Chomsky on what ‘everyone knows’

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A couple of weeks ago, this site reported on an interview that professor Noam Chomsky did with Douglas Richardson in April, where he said that:

“If there ever were serious support [for the right of return], Israel would go all out– using nuclear weapons, anything else– to prevent it. So it’s not going to happen.”

I have seen many readers wonder what on earth Chomsky actually meant with the nuclear weapons. Is he actually suggesting that Israel would use those against refugees in its vicinity to prevent their return? What about the fallout? No, it couldn’t be. Chomsky must be referring to the diplomatic threat of international demands for an implementation of the Palestinian right of return. So, is Chomsky suggesting that Israel would nuke some country in response to such possible diplomatic pressure? I would like to interpret his meaning.

Criticizing Chomsky is often inevitably accompanied by the accusation that one is willfully taking on an intellectual giant. Norman Finkelstein has ridiculed those who do so:

‘A rite of passage for apostates peculiar to U.S. political culture is bashing Noam Chomsky.  It’s the political equivalent of a bar mitzvah, a ritual signaling that one has “grown up” – i.e., grown out of one’s “childish” past’, Finkelstein writes.

Thus I am running the risk of being another ‘bar mitzvah’ kid, trying to prove their worth by questioning what Chomsky says. But such questioning doesn’t have to mean “Chomsky bashing”, and I’m willing to take my chances. I think it’s a fair discussion.

Chomsky is voicing the “hishtaganu” notion, which means “we went crazy” in Hebrew. This is not a new concept. Chomsky referred to it way back in 1983 in A Fateful Triangle, under the chapter “Road to Armageddon” (p. 466-467), where he writes:

It may also be surmised, that nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach southern Russia are not really intended to deter the USSR, but rather to put US planners on notice, once again, that pressures on Israel to accede to a political settlement [….]; “Israel’s “secret weapon” which may compensate for its extraordinary military, economic and diplomatic dependence on the United States, is the threat that it may act as a “wild country” if pressed. 

Chomsky brings several examples of this “wild country” or “hishtaganu” notion, of the political tool of terror at a state level. And there are more current examples: In the wake of Israel’s 2008-9 Gaza onslaught, then Foreign Minister, Centrist Tzipi Livni said that “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded” and that the military offensive had “restored Israel’s deterrence … Hamas now understands that when you fire on its citizens it responds by going wild – and this is a good thing.”

So yes, Israel often responds to perceived threats by going wild, and it’s not only the radicals of government that do so. But does that mean one cannot possibly restrain it? And shouldn’t one seek to do so?

The boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS) indeed seeks to restrain Israel – by taking it to task for its violations of international law. This obviously requires, in the long run, a curtailing of the impunity it receives mainly from USA, often shielding it from sanctions by veto at the UN.

Chomsky is not advocating for leaving Israel alone – he is merely saying that insistence on the Palestinian right of return is unrealistic. Let’s see what he says about that and BDS:

“The BDS movement, which developed in 2005 […], their approach calls for– if you read the list of principles, there is a set of principles, if you take it literally, they’re calling for boycott of Israel, divestment from Israel, and sanctions on Israel until, and then comes a long list of conditions, some of which everyone knows are totally unrealizable. Like one of the conditions that’s listed in this almost-catechism is return of the refugees, in accord with international law. Well, first of all, it’s not in accord with international law, that’s a separate question. But return of the refugees. You can think whatever you like about the morality of that, but everyone knows it is not going to happen. There’s no international support for it. If there ever were serious support, Israel would go all out– using nuclear weapons, anything else– to prevent it. So it’s not going to happen. And dangling this hope in front of people living in miserable refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan is not a good idea or a moral position in my view…”

This section deserves scrutiny. Chomsky says that BDS has a “long list of conditions”, indeed an “almost-catechism”. But what is this long list really? It is three items, no more. The first demands relinquishing of the 1967 occupation and dismantling the separation wall, which the International Court of Justice deemed illegal in 2004. The second demands equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel. The third demands implementation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

He tackles the third demand – return of refugees – first with a major assumption: “everyone knows it is not going to happen”.

