Tag Archives: Edward Said

Chomsky’s 90th Birthday

16 Dec

[Prefatory Note: What follows is an interview with Daniel Falcone, author and educator, that was published in CounterPunchon December 14, 2018. The text has been slightly modified.]

 

[Prefatory Note: What follows is an interview with Daniel Falcone, author and educator, that was published in CounterPunchon December 14, 2018. The text has been slightly modified.]

 

Celebrating Noam Chomsky’s 90th Birthday

 

 

Daniel Falcone: How were you first introduced to Chomsky? What initial work brought you into contact with Chomsky?

 

Richard Falk: Actually, my first awareness of Noam Chomsky was in the late 1950s while I was teaching at Ohio State University. I had a smart linguist friend who told me about the revolutionary work of a young scholar at MIT who was completely transforming his field by the work he had done while still a graduate student on ‘structural linguistics’ and ‘generative grammar.’ As I remember our conversation nothing was mentioned about Chomsky’s politics.

Later on in the early 1960s I continued to hear of Chomsky as the great linguist, but also about Chomsky as the militant anti-Vietnam Waractivist.

 

We met in the mid-1960s as a result of common interests. We were both deeply involved as opponents of the escalations of American involvement in Vietnam, and indeed we were opposed to any military involvement at all. At that point Chomsky was strongly supporting draft resistance in addition to speaking at anti-war events. I was mainly engaged during the 1960s in academic debates and teach-ins devoted to questions of the legality of the American role in Vietnam, and after 1965, discussions often focused on the decision by the Lyndon Johnson presidency to extend the war to North Vietnam.

We interacted quite frequently in this decade, and stayed at each other’s homes in Lexington and Princeton when we spoke in the other’s venue.

 

I recall Chomsky insisting in response to an invitation from the Princeton Philosophy Department that he would only agree to give a series of lectures on linguistics that was the nature of the invitation if his hosts would also arrange parallel formats for him to address his political concerns. He apparently frequently made this a condition of his acceptance, and because he was such a star attraction, it was almost always enthusiastically accepted, and even viewed as a bonus.

 

I found the Princeton lectureson theoretical tensions within the field of linguistics to be not only abstruse, but also quite memorable from a performance perspective. The first of Chomsky’s linguistic lectures was held in one of the largest auditoriums at Princeton. Before Noam was introduced the hall was filled to capacity in excited anticipation of being enlightened by whatever this already famous scholar had to say. Chomsky’s style and delivery were highly technical, presupposed a fairly sophisticated understanding of the complex issues of linguistic theory at stake, which meant that his presentation seemed way above the head of 90% of the audience, including myself.

 

By the end of the lecture there were less than 25 people left in the huge hall. What impressed me then and even now was Chomsky’s attitude of apparent indifference to this reaction, which was confirmed by his failure to alter his style in the next two lectures. It was hardly surprising that the second and third lecturewere given in a rather empty room, being attended by only a small coterie of graduate students and a few on the faculty who had strong linguistic interests.

 

When he gave his talk on political issues, Chomsky’s style was strikingly different. His presentation on political issues was meant to reach people with little prior knowledge. His interpretations were supported by abundant evidence – fact-based, carefully and clearly reasoned, and were even spiced by humorous asides, usually of a wry and satiric nature. Chomsky was personally engaged, clearly hoping to persuade the audience to adopt his viewpoint, and conveying an assured sense that there existed no other coherent and ethical to view the issues being discussed. As with his opening linguistics lecrure, his political talk was held in a large hall that was overflowing, but this time no one left.

 

The response was enthusiastic and responsive. I came away with the sense those attending felt that just by being there they had taken part in an historic experience. It was also an audience that drew heavily from the community as well as the university, and had far fewer faculty members than did the linguistic talks. I was struck by Chomsky’s confident, calm manner, his wide knowledge, and his utter insistence on speaking truth to power. These truths of Chomsky went far beyond mainstream ways of thinking and acting.

 

My only reservation from the perspective of frequently being a member of Chomsky’s audience was his reluctance to acknowledge even slight differences of opinion, much less admit error. I felt this to be a weakness. There was something disturbing about this unwillingness to concede small points to those who shared his views 95% of the time. This polemical style left even admirers sometimes feeling that his presentation could have been more effective if he had left a bit of space for doubt and divergent opinions. This style of unwavering assurance seemed to reflect a public sensibility more than deriving from a fixed ideology. Off camera, Noam was always gentle and non-dogmatic, but while performing I found his demeanor sometimes to be leonine.

 

 

DF: Scholar Henry Girouxonce told me that he thought Chomsky was “a national treasure.” How is Chomsky a national treasure in your view?

 

RF: I share this expression of exceptional mode of appreciating  Chomsky’s many contributions to enlightened and critical thought. Such contributions are essential if the vitality of a democratic society is to be sustained through dark times, such as at present. To quibble a bit, I would prefer to identify Noam even more grandly as ‘a global treasure.’ His following is global in ways that exceed that of any other

living public intellectual

 

Noam’s worldwide following has identified him as a beacon of truth and conscience who can be trusted, whatever the issue, to express his views with honesty, through the medium of reasoned analysis, and on the basis of a dazzling familiarity with a wide range of evidence supporting his conclusions. He conveys a sense of having read and remembering everything ever written on the topic he happens to be addressing on any particular occasion.

 

There are many other highly intelligent and progressive persons in the world, but few if any, who have the professional record of world class scholarship and the astonishingly wide range of knowledgeabout subjects that embrace concerns that cover the waterfront. Chomskyis always worth listening to whatever the topic, whether it happens to be the philosophical foundations of knowledge and existence or the specifics of atrocities taking place in some remote part of the world.

 

His presence and role is so precious because of this rare mix of qualities: a trustworthy character, comprehensive knowledge, mastery over the logic of argument and reasoned analysis, a speaking style that is measured and never relies on shouting to make a point. Chomsky has a special gravitas that I have never before encountered, and helps account for the attitudes of reverence and gratitude that so many persons from all corners of the globe feel in his presence.

 

DF: What ideas and activities of Chomsky have influenced you the most over the years?

RF: I have been particularly influenced by Noam’s extraordinary perseverance, his spectacular displays of intellectuality and moral engagement, his willingness to enter domains where angels fear to tread, and above all by his insistence on following the evidence wherever it might lead. Noam, in this sense, is one of the great moral voices of all time, guided by a sense of justice and decency, and possessed of a skilled deconstructive voice that dismisses much conventional wisdom with a flip of his rhetorical wrist.

 

On a more doctrinal level, I have found Chomsky’s thought particularly valuably deployed in his authoritative depiction of how ‘indoctrination in a free society’ works. This is not a simple matter.  I would express Chomsky’s line of critique by a more concrete phrase, ‘how the New York Timesmisleads, especially with regard to the Middle East.’ Chomsky can be devastating when showing how the liberal mainstream distorts reality by its selective interpretations of the facts and norms at stake, never more so than in relation to Israel/Palestine over the decades or by the liberal acceptance of the structures of militarism and predatory capitalism without a whimper while bemoaning the cruelty of extreme poverty. Like the monkeys who see and hear no evil, so it is with most liberals. They are willing to do good so long as it doesn’t interfere with their supreme interest in doing well!

 

I am aware that Chomsky’s views on Israel/Palestinehave given rise to some fierce criticism, and not just from Zionists. Chomsky has been steadfastly supportive of a two-state solution that he has, although perhaps not so clearly recently, insisted as only viable solution that would allow the two peoples to live in a sustainable peace. In my understanding of Chomsky’s recent reflections on these issues, he seems to be saying that an Israeli version of a one-state solution is coming into being, and that a series of internal and international developments now make it impractical to achieve any kind of acceptable form of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future. Despite disagreements with Said on such questions I never observed Noam or Edward expressing anything other than sentiments of respect and admiration for the work and commitment of the other.

 

Now that Chomsky is convinced that the political and physical conditions no longer exist to achieve a two-state peace, and the Israeli one-state solution is unacceptable, it would be of great value to know what Chomsky now proposes. Perhaps, he has already set forth his ideas in light of the present circumstances, but I am not familiar with any such statement.

 

Chomsky has also been criticized for failing to support BDSor coercive nonviolence as a tactic of the global solidarity movement to support the Palestinian national movement. I am not aware of the deep roots of this reluctance to exert pressure on Israel, although I do know that his family background was one of left Zionism, which he felt that Israel as a state and Zionism as a movement and project had seriously betrayed, and the Palestinian people have been paying the price.

 

I also found Noam’s critique of what he called ‘military humanism’ as a pushback to those who favored the Kosovo intervention to be challenging and almost persuasive as a refutation of the case for humanitarian intervention in the pre-war context of 1999. In the end, with strong feelings of ambivalence, my fear of a Kosovo repetition of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 led me to support the NATO intervention on behalf of Kosovo independence from Serbia.

