Chomsky, BDS, and the Elephant in the Room

As readers of this blog would know by now I have fundamental differences with Prof. Chomsky when it comes to analysis of the Middle East. In the following interview Ali Abunimah and Jeffrey Blankfort do an excellent job of challenging some of Chomsky’s more questionable claims. (Here is the article Blankfort mentions; here is his previous interview on the Lobby. Here is former Senator James Abourezk on Chomsky; and here is M. Shahid Alam.)

Why does Noam Chomsky oppose boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, and why does he think Palestinians should not talk about justice and redress for their ethnic cleansing from their homeland in 1948? Why does Chomsky dismiss any talk about the influence of the Israel lobby?

On 13 January 2010, Ali Abunimah and Jeffrey Blankfort were invited to respond directly to an interview Chomsky gave earlier on these topics, on KPFA’s show Voices from the Middle East and North Africa hosted by Khalil Bendib. Chomsky was invited to take part in a direct debate but declined. Listen!

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

18 thoughts on “Chomsky, BDS, and the Elephant in the Room”

  1. Your questioning is very misleading “Why does Noam Chomsky oppose boycott”, Chomsky does not oppose boycott, he opposes any hypocritical sanctions that would harm Palestinians even more. He even gave an example, but it was as if the host did not want to hear. Point being, if you’re going to boycott Israel for its crimes, why not boycott the US since they pretty fund Israel selling them weapons. This type of hypocrisy would only gives the hardliner opposition a great argument to justify more crimes against the Palestinians.

    Also, in regards to the lobby issue, again the answer was pretty straight forward, as long as Israel does not infringe on US interests they can do business as they wish, but when they do, like they did in 2005 when trying to reach a deal with China on weapon exports, the US will make sure to protect its interest and no Israeli lobby could stop that. Point being, don’t make the Israeli lobby sound bigger than it is, it might have some influence but not to the extent of controlling the US.

    It’s fascinating to see people with similar goals to criticize someone like Chomsky on the Israeli-Palestinian issue when he’s been fighting for Palestinians for decades. Please try to listen to this interview with an open mind instead of judging.

    1. Chomsky has joined people like Alan Dershowtiz to sign petitions against the divestment movement. So it is his position that is hypocritical, since he did not sign similar petitions against the anti-Apartheid BDS campaign. His example was vacuous. Yes, it makes perfect sense to boycott an Israeli dance troop just as it made sense to boycott the South AFrican cricket and rugby teams.

      Regarding the lobby, you don’t seem to know what you are talking about. Israel does not infringe on US interests? Tell that to the US arms industry which lost the biggest arms contract in history — the $70b al yamamah deal — to BAe systems because Reagan couldn’t face Aipac. Tell that to the oil industry which lost all its contracts in Iran after AIPAC rammed through the Iran Libya Sanctions Act. Tell that to the Fortune 500 which has been complaining about patent thefts and tariff abuses since the passage of the USIFTA (which 75% of US businesses opposed). I could go on, but this is a useless exercise.

      I suggest you educate yourself.

      1. South Africa’s situation is quite different from Israel, the Apartheid is on the Palestinians not Israelis, hence discussing BDS on Israel should require a different approach. Chomsky’s view on the topic is pretty simple, he has argued for a long time that a call for divestment is “a very welcome gift to the most extreme supporters of US-Israeli violence… It removes from the agenda the primary issues and it allows them to turn the discussion to irrelevant issues, which are here irrelevant, anti-Semitism and academic freedom and so on and so forth.” Harvard Crimson, Dec. 2, 2003

        As for the lobby, your examples might be true, but having Israel as a reliable US base in the middle east (along with Turkey) has allowed the energy industry, arm industry, security industry and many more US corporations to make huge amount of profits, exceeding any “lost”. Point being, the lobby might be strong, but you can’t blame everything on it, and it certainly does not control the US.

