Damage Control: Noam Chomsky and the Israel-Palestine Conflict

From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)

Jeffrey Blankfort | Left Curve/Dissident Voice | 25 May 2005

“In an article in the New York Times (April 19, 2003), reporter Emily Eakin tells the story of a University of Chicago confab called to assess theory’s fate. At a session attended by a bevy of humanities superstars, a student asked: What good is theory if, he said, ‘we concede in fact how much more important the actions of Noam Chomsky are in the world than all the writings of critical theorists combined.'”

— Jon Spayde, Senior Editor, Utne Reader, Nov/Dec 2004

Noam Chomsky has been the foremost critic of America’s imperial adventures for more than three decades. That is probably the only point of agreement shared by his legions of loyal supporters and his equally committed although far less numerous detractors. His domination of the field is so extraordinary and unprecedented that one would be hard-put to find a runner-up. It is a considerable achievement for someone who has been described, at times, as a ‘reluctant icon’. [1]
Despite his low-key demeanor and monotone delivery, Chomsky has been anything but reluctant. On closer examination, however, it appears that he has gained his elevated position less from scholarship than from the sheer body of his work that includes books by the dozens — 30 in the last 30 years — and speeches and interviews in the hundreds.
In the field of US-Israel-Palestine relations, he has been a virtual human tsunami, washing like a huge wave over genuine scholarly works in the field that contradict his critical positions on the Middle East, namely that Israel serves as a strategic asset for the US and that the Israeli lobby, primarily AIPAC, is little more than a pressure group like any other trying to affect US policy in the Middle East. For both of these positions, as I will show, he offers only the sketchiest of evidence and what undercuts his theory he eliminates altogether.
Nevertheless, he has ignited the thinking and gained himself the passionate, almost cult-like attachment of thousands of followers across the globe. At the same time it has made him the favorite hate object of those who support and justify the US global agenda and the domination of its junior partner, Israel, over the Palestinians. Who else has whole internet blogs dedicated to nothing else but attacking him?
What is less generally known is that he admits to having been a Zionist from childhood, by one of the earlier definitions of the term — in favor of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and a bi-national, not Jewish, state — and, as he wrote 30 years ago, ‘perhaps this personal history distorts my perspective.’ [2] Measuring the degree to which it has done so is critical to understanding puzzling positions he has taken in response to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Given the viciousness and the consistency with which Chomsky has been attacked by his critics on the ‘right’, one ventures cautiously when challenging him from the ‘left’. To expose serious errors in Chomsky’s analysis and recording of history is to court almost certain opprobrium from those who might even agree with the nature of the criticism but who have become so protective of his reputation over the years, often through personal friendships, that have they not only failed to publicly challenge substantial errors of both fact and interpretation on his part, they have dismissed attempts by others to do so as ‘personal’ vendettas.
Chomsky himself is no more inclined to accept criticism than his supporters. As one critic put it, ‘His attitude to who those who disagree with him, is, by and large, one of contempt. The only reason they can’t see the simple truth of what he’s saying is that they are, in one way or another, morally deficient.’[3]
Although I had previously criticized Chomsky for downplaying the influence of the pro-Israel lobby on Washington’s Middle East policies [4], I had hesitated to write a critique of his overall approach for the reasons noted. Nevertheless, I was convinced that while, ironically, having provided perhaps the most extensive documentation of Israeli crimes, he had, at the same time immobilized, if not sabotaged, the development of any serious effort to halt those crimes and to build an effective movement on behalf of the Palestinian cause.
An exaggeration? Hardly. A number of statements made by Chomsky have demonstrated his determination to keep Israel and Israelis from being punished or inconvenienced for the very monumental transgressions of decent human behavior that he himself has passionately documented over the years. This is one of the glaring contradictions in Chomsky’s work. He would have us believe that Israel’s occupation and harsh actions against the Palestinians, its invasions and undeclared 20-year war on Lebanon, and its arming of murderous regimes in Central America and Africa during the Cold War, has been done as a client state in the service of US interests. In Chomsky’s worldview, that absolves Israel of responsibility and has become standard Chomsky doctrine.
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. [5]
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.’[6]
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, 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 naivet’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 oppressor’s community? Does the oppressed community count at all? [7]
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 for 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.
Second, while there would be considerable support of sanctions against the US, if such were possible, would this not violate Chomsky’s own standard for applying them? Had he not moments before said that the majority of the people must support them? He apparently has a different standard for Israelis than he does for Americans. And what the Palestinians may wish doesn’t count.
Then, having just told the interviewer that he did not like making comparisons, what can one make of his placing the relationship that existed between Poland and the former Soviet Union (Russia in his lexicon) in the same category as that existing between Israel and the United States? He was referring to the implementation of sanctions by the Reagan administration against Poland in 1981 after the East Bloc nation had instituted martial law in response to the rise of the Solidarnoscmovement. What role the Soviet Union had in that has been debated, but it should be obvious that there is no serious basis for such a comparison.
In retrospect, however, it was no surprise. In the ’80s, Chomsky placed Israel’s relationship with the US in the same category as that of El Salvador when the Reagan administration was backing its puppet government against the FMLN. Not embarrassed at having spouted such nonsense, he still repeats it. [8] Even then, he exhibited a gritty determination to deflect responsibility for Israel’s actions on to the United States. To point this out is not to defend the US or its egregious history of global criminality — which is not defensible — but to expose the deep fault lines that inhabit Chomsky’s worldview.
In case I had missed something, however, I wrote him, asking if he wished to clarify what the Polish-Soviet relationship had in common with that of Israel and the US?
He declined to answer that question but with reference to my asking him about his avoidance of placing blame on Israel, he responded:
I also don’t acknowledge other efforts to blame others [presumably Israel] for what we do. Cheap, cowardly, and convenient, but I won’t take part in it. That’s precisely what’s at stake. Nothing else. [9]
‘Cheap, cowardly and convenient’to blame Israel? If his primary desire is to protect Israel and Israelis from any form of inconvenience is not obvious from that private response, his public effort to sabotage the budding campus divestment program should leave no doubt where and with whom his sympathies lie:
In an exchange with Washington Post readers, Chomsky was asked by a caller:
Why did you sign an MIT petition calling for MIT to boycott Israeli investments, and then give an interview in which you state that you opposed such investment boycotts? What was or is your position on the proposal by some MIT faculty that MIT should boycott Israeli investments?
Chomsky replied:
As is well known in Cambridge, of anyone involved, I was the most outspoken opponent of the petition calling for divestment, and in fact refused to sign until it was substantially changed, along lines that you can read if you are interested. The ‘divestment’part was reduced to three entirely meaningless words, which had nothing to do with the main thrust of the petition. I thought that the three meaningless words should also be deleted… On your last question, as noted, I was and remain strongly opposed, without exception — at least if I understand what the question means. How does one ‘boycott Israeli investments’? (Emphasis added).[10]
I will assume that Chomsky understood very well what the caller meant: investing in Israeli companies and in State of Israel Bonds of which US labor union pension funds, and many states and universities have purchased hundreds of millions of dollars worth. These purchases clearly obligate those institutions to lobby Congress to insure that the Israeli economy stays afloat. This isn’t something that Chomsky talks or writes about.
The caller was referring to a speech that Chomsky had made to the Harvard Anthropology Department shortly after the MIT and Harvard faculties issued a joint statement on divestment. It was gleefully reported in the Harvard Crimson by pro-Israel activist David Weinfeld, under the headline “Chomsky’s Gift”, that:
MIT Institute Professor of Linguistics Noam Chomsky recently gave the greatest Hanukkah gift of all to opponents of the divestment campaign against Israel. By signing the Harvard-MIT divestment petition several months ago and then denouncing divestment on Nov. 25 at Harvard Chomsky has completely undercut the petition.
At his recent talk for the Harvard anthropology department, Chomsky stated: “I am opposed and have been opposed for many years, in fact, I’ve probably been the leading opponent for years of the campaign for divestment from Israel and of the campaign about academic boycotts.”
He argued 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.” [11](Emphasis added.)
Here you see one of the tactics that Chomsky uses to silence his few left critics; he accuses them of aiding ‘the most extreme supporters of US-Israeli violence.’
When contacted by the Cornell Daily Sun, which was preparing an article on the MIT-Harvard divestment movement, Chomsky repeated his objections, and ‘despite acknowledging the existence of this petition’, the reporter wrote, Chomsky said: ‘I’m aware of no divestment movement. I had almost nothing to do with the ‘movement’ except to insist that it not be a divestment movement.’[12](Emphasis added)
At least he cannot be accused of inconsistency. After speaking at the First Annual Maryse Mikhail Lecture at the University of Toledo, on March 4, 2001, Chomsky was asked: ‘Do you think it’s is a good idea to push the idea of divestment from Israel the same way that we used to push for it in white South Africa?’
Chomsky replied:
I regard the United States as the primary guilty party here, for the past 30 years. And for us to push for divestment from the United States doesn’t really mean anything. What we ought to do is push for changes in US policy. Now it makes good sense to press for not sending attack helicopters to Israel, for example. In fact it makes very good sense to try to get some newspaper in the United States to report the fact that it’s happening. That would be a start. And then to stop sending military weapons that are being used for repression. And you can take steps like that. But I don’t think divestment from Israel would make much sense, even if such a policy were imaginable (and it’s not).
Our primary concern, I think, should be change in fundamental US policy, which has been driving this thing for decades. And that should be within our range. That’s what we’re supposed to be able to do: change US policy. (Emphasis added)
Let us examine the response he gave at this event. Having stated forthrightly his opposition to pressuring Israel through divestment, he made no suggestion that his audience contact their Congressional representatives or senators regarding their support for aid to Israel. Mass appeals to Congress to stop funding, whether it was in opposition to the war in Vietnam or the Contras in Nicaragua, have been a basic element in every other nation-wide struggle against US global policy. Why not in this case? If Chomsky has ever called for any actions involving Congress, I could find no record of it.
Consequently, Middle East activists following Chomsky’s lead have continued to allow members of Congress — and liberal Democrats in particular — to avoid paying any political price for supporting legislation that has provided Israel with the billions of dollars and the weaponry it has used to suppress the Palestinians, confiscate their land and expand its illegal settlements. This is what has devastated the Palestinians, not the meaningless three score plus Security Council resolutions reprimanding Israel that the US has vetoed but which, for Chomsky, validate his position that the US is the main culprit.
What he suggested to this audience — getting a newspaper to report the helicopter ‘sales’to Israel should have had those not entranced by his presence shaking their heads. As for changing US policy being ‘within our range,’if Israel is a US ‘strategic asset’, as he maintains, how does Chomsky suggest this be done? Beyond contacting your local newspaper editor, he doesn’t.
