On Aug. 8, we published a piece about Noam Chomsky’s objections to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting Israel. The writer, a frequent contributor, posted this as a comment on the piece but agree to expand it for a post. –Ed.
My issue with Chomsky’s position is what it always was: he operates from a prism that is strongly colored by the Israel that was once upon a time, perhaps 50-60 years ago. Chomsky was around then to hear and witness the many idealistic statements of the then Israeli intellectuals and political leaders. And if he was impressed by the would-be forging of a come-from-behind wandering, wondering and sometimes-much-persecuted people into a socialist just society, why, it would be hard to blame him. Thus was Israel presented to the world and to itself. I believed it too, once upon a time.
I don’t want to open a debate on whether that “old” Israel, that ephemeral citadel on a hill, that light unto the nations, was ever real or not (well, we know there’s no great light without much darkness….right?). Fact is, it was real enough in the minds of many, both inside Israel and outside it. Especially educated Jewish people, who must have felt a certain kinship with the nascent little country that could beget great thinkers, writers and humanitarian visionaries in such short order. Chomsky is old enough to have at least some of his opinions and judgments imprinted by those once-upon-a-time impressions.
Unfortunately, while he clearly processed that Israel has changed greatly, and not for the better, he still tends to lay the blame on the “occupation” (in parenthesis, because it’s really an occupation of the mind that took place, right along with the physical one). In that he finds confirmation among many of his fellow intellectuals, including the fine left-leaning ones in Israel, who passionately mourn the Israel that was and could have been and has now turned stray. Their very existence continues to give Chomsky hope about fine things like “International Law” and “Human Rights” and “Justice”. Sometimes, as much as I hate to say it, he sounds almost child-like, hanging on to these civilized concepts, as if they were life rafts (perhaps they are. Not for me to say).
Chomsky is probably too old now to change his own paradigm, just as many, including the founders of Gush Shalom, are. Yet, there has been a major paradigm change – a catastrophic one, really. The Israel that is is not the one that was, and definitely not the one that was imagined. The Israel that is is a different beast altogether. One could say, it’s almost a monster, a not altogether sane incarnation begotten to impress with great new might but now unleashing mostly fright and terror in its wake, as it flails, ever so powerful but still feeling frail and persecuted. There is no talking to most Israelis these days about fine concepts like “international law”, “justice” and “rights”, as those be taken as fighting words. There is no convincing them that one needs to give a little to get a lot, because all they care about is how to make the “little” into minuscule, vanishingly so. This Israel has little use for some elusive human “rights”, unless they are Jewish-Israeli rights, and not just any Jews, but the “right kind” of Jews.
To my mind, and based on what I read of him, Chomsky processes much that is true and deep, yet little does he process just how depraved Israeli society has become in moral terms. Probably because the people he knows do not appear depraved in the slightest. Little does Chomsky know what collective insanity really looks like because he does not come face to face with its frightful daily manifestations. Little does Chomsky know – except in the deepest recesses of his mind – what the Gaza ghetto is really all about, because to know what the plan for Gaza is, is to give up on erudite chit-chats with even the finest Israelis. Who know, of course, what Gaza is, and what it is to be, but manage to put it out of their well-tuned minds.
I like Chomsky a lot for his clear-eyed views on many issues that are important to anyone considering themselves a progressive. But I find it difficult to deal with his refusal to look reality in the face on a whole host of matters; from BDS to Human Rights to the Rule of Law, be it in Israel or the US. While he rails ever so eloquently against the encroaching corporate state, he still speaks as if half-measures and fine talk will have any effect on its rapacious ascent. And while he rails – ever so capably – against the ravages of neoliberalism, surely he can see for himself how well we have all been doing battling that particular beast. More like batting our eyelashes and clutching our pearls, while losing every skirmish, I’d say.
I don’t hold it against him that he holds out hope for the best in human nature to prevail. I don’t expect him to sink into intellectual despondency seeing the enormity of humanity’s challenges. But even as I take great comfort in hearing him speak, so lucidly, so humanely on matters of great import, I find myself wishing he could reach for more effective tools that go just a bit beyond the usual arsenal of laws and rights. After all, law can be bent into lawfare and rights can be twisted into boomerangs. But Chomsky alas, is not one to whistle for the dragons, and in all fairness, perhaps it’s not his task.
Likewise, because of his rose-colored glasses I believe that Chomsky may simply not be the right authority to take on something as potent as BDS, be it as a tactic or a movement. Just as he may not be the right one to lead a Sanders-like revolt against the ruling classes (ultimately, even Sanders will not suffice for the revolt that needs to happen, if and when the time arrives for it. Which it will). BDS, regardless of its platform, has so far been the only tool that has shown some serious teeth. It showed it has the power to shake the Israeli consensus, not because it wrecks major economic damage but because it highlights the Achilles heel of Israelis – their need and craving for approval, even love. Especially from fellow Jews.
We know BDS has had an effect because otherwise, why would Congress consider passing a law to criminalize it? Why has Israel already passed a law doing just that? Why do so many Israelis discombobulate at the mere mention of a possible boycott of a little concert or a cultural event? No matter that some prefer a “targeted’ BDS, while others would rather see it applied more broadly, as it did to apartheid South Africa. Fact is, of all the actions and lawsuits and flotillas undertaken over the years, BDS alone showed itself capable of shaking the corridors of power and that is already plenty. And while some day “international law” may take its course, for Palestinians, whose land is the one gobbled up and whose lives and livelihoods are thoroughly compromised, time is not exactly on their side.
As for Chomsky, for once he fails to tell the wheat from the chaff. It is not the platform or the call for the Right of Return that’s the problem, because that is but a vision, and visions are what we all know them to be. It is, I suspect its very effectiveness that’s the problem for BDS, as he sees it. Movements like this represent citizens’ action that is besides, if not outside the law, and Chomsky, who has great respect for law as a civilizing instrument, cannot bring himself to see that when confronted with a bellicose, determined adversary, half-crazed with power, sometimes a few dragons can come in handy.
And that statement about Israel using nuclear weapons before allowing refugees in? That is very telling. I think Chomsky’s subconscious is sometimes wiser than his — oh so lucid — conscious mind. He should listen to what it’s telling him, perhaps.