 

Chomsky argued that the moral rhetoric of those calling for intervention in Kosovo was chosen to hide the real reasons for recourse to this admittedly non-defensive war, which were strategic and amoral. These true motivations for the proposed war, according to Chomsky, had to do with extending the life of NATO in the post-Cold War world and making sure that the Russians were not given a pretext for establishing a presence in the Balkans. He rested his argument on the moral inconsistencies and hypocrisy of American foreign policy, pointing to the sustained indifference of the West toward the comparable Kurdish plight in Turkey.

 

Noam opposed this mixing of humanitarianism with militarism while taking a lifelong interest in depicting severe abuses of human rights. There were numerous settings in which Noam stood up for the human rights of vulnerable and abused peoples, including individuals. Chomsky also made a series of fine scholarly contributions along these lines in several books written in collaboration with the late Edward S. Herman.

 

DF: How do the leading intellectual figures of the past one hundred years compare with Chomsky?’

RF: I have no real awareness of Chomsky’s own views beyond his sense that Bertrand Russellwas an admirable figure, perhaps a role model, and at least warranted a large picture in Noam’s MIT office. I think Russell is an appropriate antecedent figure to capture the core reality of Chomsky, despite the obvious fact that these two extraordinary men were so different in class and ethnic backgrounds. Such differences were superficial compared to their similarities: exceptional scholarly achievement, belief in Enlightenment ideals, values, and practices, and moral engagement in ways that challenged both conventional wisdom and the consensus affirmed by the governing political class and the official policies in each of their respective countries. Both were derided for swimming against strong national currents.

 

In my own intellectual and personal experience, the closest parallels to Chomsky are Jean-Paul Sartreand Edward Said. More than others, it was this threesome that made me understand the role and contributions of those who came to be known as ‘public intellectuals.’ Each took risks in their work and acted with courage and moral clarity within the political context within which they lived gave full attention to the historical moment. Each took sides that accorded with their view of moral engagement with the struggles of their time, and each stood unconditionally behind their beliefs even if it meant standing alone. In the context of the Cold War Chomsky published his inspirational essay, “The Responsibility of the Intellectual,” in the initial issue of the New York Review of Books, Feb. 23, 1967. No piece in my lifetime exerted a stronger positive influence on public debate in the United States than did this call to act in opposition to the Vietnam War at a crucial moment when doubts about the American war policies were beginning to challenge the government.

 

Sartre rejected the Nobel Prize for Literature and broke with Camusand official France over the Algerian War. Said rejected Arafat’s and the PLO’s willingness to trust Washington, resigned from the PNC, and refused from the outset to support the betrayal of Palestinian goals and rights as set forth in the 1993 Oslo Frameworkof Principles. Chomsky broke with the Zionist world, especially after the Israeli victory in the 1967 War, and lent support to the academic freedom of an embattled Holocaust denier in France, the British born historian Robert Faurisson. When questioned about this, Chomsky provocatively responded that Faurisson’s research was no worse than that of many of his MIT colleagues, although he did object when Chomsky’s statement of support was published as a foreword to a Faurisson book without his permission.

 

Each of these three confronted the world around them with undiminished passion, and never wasted their energy offering apologies or setting forth justifications for their dissenting views. In a last interview Sartrewas asked, what was his greatest regret? I found Sartre’s response suggestively provocative–that he had not gone far enough in the articulation of his radical views, a response that Chomsky might also have made, and Said as well. In effect, rather than backing down or retreating by acknowledging that he might have been more diplomatic, he opts for an even more strident clarity of belief and action.

 

If I look around at later generations, I take note of many passionate and articulate voices, but none that achieves the scale, scope, gravitas, and impact of these three. More than ever we need such exceptional voices for guidance and inspiration. We are living at a moment of unprecedented bioethical crisis that Chomsky has come to acknowledge and discuss in his recent interviews and writings. Even in these years when approaching the awesome age of 90,Noam’s voice remains as loud and clear as ever. It is always worthy of listening, and almost always of heeding. In recent years Chomsky has impressively broadened his interests to engage the more general challenges facing humanity, and given less attention to the various flaws of American foreign policy or to critiques of capitalism. At the same time, he has delivered scathing attacks on Trump and Trumpism as the climax of degenerative politics in America.

 

DF: How has the left changed over the course of Chomsky’s career in your view or have you noticed changes in his work over time?

 

RF: This is a difficult question for me as I am not sure that I am familiar enough with Chomsky’s engagement with the left at the various stages of his long life. He is certainly what one might call ‘a radical progressive,’ but he is also clearly uncomfortable with the organized left and never was an apologist for the Soviet Union. Although familiar with Marxist literature and socialist thought, his writing and commentary was not directed at theoretical issues that were so often debated in European leftist thinking. My impression is that Chomsky endorsed socialist values within a framework of philosophical anarchism— that is, characterized by deep suspicion directed toward all governmental embodiments of statist authority.

 

Chomsky’s writing and preoccupations have consistently been responsive to historical circumstances. There is no political issue that is outside his domain, although to my knowledge he has never commented extensively on cultural issues in the manner with which Said wrote about opera or Sartre contributed to literature. Two years ago Chomsky and I took part in a workshop on the dangers of nuclearism, along with Daniel Ellsberg, and I was struck by Noam’s unexpectedly hopeful contributions to the discussions. He argued that there were and are, many missed opportunities that might have addressed the dangers posed by nuclear weapons in a different manner than the paths chosen by policymakers and leaders. He wanted us to believe that the geopolitics of power is not the only game in town, and that civil society engagements on behalf of what we believe is worthwhile, necessary, and not foreclosed. I found this line of assessment a refreshing departure from my impression of Chomsky’s early posture of pessimistic critical realism. It may reflect the personal serenity that Noam seems to be experiencing in this stage of his life.

 

My sense of Chomsky’s leftism is that of someone who is incredibly attentive to the calls of conscience and freedom, and devotes extraordinary energy to the changing situational challenges, but thinks and acts by himself without taking part in organizational efforts, or any kind of collective process. At present, this tendency has led Chomsky both to decry Trump and Trumpism, and to worry about a fascist drift in world political behavior, but also to grasp the ecological and ethical menace of unregulated global capitalism. In my terminology, Chomsky has become an exemplary ‘citizen pilgrim,’ responding as an individual to the injustices of today with an abiding hope for a better tomorrow.

 

I did feel in the late 1960s that Chomsky was too ready to concede the future, at least in Vietnam, to those who dominated hard power capabilities. If my memory is correct, Noam was convinced that the U.S. would prevail in Vietnam because of the battlefield imbalances, and thus underestimated the depth of the Vietnamese national movement of resistance and the potentialities of anti-war activism. He also downplayed the reversibility of the intervention, not fully appreciating that if the costs became too high for enough Americans the leaders in Washington would bring the war to an end even if it produced an embarrassing defeat for a militarist foreign policy. In a sense, these assessments seemed to arise from a certain kind of realism that underlies Chomsky’s analysis, reflecting his fidelity to the facts as he comprehends them and his readiness to disregard his most ardent preferences when his reading of the facts of a complex political situation points to an outcome that is contrary to his wishes.

 

At the same time, Chomsky is ready to stand in solidarity with any dedicated person willing to act unlawfully so as to reveal the lies and distortions relied upon by governments, including in liberal societies, to befuddle and manipulate the citizenry. He stood by Dan Ellsberg after he released the Pentagon Papers, refusing to testify before the Boston Grand Jury, thereby risking a prison sentence. In retrospect, Ellsberg committed the perfect ‘crime’ from a Chomskyan worldview, defying the state so as to expose realities cynically hidden from the citizenry, heightened by the context of an unlawful war leading to the deaths of many innocent persons.

 

I should add that Chomsky’s positive attitude toward my work, which meant a great deal to me, was related to his respect for international law as legitimating dissent and nonviolent opposition to the militarist characteristics of American foreign policy. He favored a foreign policy that complied with international law and showed respect for the UN and its Charter as matters of elemental morality and geopolitical prudence.

 

DF: What is to account for Chomsky’s ability to reach such large amounts of people for so long? What do you find most interesting about him?

 

RF: You touch upon one of Chomsky’s most distinctive qualities, his influence and popularity throughout the world. I think that two features in his demeanor and approach help us understand this global reach.

 

First, Chomsky’s analysis is accessible to an audience of non-specialists, whether sophisticated or not. His grasp of the facts, and coherent and sensible interpretations of wrongdoings in high places, communicates an understanding of the world surrounding us that most of us have difficulty of formulating.