Last year, Noah Cohen had the temerity to challenge Chomsky’s opposition to both a ‘single state’ solution and implementing the Palestinian ‘right of return.’ Chomsky defended his’realism’ and accused Cohen of being engaged in ‘an academic seminar among disengaged intellectuals on Mars…[and] those who take these stands’ are ‘serving the cause of the extreme hawks in Israel and the US, and bringing even more harm to the suffering Palestinians.’ [13]
Note again how Chomsky accuses those who disagree with him of harming the Palestinians. This evidently includes the Palestinians themselves who refuse to surrender their ‘right of return.’ Their crime, in Chomsky’s opinion, is to oppose what he praises as the ‘international consensus,’ the support of which, for him, is ‘true advocacy.’ [14]
‘The main task,’ he says, ‘is to bring the opinions and attitudes of the large majority of the US population into the arena of policy. As compared with other tasks facing activists, this is, and has long been a relatively simple one.’ [15] Simple? Who, we must ask, is on Mars? Of course, as noted previously, he offers no suggestions as how to accomplish this.
Although he doesn’t advertise it publicly, Chomsky did sign a petition calling for the suspension of US military aid to Israel, but it has received little publicity and Sustain, the organization initiating the campaign, has done little to promote it. It is not a demand that Chomsky raises in his books or interviews. When I pointed this out, he responded:
That is totally false. I’ve always supported the call of Human Rights Watch and others to stop ‘aid’ to Israel until it meets minimal human rights conditions. I’ve also gone out of way to publicize the fact that the majority of the population is in favor of cutting all aid to Israel until it agrees to serious negotiations (with my approval)… [16]
Given the probable nature and outcome of previous ‘serious negotiations’ and the relative strength in the power relationship, this would present no problem for Israel as was demonstrated at Oslo and since. Chomsky’s claim to have supported Human Rights Watch’s call for stopping aid to Israel, however, was a figment of his imagination. This was confirmed by an HRW official who explained that HRW had only asked that the amount of money spent on the occupied territories be deducted from the last round of loan guarantees. [17] That is hardly the same thing. When I pointed this out to Chomsky, he replied:
To take only one example, consider HRW’s ‘Israel’s Interrogation of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories,’ p. xv, which states that US law prohibits sending any military or economic aid to Israel because of its practice of systematic torture. [18]
To my objection that this did not exactly constitute what would be described as a ‘campaign’, he testily responded:
Calling actions illegal is sufficient basis for a reference to a call that the actions should be terminated. If you prefer not to join HRW and me in calling the aid illegal, implying directly that it should be terminated, that’s up to you. Not very impressive… [19](Emphasis added)
I will leave it to the reader to decide whether describing US aid to Israel as illegal in a single document is the same as conducting a campaign to stop it.
Two and a half years earlier, Chomsky had made his position quite clear:
It is convenient in the US, and the West, to blame Israel and particularly Sharon, but that is unfair and hardly honest. Many of Sharon’s worst atrocities were carried out under Labor governments. Peres comes close to Sharon as a war criminal. Furthermore, the prime responsibility lies in Washington, and has for 30 years. That is true of the general diplomatic framework, and also of particular actions. Israel can act within the limits established by the master in Washington, rarely beyond. [20](Emphasis added)
While no doubt a statement of this sort is comforting to the eyes and ears of Israel’s supporters on ‘the left,’ it should be obvious that his waiving of the Jewish State’s responsibility to adhere to the Nuremberg principles, as well as the Geneva Conventions, clearly serves Israel’s interests. (While a strong case can certainly be made against Peres, as well, he is not in Sharon’s class in the ‘war criminal’ competition.)
Chomsky’s rationalization of Israel’s criminal misdeeds in The Fateful Triangleshould have rung alarm bells when it appeared in 1983. Written a year after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, in what would become a sacred text for Middle East activists, he actually began the book not by taking Israel to task so much as its critics:
In the war of words that has been waged since Israel invaded Lebanon on June 6, 1982, critics of Israeli actions have frequently been accused of hypocrisy. While the reasons advanced are spurious, the charge itself has some merit. It is surely hypocritical to condemn Israel for establishing settlements in the occupied territories while we pay for establishing and expanding them. Or to condemn Israel for attacking civilian targets with cluster and phosphorous bombs ‘to get the maximum kill per hit.’ When we provide them gratis or at bargain rates, knowing that they will be used for just this purpose. Or to criticize Israel’s ‘indiscriminate’ bombardment of heavily-settled civilian areas or its other military adventures, while we not only provide the means in abundance but welcome Israel’s assistance in testing the latest weaponry under live battlefield conditions… .In general, it is pure hypocrisy to criticize the exercise of Israeli power while welcoming Israel’s contributions towards realizing the US aim of eliminating possible threats, largely indigenous, to American domination of the Middle East region. [21]
First, the PLO was seen as a threat by Israel, not by the United States in 1982, particularly since it had strictly abided by a US-brokered cease-fire with Israel for 11 months, giving it a dangerous degree of credibility in Israeli eyes. Second, whom did Chomsky mean by ‘we’? Perhaps President Reagan and some members of Congress who gently expressed their concern when the number of Palestinians and Lebanese killed in the invasion and the wholesale destruction of the country could not be suppressed in the media. But he doesn’t say. It certainly wasn’t those who took to the streets across the country to protest Israel’s invasion. Both political parties had competed in their applause when Israel launched its attack, as did the AFL-CIO which took out a full page ad in the NY Times declaring, ‘We Are Not Neutral. We Support Israel!’ paid for by an Israeli lobbyist with a Park Avenue address. The media, in the beginning, was also supportive, but it is rare to find an editorial supporting US aid to Israel. It is rarely ever mentioned and that’s the way the lobby likes it. So is Chomsky creating a straw figure? It appears so.
If we follow Chomsky’s ‘logic’, it would be an injustice to bring charges of war crimes against Indonesian, El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Haitian, or Filipino officers, soldiers, or public officials for the atrocities committed against their own countrymen and women since they were funded, armed and politically supported by the US. Perhaps, General Pinochet will claim the Chomsky Defense if he goes to trial.
He pressed the point of US responsibility for Israel’s sins again in his introduction toThe New Intifada, noting that as one of the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions, ‘It is therefore Washington’s responsibility to prevent settlement and expropriation, along with collective punishment and all other measures of violence… .It follows that the United States is in express and extreme violation of its obligations as a High Contracting Party.’[22]
I would agree with Chomsky, but is the US refusal to act a more ‘extreme violation’ than the actual crimes being committed by another signatory to the Conventions, namely Israel? Chomsky would have us believe that it is.
It is a point Chomsky made clear at a talk in Oxford in May 2004, when he brought up the killing a week earlier of the Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin by the Israeli military as Yassin left a Mosque in Gaza. ‘That was reported as an Israeli assassination, but inaccurately,’ said Chomsky. ‘Sheikh Yassin was killed by a US helicopter, flown by an Israeli pilot. Israel does not produce helicopters. The US sends them with the understanding that they will be used for such purposes, not defense, as they have been, regularly.’
Chomsky is correct to a point. What is missing from his analysis is any reference to the demands from Congress, orchestrated by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel’s officially registered lobby, to make sure that the US provides those helicopters to Israel to use as its generals see fit. (In fact, there is not a single mention of AIPAC in any one of Chomsky’s many books on the Israel-Palestine conflict). What Chomsky’s British audience was left with was the conclusion that the assassination of Sheik Yassin was done with Washington’s approval.
While its repeated use of helicopters against the Palestinian resistance and civilian population has been one of the more criminal aspects of Israel’s response to the Intifada, absolving the Israelis of blame for their use has become something of a fetish for Chomsky as his introduction to The New Intifada [23], and again (in more detail) in Middle East Illusions illustrates:
On October 1, [at the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada] Israeli military helicopters, or, to be more precise, US military helicopters with Israeli pilots, sharply escalated the violence, killing two Palestinians in Gaza… . The continuing provision of attack helicopters by the United States to Israel, with the knowledge that these weapons are being used against the civilian Palestinian population, and the silence of the mainstream media is just one illustration of many of how we live up to the principle that we do not believe in violence. Again, it leaves honest citizens with two tasks: the important one, do something about it; and the second one, try to find out why the policies are being pursued. (Emphasis added) [24]
What to do Chomsky again doesn’t say, but he does try to tell us why: ‘On that matter, the fundamental reasons are not really controversial… It has long been understood that the gulf region has the major energy sources in the world…’[25]
Chomsky then goes on for two pages explaining the importance of Middle East oil and the efforts by the US to control it. It is the basic explanation that he has repeated and republished, almost verbatim, over the years. What it has to do with the Palestinians who have no oil or how a truncated Palestinian state would present a threat to US regional interests is not provided, but after two pages the reader has forgotten that the question was even posed. In his explanation there is no mention of the lobby or domestic influences.
Chomsky does acknowledge that ‘major sectors of American corporate capitalism, including powerful elements with interests in the Middle East [the major oil companies!] ‘have endorsed a ‘two-state solution’ on the basis that,
[T]he radical nationalist tendencies that are enflamed by the unsettled Palestinian problem would be reduced by the establishment of a Palestinian mini-state that would be contained within a Jordanian-Israeli military alliance (perhaps tacit), surviving at the pleasure of its far more powerful neighbors and subsidized by the most conservative and pro-American forces in the Arab world… .This would, in fact, be the likely outcome of a two-state settlement. [26]
Such an outcome would have little direct influence on regional Arab politics, except to demoralize supporters of the Palestinian struggle in the neighboring countries and around the world, a development that would clearly serve US interests. It would, however, curb Israel’s expansion, which is critical to Israel’s agenda, not Washington’s. Chomsky also fails to recognize a fundamental contradiction in his argument. If the support of Israel has been based on its role as protector of US strategic resources, namely oil, why doesn’t that position enjoy the support of the major oil companies with interests in the region?
It is useful to go look at Chomsky’s earlier writings to see how his position has developed. This paragraph from Peace in the Middle East, published in 1974 and repackaged with additional material in 2003, is not dissimilar from the liberal mush he often criticizes:
I do not see any way in which Americans can contribute to the active pursuit of peace. That is a matter for the people of the former Palestine themselves. But it is conceivable that Americans might make some contribution to the passive search for peace, by providing channels of communication, by broadening the scope of the discussion and exploring basic issues in ways that are not easily open to those who see their lives as immediately threatened. [27]
Readers should note amidst the vagueness of this paragraph, how Chomsky’s suggestion that ‘the active pursuit of peace’ should be left to ‘people of the former Palestine’ mirrors a phrase that we have heard frequently from Clinton and since from George the Second and Colin Powell, namely, ‘leaving the negotiations to the concerned parties.’
This was published a year after the October 1973 war when the US was massively increasing both military and economic aid to Israel, a fact Chomsky emphasizes in his other writings. Raising it in this context, however, was not on his agenda at that time.
