and I was imprisoned many times, I was involved in civil disobedience, organizing resistance and so on.

But we always had to ask ourselves, when we pick a particular tactic, what does it mean for the Vietnamese not what does it mean for us? And sometimes there are things you should do and sometimes there are things you shouldn’t do and in fact they were very helpful in that regard.

And the same is true with boycotts. If you call for an academic boycott of say Tel Aviv University you have to ask yourself, what the consequences are of that call for the Palestinians and there’s an indirect answer. When you carry out an act in the United States, you are trying to reach the American population and you’re trying to bring the American population to be more supportive of Palestinian rights and opposed to Israeli and US policies.

So you therefore ask yourself, will an academic boycott of Tel Aviv University have – you ask yourself what the effect would be on the American audience in the United States that you are trying to reach. Now, that depends on the amount of organization and education that has taken place in the United States.

Today, if you look at the people’s understandings and beliefs, a call for an academic boycott on Tel Aviv University will strengthen support for Israel and US policy because it’s not understood. There is no point of talking to people in Swahili if they don’t understand what you are saying. There could be circumstances in which a boycott of Tel Aviv would be helpful, but first you have to do the educational and organizational work.

Same with South Africa. The equivalent of BDS, the boycott and sanctions programs, they began really around 1980. There were a few before, but mainly around then. That was after twenty years of serious organizing and activism which had led to a situation in which there was almost universal opposition to apartheid. Corporations were pulling out following the Sullivan law, the [US] Congress was passing sanctions and the UN had already declared embargo. We’re nowhere near that in the case of Palestine. We are not even close.

RA: Do you agree or not agree, do you agree partially… ?

NC:You can’t agree or disagree, it’s meaningless. In the case of any tactic, you ask yourself, what are its consequences, ultimately for the victims, and indirectly for the audience you are trying to reach. So you ask, do the people I am trying to reach see this as a step towards undercutting US policy and freeing the Palestinians or do they see this tactic as a reason to strengthen their support for US policy and attacking the Palestinians. That’s the question you ask when you carry out any tactic, whether it is disobedience, breaking bank windows, demonstrations, whatever it is. Those are the questions you ask if you care about the victims, if you don’t care about the victims, you won’t bother with these questions and you just do what makes you feel good.

RA: [Palestinian Authority] President Mahmoud Abbas called on the UN to recognize Palestine as a non-member state of the UN. What do you think about this move amidst Israel’s ongoing unilateral actions on the ground that change facts on the ground?

NC: The question is whether this act will improve the situation of the Palestinians and it is independent of what Israel is doing on the ground, which is a separate issue. Abbas can’t change what Israel is doing on the ground.

He can, or Palestinians can, take steps which will improve their situation in the international arena, so we ask ourselves whether a move towards recognition of Palestine as a non-observer status would be of benefit to the Palestinians or not.

Well, I think it could be of some benefit. For example, there’s a good reason why the United States and Israel are so passionately opposed to it. The reason they are passionately opposed is that it would be of benefit to the Palestinians. For example, it would give them the status in which they might consider bringing criminal charges against Israel to the International Criminal Court.

Now that’s almost certainly not going to succeed but it could be an important educational step. And that’s what you think about if you care about the victims. As I said, if you don’t care about the victims you don’t ask these questions.

But if you care about the victims you ask what this action will have to do, how will it affect their fate. How will it affect the people of Gaza and the people of Palestine generally. In this case, I think it can have some mild positive effects. And we should pay attention to the fact that both US and Israel are passionately opposed, and if they are passionately opposed we should ask ourselves why? And they are opposed precisely because it could be of benefit to the Palestinians.

RA: Some call for a two-state solution between Palestine and Israel, while others call for a one democratic state solution. Which is more workable for you?

NC: It is not a choice. I have been in favor of the what’s called a one-state-solution or binational state solution for seventy years and, so ok, I’m in favor of it. I am also in favor of peace in the world and … getting rid of poverty. There’s a lot of things I’m in favor of.

But if you are serious, you say, “how do we get from here to there?” That’s the question. We can all say it’s a wonderful idea. In fact I don’t think one state is a good idea, I think there should be a no-state solution that should erode the imperial borders. There’s no reason to worship French and British decisions on where to draw borders. A no-state solution would be much better, but again we ask, how do we get there?