 

Secondly, Chomsky’s style, personal engagement, and life experience epitomizes authenticity. You may disagree with Chomsky, but it is impossible to doubt his sincerity and dedication to truth telling. Those who are dissatisfied with the status quo find in Chomsky a lucid accounting of what is wrong and why in a manner that generates trust and stimulates action, and even hopes for a better future.

 

My only reservation is a tendency by Chomsky sometimes to overlook ambiguity and uncertainty, and countervailing lines of thought. Perhaps, my discomfort reflects my own background, especially law school training that made me aware, perhaps overly aware, that there are always at least two sides to any contested position.

 

Without the ambiguity of the law, lawyers would have no role and no livelihood. For me as someone trained in law, the challenge has always been to acknowledge this epistemological fuzziness while making ethically driven choices that can produce one-sided political commitments whenever appropriate. More concretely, how I am able to acknowledge the existence of an Israeli narrative yet firmly side with the Palestinian struggle for their basic rights. My own answer to this seeming dilemma is to make such choices ‘by taking suffering seriously,’ which almost always means identifying with the vulnerable and exploited, but it also means understanding hierarchies of abuse and exploitation as the core reality of apartheid structures..

 

I seek the moral clarity associated with Chomsky, Sartre, and Said, but do so more circuitously because of this continuing subservience to the way lawyers are taught to think and act.

 

DF: Are there positions and perspectives that you are surprised that Chomsky holds?  Do you have many Chomsky books in your studyand which of those has influenced you’re foreign policy perspectives in particular?

 

RF: I have a shelf full of Chomsky books, and try to keep up with his synoptic capacity to encompass all that is worth thinking about. The range and persistence of his productivity is nothing short of astounding, and I might add, humbling. Few prophets in all of history have been as endowed with such mental resilience and blessed by physical longevity!

 

As far as direct influence is concerned I would mention two areas. I learned from Chomsky’s acute critique of the practices of liberalism, and the essential importance of grasping the sources of human suffering that cannot be understood without engaging in structural analysis. Among the most serious intellectual inadequacies of liberalism is to opt for incremental policy changes while taking the underlying hegemonic structures of power and economic forces for granted, even ignoring their relevance.

 

Chomsky has helped me understand why I am not a liberal. In this sense, it helps explain why I was outraged by the way the Democratic Party subverted the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sandersin 2016, while promoting that of Hillary Clinton. Sanders was treated as unacceptable to the Democratic National Committee, despite not even being consistently radical in his outlook. Yet he was radical enough to threaten the verities of Goldman Sachs and the ethos of neoliberalism, and that was enough to disqualify his candidacy although he emerged as the most popular and trusted political figure in America, greatly exceeding the approval ratings of the prevailing candidates, Trump and Clinton.

 

And secondly, I learned from Chomsky the importance of not compromising when it came to matters of principle even if it requires enduring defamation and marginalization. I found Chomsky’s strong early criticisms of how the Zionistproject was being enacted in Israel, and the American complicity, not only persuasive, but it also challenged me to stop hiding in the shadows. I think Chomsky’s moral posture has been as influential as his substantive views. Standing up for truth, rejecting the liberal consensus, and always being in solidarity with those struggling against injustice are the insignia of Noam Chomsky’s most illustrious career and life.

 

And it would be wrong not to reiterate Chomsky’s overwhelming sense of the responsibility of an intellectualto engage in dialogue. Over the years I have encountered many ‘ordinary’ persons who have written to Noam after hearing him speak or reading his books, and have been amazed by receiving detailed and respectful responses, and a readiness to continue the correspondence. It takes energy and time to be so available, but it also expresses a commitment to the seriousness of ideas and likeminded communication, and the value of what amounts to informal education. Again, I have tried to follow this path set by Noam, trailing behind, but grateful for the grandeur of his example.

 

 

 

Daniel Falcone: How were you first introduced to Chomsky? What initial work brought you into contact with Chomsky?

 

Richard Falk: Actually, my first awareness of Noam Chomsky was in the late 1950s while I was teaching at Ohio State University. I had a smart linguist friend who told me about the revolutionary work of a young scholar at MIT who was completely transforming his field by the work he had done while still a graduate student on ‘structural linguistics’ and ‘generative grammar.’ As I remember our conversation nothing was mentioned about Chomsky’s politics.

Later on in the early 1960s I continued to hear of Chomsky as the great linguist, but also about Chomsky as the militant anti-Vietnam Waractivist.

 

We met in the mid-1960s as a result of common interests. We were both deeply involved as opponents of the escalations of American involvement in Vietnam, and indeed we were opposed to any military involvement at all. At that point Chomsky was strongly supporting draft resistance in addition to speaking at anti-war events. I was mainly engaged during the 1960s in academic debates and teach-ins devoted to questions of the legality of the American role in Vietnam, and after 1965, discussions often focused on the decision by the Lyndon Johnson presidency to extend the war to North Vietnam.

We interacted quite frequently in this decade, and stayed at each other’s homes in Lexington and Princeton when we spoke in the other’s venue.

 

I recall Chomsky insisting in response to an invitation from the Princeton Philosophy Department that he would only agree to give a series of lectures on linguistics that was the nature of the invitation if his hosts would also arrange parallel formats for him to address his political concerns. He apparently frequently made this a condition of his acceptance, and because he was such a star attraction, it was almost always enthusiastically accepted, and even viewed as a bonus.

 

I found the Princeton lectureson theoretical tensions within the field of linguistics to be not only abstruse, but also quite memorable from a performance perspective. The first of Chomsky’s linguistic lectures was held in one of the largest auditoriums at Princeton. Before Noam was introduced the hall was filled to capacity in excited anticipation of being enlightened by whatever this already famous scholar had to say. Chomsky’s style and delivery were highly technical, presupposed a fairly sophisticated understanding of the complex issues of linguistic theory at stake, which meant that his presentation seemed way above the head of 90% of the audience, including myself.

 

By the end of the lecture there were less than 25 people left in the huge hall. What impressed me then and even now was Chomsky’s attitude of apparent indifference to this reaction, which was confirmed by his failure to alter his style in the next two lectures. It was hardly surprising that the second and third lecturewere given in a rather empty room, being attended by only a small coterie of graduate students and a few on the faculty who had strong linguistic interests.

 

When he gave his talk on political issues, Chomsky’s style was strikingly different. His presentation on political issues was meant to reach people with little prior knowledge. His interpretations were supported by abundant evidence – fact-based, carefully and clearly reasoned, and were even spiced by humorous asides, usually of a wry and satiric nature. Chomsky was personally engaged, clearly hoping to persuade the audience to adopt his viewpoint, and conveying an assured sense that there existed no other coherent and ethical to view the issues being discussed. As with his opening linguistics lecrure, his political talk was held in a large hall that was overflowing, but this time no one left.

 

The response was enthusiastic and responsive. I came away with the sense those attending felt that just by being there they had taken part in an historic experience. It was also an audience that drew heavily from the community as well as the university, and had far fewer faculty members than did the linguistic talks. I was struck by Chomsky’s confident, calm manner, his wide knowledge, and his utter insistence on speaking truth to power. These truths of Chomsky went far beyond mainstream ways of thinking and acting.

 

My only reservation from the perspective of frequently being a member of Chomsky’s audience was his reluctance to acknowledge even slight differences of opinion, much less admit error. I felt this to be a weakness. There was something disturbing about this unwillingness to concede small points to those who shared his views 95% of the time. This polemical style left even admirers sometimes feeling that his presentation could have been more effective if he had left a bit of space for doubt and divergent opinions. This style of unwavering assurance seemed to reflect a public sensibility more than deriving from a fixed ideology. Off camera, Noam was always gentle and non-dogmatic, but while performing I found his demeanor sometimes to be leonine.

 

 

DF: Scholar Henry Girouxonce told me that he thought Chomsky was “a national treasure.” How is Chomsky a national treasure in your view?

 

RF: I share this expression of exceptional mode of appreciating  Chomsky’s many contributions to enlightened and critical thought. Such contributions are essential if the vitality of a democratic society is to be sustained through dark times, such as at present. To quibble a bit, I would prefer to identify Noam even more grandly as ‘a global treasure.’ His following is global in ways that exceed that of any other

living public intellectual

 

Noam’s worldwide following has identified him as a beacon of truth and conscience who can be trusted, whatever the issue, to express his views with honesty, through the medium of reasoned analysis, and on the basis of a dazzling familiarity with a wide range of evidence supporting his conclusions. He conveys a sense of having read and remembering everything ever written on the topic he happens to be addressing on any particular occasion.