It is reasonable to conclude by now that Chomsky’s dancing around the question of US aid, his opposition to divestment and sanctions, and to holding Israel to account, can be traced more to his Zionist perspective, irrespective of how he defines it, than to his general approach to historical events. It doesn’t stop there, however. An examination of a sampling of his prodigious output on the Israel-Palestine conflict reveals critical historical omissions and blind spots, badly misinterpreted events, and a tendency to repeat his errors to the point where they have become accepted as ‘non-controversial facts’by successive generations of activists who repeat them like trained seals. In sum, what they have been given by Chomsky is a deeply flawed scenario that he has successfully sold and resold to them as reality.
The consequences are self-evident.
Those who have relied on Chomsky’s interpretation of the US-Israel relationship for their work on behalf of the Palestinian cause have been functionally impotent. There is simply no evidence that any activity they have undertaken has applied any brake on the Palestinians’ever-deteriorating situation. I include here, specifically, the anti-war and solidarity movements and their leading spokespersons that have adopted Chomsky’s formulations en toto. How much responsibility for their failure can be laid at Chomsky’s feet may be debatable, but that he has been a major factor cannot be. On the other hand, for those in the movement whose primary interest has been to protect Israel from blame and sanctions, and their numbers are not small, Chomsky has been extremely helpful.
Up to this point, I have dealt largely with Chomsky’s opinions. His scholarship, unfortunately, exhibits the same failings. They were succinctly described by Bruce Sharp on an internet site that examines his early writings on the Cambodian genocide. Chomsky, wrote Sharp:
[D]oes not evaluate all sources and then determine which stand up to logical inquiry. Rather he examines a handful of accounts until he finds one which matches his predetermined idea of what the truth must be; he does not derive his theories from the evidence. Instead, he selectively gathers ‘evidence’which supports his theories and ignores the rest. [28]
His failures, wrote Sharp, are:
[R]ooted in precisely the same sort of unthinking bias that he derides in the mainstream press. Stories which support his theory are held to a different (far lower) standard of accountability than stories which do not. [29]
These criticisms, to be sure, are not exclusive to Chomsky, but given his elevated status and credibility as a scholar, they are particularly relevant. What has been described by Sharp is closer to the function of a courtroom prosecutor than a historian.
Granted, the issues concerning the effort to secure a just resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict are complex and controversial, but they need to be honestly examined and debated. Everyone, however, is not an equal participant in that debate. The question of the Palestinian ‘right of return’is for Palestinians themselves to determine, not Israelis, Washington or Chomsky’s ‘international consensus.’Another issue, closely connected, ‘one-state vs. two states,’is more complicated and upon which Palestinians are themselves divided. Although I support a single state, I do not intend to argue for it here, only to present and lay out for the reader Chomsky’s perspective. Given the dominance of the Zionist narrative, however, neither issue has the potential of energizing significant numbers of Americans on the Palestinians’ behalf beyond those with a personal or vested interest in their outcome.
Two issues that do have that possibility and which are intimately linked are:

  1. Stopping the flow of tax dollars to Israel. In view of the sharp cuts being made across the nation in spending on health, education and pensions, there is a ready audience for stopping that aid which has now surpassed the $100 billion mark. It would include ending public and private investment in Israel, in Israeli companies, and in American companies doing business in Israel, which has already begun in a limited way; in other words, imposing the sanctions that Chomsky deplores, and
  2. Exposing and challenging the pro-Israel lobby’s stranglehold on Congress and its control over US Middle East policies which is accepted as a fact of life by political observers in Washington and elsewhere, but not by Chomsky.

Chomsky does mention from time to time that the majority of the American people is less than enthusiastic about military aid to Israel but fails to take the issue further than that. His fixation on Israeli pilots flying US helicopters, notwithstanding, relegating the potential power of the aid issue and the lobby to the margins of political discourse has been essential for Chomsky since they undermine the basis of his analysis that:
1) Israel is essentially a US client state that is supported by Washington based on its “services” as a ‘strategic asset’[30] and ‘cop on the beat’[31] for US interests in the Middle East and elsewhere and;
2) The ‘rejectionist’position of the United States, espoused by successive administrations that oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state is the primary obstacle blocking the implementation of a ‘two-state solution.’Moreover, he would have us believe that US policy, despite occasional appearances to the contrary, has supported ‘the gradual integration of the occupied territories within Israel.’[32]
3) ‘The influence of the pro-Israel lobby has been exaggerated by its critics and is more of a swing factor than an independently decisive one…[and] that opens the way for the ideological influence to exert itself — lined up with real power.’[33]
On these three points there is an extraordinary amount of contradictory evidence provided by reputable scholars in the field of which Chomsky is clearly aware (since he quotes them when useful) but chooses to ignore. Within the limits of this article, I will only be able to touch on a few.
The “Strategic Asset” Theory
Chomsky’s argument that US support for Israel has been based on its value as a ‘strategic asset,’was most clearly articulated in The Fateful Triangle in 1983, and was repeated in interviews and speeches until the Soviet Union was no longer a threat and new justifications were required:
From the late 1950s… the US government came increasingly to accept the Israeli thesis that a powerful Israel is a ‘strategic asset’for the United States, serving as a barrier against indigenous radical nationalist threats to American interests, which might gain support from the USSR. [34]
The paucity of evidence he supplies to back it up should long ago have raised eyebrows. One item he inevitably brings up is a National Security Council Memorandum from January 1958 that, according to Chomsky, ‘concluded that a ‘logical corollary’ of opposition to growing Arab nationalism would be to support Israel as the only strong pro-Western power left in the Middle East.’ [35] On such an important point, one would expect he could produce something more recent. In that same year, in response to the successful anti-colonial uprising against the British in Iraq and nationalist moves in Lebanon, Eisenhower sent the marines to that country to protect perceived threats to US interests. Use of Israeli troops was apparently not considered.
The only regional “services” provided by Israel referred to by Chomsky were the defeat of Egypt in 1967 (when France was Israel’s major arms supplier) that was clearly done for Israel’s own interests and it’s role in dissuading the Syrian government from coming to the aid of the Palestinians when they were under attack by Jordan’s King Hussein in September, 1970. That’s it. And in the latter instance, Israel did not need the US to activate its forces to prevent what has been incorrectly recorded (not by Chomsky) as an attempted PLO takeover of Jordan. [36]
What Chomsky and those who parrot his analysis ignore (since he fails to mention them) are other factors that played a role in the routing of the PLO, such as internal Palestinian dissent, the refusal of the Syrian air force under Hafez Al-Assad–no friend of the PLO– to provide air cover, and the strategic advantages of Jordan’s largely Bedouin forces. It was Henry Kissinger who exaggerated Israel’s role in the outcome of that situation and its potential as a Cold War asset [37], and, ironically, it is Kissinger’s position that Chomsky has enshrined as “fact.”
There is another factor in the “strategic asset” argument that is usually overlooked. As Camille Mansour points out:
[T]hese struggles for influence, occurring in a region so close to Israel, are often linked (an in the case of the Jordanian crisis, were definitely linked) to the Arab-Israeli conflict itself: for the Americans, Israel was in the paradoxical position of being an asset by alleviating threats to its own and American interests–threats, however, that it may have itself originally provoked through its situation of conflict with the Arabs. [38]
This opinion was confirmed earlier by Stephen Hillman, former staff member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, who wrote:
The strategic service that Israel is said to perform for the United States–acting as a barrier to Soviet penetration of the Middle East–is one that is needed primarily because of the existence of Israel, but for which the Arabs would be much less amenable to Soviet influence… It is true that Israel provides the United States with valuable military information and intelligence, and it is conceivable… that the United States might have need of naval or air bases on Israeli territory. These assets in themselves… do not seem sufficient to explain the expenditure by the United States between the founding of Israel and 1980 of almost $13 billion in military assistance and over $5.5 billion in economic support, making Israel by far the largest recipient of United States foreign aid.” [39] (Emphasis added)
Chomsky was quite of aware of Tillman’s work, using it frequently as a reference in The Fateful Triangle. The above citation was not included. More to his liking was a comment by the late Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Democrat from Washington, that Chomsky included in The Fateful Triangle and has been repeating in virtually every book, interview and speech he makes about the Israel-Palestine conflict. According to Jackson
Israel’s job was to “inhibit and contain those irresponsible and radical elements in certain Arab states… who were they free to do so, would pose a grave threat indeed to our principal sources of petroleum in the Persian Gulf. [40]
He was referring to “the tacit alliance between Israel, Iran (under the Shah) and Saudi Arabia” yet there is no evidence that any of the three countries ever performed that role. When the first Bush administration considered the region’s oil sources threatened by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, it acted on it own, and went out of its way to keep Israel from participating. This has not dissuaded Chomsky from continuing to tell us the same tale.
Why Chomsky believes we should give credibility to Jackson’s opinion is that he was “the Senate’s leading expert on the topic [of oil]” in Fateful Triangle ( p. 535); “the Senate’s expert on the Middle East and Oil” in Toward a New Cold War. (p. 315)
“the Senate’s leading specialist on the Middle East and Oil” in The New Intifada, (p .9) and Middle East Illusions (p. 179);”the ranking oil expert,” on P. 55 in Deterring Democracy, “the Senate’s leading specialist on the Middle East and oil,” in Pirates and Emperors, (p. 165), and “an influential figure concerned with the Middle East,” Hegemony or Survival ( p.165).
I dwell on Chomsky’s descriptions of Jackson because they are characteristically misleading. The closest thing that Jackson came to being an oil expert was having once chaired an investigation on domestic oil practices while head of the Senate Interior Committee.
Aside from being known as “the senator from Boeing,” in recognition of the many lucrative contracts he funneled Boeing’s way while chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jackson’s main legacy is as co-author of the Jackson-Vanik amendment which made the success of US-USSR Cold War negotiations dependent on the Soviet Union opening its doors to Jewish emigration. Understandably, that made him the darling of the pro-Israel lobby and American Jews, in general, who provided $523,778 or 24.9% of his campaign contributions over a five-year period. [41] An opponent of détente and a Cold War hawk, he was “virtually the last Democrat in the Senate to support… [the Vietnam] war.” [42] Most recently, he has been remembered as the Congressional patron saint of the neo-cons, having given Richard Perle his start on the path to evil.
Thanks to his support of both Israel and the US military-industrial complex, Jackson’s labors did not go unnoticed by the influential Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a major promoter of the integration of the US and Israeli arms industries since 1976. It is another key component of the pro-Israel lobby that Chomsky has never mentioned. In 1982, it established the Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson Distinguished Service Award and Jackson became its first honoree. The most recent was his protégé, Perle.
Had Chomsky mentioned Jackson’s hawkish pro-Israel background it would surely have raised questions about the senator’s credibility if not stripped it away altogether.