        On a side note, you might disagree with what I have to say, but please try to stay civil and do not assume of my ignorance on this topic. If you feel so strongly about it, feel free to bring a strong argument forward, but the few examples you used frankly failed to convince.

        1. South Africa’s situation is quite different from Israel, the Apartheid is on the Palestinians not Israelis

          I’m not quite sure what that means. Are you suggesting in SA the apartheid was on white’s as well? Also, in Israel who said its only on Palestinians? Israel’s own non-Jewish citizens are treated as second class. It is a ‘Jewish state’ remember? Whereas in South Africa 87% of the land was off limits to its black citizens, in Israel 93% of its land is off limits to its non-Jewish citizens. And that is just one example.

          but having Israel as a reliable US base in the middle east (along with Turkey) has allowed the energy industry, arm industry, security industry and many more US corporations to make huge amount of profits, exceeding any “lost”.

          That whole argument is based on a single statement by Alexander Haig, who was trying to enlist AIPAC’s support in his own bureaucratic fight against Reagan in the early 80s. It is a frivolous argument. Every time there has been a problem in the Middle East — 1991, 2003 — US has actually had to pay Israel to stay OUT of the conflict. In 1980 it created the Rapid Deployment Force precisely because it couldn’t rely on any regional force. In 1982, US actually had to go and fight Israel’s war in Lebanon, getting more than 250 of its marines blown up in response.

          Then there is the empirical question. Chomsky ignores the fact that the archives of 9 presidencies, from 1948 onwards are now delcassified and available. And there is a single common theme running through all of them. They all see Israel as a strategic liability, which is hindering US interests in the region. US is compelled to support it for domestic reasosn (aka the lobby) and as a result it alienates all arabs. Its oil industry, which once used to have a monopoly, is even losing out in such places as KSA.

          You argue based on conjecture. I’d appreciate some concrete examples or statements. If you are relying on Chomsky its natural that you shouldn’t have any. Because he has never bothered providing them.

          1. “Are you suggesting in SA the apartheid was on white’s as well?” No, I’m only stating that the apartheid affected the majority of the population of SA. Hence BDS on Israel require a different approach than SA.

            “Every time there has been a problem in the Middle East — 1991, 2003 — US has actually had to pay Israel to stay OUT of the conflict” that would be forgetting every time the US used Israel to their benefit, like getting rid off Nasser or running training camps in Central America in the 80’s to evade Congressional restrictions. In other words, Israel has been a convenient military base for the US especially since 1967. There are more examples if you feel that’s not enough.

            “They all see Israel as a strategic liability, which is hindering US interests in the region” I would really appreciate some sources on this as it really sparks my interest (something other than http://irmep.org/ILA/ since I’m quite familiar with this one).

            “Its oil industry, which once used to have a monopoly, is even losing out in such places as KSA.” It seems you are confusing national interest on the KSA side with lobby pressuring. To loose Israel was a much greater threat to US policies than loosing control of oil fields, especially since at the time Iran was still in the picture, although the Shah was starting to show nationalistic interests as well.

            Don’t get me wrong, there is an Israeli lobby that tries to influence the US as much as they can, but to say they control the US is far fetch. The US needs Israel in order to achieve its goals.

            1. No, I’m only stating that the apartheid affected the majority of the population of SA. Hence BDS on Israel require a different approach than SA.

              So people should only adopt tactics based on the approval of the Israeli right? I don’t think you even know what the strategic purpose of the BDS is.

              that would be forgetting every time the US used Israel to their benefit, like getting rid off Nasser or running training camps in Central America in the 80’s to evade Congressional restrictions. In other words, Israel has been a convenient military base for the US especially since 1967. There are more examples if you feel that’s not enough.

              Do you know who brought Nasser to power? (hint: look up the name Kermit Roosevelt. Iran is not the only place where he operated) Do you know what the attitude of Eisenhower and JFK was toward Nasser. Do you know why Nasser broke with the US? Do you know that the US was not in favour of the ’67 war and till the last day tried to prevent it? Do you know how US interests suffered due to the war, and how many oil contracts were lost?