Really? Who is “everyone”? And what did “everyone” know in the past that was “never going to happen”? Did everyone know that Nazi Germany would not be defeated? Did everyone know that the Berlin Wall would remain? Did everyone know that South African Apartheid would last forever? Why does “everyone know” that Palestinian refugees will never be allowed to return, in accordance with UN resolution 194 and international law?

Ah, Chomsky opines it’s not international law, and moves quickly on. Chomsky has been arguing this one for years, and has received fierce response. Palestinian-American Yousef Munayyer answered this cogently in The Nation:

“The right of return is backed by international law and it is a human right. The right of return is enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration that all UN members, including Israel, agree to uphold. It is further enshrined, among other places, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination—two treaties to which Israel is also a state party. For Palestinians, it is also a sacred right”.

Chomsky tries to amass more arguments to strengthen his weak one, so he uses the “everyone knows”, and then adds that there’s “no international support for it”, despite it being part of UN 242 as well as the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which is also endorsed by 57 states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, including Iran.

So that’s a weak argument. That’s why Chomsky needs the bomb:

“Israel would go all out– using nuclear weapons, anything else– to prevent it.”

This is a rhetorical WMD. And it could be seen as a threat – inasmuch as he is anticipating Israeli “hishtaganu” and doing nothing to deplore that strategy.

Chomsky seems to suggest that we should be ‘realistic’, and so our tactics should aim at the Israeli settlements. He presents an orthodoxy about what can and cannot be challenged when it comes to Israel:

If you take a look, there’s a record of significant success, very significant success, of really BD tactics aimed at the settlements.

But is this because “everybody knows” that Israel will, one day, retreat from the occupied territories? Why hasn’t it happened so far? Aren’t we supposed to also fear Israel will go “all out” on this one? After all, wasn’t it Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban who regarded the pre-June 4th 1967 lines as “Auschwitz” borders? And every Israeli leader in recent years has said that Israel is vulnerable inside the ’67 lines. What might the Jewish state do to avert having to go back to Auschwitz?

Essentially, in talking about “BD” and targeting settlements only at that level (without sanctions), Chomsky is saying that this is the only level at which one could hope to act and achieve anything. Not only are sanctions out of the question, but he also suggests to target the settlements in isolation. This notion, of seeing the settlements as separate to Israel, touches upon a very central issue, concerning responsibility: Is it not fair to say, that the Israeli state is responsible for this occupation, for these settlements?

Historical appraisal shows that it is – and that the enactment and maintenance of the settler project has been supported de facto by Israel from right to left.
We can then wonder why criticism of Israel, as a whole, is so contentious. If a thief has stolen some items, is it not the thief who is to be regarded as responsible?
This approach of “measured response” applying to the “occupation” and “settlements” is what the EU has been applying, in its policy of marking settlement products. Whilst its representatives (EU or member-state ambassadors) sometimes become vociferous in their critique of Israeli policy, it is still maintaining a rather benign policy. The EU is very aware that it could up the action. Two years ago, EU advisers were mooting a blacklisting of Israeli banks. This caused alarm from heads of the Israeli banking sector: they warned of a “financial national tsunami”, in that virtually all banks are invested in the occupation. That reaffirms my point: Israel, its occupation and its settlements are not two different entities – they are one.
So BDS is challenging the orthodoxy that it’s just the settlements that are to blame, and that challenge is clearly bothering Israel.
The suggestion that Israel would use nuclear arms to achieve political goals has also come from another intellectual, Israeli historian Benny Morris. In 2008, Morris opined in the New York Times that

“Israel will almost surely attack Iran’s nuclear sites in the next four to seven months”


“[E]ven Tehran should hope that the attack will be successful enough to cause at least a significant delay in the Iranian production schedule, if not complete destruction, of that country’s nuclear program. Because if the attack fails, the Middle East will almost certainly face a nuclear war — either through a subsequent pre-emptive Israeli nuclear strike or a nuclear exchange shortly after Iran gets the bomb.”