Apart from a handful of loyalists who seem echo his every word, Chomsky’s view of US-Israel relations does not fair as well with his fellow academics, including those who generally share his world view. While careful not to mention Chomsky by name, for example, Professor Ian Lustick was clearly referring to his theory when interviewed by Shibley Telhami in 2001:
The US is strong enough and rich enough that, even when thereare crises like the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which was clearly a majorcrisis, it could address it. But… the biggest question in terms ofwhat motivates the US domestically has been on what is the source ofthe commitment to Israel. That really has been the core question. Andhere you have different competing views. For a long time, there was a view which said that the commitment to Israel is a corollary to the USstrategic interest, that, essentially, the US sees Israel as an instrument in its broader strategic interest, containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War and then later, maintaining the flow of oil, reducing terrorism, etc.
The truth of the matter is that theory just doesn’t work, because Israel was, at various stages, very useful strategically, and other stages it was not viewed to be strategically very important. Even more important, probably, during muchof the Cold War, the bureaucracies — the Executive bureaucracy, the Defense Department, and the State Department — did not view Israel to be a strategic asset, and some of them viewed it to be a detriment. So that just doesn’t do it. [43]
Whether valid or not, if during the Cold War the US regarded Israel as a reliable ally against Soviet-backed regimes in some Arab states, this argument vanished as quickly as did the USSR. When Afif Safieh, Palestinian Delegate to the UK and the Holy See visited the United States just before the collapse of the Soviet Union he was surprised to see
within pro-Israeli circles … their worry was about the loss of “anenemy,” what it might signify for the raison-d’etre and the strategicfunction and utility of Israel in American foreign policy as a bastionand strategic asset to contain Soviet expansionism. It was preciselyduring this period that the ideological construction of an alternative global threat, the peril of Islam, took shape.[44]
The Soviet collapse forced not only the pro-Israel lobby, but Chomsky, as well, to scramble for a new reason justifying continued US support; the lobby to maintain, Chomsky to explain the US-Israel relationship.
He found it in a statement by former Israeli intelligence chief, Shlomo Gazit. The Cold War argument that Chomsky had earlier relied upon he now found to have been “highly misleading,” preferring “the analysis… of Gazit” who wrote after the collapse of the USSR that:
Israel’s main task has not changed at all, and it remains of crucial importance. Its location at the center of the Arab Muslim Middle East predestines Israel to be a devoted guardian of stability in all the countries surrounding it. Its [role] is to protect the existing regimes: to prevent or halt the processes of radicalization and to block expansion of fundamentalist religious zealotry.[45]
“To which we may add,” Chomsky wrote in the preface to the new edition of Fateful Triangle, “performing dirty work that the US is unable to undertake itself because of popular opposition or other costs.” [46] Chomsky is still writing as if it were the Seventies or Eighties; there apparently is no limits to the “dirty work” the US will do for itself these days. Gazit would, of course, be expected to come up with an excuse for maintaining US support. But stability? If anything, Israel’s presence in the region has been the key destabilizing factor in the region and on two occasions, in 1967, and again in 1973, it almost led to nuclear war (and did lead then to a costly Arab oil embargo.) In the early days of the October War, when it appeared that Israeli troops might be overrun, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan reportedly panicked and threatened to use Israel’s atomic weapons on Egypt if the US did not rush Israel an airlift of conventional weapons. The Nixon administration promptly responded. [47]
As Mansour points out, “By so urgently asking Washington for arms, the Israeli government did not behave as a strategic asset, but as a protégé that feared–exaggeratedly perhaps–for its life.” [48]
It should be noted that not until 1978, when Menachem Begin was elected prime minister, did Israel officially promote itself as a US asset. In an interview in the January 1991 Journal of Palestine Studies, the late retired Israel General Matti Peled said, “The argument that Israel is a strategic asset of the US serving as a static aircraft carrier, has never been more than a figment of the Israeli imagination. It was first proposed by Prime Minister Begin as a way of justifying the considerable grants given to Israel to purchase American weapon systems…. The Kuwaiti crisis has proved that the argument was false…” The arms deals were useful to the U.S, he said, because they triggered even bigger arms sales to America’s Arab allies.
In 1986, and reprinted in four editions through 2002, Chomsky’s popular Pirates and Emperors contained a “strategic asset” theory that appeared to be pumped up on steroids. In one of five references to Israel performing that service, he wrote:
The US has consistently sought to maintain the military confrontation and to ensure that Israel remains a “strategic asset.” In this conception, Israel is to be highly militarized, technologically advanced, a pariah state with little in the way of an independent economy apart from high tech production (often in coordination with the US), utterly dependent on the United States and hence dependable, serving US needs as a local “cop on the beat” and as a mercenary state employed for US purposes elsewhere… [49]
Chomsky couldn’t have been more mistaken. Thanks to the political support of the United States, Israel is anything but a “pariah state.” It enjoys favored nation status with the European Union, its largest trading partner, and its arms industry, despite increasing integration with its US counterpart, is one of the world’s largest and competes with that of the US on the world market. Israel is also one of the major centers of the domestic high tech industry. It is hardly hostage to US demands although that characterization is what Chomsky is clearly trying to suggest. Furthermore, while the Israeli military and its arms manufacturers did serve US interests in Latin America and Africa, from the Sixties to the early Eighties, they did so for their own interests which happened to be mutually profitable.
Israel’s alleged usefulness to the US has been negated from other angles. Harold Brown was Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Defense. When his Israeli counterpart suggested that the two countries make plans for joint nuclear targeting of the Soviet Union in case of a war, Brown told Seymour Hersh that the Carter administration
would not have wanted to get involved in an Israeli-Soviet conflict. The whole idea of Israel as a strategic asset seems crazy to me. The Israelis would say, ‘Let us help you,’ and then you end up being their tool. The Israelis have their own security interests and we have our interests. They are not identical. [50]
Professor Cheryl Rubenberg challenged the Chomsky mindset from another perspective:
[T]he constraints imposed on American diplomacy in the Middle East by virtue of the US-Israeli relationship have impeded Washington’s ability to achieve stable and constructive working relationships with the Arab states, a necessary prerequisite for the realization of all American regional interests… .Even those regimes that pursued close associations with Washington in spite of the American-Israeli union were constrained from publicly normalizing the ties for fear of the domestic opposition an overt affiliation with the United States would bring… .
American corporate and commercial interests in the Middle East have been constrained in other ways… .To cite but one example: as a result of pressure that pro-Israeli groups were able to exert on Congress, a set of antiboycott laws was passed that severely limit [US] business in the Arab world. As a result, American companies and the United States economy suffer an estimated $ 1 billion loss per year. [51]
That antiboycott legislation has been successfully used to prosecute American companies over the years and is now being employed by pro-Israel members of Congress to stifle efforts of US activists to instigate a boycott of Israeli products in the United States. There is no need to ask where Chomsky stands on that.
Furthermore, Rubenberg, emphasizing the point made by others, asks, “How can Israel, committed to policies that a priori assure the perpetuation of regional instability, be considered a strategic asset to American interests?” [52]
For the post-Soviet era, Chomsky might have sought support for his case from neocon stalwart Douglas Feith. With only slight modifications, these lines from an article by the Deputy Defense Secretary in the Harvard Law Review, Spring 2004, could have been written by Chomsky himself:
For a variety of reasons, Israel has remained strategically relevantsince the Soviet Union’s demise… Israel’s geography ensures itscontinued importance to the US Even without a Soviet presence, theMiddle East remains important to the US as the primary source ofAmerican oil imports… .
Israel has been a loyal ally to the US and, through its strength, a stabilizing Force in an otherwise volatile region. Although Israel’s very existence has fueled numerous conflicts in the Middle East, from the perspective of the US government, the destruction of Israel, the region’s sole liberal democracy, is strategically not an option. Operating on the principle that Israel is here to stay and should stay, US aid to Israel has yielded enormous strategic dividends for the US By creating a regional imbalance ofpower favoring Israel, aid has curbed Arab military aggression andprevented situations, namely full-blown war between Israel and itsneighbors, in which the US might need to deploy troops to the MiddleEast. (Emphasis added)
This last paragraph is quite interesting. Not only does Feith reinforce earlier citations from Hillman, Mansour and Rubenberg regarding Israel’s existence being the source of regional instability, he suggests that Israel has been justly rewarded for preventing another war that’s its presence would otherwise have caused. That’s chutzpah.
The “Rejectionist” Theory
“In the real world,” Chomsky writes, “the primary barrier to the ‘emerging vision’ [the Arab League’s offer of full peace and recognition in exchange for Israeli withdrawal] has been and remains, unilateral US rejectionism.” (Emphasis added) 53 Chomsky would have us believe that it is primarily the US and not Israel that stands in the way of a peaceful (if not a just) settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict. He fails, however, in all his prolific writings, to explain why this solution would interfere and not enhance US power in the Middle East since the Palestinian state suggested, as he frequently acknowledges, would be weak and dependent largely on Israel, the US and other Arab countries for its economic survival.
By repeating it over and over, often several times on the same page, Chomsky has made the “rejectionist” label stick to the US like tar paper. What he has really achieved, however, is establishing his own definition of the term, yet another “straw man” that he can then pummel the stuffing out of as if it were real. This has required some nimble shifting and inexcusable ignoring of the available record that every US president beginning with Richard Nixon has tried to get Israel to withdraw from the land it captured in 1967, albeit now, after successive failures, White House efforts have been reduced to a dribble.
These “peace plans” as they were called were not initiated for the benefit of the Palestinians but to pacify the area in the pursuit of America’s regional and global interests that have been negatively affected by Israel’s continuing occupation as described earlier. Under those plans, Palestinians in the West Bank would likely have once again come under Jordanian sovereignty and the Gazans under that of Egypt. Other than Camp David, in which Israel ended up the big winner, all the plans have been doomed:
“What happened to all those nice plans?” asked Israeli journalist and peace activist Uri Avnery. “Israel’s governments have mobilized the collective power of US Jewry – which dominates Congress and the media to a large degree – against them. Faced by this vigorous opposition, all the presidents, great and small, football players and movie stars – folded one after another.” [54]
The origin of the term “rejectionist” is important. Chomsky lifted it from what was referred to in the Seventies by Israel’s supporters, Chomsky among them, as the Palestinian “rejection front.” It was the term they used to describe those Palestinian resistance organizations, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DPFLP), and some smaller groups, that rejected the existence of Israel as a Jewish state and called for the establishment of a democratic, secular state in all of historic Palestine, a position to which Chomsky was and remains unalterably opposed.
