Damage Control: Noam Chomsky and the Israel-Palestine Conflict
by Jeffrey Blankfort*
Following through with a critique of his work seemed essential after reading an interview he had given last May to Christopher J. Lee of Safundi: the Journal of South African and American Comparative Studies and circulated on Znet .
Quite naturally, the discussion turned to apartheid and whether Chomsky considered the term applied to Palestinians under Israeli rule. He responded: "I don’t use it myself, to tell you the truth. Just like I don’t [often] use the term "empire", because these are just inflammatory terms... I think it’s sufficient to just describe the situation, without comparing it to other situations".
Anyone familiar with Chomsky’s work will recognize that he is no stranger to inflammatory terms and that comparing one historical situation with another has long been part of his modus operandi. His response in this instance was troubling. Many Israeli academics and journalists, such as Ilan Pappe, Tanya Reinhart and Amira Hass, have described the situation of the Palestinians as one of apartheid. Bishop Tutu has done the same and last year Ha’aretz reported that South African law professor John Dugard, the special rapporteur for the United Nations on the situation of human rights in Occupied Palestine and a former member of his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, had written in a report to the UN General Assembly that there is ""an apartheid regime" in the territories "worse than the one that existed in South Africa."" 
Chomsky explained his disagreement: "Apartheid was one particular system and a particularly ugly situation... It’s just to wave a red flag, when it’s perfectly well to simply describe the situation... "
His reluctance to label Israel’s control of the Palestinians as "apartheid" out of concern that it be seen as a "red flag," like describing it as "inflammatory," was a red flag itself and raised questions that should have been asked by the interviewer, such as who would be inflamed by the reference to ‘apartheid’ as a "red flag" in Israel’s case and what objections would Chomsky have to that?
A more disturbing exchange occurred later in the interview when Chomsky was asked if sanctions should be applied against Israel as they were against South Africa. He responded: "In fact, I’ve been strongly against it in the case of Israel. For a number of reasons. For one thing, even in the case of South Africa, I think sanctions are a very questionable tactic. In the case of South Africa, I think they were [ultimately] legitimate because it was clear that the large majority of the population of South Africa was in favor of it. Sanctions hurt the population. You don’t impose them unless the population is asking for them. That’s the moral issue. So, the first point in the case of Israel is that: Is the population asking for it? Well, obviously not".
Obviously not. But is it acceptable to make such a decision on the basis of what the majority of Israelis want? Israel, after all, is not a dictatorship in which the people are held in check by fear and, therefore, cannot be held responsible for their government’s actions. Israel has a largely unregulated, lively press and a "people’s army" in which all Israeli Jews, other than the ultra-orthodox, are expected to serve and that is viewed by the Israeli public with almost religious reverence. Over the years, in their own democratic fashion, the overwhelming majority of Israelis have consistently supported and participated in actions of their government against the Palestinians and Lebanese that are not only racist, but in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Chomsky made his position clear:
"So; calling for sanctions here, when the majority of the population doesn’t understand what you are doing, is tactically absurd-even if it were morally correct, which I don’t think it is. The country against which the sanctions are being imposed is not calling for it".
The interviewer, Lee, understandably puzzled by that answer, then asked him, "Palestinians aren’t calling for sanctions?". Chomsky: "Well, the sanctions wouldn’t be imposed against the Palestinians, they would be imposed against Israel." Lee: "Right... [And] Israelis aren’t calling for sanctions!".
That response also disturbed Palestinian political analyst, Omar Barghouti, who, while tactfully acknowledging Chomsky as "a distinguished supporter of the Palestinian cause," addressed the issue squarely:
"Of all the anti-boycott arguments, this one reflects either surprising naiveté or deliberate intellectual dishonesty. Are we to judge whether to apply sanctions on a colonial power based on the opinion of the majority in the oppressors community? Does the oppressed community count at all? 
For Chomsky, apparently not. But there were more absurdities to come:
"Furthermore, there is no need for it. We ought to call for sanctions against the United States! If the US were to stop its massive support for this, it’s over. So, you don’t have to have sanctions on Israel. It’s like putting sanctions on Poland under the Russians because of what the Poles are doing. It doesn’t make sense. Here, we’re the Russians".
First, what does Chomsky mean by saying "there is no need of it?" He was certainly aware, at the time of the interview that Israel, with its construction of a 25-foot high wall and fence, appropriately described by its critics as the "Apartheid Wall" was accelerating the confiscation of yet more Palestinian land and continuing the ethnic cleansing that began well before 1947 and there was nothing other than the weight of public opinion that might stop it.
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