 

There are many other highly intelligent and progressive persons in the world, but few if any, who have the professional record of world class scholarship and the astonishingly wide range of knowledgeabout subjects that embrace concerns that cover the waterfront. Chomskyis always worth listening to whatever the topic, whether it happens to be the philosophical foundations of knowledge and existence or the specifics of atrocities taking place in some remote part of the world.

 

His presence and role is so precious because of this rare mix of qualities: a trustworthy character, comprehensive knowledge, mastery over the logic of argument and reasoned analysis, a speaking style that is measured and never relies on shouting to make a point. Chomsky has a special gravitas that I have never before encountered, and helps account for the attitudes of reverence and gratitude that so many persons from all corners of the globe feel in his presence.

 

DF: What ideas and activities of Chomsky have influenced you the most over the years?

 

RF: I have been particularly influenced by Noam’s extraordinary perseverance, his spectacular displays of intellectuality and moral engagement, his willingness to enter domains where angels fear to tread, and above all by his insistence on following the evidence wherever it might lead. Noam, in this sense, is one of the great moral voices of all time, guided by a sense of justice and decency, and possessed of a skilled deconstructive voice that dismisses much conventional wisdom with a flip of his rhetorical wrist.

 

On a more doctrinal level, I have found Chomsky’s thought particularly valuably deployed in his authoritative depiction of how ‘indoctrination in a free society’ works. This is not a simple matter.  I would express Chomsky’s line of critique by a more concrete phrase, ‘how the New York Timesmisleads, especially with regard to the Middle East.’ Chomsky can be devastating when showing how the liberal mainstream distorts reality by its selective interpretations of the facts and norms at stake, never more so than in relation to Israel/Palestine over the decades or by the liberal acceptance of the structures of militarism and predatory capitalism without a whimper while bemoaning the cruelty of extreme poverty. Like the monkeys who see and hear no evil, so it is with most liberals. They are willing to do good so long as it doesn’t interfere with their supreme interest in doing well!

 

I am aware that Chomsky’s views on Israel/Palestinehave given rise to some fierce criticism, and not just from Zionists. Chomsky has been steadfastly supportive of a two-state solution that he has, although perhaps not so clearly recently, insisted as only viable solution that would allow the two peoples to live in a sustainable peace. In my understanding of Chomsky’s recent reflections on these issues, he seems to be saying that an Israeli version of a one-state solution is coming into being, and that a series of internal and international developments now make it impractical to achieve any kind of acceptable form of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future. Despite disagreements with Said on such questions I never observed Noam or Edward expressing anything other than sentiments of respect and admiration for the work and commitment of the other.

 

Now that Chomsky is convinced that the political and physical conditions no longer exist to achieve a two-state peace, and the Israeli one-state solution is unacceptable, it would be of great value to know what Chomsky now proposes. Perhaps, he has already set forth his ideas in light of the present circumstances, but I am not familiar with any such statement.

 

Chomsky has also been criticized for failing to support BDSor coercive nonviolence as a tactic of the global solidarity movement to support the Palestinian national movement. I am not aware of the deep roots of this reluctance to exert pressure on Israel, although I do know that his family background was one of left Zionism, which he felt that Israel as a state and Zionism as a movement and project had seriously betrayed, and the Palestinian people have been paying the price.

 

I also found Noam’s critique of what he called ‘military humanism’ as a pushback to those who favored the Kosovo intervention to be challenging and almost persuasive as a refutation of the case for humanitarian intervention in the pre-war context of 1999. In the end, with strong feelings of ambivalence, my fear of a Kosovo repetition of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 led me to support the NATO intervention on behalf of Kosovo independence from Serbia.

 

Chomsky argued that the moral rhetoric of those calling for intervention in Kosovo was chosen to hide the real reasons for recourse to this admittedly non-defensive war, which were strategic and amoral. These true motivations for the proposed war, according to Chomsky, had to do with extending the life of NATO in the post-Cold War world and making sure that the Russians were not given a pretext for establishing a presence in the Balkans. He rested his argument on the moral inconsistencies and hypocrisy of American foreign policy, pointing to the sustained indifference of the West toward the comparable Kurdish plight in Turkey.

 

Noam opposed this mixing of humanitarianism with militarism while taking a lifelong interest in depicting severe abuses of human rights. There were numerous settings in which Noam stood up for the human rights of vulnerable and abused peoples, including individuals. Chomsky also made a series of fine scholarly contributions along these lines in several books written in collaboration with the late Edward S. Herman.

 

DF: How do the leading intellectual figures of the past one hundred years compare with Chomsky?’

RF: I have no real awareness of Chomsky’s own views beyond his sense that Bertrand Russellwas an admirable figure, perhaps a role model, and at least warranted a large picture in Noam’s MIT office. I think Russell is an appropriate antecedent figure to capture the core reality of Chomsky, despite the obvious fact that these two extraordinary men were so different in class and ethnic backgrounds. Such differences were superficial compared to their similarities: exceptional scholarly achievement, belief in Enlightenment ideals, values, and practices, and moral engagement in ways that challenged both conventional wisdom and the consensus affirmed by the governing political class and the official policies in each of their respective countries. Both were derided for swimming against strong national currents.

 

In my own intellectual and personal experience, the closest parallels to Chomsky are Jean-Paul Sartreand Edward Said. More than others, it was this threesome that made me understand the role and contributions of those who came to be known as ‘public intellectuals.’ Each took risks in their work and acted with courage and moral clarity within the political context within which they lived gave full attention to the historical moment. Each took sides that accorded with their view of moral engagement with the struggles of their time, and each stood unconditionally behind their beliefs even if it meant standing alone. In the context of the Cold War Chomsky published his inspirational essay, “The Responsibility of the Intellectual,” in the initial issue of the New York Review of Books, Feb. 23, 1967. No piece in my lifetime exerted a stronger positive influence on public debate in the United States than did this call to act in opposition to the Vietnam War at a crucial moment when doubts about the American war policies were beginning to challenge the government. 

 

Sartre rejected the Nobel Prize for Literature and broke with Camusand official France over the Algerian War. Said rejected Arafat’s and the PLO’s willingness to trust Washington, resigned from the PNC, and refused from the outset to support the betrayal of Palestinian goals and rights as set forth in the 1993 Oslo Frameworkof Principles. Chomsky broke with the Zionist world, especially after the Israeli victory in the 1967 War, and lent support to the academic freedom of an embattled Holocaust denier in France, the British born historian Robert Faurisson. When questioned about this, Chomsky provocatively responded that Faurisson’s research was no worse than that of many of his MIT colleagues, although he did object when Chomsky’s statement of support was published as a foreword to a Faurisson book without his permission.

 

Each of these three confronted the world around them with undiminished passion, and never wasted their energy offering apologies or setting forth justifications for their dissenting views. In a last interview Sartrewas asked, what was his greatest regret? I found Sartre’s response suggestively provocative–that he had not gone far enough in the articulation of his radical views, a response that Chomsky might also have made, and Said as well. In effect, rather than backing down or retreating by acknowledging that he might have been more diplomatic, he opts for an even more strident clarity of belief and action.

 

If I look around at later generations, I take note of many passionate and articulate voices, but none that achieves the scale, scope, gravitas, and impact of these three. More than ever we need such exceptional voices for guidance and inspiration. We are living at a moment of unprecedented bioethical crisis that Chomsky has come to acknowledge and discuss in his recent interviews and writings. Even in these years when approaching the awesome age of 90,Noam’s voice remains as loud and clear as ever. It is always worthy of listening, and almost always of heeding. In recent years Chomsky has impressively broadened his interests to engage the more general challenges facing humanity, and given less attention to the various flaws of American foreign policy or to critiques of capitalism. At the same time, he has delivered scathing attacks on Trump and Trumpism as the climax of degenerative politics in America.

 

DF: How has the left changed over the course of Chomsky’s career in your view or have you noticed changes in his work over time?

 

RF: This is a difficult question for me as I am not sure that I am familiar enough with Chomsky’s engagement with the left at the various stages of his long life. He is certainly what one might call ‘a radical progressive,’ but he is also clearly uncomfortable with the organized left and never was an apologist for the Soviet Union. Although familiar with Marxist literature and socialist thought, his writing and commentary was not directed at theoretical issues that were so often debated in European leftist thinking. My impression is that Chomsky endorsed socialist values within a framework of philosophical anarchism— that is, characterized by deep suspicion directed toward all governmental embodiments of statist authority.

