In April, Noam Chomsky spoke at length on his opposition to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign and said that advocating for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel is “not a… moral position.”
BDS campaigners create false hope because return will never happen, Chomsky said; Israel would would use nuclear weapons to prevent the return of the Palestinian refugees, if it came to it:
“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.”
We are continually told that Iran and North Korea cannot be trusted with the bomb. What does it say about Israeli leadership and political beliefs that the most prominent leftwing scholar in the U.S. says they would deploy nuclear weapons to defy global pressure re return of refugees?
Chomsky was interviewed last April by Doug Richardson, the executive director of the American Association of Geographers, after the AAG gave Chomsky an award. I’ve transcribed his comments in full below because Chomsky is a legendary leader in leftwing thought; and his position has been at odds with the Palestinian solidarity movement.
Richardson brought up BDS (minute 50). “You were quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently, noting that you had come out against the BDS, Boycott, Divestiture, and Sanctions, arguing that failed initiatives, which is how you characterized much of the BDS movement, harm the victims doubly, by ‘shifting attention away from their plight to other issues, such as anti-Semitism and academic freedom, and by wasting opportunities to do something meaningful.'”
Richardson asked Chomsky to elaborate. Chomsky said:
In mentioning boycotts, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that, again, as you all know, there is a boycott movement right here of distinguished geographers who have called for a boycott of the American Geographical Association in protest against the kind of regulations and procedures that the Trump administration is instituting. The case of the Syrian, actually British writer of Syrian origin who I mentioned before is an indication of what’s happening. That’s an issue to certainly be thought about. How should professional societies react to this sort of thing. For example, should professional society meetings take place in the United States.
It’s a serious question. Should they take place in a country where people from designated countries, designated by the authorities, are not allowed to come freely? The Latin American Studies Association years ago began to have conferences elsewhere because of the restrictions against Cuban scholars. I think those are all things to be thought about.
Now the BDS movement is a different matter. First of all, we have to make a distinction between the BDS tactics and the BDS movement. They happen to be quite different things. So, BDS tactics in the Israel Palestine case, were actually initiated in 1997 by an Israeli group, Gush Shalom, Uri Avnery’s group, a strongly anti-occupation, militantly anti-occupation group played a very significant role, still do. They proposed boycott of the settlements and divestment from anything involving the settlements. And I myself have been involved in– it’s really BD activities, there are no real sanctions, that’s a state matter. But I’ve been involved in these things since the late ’90s, when it took off, aimed at the settlements.
Now here questions arise. The BDS movement, which developed in 2005, has a different approach. That’s the movement, not the tactics. 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 unrealizeable. 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…
BDS is not a principle, it’s a tactic. Just as it was in the case of South Africa, it’s a tactic. Now tactics have to be designed so that they’re going to have favorable effects for the victims. Tactics aren’t designed so that the person who undertakes them can feel good, that’s not a way to design tactics. At least if you have ethical imperatives, you ask yourself, What’s the impact on the victims? And if you take a look, there’s a record of significant success, very significant success, of really BD tactics aimed at the settlements. Say the Presbyterian church, for example, big organization– has taken a very strong stand on divestment and boycott of anything having anything to do with the settlements and, crucially, they aim also at US institutions, US multinationals that are involved in the occupied territories. That’s very significant, both for educational reasons and tactical reasons. And that’s been a big success, and there are other successes like that. And I think those are very good, sensible tactics. The European Union has taken some steps in that direction. The human rights groups, like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have advocated similar things. All of that makes a lot of sense I think in principle, and it’s tactically effective, and it should go way beyond–
If there’s ever going to be any significant progress in Palestinian rights, it’s going to require a major change in the United States. As long as the United States continues, as it has been doing for decades, to provide economic, diplomatic, military, even ideological support for the settlement projects, they’re not going to end. They may use different words, but they’re not going to end, they’re going to continue.
And the U.S. does not have to do that, American citizens can prevent that. In fact, one critical tactic that I think ought to be pursued, I’ve been advocating this for years, is simply imposing American law. American law, the so called Leahy amendment, bans any military aid to any military unit or group that is involved in systematic human rights violations. Well, I don’t have to go through the record, but anyone who’s looked at the wars in Gaza and what goes on in the West Bank, and Lebanon as well, has no doubt that the Israeli army has been engaged in systematic human rights violations. So therefore by American law we ought to cancel military aid to them. Even a move in that direction could have significant implications, very significant. It’s a little bit like the [Bernie] Sanders story. Or the press [rise of alternative media].
There are plenty of things we can do if you think them through, ask what the consequences are, what the possibilities and opportunities are, and then pursue them, seriously. Not because something makes you feel good, but because it’s beneficial to the victims. That’s the question that should be uppermost, all the time.
Folks on the left will have many responses to this answer. For my part, I’d observe that Chomsky, now 88, exhibited a range of attitudes in the interview from liberal to conservative. For instance, he endorsed a progress narrative of recent American history in celebrating the civil rights movement and the waning of anti-Semitism, and when he lauded the ability of students to read about the real nature of U.S. slavery and the extermination of Native Americans, a history that he said was not taught in the 1960s. “It’s now possible… to learn what really happened.” We have become a more civilized society as a result, he said.
Chomsky’s comments about the role of the military in fostering the internet, and the use of the internet to foster the alternative press, such as Glenn Greenwald and Amy Goodman, was also a progress narrative. And he noted that his own department at MIT was a hotbed of anti-Vietnam War organizing during the 1960s, though it drew much of its funding from the Pentagon (something, I would say, that it is impossible to imagine in the context of the Israel lobby on campus). Chomsky’s BDS commentary strikes me as conservative.