In 1975, Chomsky considered the possibility of
a unitary democratic secular state in Mandatory Palestine… an exercise in futility. It is curious that this goal is advocated in some form by the most extreme antagonists: the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and expansionist elements within Israel. But the documents of the former indicate that what they have in mind is an Arab state that will grant civil rights to Jews, and the pronouncements of the advocates of a Greater Israel leave little doubt that their thoughts run along parallel lines, interchanging “Jew” and “Arab. [55]
The Palestinian struggle did not, in fact, become acceptable in Chomsky’s eyes until it accepted the US-Israel demand that the PLO recognize Israel’s legitimacy within its 1967 borders. That he equates the desires of Palestinians to regain their lost homeland to the program of the most extremist Israeli colonizers is also telling. Another piece of the puzzle fits. Writing in 1974, he was more explicit:
The Palestinian groups that have consolidated in the past few years argue that this injustice could be rectified by the establishment of a democratic secular state in all of Palestine. However, they frankly acknowledge–in fact, insist–that this would require the elimination of the “political, military, social, syndical and cultural institutions” of Israel” which will necessitate armed struggle, which “guarantees that… all elements of Israeli society will be unified in opposing the armed struggle against its institutions.
Even if, contrary to fact, the means proposed could succeed–I repeat and emphasize, even if, contrary to fact, these means could succeed–they would involve the destruction by force of a unified society, its people, and its institutions–a consequence intolerable to civilized opinion on the left or elsewhere.” (emphasis in original) [56]
Apparently, for Chomsky, “civilized opinion” excluded the entire Arab world and much of the Third World–at least in sufficient numbers for the UN General Assembly to overwhelmingly brand Zionism as a form of racism in 1975. His “civilized opinion” as well, did not consider the expulsion of the Palestinians to be an “intolerable consequence” of the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state.
Now, in an effort to appear fair-minded, he equates the rejection of a Palestinian state with the rejection of an Israeli Jewish state and declares the US to be “rejectionist” on the basis that it has not called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. This enables him to ignore the US goal: getting Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders as a way of improving regional US relations and the stability of it sources of oil.
Not only does this make the US “rejectionist” by Chomsky’s definition, but also, so he places Resolution 242 in the same category. While admitting that the resolution, passed five months after the 1967 war was intended to restore the pre-existing status quo, “It is important to bear in mind that 242 was strictly rejectionist–using the term here in a neutral sense to refer to rejection of national rights of one or the other of the contending national groups in the former Palestine, not just rejection of the right of Jews, as in the conventional racist usage.” [57]
Chomsky’s use of the inflammatory term, “racist,” here, however, disguises the fact that from the perspective of the Palestinians, it was Chomsky who was the rejectionist. In the early 70s, the Palestinian national movement was not calling for a separate state in the West Bank and Gaza but for returning to the land from which 750,000 of them had been expelled or fled, not 2000 years, but twenty years before. It was not until the PLO dropped its demand for its national rights in all of what had been Palestine in exchange for a truncated entity on the other side of the Green Line (1967 border) that Palestinian national rights, or what was left of them, became acceptable to Chomsky.
The Israel Lobby: A Chomsky Blind Spot
If there are any constants in Washington, they are the power of AIPAC over Congress and the combined power of both over the White House when it comes to issues in the Middle East. While the lobby and its legislative lackeys may not win every battle, they ultimately win every war as the three living ex-presidents, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush the First, who ended up losers at the polls can attest.
Founded in 1959, with each passing year, the organization gets bigger and stronger. With a base in Washington, offices across the country, 85,000 energized members, a staff of 165, and a $33.4 million annual budget, 58AIPAC is at the pinnacle of a massive complex of Jewish organizations and Political Action Committees (PACS) across the country, from the national to the local, that are devoted to maintaining Israel’s privileged status in the nation’s capitol.
It no longer has serious concerns about the White House, but in the past, Ford, Carter and Bush Sr. publicly challenged Israel’s territorial aspirations and crossed the lobby on numerous occasions. There is little evidence of this in Chomsky’s writings. Instead, he would like us to believe that they, as well as their predecessors, supported Israel’s settlement building and its efforts to integrate the territories into Israel proper. The historical record proves otherwise. And yet he writes:
Through the most significant facts are missing from mainstream, commentary, and often ignored or misrepresented even in scholarly work, they are not controversial. They provide the indispensable background for any serious understanding of what is happening now. [59]
Much of what Chomsky tells us is “not controversial,” invariably proves to be very much so and particularly when it comes to the relations between Israel and the White House. The late revered Israeli scholar and human rights activist, Professor Israel Shahak pointed out that Chomsky’s analysis suffers from his
[i]undoubted tendency of demonizing the American presidency and the Executive in general, while ignoring the Legislature, but also from his very mistaken, in my opinion, tendency of assuming that not only the principles but literally everything concerning the American imperialism was laid in detail long ago, in 1944 or about that time, and from then on the policy is, so to say, a follow-up of instructions from a computer.
This ignores not only the human factor in the US itself but also the completely different nature of the foes and the victims of the US during the last decades. There can be no doubt, in my own opinion, that the actual policies of the US are complex even when they are evil, influenced, as in the case of all other states, by many factors of which AIPAC is one and human stupidity (for which he never allows) is another.
And finally, this very insightful paragraph:
But such simplistic theories, backed by his memory and ability to pick isolated examples (sometimes from a long time ago like his stock example of Eisenhower in the case of Israel while ignoring everything else from 1967 on) can appeal to [the] young who look for certainty and also for those who don’t want to [be] engaged in actual work and so find substitute for it in crude and useless display of emotion. [60]
I had written to Shahak after hearing Chomsky’s reply to a question following a speech he made in Berkeley at the outset of the first Gulf War. A member of the audience wanted to know his thoughts about AIPAC’s role in that war and his opinion of the lobby, in general. Chomsky was predictably dismissive:
Personally, I don’t think AIPAC played much of a role in this. In fact, my own feeling is that the role of the Israeli lobby, in general, is pretty much exaggerated. That’s a matter of judgment. It’s not a simple factual question. In my opinion the Israeli lobby gets its input in large part because it happens to line up with powerful sectors of domestic US power. [61]
Chomsky’s comment, notwithstanding, AIPAC ‘was widely credited with having played a key role’ in rounding up the necessary votes in the Senate to give President Bush his majority. �[B]ecause of the extreme sensitivity to the issue, AIPAC was anxious to camouflage its role to avoid providing evidence for the accusation… that the Persian Gulf War was fought at the behest of the Jews to protect Israel.� [62] To disguise their role, the Washington Jewish Week�s Larry Cohler reported that AIPAC had prominent Jewish senators vote against the war while lobbying non-Jewish senators in states with small Jewish populations to support it. That Saddam Hussein was not removed at the time brought strong criticism from the primarily Jewish neocons and on a lower register from AIPAC. During the Clinton presidency they would press their demand for regime change in Iraq and under Bush Jr., they made sure that task would be carried out. [63]
The most troubling part of his answer, however, was his downplaying of the lobby. Since most political observers view elected officials at virtually every level as representing to varying degrees their major campaign contributors, much like lawyers representing corporate clients �- and AIPAC has been acknowledged as a leader in the field — his response answer was at best disingenuous.
Predictably, it drew applause from the supporters of Israel who were happy to have the distinguished scholar absolve organized American Jewry of any responsibility for what their co-religionists were doing to the Palestinians or for the lobby�s activities in support of the first war on Iraq. I decided to express my feelings to Professor Shahak. Here was his frank reply:
I had the same, only greater, differences of opinion with Noam Chomsky, who is my personal friend for quite a time, on the subject of AIPAC and the influence of the Jewish lobby in general as you have. What is more, a number of mutual friends of Chomsky and me have also tried to influence him, in vain, on that point.
I am afraid that he is, with all his wonderful qualities and the work he does, quite dogmatic on many things. I have no doubt that his grievous mistake about the lack of importance of AIPAC, which he repeats quite often, helps the Zionists very much as you so graphically described. (Emphasis added) [64]
At least, I realized, I was not alone in my assessment of Chomsky. His position has been a boon for AIPAC and therefore has benefited Israel�s position in the United States. In fact, as noted earlier, he has never even mentioned the organization by name in any of the books he has written on the Middle East. By steering activists away from confronting the liberal politicians that the lobby holds in thrall and placing the blame for Israel�s actions on the resident of the White House, Chomsky has, without question, been doing �damage control� for AIPAC.
Another good friend and admirer of Chomsky, the late Professor Edward Said, did not mince words on the issue. In his contribution to The New Intifada, appropriately entitled �America�s Last Taboo,� Said wrote:
What explains this [present] state of affairs? The answer lies in the power of Zionist organizations in American politics, whose role throughout the �peace process� has never been sufficiently addressed — a neglect that is absolutely astonishing, given the policy of the PLO has been in essence to throw our fate as a people into the lap of the United States, without any strategic awareness of how American policy is dominated by a small minority whose views about the Middle East are in some ways more extreme than those of Likud itself. (Emphasis added) [65]
And on the subject AIPAC, Said wrote:
[T]he American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has for years been the most powerful single lobby in Washington. Drawing on a well-organized, well-connected, highly visible and wealthy Jewish population, AIPAC inspires an awed fear and respect across the political spectrum. Who is going to stand up to this Moloch on behalf of the Palestinians, when they can offer nothing, and AIPAC can destroy a professional career at the drop of a checkbook? In the past, one or two members of Congress did resist AIPAC openly, but the many political action committees controlled by AIPAC made sure they were never re-elected… If such is the material of the legislature, what can be expected of the executive? [66]
With the lobby, the checkbook is always open. In 2002, for example, Israeli-American Chaim Saban donated $12.3 million to the Democrats with little public notice. Compare that with the media hoopla over Exxon having donated $10 million to the Republicans over a six-year period. Moreover, according to the Mother Jones web site, approximately 120 of the top 250 donors to the 2000 elections were Jewish which is interpreted in Washington as Israel lobby money.
University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole sounded the alarm on AIPAC with equal vigor, noting a CNN report that AIPAC, �holds 2000 meetings a year with US Senators and Congressmen, leading to the passage of an average of 100 pro-Israel pieces of legislation every year!� He further writes:
Some readers have suggested that I have exaggerated AIPAC’s hold on the US Congress. But I have direct knowledge of senators and congressmen being afraid to speak out on Israeli issues because of AIPAC’s reputation for targeting representatives for un-election if they dare do so. And, it is easy to check. Look in the Congressional record. Is there ever any speech given on the floor critical of Israeli policy, given by a senator or representative who goes on to win the next election? And look at the debates in every other parliament in the world; there are such criticisms elsewhere. The US Congress is being held hostage by a single-issue lobbying organization that often puts Israeli interests above US interests…[67]
Two decades earlier, well before the emergence of the Christian Zionist factor, Seth Tillman had pointed out that:
American presidents have sought to avoid a direct confrontation with Israel and its strong supporters in the United States because of the terrific domestic controversy sure to be engendered by such a face-off; because of the powerful and undiminished hold Israel and its supporters have upon Congress; because of the exorbitant amount of political capital that would have to be expended in such a battle, placing at risk an administration�s other objectives, foreign and domestic; and because of the uncertainty that even with the use of the full political and educational powers of his office, a president would prevail in a domestic showdown… [68]
Unlike other domestic lobbies, AIPAC has no serious challengers, the Arab-American organizations in Washington, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Arab-American Institute (AAI), being both too small and too timid to challenge even their shadow. What gives the lobby its strength, besides its significant organizational skills, is that its members are intimately tied to Jewish organizations, federations, and community relations councils across the country, as well as to labor union officials and, in recent years, to the growing Christian evangelical movement, which provides Israel with unprecedented support in what is generally right-wing Republican territory. It is noteworthy that it was only when the Christian Zionists joined the fray did Chomsky and his acolytes, most notably Professors Stephen Zunes and Joel Beinin, and the Institute for Public Studies� Phyllis Bennis began to speak about �the lobby,� suggesting that the evangelicals were now its most powerful component. The subtext was that they were welcome because they took the attention away from AIPAC.