When an intellectual as historically informed as Chomsky or Morris says such things, since they have a respected record of having critically charted history, their predictions of the future can tend to carry a certain weight of authority, as it were, and play out as more than a mere ‘guess.’ They can come across as a threat.

When we are speaking about the Palestinian right of return, we are speaking about an extension of this ethnic cleansing. Simply put – if someone ethnically cleanses another and you do not take a stance on their return, you are by extension confirming the reason why they were dispossessed. For Zionists, this is a rather acceptable logic, really from the inception of Zionism. As Morris himself correctly concluded,

“[T]ransfer was inevitable and inbuilt in Zionism – because it sought to transform a land which was ‘Arab’ into a Jewish state and a Jewish state could not have arisen without a major displacement of Arab population”.

But is this something that we are to all to simply put up with, because Zionists said so, or because they would ‘go all out’ if we challenged it?

Oppressors don’t willingly give up their privilege. Did the BDS against South Africa not start with popular protests in 1960’s? Did that not eventually lead to sanctions? The US was notably one of the last countries to join the sanction campaign in late 1980’s, Israel following suit thereafter. Notably, Israel had been selling nuclear weapons to South Africa in mid-1970’s. Was there not worry, then, that South Africa might go “all-out” with nuclear weapons and what not?

Chomsky’s warnings appear to be a rather desperate attempt to chill the BDS protest into the limits of what he sees as ‘reasonable’. But popular protests have a history of redefining what is ‘reasonable’, by putting pressure upon the tyrants and altering the power structure. That requires a certain boldness, to believe that violations of international law and human rights are not something that we have to live with forever, and that it is possible to affect change by consistent popular pressure.


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Chomsky knows Israel was saved by Nixon (the taped Jew hater) in 1973 via Kissinger & Israel’s direct threat of using its nukes? Chomsky’s “Everyone knows” is also an oblique reference to Israel highly influential Lobby power, which he officially won’t acknowledge. Zionists are not Humanists, and Chomsky is a Zionist. I’d like to see Chomsky respond to Mr. Ofir’s troubling questions, wouldn’t you?

And “everyone knows” that Israel will keep the major settlement blocs in any conceivable negotiation, too. This sort of breezy assurance functions to foreclose real discussion. First rate article, Jonathan, as usual. Special thanks for reminding us of Benny Morris’ quote about displacement of the indigenes as a necessary condition of fulfilling the Zionist dream. This is an especially useful quote given Morris’ current defense of ethnic cleansing, Ben Gurion-style. If the assertion had been… Read more »

The biggest point that Chomsky (And JO) miss is that the BDS movement is not a panacea. It is only designed to put pressure on Israel to make concessions. In doing so, it is absurd to think that it is the job of Palestine activists living in America or Europe to make concessions because the demands are allegedly unrealistic for heads of state to implement. Moreover, it’s hardly BDS activists who are dangling the right… Read more »

Thank you, Jonathan, for tackling the dangerous circular reasoning that keeps Chomsky a demi-god. It goes: Chomsky an intellectual giant and therefore we normal people are arrogant to challenge his edicts, and thus he is always right and, therefore, an intellectual giant (hmm…). Arguments — data, logic, reasoning — stand or fall on their own merits, and yours stand. His falls rather precipitously, a stark betrayal of all the meticulous logic and insight for which… Read more »

So the world should allow Israel engage in any behavior it wants because they are sick enough to use nukes if they don’t get their way? And Chomsky wants to have us accept this as just the way things are? Jews from Europe and Russia have a right to return to a place their ancestors never lived (or lived maybe 2,000 years ago if you buy into that particular fairytale) but the Palestinians violently expelled… Read more »