 

Chomsky’s writing and preoccupations have consistently been responsive to historical circumstances. There is no political issue that is outside his domain, although to my knowledge he has never commented extensively on cultural issues in the manner with which Said wrote about opera or Sartre contributed to literature. Two years ago Chomsky and I took part in a workshop on the dangers of nuclearism, along with Daniel Ellsberg, and I was struck by Noam’s unexpectedly hopeful contributions to the discussions. He argued that there were and are, many missed opportunities that might have addressed the dangers posed by nuclear weapons in a different manner than the paths chosen by policymakers and leaders. He wanted us to believe that the geopolitics of power is not the only game in town, and that civil society engagements on behalf of what we believe is worthwhile, necessary, and not foreclosed. I found this line of assessment a refreshing departure from my impression of Chomsky’s early posture of pessimistic critical realism. It may reflect the personal serenity that Noam seems to be experiencing in this stage of his life.

 

My sense of Chomsky’s leftism is that of someone who is incredibly attentive to the calls of conscience and freedom, and devotes extraordinary energy to the changing situational challenges, but thinks and acts by himself without taking part in organizational efforts, or any kind of collective process. At present, this tendency has led Chomsky both to decry Trump and Trumpism, and to worry about a fascist drift in world political behavior, but also to grasp the ecological and ethical menace of unregulated global capitalism. In my terminology, Chomsky has become an exemplary ‘citizen pilgrim,’ responding as an individual to the injustices of today with an abiding hope for a better tomorrow.

 

I did feel in the late 1960s that Chomsky was too ready to concede the future, at least in Vietnam, to those who dominated hard power capabilities. If my memory is correct, Noam was convinced that the U.S. would prevail in Vietnam because of the battlefield imbalances, and thus underestimated the depth of the Vietnamese national movement of resistance and the potentialities of anti-war activism. He also downplayed the reversibility of the intervention, not fully appreciating that if the costs became too high for enough Americans the leaders in Washington would bring the war to an end even if it produced an embarrassing defeat for a militarist foreign policy. In a sense, these assessments seemed to arise from a certain kind of realism that underlies Chomsky’s analysis, reflecting his fidelity to the facts as he comprehends them and his readiness to disregard his most ardent preferences when his reading of the facts of a complex political situation points to an outcome that is contrary to his wishes.

 

At the same time, Chomsky is ready to stand in solidarity with any dedicated person willing to act unlawfully so as to reveal the lies and distortions relied upon by governments, including in liberal societies, to befuddle and manipulate the citizenry. He stood by Dan Ellsberg after he released the Pentagon Papers, refusing to testify before the Boston Grand Jury, thereby risking a prison sentence. In retrospect, Ellsberg committed the perfect ‘crime’ from a Chomskyan worldview, defying the state so as to expose realities cynically hidden from the citizenry, heightened by the context of an unlawful war leading to the deaths of many innocent persons.

 

I should add that Chomsky’s positive attitude toward my work, which meant a great deal to me, was related to his respect for international law as legitimating dissent and nonviolent opposition to the militarist characteristics of American foreign policy. He favored a foreign policy that complied with international law and showed respect for the UN and its Charter as matters of elemental morality and geopolitical prudence.

 

DF: What is to account for Chomsky’s ability to reach such large amounts of people for so long? What do you find most interesting about him?

 

RF: You touch upon one of Chomsky’s most distinctive qualities, his influence and popularity throughout the world. I think that two features in his demeanor and approach help us understand this global reach.

 

First, Chomsky’s analysis is accessible to an audience of non-specialists, whether sophisticated or not. His grasp of the facts, and coherent and sensible interpretations of wrongdoings in high places, communicates an understanding of the world surrounding us that most of us have difficulty of formulating.

 

Secondly, Chomsky’s style, personal engagement, and life experience epitomizes authenticity. You may disagree with Chomsky, but it is impossible to doubt his sincerity and dedication to truth telling. Those who are dissatisfied with the status quo find in Chomsky a lucid accounting of what is wrong and why in a manner that generates trust and stimulates action, and even hopes for a better future.

 

My only reservation is a tendency by Chomsky sometimes to overlook ambiguity and uncertainty, and countervailing lines of thought. Perhaps, my discomfort reflects my own background, especially law school training that made me aware, perhaps overly aware, that there are always at least two sides to any contested position.

 

Without the ambiguity of the law, lawyers would have no role and no livelihood. For me as someone trained in law, the challenge has always been to acknowledge this epistemological fuzziness while making ethically driven choices that can produce one-sided political commitments whenever appropriate. More concretely, how I am able to acknowledge the existence of an Israeli narrative yet firmly side with the Palestinian struggle for their basic rights. My own answer to this seeming dilemma is to make such choices ‘by taking suffering seriously,’ which almost always means identifying with the vulnerable and exploited, but it also means understanding hierarchies of abuse and exploitation as the core reality of apartheid structures..

 

I seek the moral clarity associated with Chomsky, Sartre, and Said, but do so more circuitously because of this continuing subservience to the way lawyers are taught to think and act.

 

DF: Are there positions and perspectives that you are surprised that Chomsky holds?  Do you have many Chomsky books in your study and which of those has influenced you’re foreign policy perspectives in particular?

 

RF: I have a shelf full of Chomsky books, and try to keep up with his synoptic capacity to encompass all that is worth thinking about. The range and persistence of his productivity is nothing short of astounding, and I might add, humbling. Few prophets in all of history have been as endowed with such mental resilience and blessed by physical longevity!

 

As far as direct influence is concerned I would mention two areas. I learned from Chomsky’s acute critique of the practices of liberalism, and the essential importance of grasping the sources of human suffering that cannot be understood without engaging in structural analysis. Among the most serious intellectual inadequacies of liberalism is to opt for incremental policy changes while taking the underlying hegemonic structures of power and economic forces for granted, even ignoring their relevance.

 

Chomsky has helped me understand why I am not a liberal. In this sense, it helps explain why I was outraged by the way the Democratic Party subverted the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016, while promoting that of Hillary Clinton. Sanders was treated as unacceptable to the Democratic National Committee, despite not even being consistently radical in his outlook. Yet he was radical enough to threaten the verities of Goldman Sachs and the ethos of neoliberalism, and that was enough to disqualify his candidacy although he emerged as the most popular and trusted political figure in America, greatly exceeding the approval ratings of the prevailing candidates, Trump and Clinton.

 

And secondly, I learned from Chomsky the importance of not compromising when it came to matters of principle even if it requires enduring defamation and marginalization. I found Chomsky’s strong early criticisms of how the Zionist project was being enacted in Israel, and the American complicity, not only persuasive, but it also challenged me to stop hiding in the shadows. I think Chomsky’s moral posture has been as influential as his substantive views. Standing up for truth, rejecting the liberal consensus, and always being in solidarity with those struggling against injustice are the insignia of Noam Chomsky’s most illustrious career and life.

 

And it would be wrong not to reiterate Chomsky’s overwhelming sense of the responsibility of an intellectualto engage in dialogue. Over the years I have encountered many ‘ordinary’ persons who have written to Noam after hearing him speak or reading his books, and have been amazed by receiving detailed and respectful responses, and a readiness to continue the correspondence. It takes energy and time to be so available, but it also expresses a commitment to the seriousness of ideas and likeminded communication, and the value of what amounts to informal education. Again, I have tried to follow this path set by Noam, trailing behind, but grateful for the grandeur of his example.

 

 

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Let the Two-State Solution Die a Natural Death

7 Jan

 

 

[Prefatory Note: This post is a modified version of an article published in Middle East Eye on Jan. 1, 2018. It contends that the proper priority for genuine advocates of peace between Israelis and Palestinians should be centered around apartheid rather than be devoted to reviving an Oslo style ‘peace process’ (always a sham) or proclaiming the goal of an independent and sovereign Palestine as attainable without first dismantling the apartheid structures that subjugate the Palestinian people as a whole so as to maintain the Zionist insistence on Israel as the state of the Jewish people (rather than providing a homeland within a normal and legitiamt state based on ethnic and religious equality, human rights, and secular principles.]

 

Let the Two-State Solution Die a Natural Death

 

Despite all appearances to the contrary, those in the West who do not want to join the premature and ill-considered Israeli victory party, are clinging firmly to the Two-State Solution amid calls to renew direct diplomatic negotiations between the parties so as to reach, in the extravagant language of Donald Trump, ‘the ultimate deal.’

 

Israel has increasingly indicated by deeds and words, including those of Netanyahu, an unconditional opposition to the establishment of a genuinely independent and sovereign Palestine. The settlement expansion project is accelerating with pledges made by a range of Israel political figures that no settler would ever be ejected from a settlement even if the unlawful dwelling units inhabited by Jews were not located in a settlement bloc that have been conceded as annexable by Israel in the event that agreement is reached on other issues. What is more Netanyahu, although sometimes talking to the West as if he favors a resumption of peace negotiations seems far more authentic when he demands the recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people as a precondition for any resumption of talks with the Palestinians or joins in welcoming American pro-Israeli zealots who insist that the conflict is over, and that Israel deserves to be anointed as victor. To top it all off, the Trump decision of December 6, 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to follow this up by soon relocating the U.S. Embassy, effectively withdraws from future negotiations one of the most sensitive issues—the status and sharing of Jerusalem—despite the language accompanying Trump’s statement on recognition that purports to leave to the future, permanent Jerusalem borders and disposition of the city on a permanent basis that is misleadingly declared to remain open for an agreement between the parties to be achieved at a later date of their choosing.