Fighting a lonely fight against AIPAC has been the Council for the National Interest (CNI), a group made up of former State Department and Foreign Service diplomats with experience in the Middle East, and ex-members of Congress such as Paul Findley and Pete McCloskey whose criticism of Israel and support of Palestinian rights led to their being targeted for defeat by AIPAC. The former government officials are disdainfully referred to by Israel�s supporters and its friends in the media as �Arabists�, as if to imply that their experience in the Middle East has compromised their patriotism. In practice, the term has become a euphemism for �anti-Semitic,� and occasionally their Jewish critics do not bother with the euphemism. The position of CNI is, simply, that the support by Washington of Israel�s policy of occupation and expansion is not in the US national interest.
The effects of an accusation of �anti-Semitism� are like none other. Being branded as �anti-Semitic� has brought such powerful and diverse public figures as Rev. Billy Graham and actor Marlon Brando to their knees and to tears with their apologies. The fear of being called �anti-Semitic� or of provoking anti-Semitism, ironically, inhibits the actions of US-based Palestinian organizations despite the fact that they are Semites themselves. As if losing their land was not enough, in America they have also been robbed of their ethnic identity.
The result is that they have found it easier to go along with Chomsky�s positions. Unfortunately, they do so to the point where the issue of AIPAC and the pro-Israel lobby is never discussed at their conferences. This is also at least partly due to their affiliation with various political organizations that are led by self-proclaimed Jewish anti-Zionists who, fearful of provoking anti-Semitism, prefer to blame everything on US imperialism, a much safer, if more remote target.
No series of events provides a deeper understanding of AIPAC�s power than President Gerald Ford�s losing battle with Israel and the lobby in 1975 — one of the most significant encounters in the history of US-Israel relations. It rated less than three lines from Chomsky in 1982, and not one word since. [69]
The confrontation involved Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on one side and Israel and AIPAC on the other. This is how Seth Tillman described it:
Among the lobby�s many victory trophies from the legislative arena, one of the most conspicuous and consequential was �the letter of seventy-six� addressed to President Ford by that number of Senators on May 21, 1975. Following the collapse in March of Secretary of State Kissinger�s first round of shuttle diplomacy toward a second Sinai disengagement agreement [as a result of the 1973 war], the angry and frustrated secretary of state announced a �reassessment� of American Middle East policy, during which the Ford administration conspicuously delayed the delivery of certain weapons to Israel and suspended negotiations for pending financial and military aid, including the new F-15 fighter plane.
In the course of the policy reassessment, experts from within the government and others called in from the outside reached a near consensus in favor of the United States calling for a Middle East settlement based on Israeli withdrawal to the borders of 1967 (with minor modifications), coupled with strong guarantees for Israel�s security… Kissinger�s advisers envisioned a national television appeal by President Ford to the American people spelling out the basic issues of American national interest in the Middle East, and on the basis of these, making the case for Israeli withdrawal in return for guarantees. [70] (Emphasis added)
With the administration�s gauntlet down, AIPAC went into action. Three weeks later, after intensive lobbying, 76 senators signed a letter to Ford that reaffirmed Israel�s role as a barrier to Soviet influence in the Middle East and warned that,
[W]ithholding military equipment from Israel would be dangerous, discouraging accommodation by Israel�s neighbors and encouraging a resort to force. Within the next several weeks, the Congress expects to receive your foreign aid requests for fiscal year 1976. We trust that your recommendations will be responsive to Israel�s urgent military and economic needs. We urge you to make it clear, as we do, that the United States acting in its own national interests stands firmly with Israel in the search for peace in future negotiations, and that this premise is the basis of the current reassessment of US policy in the Middle East. [71]
That effectively ended the administration�s �reassessment� plan and, coupled with his pardon of Nixon, Ford�s election hopes for 1976.
�Any document,� observed UCLA’s Stephen Spiegel, �that brought together such disparate Senatorial voices as [Teddy] Kennedy and Barry Goldwater, Frank Church and Paul Laxalt, Walter Mondale and Strom Thurmond, was bound to challenge the administration�s Mideast diplomacy.� [72] The realization that AIPAC was able to get such a diverse group of senators to sign a letter at any time was not lost on future presidents, but as we shall see, underestimating the lobby would trip up Bush and James Baker 15 years later. (It is still the case today. Only the names have changed. There is no other critical issue that finds liberal Democrats eagerly locking arms with the most right wing Republicans and thanks no little to Chomsky�s efforts, paying no political price for doing so).
In evaluating the �Congressional Impact on United States Policy Toward Israel,� a comprehensive study of that period, Marvin Feuerwerger concluded that:
Congress played a key role in shaping the course of American-Israeli relations during the 1969-1976 period…Congress was willing at times to exert its authority by blocking measures that the administration contemplated but Congress believed would threaten Israel�s security. This willingness helped keep United States policy within certain pro-Israel boundaries…[referring to the letter from the senators to Ford] virtually forced the executive branch to abandon the option of imposing a Mideast settlement which Israel considered to be potentially detrimental to its security. Similarly. Congressional and interest group [AIPAC] activity in response to the 1969 Rogers Plan �virtually insured that no further pro-Arab initiatives would be undertaken by the Nixon administration.� [73]
If Chomsky�s ignoring of the Ford administration�s losing battle with AIPAC was inexcusable, the same must be said for his revisionist history of George Bush Senior�s relations with Israel. While an overall evaluation of Bush�s career would have him standing in the dock as a war criminal, his confrontation with the lobby was one of the bright spots for opponents of the US-Israel alliance. It also probably cost him re-election.
While it is generally acknowledged both in Israel and within the American Jewish community that the first Bush administration was the most unfriendly to Israel since the establishment of the state, Chomsky incredibly maintains otherwise. �There is an illusion,� he wrote, �that the (first) Bush Administration took a harsh line toward Israel. The truth is closer to the opposite.� Chomsky bases that on �the official administration position of December 1989 (the Baker Plan), which endorsed without reservations the May 1989 plan of Israel�s Peres-Shamir coalition government… [which] declared that there can be no �Palestinian state� and no change in the status of the occupied territories and no negotiations with the PLO.� [74]
Chomsky complained that the story was unreported in the press, while �what one does read is that Baker strongly reiterated US support for �total withdrawal from territory in exchange for peaceful relations� — while he was quietly lending decisive support to programs to ensure that nothing of the sort would happen.� Not only does the historical record not back Chomsky up, this is another typical example in which Chomsky �examines a handful of accounts until he finds one which matches his predetermined idea of what the truth must be… [he] selectively gathers �evidence� which supports his theories and ignores the rest.� In this case, �the rest� is massive, much of it provided by former Israeli foreign minister Moshe Arens whose book, Broken Covenant, was an angry rebuke of the Bush administration�s treatment of Israel.
As Ronald Reagan�s vice-president, Bush had already shown his animosity toward Israel when he unsuccessfully urged the president to implement sanctions against Israel when it destroyed Iraq�s nuclear reactor in 1981. He fared no better the following June when he once again urged sanctions on Israel following its invasion of Lebanon but was outvoted by Reagan and Secretary of State Al Haig. [75]
Of his first meeting with President Bush the elder, Arens writes, �The President raised the question of Israeli settlements in the territories, leaving no doubt of his objection to further settlement activity.� [76] Later conversations with Baker led Arens to conclude that:
The �new world� the State Department was talking about was a world in which the Bush administration had decided to assume a confrontational posture toward Israel, its longtime ally and friend… that the �final status� it was promoting was a return of Israel to the lines that existed prior to June 1967.� [77]
It was time to call in “the lobby.”
[T]he Bush administration would have to learn that Israel would not be bullied or pushed around. It was clear to me that the only possible constraint on the Bush administration�s tactics toward Israel was domestic politics… .If Bush and Baker were to realize that there was public opposition to their bullying tactics, then they would be likely to relent, certainly as election time approached…
I realized that we would have to fortify support for Israel in Congress and among US public opinion… .I spent the next day on the Hill meeting with congressional committees and with individual members of the Senate and the House… [78]
Arens�s visit and the work of AIPAC were to pay off when Baker launched a shot across its bows. Speaking at its annual convention in Washington in May of 1990, in the second year of the Bush administration, he told the assembled lobbyists and their Congressional guests that:
For Israel, now is the time to lay aside once and for all the unrealistic vision of Greater Israel. Israeli interests in the West Bank and Gaza, security and otherwise, can be accommodated in a settlement based on Resolution 242. Forswear annexation; stop settlement activity; allow schools to reopen, reach out to the Palestinians as neighbors who deserve political rights. [79]
Baker, a longtime player on Capitol Hill, should have known what was coming next. Here is how Arens described it:
Early in June, in an extraordinary display of support and collective acknowledgement that there had been a turnaround in official US sympathy for Israel, ninety-four of the one hundred US senators signed a letter to the secretary of state asking that the administration �strongly and publicly� endorse the Israeli [Peres-Shamir] peace initiative.
�Israel�s proposals,� said the letter, �have not always received the consideration they deserve by other parties to the conflict or by the international community at large. To prevent that from happening now, the United States must be fully supportive, both in fact and appearance.�
A triumphant Arens concluded:
There could be no misreading the message to the administration, or the implied rebuke. It was reported to me that Baker was genuinely taken aback by the letter and the fact that ninety-four senators had signed it… [80]
Over the years Congress has been at the ready to give Israel additional funding, even when money has been unavailable for essential domestic programs, as happened in 2002 when the Senate, after defeating a bill that would have provided $150 million for inner-city schools that had been impacted by 9-11, turned around and tucked an additional $200 million for Israel into the Homeland Security Bill as if Israel had been targeted that day and not New York and Washington.
Things were no different in 1991 when six out of ten US cities were unable to meet their budgets and several states their payrolls. In March of that year, over the objections of the Bush administration, the House voted by a 397-24 margin to give Israel $650 million in cash as part of the Gulf War emergency spending bill. Bush had publicly threatened to veto the bill but backed down when he realized it would be overridden.