Over the past seventy years I have been involved, there have been different ways in which you could move to that direction. Circumstances change, so your tactics change and under current circumstances, in fact since 1975, there is only one way that has ever been proposed, and that is in stages, through a two-state solution as the first stage. If there’s another way, nobody’s told us. They can say “I like this outcome,” but they don’t tell us how we get there. Now that’s as interesting as someone [who] says I’d like to have peace in the world.

RA: Thank you very much.

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.

Comments

المقاطعة الثّقافيّة والأكاديميّة للكيان الصّهيونيّ أقسى عليه من المقاطعة السّياسيّة والاقتصاديّة لأنّها تزعزع الأوهامَ الّتي غرسَها في الرّأي العامّ العالميّ وتجعله عاريا في وجه الحقائق التّاريخيّة.

What Mr. Chomsky is saying sounds interesting, especially when it comes to a full all-out boycott. Boycotting the good would hard the movement. But his perspective is misleading & frankly downright insuling at times. It's a chicken & egg situation: Does the Palestinian liberation movement need to gain a certain level of maturity/momentum/acceptance through education/awareness before before BDS can be applied or does the application of BDS actually raise the awareness and education level for the public to understand and act against oppression. I disagree with him that this is a "feel-good" movement-- quite frankly that is insulting. BDS has been growing consistently year after year and it is a natural extension of a movement that exists for decades. The comparative analysis with South Africa is based on an incorrect assumption. US/Western foreign policies in Africa were not "owned" by White African interests. The Israeli lobby, which Chomsky has exposed in several of his own books, literally dictates what the US should and should not do with the Palestinians. In addition, everyone knows that if the US did not head the call for boycott against SA, there would be have been a massive back lash by the African American community, especially post-civil rights area. Anyway we Palestinians and Arabs, Muslims and Christians, just can't be compared to the African-American experience. But does that mean that we need to reach that same kind of influence to call for BDS? I surely don't think so. People are being randomly killed, incarcerated, blockaded and kicked out from their homes. It is insulting that Chomsky fails to realize that 64 years of Palestinian activism has led us to call for BDS. And it has been succeeding. If you consider that apartheid lasted from 1948 to 1994, then a movement without BDS, which is a non-violent, completely legal, and efficient way to hold Israel accountable for crimes against humanity, would ultimately lead us to no where. So why not BDS?

I agree with El Khairy, I think BDS can be an "important educational step" as well and lead to good things for the people. Boycotting makes people ask questions about why there is a boycott and if they look for the truth they will find the reason is for justice and not something else.

I believe that Professor Chomsky has failed to realize that Academic Boycotts have an impact on Academics. They are compelled to ask "do I or do I not support this". In so doing they often learn why the boycott is demanded. He also ignores the role that Israel's academic play in trying the re-legitimize Israel by going to Universities and propagandizing for Israel. As a Academic, I support selective boycotts of Israeli academics, who fail to fight for Palestinian rights. That, of course, does not apply to those Academics who doe fight for Palestinian rights.

Actually, I think Mr. Chomsky is spot on- and let's not forget he's been doing this a lot longer than most of us. His point is that the majority of the US populace does not have the understanding of the situation to support BDS. I really don't understand how anyone who has lived in the US could disagree with this.

To Amna: that is not a criterion, to go along with NC because he's been 'doing this' for so long!
I also disagree with NC's notion that the only (or main?) purpose of the academic or cultural boycott is to influence public opinion in the country where I do the boycott. The main purpose to my mind is to hurt the Israeli elite whenever they represent Israeli government institutions, to ostracise them. Only such painful things have a chance of bringing Israel sincerely to the negotiating table. They have to need something. What is your and NC's plan - to keep talking reason to them and describing to the world how bad they are?
Thanks.

I tend not to agree with *one* of the conclusions that Chomsky draws, and which the EI editors chose (and I can see why) as the headline for this post, namely that boycotting institutions like my alma mater in the destroyed village of Sheikh Muwannis can strengthen Israel.

However, since this statement was made by Chomsky yesterday, I have read people comparing him to Norman Finkelstein, as if both of these scholars have equally renegged on their commitment to Palestinian liberation. The argumentation in this interview makes it clear that Chomsky is as devoted as ever to universal principles of human dignity and freedom from oppression, and it is his very pristine concern for the welfare of "the victims" - in this case, the Palestinians - that governs his conclusion that this tactic or the other may or may not be suitable for activists to pursue.

