Chomsky on Israel’s ‘Right to Exist’

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Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky

The other night at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, Anne Roiphe said that she could have dialogue with anyone except me, because as a non/anti-Zionist, I was denying the right of Israel to exist. Dan Fleshler, the third panelist, and I love to have dialogue, but I remember Dan using similar language, about the right of Israel to exist.

I’ve been mulling the phrase since the panel because last year I wrote Noam Chomsky a note that touched on this very subject. And Chomsky responded in a way I didn’t then understand.

At the time, I was reviewing a dreadful book by David Mamet called The Wicked Son, and I quoted to Chomsky three statements Mamet made about the great linguist. Mamet wrote:

  1. that “Mr. Chomsky sees [Israel] as a criminal enterprise.”
  2. That Chomsky, having declared Israel “a crime” feels exempted “from the need of Further investigation, explanation or defense of [this] position.”
  3. That Chomsky “does not recognize the Jewish State’s right to existence.”

I asked Chomsky, “Are these statements accurate?” It is said that Chomsky, who is the son of a Hebrew scholar and who spent time in his youth as a Labor Zionist in Israel, devotes half his time to answering correspondence–presumably for his own improvement, as well as for the correspondent’s. Chomsky, wrote me back:

Without looking, I am sure no sources are given, because the statements are all pure lies, as Mamet knows.  He’s not an imbecile.

There is, to be sure, one exception.  No state demands a ‘right to exist,’ nor is any such right accorded to any state, nor should it be.
Mexico recognizes the US, but not its ‘right to exist’ sitting on half of Mexico, acquired by aggression. The same generalizes.

To my knowledge, the concept ‘right to exist’ was invented by US-Israeli propaganda in the 1970s, when the Arab states (with the support of the PLO) formally recognized Israel’s right to exist within secure and recognized borders (citing the wording of UN 242). It was therefore necessary to raise the bars to prevent the negotiations that the US and Israel alone (among significant actors) were blocking, as they still are.  They understood, of course, that there is no reason why Palestinians should recognize the legitimacy of their dispossession — and the point generalizes, as noted, to just about every state; maybe not Andorra.

Noam Chomsky

When I say I didn’t understand Chomsky–well, readers of this blog know that I am fumbling toward an understanding of the Middle East and the American Jewish role in the mess. As an American Jew, I have been recruited in a lot of the pro-Israel talk since I was a kid, and I absorbed those ideas without deliberation. Some of them involve this “right to exist.” At the time I found Chomsky’s comments too heretical to understand, also too compressed. He didn’t fully explain a complex idea. I think I understand it better now. We recognize the right of people to exist–and when another state violates human rights, we decry the state. Within our borders we recognize the right of my house to exist, or yours, as a property right. But we didn’t recognize the right of the Saddam/Iraqi government to exist, as we don’t recognize the Iranian gov’t right now, or the Syrian one. I don’t recognize the right of the West Bank settlements to exist, unless it is in the context of a binational state. That doesn’t mean I want to kill the settlers. The “right to exist” is Holocaust-tinged language, and echoes the determination of Hitler to wipe out the Jewish people. But when you talk about a state, you’re not talking about a people, you’re talking about a concept.

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