 

All in all, it seems time to recognize three related conclusions:

         –first, the leadership of Israel has rejected the Two-State Solution as the path to conflict resolution;

         –secondly, Israel has created conditions, almost impossible to reverse, that make totally unrealistic to expect the establishment of an independent Palestinian state;

         –thirdly, Trump even more than prior presidents has weighted American diplomacy heavily and visibly in favor of whatever Israel’s leaders seek as the endgame for this struggle of decades between these two peoples.

 

Despite these obstacles, which seem conclusive, many people of good will who are dedicated to peace and political compromises, cling to the Two State Solution as the most realistic approach to peace. The words of Amos Oz, celebrated Israeli novelist, expressed recently this widely shared sentiment among liberal supporters of a Zionist Israel: “..despite the setbacks, we must continue to work for a two-state solution. It remains the only pragmatic, practical solution to our conflict that has brought so much bloodshed and heartbreak to this land.” It is also significant that Oz made this statement in the course of a yearend funding appeal on behalf of J-Street in 2017, the strongest voice of moderate Zionism in the United States.

 

What Oz says, and is widely believed, is that there is no solution available to Palestine unless there is a sovereign independent Jewish state along 1967 borders as the essential core of any credible diplomatic package. All alternatives would, in other words, not be ‘pragmatic, practical’ according to Oz and many others. Why this is so is rarely articulated, but appears to rest on the proposition that the Zionist movement, from its inception, sought a homeland for the Jewish people that could only be secured and properly proclaimed if under the protection of a Jewish state that was permanently, as a matter of constitutional framework, under Jewish control.

 

For many years the internationally recognized Palestinian leadership has shared this view, and has given its formal blessings in its 1988 PNC/PLO declaration that looked toward the acceptance of Israel as a legitimate state, if the occupation were ended, Israeli forces withdrawn, and Palestinian sovereignty established within the 1967 borders. It is notable that this Palestinian conditional recognition of Israeli statehood accepted a territorial delimitation that was significantly larger than what the UN had proposed by way of partition in GA Resolution 181(that is, Israel would have 78% rather than 55% of the overall territory comprised by the British Mandate, leaving the Palestinian with the remaining 22% for their state). This type of outcome was also endorsed by the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 and was confidently depicted as the solution during the Obama presidency, and even adapted to meet Israel’s security demands in ways designed to make such a solution appeal to Israel. Even Hamas endorsed the spirit of the two-state approach by proposing over the course of the last decade a long-term ceasefire, up to 50 years, if Israel were to end the occupation of the East Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza. If Israel were to agree, the resulting situation would materialize the Two-State Solution in the form of two de facto states: Israel and Palestine. It differs from the two-state approach only to the extent that it refuses to grant Israel de jure legitimacy or to renounce formally Palestinian claims to Palestine as a whole. Among the deficiencies of such territorially oriented approaches to peace is the marginalization of the grievances of up to seven million Palestinians living for generations as refugees or involuntary exiles.

 

There are at least four problems, conveniently swept under the nearest rug by two-state advocates, any one of which is sufficiently serious to raise severe doubts about the viability and desirability of the Two-State Solution: (1) Liberal Zionism expressed an outlook toward a diplomatic settlement that was not shared by the Likud-led rightest Israeli governments that have dominated Israeli politics throughout the 21st century; the Israeli goal involved territorial expansion, especially with respect to an enlarged and annexed Jerusalem, and by way of an extensive network of settlements and transport links in the West Bank, underpinned by the fundamental belief that Israel should not establish permanent borders until the whole of ‘the promised land’ as depicted in the Bible was deemed part of Israel. In effect, despite some coyness about engaging with a diplomatic process, Israel never credibly endorsed a commitment to a Palestinian state within 1967 borders that was based on the equality of the two peoples.

 

(2) Israel created extensive facts on the ground that have definitively contradicted its professes intention to seek a sustainable peace based on the Two-State Solution; these developments associated with the settlements, road network linking settlement blocs to Israel, references with Israel to the West Bank as ‘Judea and Samaria,’ that is, as belonging to biblical or historical Israel.

 

(3) The Two-State Solution as envisioned by its supporters effectively overlooked the plight of the Palestinian minority in Israel, which amounts to 20% of the population, or about 1.5 million persons. To expect such a large non-Jewish minority to accept the ethnic hegemony and discriminatory policies and practices of the Israeli state is unrealistic, as well as being contrary to international human rights standards. In this fundamental sense, an ethnic state that is exclusively associated with a particular people, is by its own proclamations and legal constructions, an ‘illegitimate state’ from the perspective of international law.

 

(4) Beyond this, to sustain Israel in relation to the dispossessed and oppressed Palestinian people has depended on establishing structures of ethnic domination over the Palestinian people as a whole that constitute the crime of apartheid. As in South Africa, there can be no peace with the Palestinians until these apartheid structures used to subjugate the Palestinian people are renounced and dismantled (including those imposed on Palestinian refugees and involuntary exiles); this will not happen until the Israeli leadership and public give up their insistence that Israel is exclusively the state of the Jewish people, with includes an unlimited and exclusive right of return for Jews and other privileges based on Jewish ethnic identity; in effect, the core of the struggle is about people rather than as in two-state thinking, about territory.

 

If we discard the Two-State Solution as unwanted by Israel, normatively unacceptable for the Palestinians, not diplomatically attainable, and inconsistent with modern international law, then what? It should be understood that even if a strong political will unexpectedly emerged that was genuinely dedicated to the balanced implementation of the Two-State Solution it would be highly unlikely to be achieveable. Against this critical background, we are obliged to do our best to answer this haunting question: ‘Is there a solution that is both desirable and attainable, even if not presently visible on the political horizon?’

 

Following the lines prefigured 20 years ago by Edward Said two overriding principles must be served if a sustainable and honorable peace is to be achieved: Israelis must be given a Jewish homeland within a reconfigured, and possibly neutrally renamed Palestine and the two people must allocate constitutional authority in ways that uphold the cardinal principles of collective equality and individual human dignity. Operationalizing such a vision would seem to necessitate the establishment of a secular unified state maybe with two flags and two names, which would have a certain resemblance to a bi-national state. There are many variations, provided there is strong existential respect for the equality of the two peoples in the constitutional and institutional structures of governance. Said also believed that there must be some kind of formal acknowledgement of Israel’s past crimes against the Palestinian people, possibly taking the form of a commission of peace and reconciliation with a mandate to review the entire history of the conflict.

 

If the liberal Zionist approach seems impractical and unacceptable, is not this conception prescribed as a preferred alternative ‘an irrelevant utopia’ that should be put aside because it would be a source of false hopes? If the Palestinians were to propose such a solution in the present political atmosphere, Israel would undoubtedly either ignore or react dismissively, and much of the rest of the international community would scoff, believing that the Palestinian are living in a dreamland of their own devising.

 

This seems like an accurate expectation, despite my insistence that what is being proposed here is a relevant utopia, the only realistic path to a sustainable and just peace. There is no doubt that the present constellation of forces is such that an initial dismissal is to be expected. Although if the Palestinian Authority were to put such a vision forward in the form of a carefully worked out proposal, it would constitute fresh ground for a debate more responsive to the actual circumstances faced by Israelis, as well as Palestinians. It would also be a step toward unity, overcoming the current political fragmentation that has weakened the Palestinians as a political force.

 

The primary political and ethical question is how to create political traction for a secular state shared equally by Israelis and Palestinians. It is my view that this can only happen in this context if the global solidarity movement presently supportive of the Palestinian national struggle mounts sufficient pressure on Israel so that the Israeli leadership recalculates its interests. The South African precedent, while differing in many aspects, is still instructive. Few imagined a peaceful transition from apartheid South Africa to a constitutional democracy based on racial equality to be remotely possible until after it happened.

 

I envisage a comparable potentiality with respect to Israel/Palestine, although undoubtedly there would also be present a series of factors that established the originality of this latter sequence of development. In politics, if political will and requisite capabilities are present and mobilized, the impossible can and does happen, as it did in South Africa and in struggles against the European colonial regimes in the latter half of the 20th century.