Tactics have always been agreed/disagreed upon. I think Chomsky has reserved the right to given an opinion and be attacked based upon it. Lib zionists slogans are unhelpful and uncalled for though. Students here in Gaza berated him on his positions about the one/two state solution, and he ultimately did tell them "this is up to Palestinians," and "I'm only voicing my opinion." Much respect to the man for breaking the siege on Gaza. Believe me, its no easy task.

In 1959, African Natioanl Congress (ANC) president Albert Luthuli called on people to boycott  South Africa, stating that “…non-white South Africans have responded to attacks on them by sending deputations and submitted petitions to the authorities… When these approaches were unsuccessful, they turned to passive resistance and then boycott.” 

SInce then, the ANC has sent delegations to address the international community on the need to isolate the South African apartheid regime. In 1962, an appeal for action in the United States against apartheid was launched by  Albert Luthuli and Martin Luther King. It took twenty years before BDS activism against the South African apartheid regime began to bite.

Fortunately, the response to Palesitnian civil society’s call for BDS actions against Israel has been more prompt. If we care about the ongoing violations of rights of the Palestinian people, we should respond now - not 20 years later -  to the Palestinian call for BDS.

With friends like Chomsky, who needs enemy.
Ever since entering Palestine, Zionist have committed genocide against Palestinian Arabs.
BDS is a weapon in our non-violent arsenal.
We are not Barbarians.
One way to kill a rat, is to starve it.

Dear Dr Chomsky, we are not speaking to the American people in Swahili (about BDS and Tel Aviv University). We, and our supporters throughout the free world, have been using the language of International Law, Justice and Human Rights.

Here is a useful link to the Alternative Information Center’s 64-page 2009 booklet on the Complicity of Israeli Academic Institutions in the Occupied Territories:

http://usacbi.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/economy_of_the_occupation_23-24.pdf

On page 40-41, (number 23) they list reasons (with documentation) to boycott Tel-Aviv University:

  1. T-A U takes pride in having conducted 55 research projects with the Israeli army.
  2. T-A U hosts a convention about weapons’ development for the Israeli army.
  3. T-A U hosts a convention, part of which directly deals with weapons’ development for the Israeli army.
  4. T-A U is a sponsor of the Psagot academic reserve program.
  5. T-A U is located on the destroyed Palestinian village of Sheikh Muwanis, whose residents have been deported, and has never recognized this fact.
  6. T-A U appointed a military colonel whose military past includes overseeing and approving military attacks on civilians during the 2008 Gaza attacks, to a lecturer on international law.

The Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel is not directed at individual Israeli scholars but is directed at institutions. Please read UCLA history professor Robin D. G. Kelley’s Mondoweiss interview on the necessity of academic boycott. He is a board member of the U.S. Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).

http://mondoweiss.net/2012/02/a-level-of-racist-violence-i-have-never-seen-ucla-professor-robin-d-g-kelley-on-palestine-and-the-bds-movement.html

It is unfortunate that he uses the word "victim" so often in this interview - we should probably interpret it in the general sense of "target of aggression". In this sense, the word fits.

Also, while I don't agree with all of his conclusions, he's making a larger, more general point: the principle that you don't do activism to make yourself feel good of just to belong to a club, but also to have a positive impact on the population for whom you are engaging in activism. It's hard to disagree with that as a general principle. In that sense, he's right to emphasize the concrete effect one's activism will have, and not only one's intentions, and the value of education. It's true that this can bring up a conflict between adhering to certain ethical principles on the one hand, and making realistic adjustments (influencing tactics) on the other.

... "Joe C" who comments above is a different one than me. We are legion, and my own opinions are a little more nuanced.

I would think there would have to be a lot of ground work to be done for there to be a successful academic boycott. Plus, as I am here in the USA, there are a lot of us do not even know about the complexities involved. Off the top I am not sure what good a mere 'academic' boycott would have.

Long ago I was involved in the Grape Boycott with the United Farmworkers Union led by Cesar Chavez that was eventually successful after a lot of years and a lot of direct community education/mobilization.

