A reply to Chomsky’s critique of BDS

July 6, 2014

The latest issue of The Nation contains a critique by Noam Chomsky of the Boycott, Divestment Sanctions movement against Israel launched by Palestinian activists. Here is a reply. --PG

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Chomsky and BDS

Tom Suarez on July 6, 2014

Many people who have come to value the courageous and principled stands of Noam Chomsky regarding injustice and imperialism are surprised to learn of his opposition to most aspects of BDS. Precisely because of the stature and influence of this “father of modern linguistics”, it is especially important that his views be subject to the same rigor for which he himself is famous. As it turns out, the perplexing aspect of Professor Chomsky’s arguments vis a vis BDS is how precipitously they fail scrutiny.

Professor Chomsky parses issues, and his views, with great precision, sometimes leading to sloppy interpretation by commentators expediently forcing those views into box “A” or “B”. So it is important to point out that his opposition to BDS is carefully qualified, and there are aspects of its method and goals that he supports. Previously, he was widely misunderstood as supporting a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine, when he simply saw two states as the only possible path to his favored solution, a bi-national state. This system preserves regional autonomy (as either a Jewish or Arab area) within a single nation. In 1947, such a bi-national state was supported by moderates like Judah Magnes and the socialist group Hashomer Hatzair. Most Arabs supported a one-state solution, a single, secular Western-style democracy—as do many people today (including this writer). Five years ago Professor Chomsky clarified his views, and last year he discussed the bi-national solution in context of the developing reality on the ground.

Before addressing Professor Chomsky’s specific points regarding BDS, a few general comments about BDS that raise the issue above the confines on which he bases his critique.

Whatever its imperfectness, BDS is the most powerful tool available for forcing the Palestine issue, so systematically sidelined and distorted by the mass media, to the fore. This is because the very utterance of BDS in relation to Israel begs the question, “Why?” It forces the media to respond where it could otherwise ignore, and it elicits a desire to know why in the mind of the ordinary fair-minded citizen whose understanding has been controlled by that media.

In one key respect, BDS is even more important regarding Israel than old South Africa. That white people were subjugating black people was consistent with the prevailing cultural understanding in the West. Even if some people made excuses for South Africa’s apartheid, white people were seen as racially privileged, black people as exploited. Claiming that South Africa was an apartheid state “rang true”. But our society’s mindset regarding Israel inexorably links the nation-state with the Jewish people, whom we understand as a vulnerable, persecuted people, and Arabs, whom we are conditioned to believe to be their immediate tormentors. Thus BDS’ value in forcing the issue to the fore is especially important, since the West’s collective mindset has turned the Israeli-Palestinian issue upside-down.

Now a brief look at Professor Chomsky’s points.

Professor Chomsky argues that Resolution 194 (specifically regarding Right of Return) is a non-binding “recommendation” since it is from the General Assembly, not the Security Council. This is a straw issue. Right of Return is international law, above and beyond Resolution 194. 194 merely restates it in context of the aftermath of the 1948 war. Right of Return is an individual right that cannot be bargained away on someone’s behalf. Further, abiding by UN Resolutions (including 194) was a specific condition to which Israel agreed for admission to the UN. That was binding. Moreover, Right of Return is simply the antidote to ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing, in this case Plan Dalet, is a war crime, and undoing it not merely a “recommendation”. (Ironically, it is UNGA Resolution 181, the Resolution upon which Israel claims statehood, that exists solely as a General Assembly “recommendation”, yet in that case the Jewish Agency argued that it carried binding force.)

Professor Chomsky also argues that Israel regularly violates even the Security Council resolutions that are binding, and therefore one is asking for something that will not happen. With Professor Chomsky’s precedent, then, all international law by definition becomes irrelevant, because non-compliance becomes self-justifying. Rather, exposing the non-compliance is part of the very value of BDS. Israel has ignored the Security Council for decades precisely because it is confident of impunity, as Professor Chomsky’s attitude demonstrates.

The argument of relative badness is also invoked. The US is the larger offender, so it is hypocritical to target Israeli institutions when we don’t target Harvard. But this linkage is artificial. Israeli wrongdoing is not morally contingent on any other country’s wrongdoing, nor mitigated by the fact that other countries, in particular the US, empower that wrongdoing. With this reasoning, no injustice could ever be targeted except the one that is (according to criteria of one’s choosing) the absolute most egregious on the planet. All others need simply point the finger downward.

Interestingly, however, it is largely thanks to Professor Chomsky’s influence that Stephen Hawking honored the academic boycott of Israel. Inconsistent, or meticulous parsing? The difference appears to have been that the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) asked Professor Hawking to boycott the Israeli invitation. But surely if all Palestinians had such a voice, they would beseech the international community to boycott Israel with a thundering, near-unanimous chorus.

The “D” of BDS does implicitly mean boycott of US interests involved in Israeli militarism. Divestment from American companies such as Caterpillar or Hewlett-Packard is no longer considered a fringe campaign, thanks to BDS. Respected, mainstream institutions have earnestly considered, and sometimes undertaken such divestment. That the economic impact on them may be trivial, is irrelevant: the issue is pushed into the visible world. Bill Gates has divested from G4S evidently because of its complicity in Israeli prisons.

Professor Chomsky says that the abbreviation should be “BD,” not “BDS”, since sanctions are “not on the horizon”. No, professor, the question is whether sanctions are justified, and if they are, they should be part of the strategy. Nor are sanctions against Israel as remote as Professor Chomsky suggests: Already in 2010, 26 ex-EU leaders argued for sanctions.

Professor Chomsky points out that South African apartheid is different than Israel’s. Yes, South Africa had no desire to ethnically cleanse the Africans, as their subjugation was the whole point, whereas an ethnically “pure” settler nation—well, with a sufficient supply of the Other left behind as cheap labor—is Israel’s. But … so? More specifically, Professor Chomsky says that those building the boycott movement against South Africa devoted years to educating and building a case, homework that the Palestinian movement has not done. This is not only a dubious argument on its face, but it is also untrue. People have worked tirelessly since the early 1950s to do precisely what the Professor advocates, but for reasons touched on above, these attempts at informing the public faced a particularly impenetrable wall. Even if we eliminate Palestinian writers and activists, whom the West sidelined altogether, there were people like Alfred Lilienthal and Moshe Menuhin actively and eloquently saying fifty and sixty years ago what still can barely be heard in the mainstream media. Palestinian and Western scholars continued to research, write, expose; and the voices grew numerous over the years, with Israeli scholars eventually joining the ranks. The cumulative wealth of documentation and activism is extraordinary. Yet Professor Chomsky dismisses the movement for justice in Israel-Palestine as not having done its homework?

But perhaps Professor Chomsky’s strangest statement of all, a rather terrifying statement on the face of it, is that “There is no reason to expect Israel to accept a Palestinian population it does not want.” There you have it, all condensed into one sentence, an admission that Israel is a racially predicated state and that the rights of the Palestinians themselves must remain subservient to it. There is no reason to expect a settler nation to accept the people whose land it took. Everything is framed in terms of what Israel wants, or what Israel will or will not agree to. Is this the same Noam Chomsky whose Manufacturing Consent and Fateful Triangle sit on my bookshelf?


BDS Movement (Palestinian BDS National Committee)
PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel)
BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine)

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