 

Further, without such a politics of impossibility there is no path to genuine peace and justice for both Palestinians and Israelis, massive suffering will persist, and the normalcy of an existential peace based on living together on the basis of mutual respect and under a mature, humane, and democratic version of the rule of law, underpinned by checks and balances, and upholding constitutionally anchored fundamental rights. Only then, could we as citizen pilgrims dedicated to the construction of human-centered world order give our blessings to a peace that is legitimate and existentially balanced as between ethical values and political realities.

 

Edward Said’s Humanism versus the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Semitism

9 Nov

[Prefatory Note: This post consists of my written text for a public presentation on the theme of “Edward Said’s Humanism and the Rejection of the State Department’s Definition of Anti-Semitism” at a conference at Fresno State University, Nov. 6, 2015 bearing the title “Universities at the Crossroads: The Assault on Academic Freedom,” which was the last event of the “Edward Said Lecture Series” organized by Professor Vida Samiian of the Department of Linguistics at FSU. My talk as given departed considerably from this text.]

 

Edward Said’s Humanism versus the U.S. State Department’s Anti-Semitism 

In these remarks, I will present the following analysis: (1) the most ardent Zionist forces have longed tried to conflate criticism of Israel and Zionism with hatred of Jews, the traditional understanding of anti-Semitism, but this effort has intensified recently, and even has been endorsed by the US Government and is currently under consideration by the University of California and elsewhere; (2) examine the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the U.S. State Department, and discuss briefly why it has pernicious implications for academic freedom, and indeed even for an understanding of the genuine nature of anti-Semitism; (3) show why Edward Said despite his intense opposition to anti-Semitism would nevertheless be vulnerable to allegations of being an anti-Semite if the State Department definition were to be applied to his writings and activities; (4) and finally to point out that according to the imperatives most influentially expressed by Noam Chomsky and Said, the ‘responsibility of the intellectual’ would perversely require them to be ‘anti-Semitic’ according to this pernicious wider conception.

 

 

My personal experience with this theme of anti-Semitism and Israel can be summarized by recalling two different occasions: The first was in Greek Cyprus more than a decade ago at a meeting of the Inter-Action Council (composed of ex-heads of states) devoted to conflict resolution in the Middle East. I had been invited as a resource person. At a session devoted to Israel/Palestine the Israeli ambassador to Greece spoke at some length, insisting that it was anti-Semitic to express strong criticisms of Israel and Zionism. As the only other Jew at the table I felt it to be almost a duty to clarify what I believed to be a mischievous manipulation of ideas. In my intervention I explained that Zionism was a project or ideology, Israel was a state, and that Jews were a people or persons. I attempted to explain that to disagree with Zionism or to criticize Israeli policies and practices as a state was not at all anti-Semitic, but to exhibit hostility, hatred, and discrimination against Jews as a people or as individuals was indeed anti-Semitism. Recall that Hitler did not persecute Jews for being Zionists, but for being Jews, for partaking of a race or ethnicity. After the meeting recessed, several participants thanked me for my comments, indicating that only a Jew could offer this kind of clarification, which they found persuasive. In contrast, the Israeli ambassador and his NGO sidekick came to me to complain vigorously, insisting that Zionism had become synonymous with Jewish identity through the establishment of Israel as a state of the Jewish people, making the three ideas interchangeable. In effect, their separation was now deemed deeply hostile to the Jewish experience, and was properly viewed as ‘anti-Semitism’; I walked away unconvinced, yet disturbed by the encounter.

 

This trivial incident still seems relevant as it illustrates what I believe has been an effective effort by unconditional Israel supporters to stifle criticism of Israel by inappropriately playing such an anti-Semitic card. It is inappropriate as it merges what might be called genuine hate speech with an attempt to intimidate freedom of expression in a domain where it seems needed, that is, in justifiable questioning of Israel’s state behavior and the colonial nature of the Zionist project as it is playing out in the 21st century. It is a doubly unfortunate and dangerous tactic as it tends to weaken and confuse opposition to real anti-Semitism by this misleading linkage of a contentious political argument with a condemnation of racism.

 

My second experience was to receive an email a couple of years ago informing me that the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a non-governmental organization devoted to unconditional support of Israel, had issued its annual list of the ten most dangerous anti-Semites in the world, and that I was listed as third. I found it quite astounding, especially after discovering that #1 was the Supreme Guide of Iran and #2 was the then Prime Minister of Turkey. Others on the list included such notable authors as Alice Walker and Max Blumenthal. It was obvious that I was placed on the list as a consequence of my role as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine in the period between 2008 and 2014. In the fulfillment of this role, I had indeed written very critically from the perspective of human rights and international law about the manner in which Israel was administering the occupation, which involved elements of annexation, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid. But nothing in my reports directly or indirectly exhibited hatred or hostility toward the Jewish people or toward Jews as Jews. My prominence on the Wiesenthal list at first troubled me deeply, fearing that it would damage my credibility as well as be a painful and unjustified attack on my identity that would be humiliating and probably ineffective to oppose. I never overcame these feelings, but they became somewhat balanced by my realization that highlighting my name in this way could only be explained by the degree to which my UN reports were exerting some influence on the way in which the Israel-Palestine conflict was being more generally perceived, especially within UN circles. I continue to feel a certain pride in bearing witness as best I could to the realities under law of Israel’s occupation policies, and the extent to which prolonged Palestinian suffering has been the result.

 

These personal experiences relate to the current debate nationally, internationally, and here in California. The essential argument is that Jews in Europe feel threatened by what they describe as a new wave of anti-Semitism, which is deliberately linked to the rise of anti-Israeli activism, and was dramatized by several recent terrorist incidents, especially the 2014 attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The European migration crisis is undoubtedly giving rise in Europe to a strengthening of the political right extreme, including its neo-Nazi fringe that does express real anti-Semitic hatred, but it is far less virulent in its racism toward Jews than toward Muslims. One problem with this focus on anti-Semitism is to treat Jews as accorded extra protection while at the same time immunizing hostility to Islam by reference to freedom of expression. There is no doubt that Charlie Hebdo, while victimized for its opinions, was disseminating toward Muslims the kind of hate images and messages that if directed at Jews would be regarded by almost everyone as anti-Semitism, including myself.

 

It is somewhat understandable that Europe would be sensitive to any return of anti-Semitism, given that it was both the scene of the Holocaust, the historic center of anti-Semitism, and in many ways provided the historic vindication of the Zionist movement. We should not forget that the international validation of the Zionist quest for a Jewish homeland received its first formal encouragement in the notoriously colonialist letter written by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, in 1917. As well, during the 1930s, prior to Hitler’s adoption of the Final Solution, the preferred solution of the so-called Jewish Problem in Europe was mounting widespread pressure on Jews to emigrate to Palestine or even to face forced expulsion, and this was not solely a consequence of Nazi policies. Timothy Snyder in his important recent book, Black Death, documents the extent to which Polish anti-Semitic political leaders collaborated with Zionist leaders, including even providing military training and weapons that developed the Zionist militias that laterchallenged the British mandatory presence in Palestine and then successfully waged a war of independence. In effect, many European anti-Semites, who were prominent throughout the continent, shared with the Zionist leadership the belief that the way to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ was to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and in keeping with the prevailing colonial mentality gave little thought to the impact of such a development on the indigenous Arab population of Palestine.

 

The contemporary American argument and debate has less historical baggage compared to Europe and is more subtle, mainly focused on campus activity and is a reflection to some extent of the U.S. government’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel. It is evident that Israeli officials definitely project the view that hostility to Israel or Zionism is indistinguishable from what the State Department calls ‘traditional anti-Semitism,’ that is, hatred or persecution of Jews because of their ethnicity. What is most troublesome in the State Department approach is its incorporation of what it calls ‘new anti-Semitism,’ which “manifests itself in the guise of opposition to Zionism and the existence and/or policies of the state of Israel.” [Contemporary Anti-Semitism: A Report Provided to the U.S. Congress, U.S. Department of State, n.d.; See also fact sheet of U.S. Dept of State, June 8, 2010, on defining anti-Semitism] This “..new anti-Semitism, characterized by anti-Zionist and anti-Israel criticism that is anti-Semitic in effect—whether or not in intent- [and] is more subtle and thus frequently escapes condemnation.” As many of you know the Board of Regents of the University of California is currently considering whether to adopt such a conception of anti-Semitism as official university policy. The principal arguments advanced in its favor are that pro-Palestinian student activism, especially around calls for boycotts and divestments, are making Jewish students feel uncomfortable, even under threat, with the further implication that such insecurity should not be present in any academic community. This rationale skirts the issue that the BDS campaign has been gaining significant traction in recent years, and this effort to brand the activist dimension of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle as anti-Semitic is motivated by a major multi-pronged Israeli effort to weaken BDS by having those who support such an unacceptable campaign as guilty of ‘anti-Semitism.’