I always think it is good to consider what impact any tactical application would have on a general strategy and to consider all applicable tactics in a given situation. Sounds like common sense, but sometimes common sense is a rare quality. @Peta_de_Aztlan

Based on Dr. Chomsky's past statements on BDS and Palestine in general (not to mention other international human-rights issues), I hope supporters of Palestine will soon determine that he's no longer a credible ally. We should also remember that the call for academic boycott has come from Palestinian civil society itself, and (as HHM's comments above indicate) to oppose the boycott of Israeli academic institutions is to actively support an arm of the occupation.

Please hear what Dr. Haidar Eid, professor at Al Aqsa University in Gaza has to say about the recent Chomsky visit and the recent airstrikes on Gaza, the visit of the Emir of Qatar, the limitations of the two state solution, the BDS movement, and his commitment to the one democratic state principle. This is the first web-based interview of the Voice of Palestine, the Voice of the Palestinian People ( http://www.voiceofpalestine.ca/) with host Hanna Kawas.

http://www.voiceofpalestine.ca...

http://tinyurl.com/8uw6zg7

Dr. Chomsky's decades-long criticism of Zionism's denial of justice or honesty in dealing with a subjugated, defenseless Palestinian population cleansed from its' own lands remains a legend. All the more surprising, therefore, is the convoluted, unconvincing, rationalization which he offers in opposition to academic and cultural institutions in Israel. Or is it surprising? Consider the abject apology of the author of The Goldstone Report and his public retraction for having stated that the Israeli Army planned the immoral, illegal, war-crime of genocide against the Palestinian citizens of Gaza ( where 361 children under the age of 13 were barbecued with American-made phosphorous bombs). Consider the Israeli historian, Benny Morris, who sanatized his classic documentary history of Zionist aggression in the founding of Israel, to reflect an innocent version of the crimes which traumatized the indigenous Palestinian population. Yes. This is the same Benny Morris who recently stated that "there are historical precedents which justify ethnic cleansing". Finally, consider, Norman Finkelstein. His international best-seller, The Holocaust Industry, resulted in his dismissal from his professorship from at DePaul University in Chicago - following pressure from the Anti-Defamation League. Since his dismissal in 2010, Norman Finkelstein's criticism of Zionist policies and practices have undergone a transformation. They now sound like gentle critiques or outright excuses or rationalizations for Israel's activities which impinge on the rights and welfare of Palestinians throughout the region. The question then becomes: What is the meaning of the obvious change of heart and mind in the foregoing four examples of principled critics of a reviled regime, noted for its' mockery for any definition of justice that does not conform to its' own tribal agenda? Answers?

NC is saying that academic & cultural boycott advocates have not even thought about what is good for the Palestinians. That's not an argument, it's insult and he's talking down to us.
He also impugns our motives: we are only 'thinking about what it means for us' and only want to 'feel good'; we don't 'care about the victims'. Thanks, NC, but are you projecting?
And his idea is wrong that the boycott is (mainly) meant to influence home opinion - the 'American people we're trying to reach.' It is to hurt the Israeli elite, make them so uncomfortable that they put pressure on their government to come to the bargaining table.
Finally, NC argues that two states must be good because Usrael is so vehemently against it, but: Usrael is at least equally against one DEMOCRATIC state and it is also vehemently against our boycott. Therefore, the boycott must be good.

We had a lively discussion between ODS supporters regrading Chomsky's position in this interview. For most of us his declaration of support for ODS seemed like thin smoke screen for his declared support of Israel. The acid test is the position from the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees to all the area where they expelled from. For reading the 5-page hot and refreshing arguments between us - you may enter the FREE HAIFA post at:
http://freehaifa.wordpress.com...

Oh, for heaven's sake. Just because someone expresses doubts about certain tactics doesn't mean he's against the general aim. You can agree or disagree with Chomsky's ciew on tactics. That's fine. However Noam Chomsky has been a strong supporter of Palestinian and human rights for decades and continues to be. I therefore kindly ask those trying to label him as a zionist or Israel-apologist to cut the crap.

Chomsky and other Zionists have to be held accountable for their blindness to Zionism's sore spot. A copy of European colonial project, it has ended up creating a massive disaster. And now we get Chomsky saying No Boycott. Well, Sir, the crazed Zionists do not get it. And why are you standing in the way? Time to give up on Chomsky.