In September 1991, with the war over, the Bush administration presented AIPAC with its greatest crisis since the battle with Ford. In the midst of the administration�s efforts to assemble the cast for what became the Madrid �peace conference,� much to the consternation of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Israel sprang a surprise on the President: a demand for $10 billion dollars in US guaranteed loans over a five year period.
Congress, of course, was ready to jump through Israel�s hoops again over the opposition of President Bush. Angered at Israel�s demand and fearing, perhaps, that approval of the loan guarantees would allow Israel to withdraw from the conference while antagonizing the Arab invitees, Bush asked Shamir to postpone the loan application for 120 days, and made its approval conditional on Israel freezing Jewish settlements.
When Bush indicated that he was going to ask for the delay, Arens recalled, �[Sen. Daniel] Inouye [D-HA] was not equivocal at all. He said, �I am putting on my yarmulke; we�re going to war.� (It was no coincidence that his first paying job after getting out of the Army after WWII had been as a salesman for State of Israel Bonds.)
Shamir refused, confident that he would prevail over Bush should it come to a showdown with Congress. On September 12, aware that AIPAC had secured sufficient votes in both Houses to approve the guarantees and override his veto, and taking note that �more than a thousand American Jews, representing various organizations and mobilized by AIPAC, went to Capitol Hill to express their support for [their] speedy enactment� [81], Bush took an unusual step. He called a press conference. What happened was graphically described in the Washington Jewish Week. [82]
Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, a long time darling of the liberal Democrats, had just promised a group of the Jewish lobbyists her vote for the guarantees when she was interrupted by an aide who handed her a note. Mikulski’s face �went ashen,� wrote the WJW reporter. �I’ve just learned the president said he’s taking his case for a 120-day loan guarantee to the American people,� said Mikulski. The American people! Imagine that, the very last folks AIPAC and Congress wanted to include in their deliberations.
As Arens describes it:
Bush hastily called a press conference and made an extraordinary televised appeal to the American people. Visibly angry, pounding his fist on the lectern, he made it appear that Israel�s insistence on the guarantees was a threat not only to the forthcoming conference but to peace itself. �A debate now could well destroy our ability to bring one or more of the parties to the peace table… If necessary I will use my veto power to keep that from happening.�
Then the president took direct aim at the pro-Israel lobby. �We are up against some powerful political forces… very strong and effective groups that go up to the Hill,� he said. �We�ve only got one lonely little guy down here doing it…[but] I am going to fight for what I believe. It may be popular politically but probably not… the question isn�t whether it�s good for 1992 politics. What�s important here is that we give the process a chance. And I don�t care if I only get one vote… I believe the American people will be with me.� Then, his voice rising, the president said �Just months ago, American men and women in uniform risked their lives to defend Israelis in the face of Iraqi Scud missiles. And indeed Desert Storm, while winning a war against aggression, also achieved the defeat of Israel�s most dangerous adversary.� He also added that, during the current fiscal year, �despite our own economic worries,� the United States had provided Israel with more than $4 billion worth of aid, �nearly one thousand dollars for each Israeli man, woman, and child.� [83]
Never had a president addressed the American people with such frankness and none has since. Polls taken afterward indicated that Americans supported Bush by a 3-1 margin and half of those responding opposed providing any economic aid to Israel. Two weeks later, a NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed that while voters favored aid to the Soviet Union by a margin of 58% to 32%, and aid to Poland by a margin of 55% to 29%, voters opposed economic support to Israel by 46% to 44%. Moreover, 34% saw Israel as the greatest impediment to peace in the region while only 33% saw the Arab nations in that role. [84] (Emphasis in original)
If there had ever been a �window of opportunity� for Middle East activists, this was it. Chomsky was to effectively close it. Writing of Bush�s appeal several months later, he was smug and, at best, na�ve, and the polls were not mentioned:
At the time of the US-Israel confrontation, it took scarcely more than a raised eyebrow from the President for the Israeli lobby to collapse, while major journals that rarely veer from the Israeli Party line took the cue and began to run articles critical of Israeli practices and hinting that US support for them was not inevitable. That should also occasion little surprise. Domestic pressure groups tend to be ineffectual unless they line up with significant elements of state-corporate power, or have reached a scale and intensity that compels moves to accommodate them. When AIPAC lobbies for policies that the state executive and major sectors of corporate America intend to pursue, it is influential; when it confronts authentic power, largely unified, it fades very quickly.[85]
Chomsky�s dismissal of Bush�s stance as �a raised eyebrow� was accepted with approving nods by the movement�s trained seals. AIPAC had become a �paper tiger� in Chomsky�s words, a sentiment that quickly moved across the country to be repeated by Professor Joel Beinin of Stanford. What Bush�s press conference made clear, however, was the immense power that AIPAC wields over the US Congress to the extent that it stands ready to place the demands of Israel, a foreign country, above the wishes of an American president. It forced Bush, in this instance, to take what was clearly a desperate and unprecedented action. While succeeding for the moment, within a week and under pressure, Bush had written a letter to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, a large umbrella group that lobbies the White House (and includes AIPAC), expressing his dismay that some of his remarks had �caused apprehension within the Jewish community…. My references to lobbyists and powerful political forces were never meant to be pejorative in any sense.� [86]
Chomsky�s response to that series of events and his decision to erase them from his version of history reveals what side of the Israel-Palestine conflict he is on when forced to choose. Rather than urge activists to take advantage of the huge fissure that Bush�s dramatic appeal had opened between Israel and the American people and to suggest, if not call, for a campaign to stop aid, he provided �damage control� for AIPAC. While one must also fault the Palestine solidarity movement for not seizing the situation and acting upon those poll figures themselves, the influence of Chomsky on its actions was at the time, and unfortunately still remains, overwhelming.
AIPAC, of course, was not about to fold it tent and depart the field. On the day after the press conference, Tom Dine, AIPAC�s executive director, declared �September 12 a day that will live in infamy,� and declared war on the president. Both Israel and AIPAC had agreed, given the poll numbers that it would be unwise to challenge the president in Congress, but to wait for the 120 days. In the interim one could detect a considerable increase in the media of articles critical of Bush�s handling of the presidency and, particularly, the economy. With the November election in view, and after Yitzhak Rabin had replaced Shamir as prime minister, Bush agreed to the loan guarantees with the proviso that the amount of money that Israel was spending in the Occupied Territories be deducted from the total. It didn�t help him. Moshe Arens summed it up:
George Bush was defeated in his attempt to get a second term. His administration�s repeated attempts to interfere in Israel�s internal politics had been without precedent in the history of relations between the United States and Israel… Although in the months after the Likud defeat Bush gave Rabin everything he had withheld from Shamir, including the loan guarantees, he could not dispel the impression that his administration had been hostile to Israel. Bill Clinton had narrowly defeated Bush for the presidency of the United States. The vast majority of the Jewish community of America, as well as many non-Jews who were dedicated to the US-Israel alliance, could not bring themselves to vote for George Bush. The Bush administration�s confrontational style with Israel, especially the withholding of the loan guarantees, had contributed to the Likud�s defeat and, considering Rabin�s slim margin of victory, might well have been decisive. Now, it seemed as if the same policy had also contributed to the Bush defeat. [87]
Readers should ask themselves how this first-hand report squares with what Chomsky referred to as �the extreme pro-Israeli bias of the Bush-Baker administration� in an interview with his devoted Boswell, David Barsamian. [88]
Given the experiences of their predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush apparently decided that �if you can�t beat them, join them.� Clinton turned his Middle East diplomacy over to pro-Israel Jewish lobbyists with ties to Israel�s Labor party while Bush Jr., after a bruising and losing encounter with the lobby and Ariel Sharon following his criticisms of Israel�s actions in Jenin in 2002, allowed a gaggle of right-wing pro-Israel Jewish neocons, to write his Middle East script which gave us the war on Iraq. He has even gone beyond that, to Sharon himself, as such diverse sources as Robert Fisk and Brent Scowcroft, the National Security Advisor under George Bush Sr., have pointed out. Fisk suggested that Sharon was running Bush�s �press bureau� [89] while Scowcroft writes that the Israeli prime minister has George Jr. �mesmerized.� [90] The control over US Middle East policy by Israel and its American supporters now seems to be total.
Cheryl Rubenberg, after a detailed study of the lobby in her �Israel and the American National Interest,� concluded
That the power of the Israeli lobby over the formation and execution of US Middle East policy has become a virtual stranglehold. It no longer matters whether elected officials subscribe to the perception of Israel as a strategic asset to American interests or not. What matters is that the Israeli lobby is able to maintain the dominance of that perception as virtually unquestionable political truth and to assure that regardless of how severely American interests in the Middle East are compromised by Israel�s policies, the US government will continue to provide Israel with complete support. The lobby�s effectiveness in impacting on the electoral process and its ability to shape public opinion and affect political culture are major factors in fostering this perception. (Emphasis added). [91]
It has arguably had no more effective ally in this cause than Noam Chomsky.
One foot still in Zion
While I knew, in a casual way, that Chomsky had been a Zionist in his youth, it had not seemed that important since his detailed descriptions of the injustices that had been heaped upon the Palestinians by the Israelis, described in detail in The Fateful Triangle and elsewhere, were exposing thousands of new readers and potential activists to the evils of Zionism. What was puzzling was why, at the same time, he was providing cover for the pro-Israel lobby.
While doing research for this article, I believe I found the answer. In 1974, Chomsky had written a little book, Peace in the Middle East, which contained many clues to the puzzle but this paragraph was the one that tied them all together. He wrote:
[T]hat a few years later [after the establishment of the state] I spent several very happy months working in a Kibbutz and for several years thought seriously about returning permanently. Some of my closest friends, including several who have had a significant influence on my own thinking over the years, now live in Kibbutzim or elsewhere in Israel and I retain close connections that are quite separate from any political judgments and attitudes. I mention all of this to make clear that I inevitably view the continuing conflict from a every specific point of view, colored by these personal relationships. Perhaps this personal history distorts my perspective. In any event, it should be understood by the reader. [92] (Emphasis added).