              So your argument is that Israel helped US deal with a problem it had itself created?

              I would really appreciate some sources on this as it really sparks my interest (something other than http://irmep.org/ILA/ since I’m quite familiar with this one).

              IRMEP is as good a source as any, but I presume you are looking for something that you consider ‘respectable’. Check out Patrick Tyler’s “A world of Trouble”. It has declassified documents from 8 US presidencies.
              http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article10460.shtml

              but to say they control the US is far fetch.
              Did anyone say ‘control’?

              The US needs Israel in order to achieve its goals.

              You have yet to show a single case where they have.

              1. “I don’t think you even know what the strategic purpose of the BDS is.” Do you have to go with the patronizing tone every time you don’t agree with a statement? Anyway, BDS can be effective, but not in their current form.

                In regards to the lobby, I’m not sure why Nasser matters that much, but I’m sure you know something I don’t, so feel free to share. In regards to Eisenhower and JFK you are probably referring to the cold support the US had towards Israel at the time. A good example was in 1956 when the US along with England and France forced Israel out of the Sinai. The “love story” came after 1967 when Israel removed Nasser who was becoming a liability (the French and British did not complain). So Israel along with Iran (Shah time),and Turkey became the non-Arab US allies allowing control of the Middle East (after the Shah collapsed Israel’s role became even more important).
                And it seems that both the State and the Corporate world enjoy this relationship if you look at the high-tech, military, financial investments being made in Israel. I think we both agree on the fact this is the wrong strategy for the US, but it does not change the fact enough people in the US are benefiting from the status quo and want to keep it that way.

                By the way, thanks for the link “A World of Trouble” seems like a great read.

                1. “And it seems that both the State and the Corporate world enjoy this relationship if you look at the high-tech, military, financial investments being made in Israel. I think we both agree on the fact this is the wrong strategy for the US, but it does not change the fact enough people in the US are benefiting from the status quo and want to keep it that way.”

                  Are you kidding? High-tech firms, using US technology (usually stolen or spied by Israelis), instead of being kept in the US go to Israel and this somehow benefits the US?
                  Same for other investments and financial links.
                  I still do not see how US benefits from this relationship. All I see is constant drain of money from the US and my taxes going to support a rogue state.
                  You may not realize it, but US has totally lost its face ( and more) because of its support for Israel.
                  USA is now a laughing stock in many countries – it is as sad as that.
                  Being American living abroad it is painful for me to witness. Where once was respect and admiration now there is scorn and contempt.
                  And the public in the US is not informed enough ( media control) or too intimidated to speak out, and the politicians even more so -intimidated or bought.
                  These are your people who want to keep the status quo.

                  1. All US high-tech research and development is done through Pentagon funding and is one of the main reasons for its bloated budget. The state-supported corporations who then market this stuff in computers, etc. don’t care if it stays in the US. They just want to corner the market to manipulate prices and maximize their short-term profits. Israel is a strategic necessity for US planners in the Middle-East for the long-term goal of having early- and first-strike capabilities in the fading hopes of once again controlling energy there as it did before the nationalization movements of last century.

                    Don’t think that US planners have any qualms about sending our tax money to Israel. They don’t care about citizenry anywhere. Israel is by far the leading recipient of US aid for a reason–planners are getting a return on their investment.

                    And the US state-corporate system cares very little what anyone thinks outside the US. US citizens are the only who need “education.”

      2. “Chomsky has joined people like Alan Dershowtiz to sign petitions against the divestment movement.”
        What petitions are you talking about?

