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Chomsky’s ‘nostalgia’ and our own

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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Charlottesville and white nationalism. Are the KKK and its neo-Nazi affiliates nostalgic for a world that may or may not have existed? Thinking of the past as better and to be brought back in the present is dangerous on many levels. Often those who want the past back are fooling themselves and others, too.

In a very different matter the “nostalgia” question has recently been broached in relation to Noam Chomsky. With all his still-evident analytical powers, is Chomsky’s view of Israel tainted by his generation’s pull of a displaced people finding a haven in Palestine? Is Chomsky pining away for the Jewishly-inspired vision of Israel articulated by the founders of Israel in 1948?

Chomsky is, as always, a force to be reckoned with. Just when you have explained him, or think you have, his arguments return in full glory. It may that we need Chomsky’s thought and the thought of others, too.

A Hungarian-Israeli now living in America, using the pseudonym, Danaa Marec, thinks that Chomsky’s thought about Israel has more than a touch of nostalgia. She knows that nostalgia well. She had it, too, once upon a time.

Marec is respectful of Chomsky, as she should be. Her questions about Chomsky are real ones, though mostly for the future.

Marec’s view of Chomsky and Israel opens up a fascinating terrain that Chomsky may or may not inhabit. Stated boldly, Marec suggests that Chomsky’s view of Israel is the romantic one he embraced in his younger years. Now, at eighty-eight years of age, Marec believes Chomsky is trapped there.

Whether Chomsky’s Israel ever existed is debatable but Marec’s main point is that such a view would color our vision of a possible solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. A nostalgic sense of Israel’s founding might render commentary on a possible solution of Israel and Palestine misleading, if not irrelevant.

In Marec’s view, Chomsky thinks Israel can be brought back to the founders’ vision if only the occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem ends, with freedom for Gaza, in an internationally recognized two-state solution. This is why Chomsky is indifferent to BDS or against it – his analysis goes back and forth on the subject. Or rather, this is why Chomsky seems adamant when discussing BDS, almost emotional, whereas keeping his cool on matters of justice is part of Chomsky’s famed repertoire. This is also why Chomsky continues to call on international law as the way forward and dismisses the issue of the return of Palestinian refugees as impossible and, thus, wrong to insist on.

Marec’s Chomsky is trapped in a time warp; the Israel she and others experience, whatever it once was, is nothing like Chomsky wants it to be. In any case, whatever it once was, Israel won’t be returning to this vision. Israel and Israelis have gone too far. Though Marec doesn’t spell it out in detail, she seems to view Israel much as Max Blumenthal does in his book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel Blumenthal’s book was published before Israel’s latest and devastating invasion of Gaza. By all accounts, things in Israel have only become worse in the years since.

Marec leaves her solution, if there is one, for another day. My own take on Chomsky is that you have to admire him for many reasons but listening to him on Israel as it has become is only piece of the puzzle. Though Marec doesn’t address Chomsky’s America-centric view of Israel – Israel can do little or nothing without American support – I think this, too, needs further exploration. Chomsky’s basic America-centric view of the world has its merits; at times, though, it seems self-involved and myopic. In my view, America-centrism tends to diminish other international, state and local actors. This can become a self-fulfilling prophesy or at least a self-fulfilling rhetoric, as if all the world is America or America-less.

Have I have made Chomsky-like “nostalgia” mistake in my writing, albeit from a different angle? Marec might think so.

Being more than two decades younger than Chomsky, thus from a different generation, I didn’t grow up with enthusiasm for Israel’s founders. I did live through the 1967 war and its effect on American Jewish identity. However, this was tempered by my university study of the Holocaust and my involvement in justice movements on the Lower East Side of New York City and in the projects of New Orleans, all in the 1970s. My travel among Palestinians in the early 1980s ended any lingering romance I might have had with Israel. Still, I never believed in international law as the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor do I think full equality, though desirable, is the issue, a case Robert Cohen forcefully argues in a recent, much circulated, speech.

None of these – nostalgia for Israel’s founding, international law or full equality – are the way forward. Though I support BDS, I remain agnostic about its claims or it’s possibility for – actual – political success in ending the occupation. Instead, I have argued for some years that if BDS were successful it would more likely bring about an Israeli-Palestinian deal that allows direct Israeli occupation to morph into a quasi-autonomy for areas of Palestine. These Palestinians areas would be surrounded and controlled by Israeli power and other interventionist military and international monitoring forces.

My take on Israel is different. I believe the foundational way to understand Israel is within the broad arc of Jewish history, especially in relation to the history of European Jews culminating in the Holocaust. Israel has little or no meaning outside of Jewish history and should be resolved within that context. I do believe that outside measures can and should be applied to make that internal resolution possible – even to force it upon Israel. But it is obvious, as well, that the broader Jewish historical context I argue for has failed and will continue to fail. This means, in my view, that Israel is fated, Palestinians are fated and that Jewish ethical history is fated as well.

By fated, I mean that over the next decades it is unlikely, if not impossible, to foresee any political constellation that brings us close to what many people involved in the plight of Israel-Palestine think is sensible, right and just.

Is it best, then, to stay with Merec’s sense of Chomsky’s nostalgia, that is hope against hope, even if that hope hardly existed? After all, the currently argued secular democratic one state solution has its own portion of nostalgia and thus is fated as well.

In Jerusalem, as in Charlottesville, the struggle between nostalgia and reality is often confusing. We made need a little of both. History is like that sometimes. Often.

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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