Although Peace in the Middle East was reprinted in 2003 as the first part of yet another Chomsky book, Middle East Illusions, it is questionable how many of Chomsky�s many fans and admirers know this about his past. A reference to his Zionist youth was in the Safundi interview cited earlier and seemed to account for his determination to protect Israel, for which he obviously maintains affection, from being punished in any way for its misdeeds. Here is what he said in that later interview:
I’ve been involved in this since childhood in the 1930s. I was part of the Zionist movement, in fact, a Zionist youth leader, but I was opposed to a Jewish state, and that was part of the Zionist movement at the time. It was not the main part, but it was considered within the umbrella, so I could be an activist Zionist youth leader-the main thing in my life as a teenager — but opposed to a Jewish state, up until 1948. [93]
What becomes apparent in reading Peace in the Middle East and his later writings is Chomsky�s na�ve, romantic vision of the early Zionists and his sincere belief that leaders of the Jewish Yishuv (settlement) in Palestine — despite mountains of evidence to the contrary — were genuinely interested in peacefully sharing the land with the Palestinian Arabs whom they were already dispossessing and only opted for a state in 1942 in the wake of the Nazi holocaust. Here is how he frames the argument in Towards a New Cold War:
It is useful to recall that in the period before the Second World War, Zionist leaders, particularly those associated with the labor movement that dominated the Palestinian Yishuv, forcefully opposed the idea of a Jewish state �which would eventually mean Jewish domination of Arabs in Palestine,� on grounds that �the rule of one national group over the other� is illegitimate and that the Arabs of Palestine �have the right not to be at the mercy of the Jews.� [94]
One needs to go to the footnotes to find that the speaker quoted was David Ben-Gurion, who remains an admirable figure in Chomsky�s pantheon. What Chomsky did not mention was that in 1931, when Ben-Gurion made those comments, Jews in Palestine numbered 172,300, or 18% of the total population, as opposed to 784,891 Arabs, and owned but 1,201,529 dunams or 4.6% of the land. [95]
It should not be surprising, under the circumstances, that Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders said what they did at the time, preferring as they have done since, was to �create facts on the ground.� In the above quote from Chomsky, the word �publicly� would have been more appropriate than �forcefully�. This was also the opinion of the late Zionist leader Nahum Goldmann, whom Chomsky cites, but then doubts �the accuracy of Goldmann�s interpretation, many years after the event and after a Jewish state had in fact been established.� Goldmann, who would go on to form the World Jewish Congress, was actually in Palestine in the �30s, participating in the discussions and debates. He pointed out in his autobiography that the silence on the part of Zionists regarding their intent (since the 1920s) to establish a Jewish state was purely tactical, but Chomsky believes what he wants to believe and he wants us to believe it, too. [96]
To those supporting Chomsky�s position as opposed to that of Goldmann (and the majority of observers at the time), the question must be asked as to whether the Zionists, mainstream and revisionists, exerted all that energy, money, and political pressure over the years before WW II for anything less than the establishment of a Jewish state?
I noted earlier Chomsky�s criticism of the UN Security Council�s approval of Resolution 242 in 1967, which he dismissed as �rejectionist�” His own thinking at the time, however, clearly revealed his affinity and concerns for Israel that informed his thinking then as it does now. In Peace in the Middle East” Chomsky reveals that:
At the time of the Six Day War in June 1967, I personally believed that the threat of genocide was real and reacted with virtually uncritical support for Israel at what appeared to be a desperate moment. In retrospect it seems that this assessment of the facts was dubious at best. [97]
It was an honest expression of his affection for Israel and a rare admission by Chomsky that he had erred. It was apparently his last. Given this background, some other questionable statements of Chomsky in that South African interview become comprehensible. When asked to explain the differences between Israel before and after statehood, he responded:
The post-1967 period is different. The concept of settler-colonialism would apply to the pre-1948 period. It is plainly an outside population coming in and basically dispossessing an indigenous population.� Without going into it, by 1948, that argument is over. There was a state there, right or wrong. And that state should have the rights of any state in the international system, no more, no less. After 1967, there is a quite different situation. That’s military conquest. (Emphasis added) [98]
What Chomsky seems to be saying here to the Palestinians after 1948 is, �Get over it.� Is that a misinterpretation? Could not the apartheid state of South Africa been defended on the same basis? And what was Israel�s war in 1948 if not military conquest? Israel took not only the area accorded it by the United Nations, but much of what would have been the Palestinians� had they accepted partition. Finally, how could Chomsky�s ideal of a Jewish homeland in Palestine have been realized by any means other than via settler-colonialism? Those are a few of many questions that require answers from Chomsky.
In these pages I have begun what, ideally, will lead to a further critical assessment of Chomsky�s work, not as academic exercise, but as an instrument to energize what has been a largely ineffectual movement with regard to the struggle for justice in Israel/Palestine that has relied on him for guidance. I am aware that what I have written will upset those who have accorded him god-like status as it will others who have allowed their friendship with Chomsky to keep them silent concerning his failings, even when aware of them. That has been my intention. Rather than being responded to with personal attacks, I would hope that the issues raised here will be examined on their merits. Let the debate begin.
Jeffrey Blankfort is former editor of the Middle East Labor Bulletin, long-time photographer, and has written extensively on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He can be reached at: jblankfort@earthlink.net. This article first appeared in Left Curve, #29, published in April 2005 (www.leftcurve.org).
1)  Noam Chomsky interviewed by Tim Halle circa 1999.
2) Peace in the Middle East, Vintage, 1974 p. 49-51.
3) Mick Hartley, http://mickhartley.typepad.com/blog, January 10, 2004.
4) Occupied Territory: Congress, the Lobby and Jewish Responsibility, City Lights Review, San Francisco, 1992, The Israel Lobby and the Left: Uneasy Questions, Left Curve, Oakland, 2003.
5) Safundi, ZNET, May 10, 2004.
6) Ha�aretz, August 24, 2004.
7) www.jihadunspun.org, Dec. 25, 2004.
8) Pirates and Emperors, South End Press. Cambridge, 2002.
9) e-mail Nov. 26, 2004.
10) Washington Post, Nov. 26, 2003.
11) Harvard Crimson, Dec. 2, 2003.
12) Cornell Daily Sun, April 12, 2004.
13) ZNET, July 26, 2004.
14) ZNET, August 26, 2004.
15) ibid.
16) email, Nov. 26, 2004.
17) Leila Hull, HRW, email, Nov. 27, 2004.
18) email, Nov. 25, 2004.
19) email, Nov. 26, 2004.
20) ZNET, April 2, 2002.
21) The Fateful Triangle, South End, Boston, 1983, pp. 1-2.
22) The New Intifada, Verso, London-New York, 2001 p. 18-19.
23) ibid, p. 6.
24) Middle East Illusions, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2003, p.207.
25) Middle East Illusions, p. 209 Fateful Triangle, pp. 17 ff.
26) The Fateful Triangle, pp 43-44.
27) Peace in the Middle East, p. 56.
28) www.mekong.net/cambodia/archive/chomsky.htm. May 25, 1995.
29) ibid., May 27, 1995.
30) Fateful Triangle, p. 17 ff.
31) Pirates and Emperors, p. 117.
32) Fateful Triangle, p. xii.
33) Left Hook, Feb, 4, 2004.
34) The Fateful Triangle, p.20.
35) ibid., p. 21; MEI, p. 176.
36) ibid, p.21 , Hegemony or Survival, Henry Holt, New York, p. 264.
37) Camille Mansour, Beyond Alliance: Israel and US Foreign Policy, Columbia University, New York, 1994, p. 103-104.
38) ibid., p. 103-104.
39) Seth Tillman, The United States and the Middle East, Indiana Univ., Bloomington, 1982, pp. 52-53.
40) Fateful Triangle, p. 535.
41) A.F.K. Organski, The $36 Billion Bargain, Columbia Univ., New York, 1990, p. 228.
42) Jim Lobe, Chicken Hawks as Cheer Leaders, Foreign Policy In Focus Advisory Committee, www.fpif.org, 2002.
43) Harry Kreisler, US Foreign Policy and the Search for Peace in the Middle East: Ian Lustick in Conversation with Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development, University of Maryland, College Park; Nov. 8, 2001.
44) Rome and its Belligerent Sparta, www.bethlehemmedia.net/features.htm.
45) Fateful Triangle, p. xii; Middle East Illusions, p. 177.
46) ibid., p. xiii.
47) Stephen Green, Living by the Sword: Israel and the US in the Middle East, Amana, Brattleboro, VT, 1988, p. 91. Seymour Hersh, The Sampson Option, pp. 225ff, Avner Cohen, New York Times, Oct. 6, 2003.
48) Mansour, op. cit., p. 111.
49) Pirates and Emperors, op. cit.
50) Hersh, op. cit., p. 270.
51) Cheryl Rubenberg, Israel and the American National Interest, Univ. of Illinois. Urbana and Chicago, 1986, pp.6-7.
52) Ibid., p. 330.
53) Middle East Illusions, p. 229.
54) Ha’aretz, March 6, 1991.
55) Towards a New Cold War, Pantheon, New York, 1982, p. 231.
56) Peace in the Middle East,. pp. 98-99.
57) The New Intifada, p. 10.
58 Ha�aretz, Sept 7, 2004.
59) The New Intifada, p.7.
60) Letter to the author, Aug. 10-11, 1991.
61) Univ. of California, Berkeley, March 16, 1991.
62) Benjamin Ginsberg, Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State, Univ. of Chicago, 1993, p. 208.
63) Jeffrey Blankfort, A War for Israel, Left Curve, Oakland, 2004.
64) Shahak, op. cit.
65) The New Intifada, p. 260.
66) Ibid., p.262.
67) Information Clearing House, Aug. 30, 2004.
68) Tillman, United States Middle East Policy: Theory and Practice, Arab-American Affairs, Spring, 1983, cited by Rubenberg, p. 8.
69) Towards a New Cold War, p. 294.
70) Tillman, op. cit., p. 66.
71) Ibid., p. 67.
72) Stephen L. Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict, Univ. of Chicago, Chicago and London, 1985, p. 296.
73) Marvin C. Feuerwerger, Congress and Israel: Foreign Aid Decision-Making in the House of Representatives, 1969-1976, p. 296.
74) The New Intifada, p. 12.
75) Moshe Arens, Broken Covenant, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1995, p.56.
76) ibid., p. 56.
77) ibid., p. 58.
78) ibid., p. 59.
79) May 22, 1990, ibid., cited by Arens p.. 69.
80) ibid., p. 72.
81) ibid., p. 246.
82) Washington Jewish Week, Sep. 19, 1991.
83) Arens, op. cit., p. 246-247.
84) Ginsberg, op. cit., p. 220.
85) Z Magazine, Dec., 1991.
86 New York Times, Sep. 20, 1991, cited by Ginsberg, op. cit, p. 221.
87) Arens, op.cit., p. 301-302.
88) The Progressive, January 21, 1993.
89) The Independent, June 26, 2002.
90) Washington Post, Oct. 16, 2004.
91) Rubenberg, op. cit., p. 375.
92) Peace in the Middle East, p.51.
93) Safundi, Znet, op. cit.
94) Towards a New Cold War, p. 259.
95) John Chapple, Jewish Land Settlement in Palestine (unpublished paper) 1964, cited by Walid Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest, Institute of Palestine Studies, Beirut, 1971, Appendix 1.
96) Towards a New Cold War, p. 259.
97) Peace in the Middle East, p. 124.
98) Safundi, Znet, op. cit.