        There still seems to be the issue of singling out the Israeli crimes which as he says is a gift to Israeli and christian Zionist hawks. Why not boycott the United States and the UK which are responsible for even much worse crimes against Iraqis and Afghanis and elsewhere? Why not boycott Harvard? Frankly, the fact that the BDS call came from many Palestinain groups out against the Israelis, and not the US, which is its main enabler and supporter is not good enough to act upon. We will consider their demand, but we can’t just follow it blindly because as Chomsky describes here and elsewhere it could backfire on the efforts solidarity movement and on the Palestinians.

  2. Maybe it’s just me, but why are we all concerned over what Chomsky thinks about BDS? I’m sure the movement will do just fine without him supporting it.

    1. I am sure you know how influential Chomsky is, and how he is worshipped as an infallible idol by most leftist. If he gets it wrong, it means tens of thousands get it wrong. There is no reason why his position shouldn’t be subjected to the same scrutiny he insists we put others’.

      1. I definitely understand your point. My concern with the BDS movement is the need to keep moving forward and not necessarily spending its time trying to correct Chomsky.

        1. How can it move forward if thousands are abdicating because of what Chomsky says? In Scotland a whole leftist party adopted an anti-boycott position invoking Chomsky’s authority.

          1. How much support would the boycott need to, say, equal the amount of US aid to Israel every year? It would have to approach it to effective. The only true negative effect you could hope to affect on US-Israeli aid would be to influence US citizens’ perceptions of Israel, no small task.

            There is much evidence to show that destroying a country’s economy most readily leads to tyrants concentrating their power and massive suffering by the population–North Korea, Iraq, etc.–a terrible indictment for Palestinians who I am sure have no patience for games.

            Why are you so sure this would not happen? (not a rhetorical question)

  3. You are right, but Chomsky is a big authority ( blown up by mainstream media) and people should realize what he really stands for.
    As far as I am concerned I had a first glimpse about his true colors when I saw his remarks about 9/11 on youtube – he states we should believe the official 9/11 version and just go on with “more important issues”.
    He also says something like, ” so who cares about JFK assasination – there are always different reasons for assasinations, jelous wifes, crazy fans,..”Look up Chomsky and 9/11 on youtube.

    1. But I think you miss his point. For the government to plan 9/11 and JFK would have taken enormous numbers of people having known about it and you just don’t see that. There is not one shred of real evidence about either story. You may find something later–who knows. But if you look at the crimes the US has committed where there are stacks and stacks of irrefutable evidence (Gulf of Tonkin, Bay of Pigs, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, supporting Suharto, supporting Israeli massacres, installing Allende, Central America in the 1980s, and many others–all of which openly acknowledged by the US government), 9/11 and JFK are small in comparison.

      His point is to focus on the issues that are presently affecting the miserably poor populations throughout the world. That we should prioritize our concerns.

      Strange to criticize Chomsky while he has for so many decades spoken bravely with a voice for those in need and never, to my knowledge, has been controversial in this regard.

  4. 1. I am not an authority on Chomsky, but Chomsky was never at the forefront of BDS against any country (including SA). For him the become avid supporter of BDS against Israel would be inconsistent.
    2. My personal opinion is that the focus on Israel lobby is overdone. Israel has gained US support by aligning with US interests. Consider Pakistan (an ideological parallel to Israel (with “resolved” demographic problem)), it does not have a strong documented lobby, yet it has had consistent support from US by alignment. This can be seen consistently with all US friend states.
    3. Focus on Israel lobby presents us with two actors in US policmaking: the wily Israel lobbyists and the naive US decision-makers defrauded by the lobbyists. It absolves US leadership of primary responsibility on US policy towards Palestine.
    4. Chomsky himself has been a strong critic of US foreign policy. His writings refer to other states e.g. Turkish repression of Kurds and of course Israel/Palestinian, but he focuses on the US. This could be because he is a US citizen (“focus at your actions not at those of others”), and also because US has a far-reaching foreign policy. To read about specific criticism of Israel you can follow Dr. Norman Finkelstein whom Chomsky supported. (Of course there are other excellent authors too.)

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