 

Such developments go back to my experience in Cyprus, and reflect this determined effort to meet the rise of Palestinian solidarity efforts with its suppression being justified as opposition to the new anti-Semitism. [See also to the same effect, Michael Oren’s Ally that depict Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. making an effort to render unacceptable any public utterance of criticism of Israel] Note the features of this negative branding: only the sensitivities of Jews are singled out despite the far greater discomfort confronting Muslim minority students and others on campuses and throughout America; the initiative is overtly designed to weaken popular support for a just and sustainable peace in Palestine given the collapse of diplomatic efforts to produce the two-state solution; the BDS campaign is being challenged in ways that never occurred during earlier comparable campaigns, especially in the American civil rights movement and the BDS movement contra South African apartheid, both of which relied on boycott and divestment tactics. Part of the context that is rarely mentioned in debating the scope of anti-Semitism is the degree to which this surge of pro-Palestinian nonviolent militancy is in reaction to two developments: Israel’s reliance on excessive force, collective punishment, and persistence with such unlawful activities as settlement expansion and the completion of the separation wall.

 

It is in this atmosphere of endowing anti-Semitic smearing with respectability that outrages to academic freedom such as the revocation of a tenure contract issued to Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois was revoked because of some allegedly anti-Semitic tweets written during Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza that would make his students uncomfortable. In fact, Salaita possesses an outstanding performance record in the classroom, his teaching is greatly appreciated by his students, including those who were Jewish and pro-Israeli. Undoubtedly more serious than high profile cases are the invisible effects of this inflammatory and aggressive use of anti-Semitism, exhibited by the reluctance to hire or promote individuals who have engaged in Palestinian solidarity activity or even to invite speakers that would be attacked as bringing an anti-Semite onto campus. Again my experience is relevant. During the six years that I held the UN position, everywhere I went to speak, including at my former university, Princeton, or in foreign settings as remote as Beirut or Sydney, Australia concerted campaigns were conducted by Zionist groups to persuade university administration to cancel my lectures. The claim being made was that I should not be allowed to speak because I was a notorious anti-Semite. These efforts were backed up by threats to withhold contributions to the university if the event went ahead as scheduled. These efforts failed, and my talks went given without incident, but what the campaign did accomplish was to shift media and audience attention from the substance of my presentation to the utterly false issue of whether or not I was an anti-Semite, which of course, required me to deal with accusations that were hurtful as well as false.

 

II.

 

It is against this background that I wanted to mention Edward Said’s humanism, which in the context of this State Department approach, would clearly qualify as an unacceptable, if disguised, form of the ‘new anti-Semitism.’ As many of you know Edward Said was the most passionate and influential voice of the Palestinian people, and indeed of people worldwide seeking liberation. His books, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism continue to be read all over the world more than a decade after his death. I was privileged to have Edward Sasid as a close and cherished friend who over the years nurtured my interest in and engagement with the Israel/Palestine conflict, and whose remarkable life remains an inspiration to many of us. His views are peculiarly relevant to the theme chosen for my remarks as he was both a fierce opponent of the old anti-Semitism and an exemplary exponent of the new anti-Semitism, which as I am mainly arguing should not be considered anti-Semitism at all, and these attempts to discredit criticisms of Israel and Zionism should themselves be discredited, especially in view of recent behavior.

 

As his colleague and close friend at Columbia University, Akeel Bilgrami, an Indian professor of comparative literature observed, Said “..despised anti-Semitism as much anyone I know.” [Kilgrami, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Ranikhet, India: Permanent Black, 2014) Humanism was the only –ism with which Said was comfortable. His circle of identification embraced the human species, although rooted in the particularity of his Palestinian background. His academic training, publications, and career were situated firmly in literature until awakened by the 1967 Six Day War to take up the Palestinian struggle in a dedicated manner for the rest of his life.

 

Said’s writing on Palestine was always informed by fact and shaped by his deep grasp of history and culture, initially in his important The Question of Palestine. What is striking about Said’s approach, despite his anger about the refusal of the world to appreciate and correct the terrible injustices done to the Palestinian people in the course of establishing the Israeli state, is his steadfast appreciation that Zionism did what it did beneath the shadow of Nazi persecution, especially culminating in the Holocaust. In other words, his sense of the conflict with Israel is conceived in inclusive terms as pertaining to Jews as well as Palestinians. In his words, “I have spent a great deal of my life during the past thirty-five years advocating the rights of the Palestinian people to national self-determination, but I have always tried to do that with full attention to the reality of the Jewish people, and what they suffered by way persecution and genocide.” (Orientalism, XXVIII) He never endorsed a solution to the struggle that was not sensitive to both Palestinians and Jews, and in a sense his approach embodied a principled rejection of the Israeli claim that the Palestinians were intent on pushing the Jews into the sea.

 

While insisting that Jews must never experience in Israel the sort of dispossession inflicted upon the Palestinian people by the Zionist project, Said was unrelenting in linking a sustainable peace to acknowledging the justices of the past. As he expressed it Ari Shavit in one of his last interviews, “[U]ntil the time comes when Israel assumes moral responsibility for what it has done to the Palestinian people, there can be no end to the conflict.” He goes on to add, “[W]hat is needed is a ‘bill of particulars’ of all our claims against Israel for the original dispossession and for the occupation that began in 1967[Power Politic, 446] In effect, the injustices of the past can be superseded but only if they are acknowledged in an appropriate format with due solemnity. On at least one occasion Said seems to suggest a truth and reconciliation process modeled on what was done in South Africa after the fall of apartheid.

 

Said central contribution of developing a critique of West-centric views of the Arab world are most influentially set forth in Orientalism, one of the most widely studied and seminal books of the past century. Among many other facets of the analysis in the book it led Said to offer this surprising convergence: “Not accidentally, I indicate that Orientalism and modern anti-Semitism have common roots.” (Orientalism, XXVIII) This convergence is explained by the dual effort to achieve “a better understanding of the way cultural domination have operated.” (Orientalism 27).

 

At the same time, Said felt that Zionist exclusivism sought to keep the issue as one of what Jews had endured in the Holocaust as a sufficient vindication of Zionism and the creation of Israel, with the adverse effects on the Palestinians as self-inflicted or irrelevant to this hegemonic Israeli narrative. Said writes that “..all liberals and even most ‘radicals’ have been unable to overcome the Zionist habit of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.” [Question, 59] Long before the present debate he believed that such an informal tactic prevented truthful conversation as non-Jews were inhibited by “..the fear of treading upon the highly sensitive terrain of what Jews did to their victims, in an age of genocidal extermination of Jews—all this contributes to the dulling, regulated enforcement of almost unanimous support for Israel.” [59] Writing in the late 1970s Said felt that criticism of Israel was often insensitive to the background of its establishment as a last bastion of defense for the Jewish people after the ordeal of the Holocaust.

 

Almost 40 years later the context has altered, but not the effect of treating anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. Because of the failure to establish some kind of solution, and given Israeli defiance of international law through the settlements, separation wall, reliance on excessive force and collective punishment, the issue has captured the imagination of many people around the world, especially students, to become the leading unresolved moral struggle of our time, a successor to the South African struggle against apartheid a generation earlier, as acknowledged by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Now the government itself intrudes its influence on American society to make sure that the extended definition of anti-Semitism as incorporating strong criticism of Israel and Zionism is treated as hate speech. This is not only threatening freedom of expression and academic freedom, it is undermining the capacity of American citizens to fight nonviolently for what they believe is right in the world. When the government adopts punitive measures to discourage the BDS campaign or even academic conferences addressing the conflict, it is behaving in a profoundly anti-democratic manner. Such behavior follows directly from the understanding given to the ‘special relationship’ binding Israel to the United States in a manner that often contradicts proclaimed national values and even national interests. Our Secretary of State, John Kerry, boasts of the hundreds of occasions where the U.S. has blocked votes critical of Israel within the UN without even bothering to consider whether any of such initiatives were justified or not.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

III.

 

Let me finally raise the questions as to why this debate about what is and what is not anti-Semitism relates to the responsibility of the intellectual as understood, especially by Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. In his 2003 Preface to Orientalism Said writes these telling words: “Above all, critical thought does not submit to state power or to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or anther approved enemy.” [XXII] Frequently, Said reinforces the role of the intellectual to remain on the margins, an outsider, whose only weapon is bearing witness and truth-telling, a role authenticated by the absence of any claim to have expert knowledge, more a standing in solidarity with those being victimized by oppression and injustice, a normative posture that rests on moral and legal foundations of respect for the value of all persons and peoples. Said’s succinct expression is memorable. He characterizes the public intellectual “as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak truth to power.” [Representations, XVI]

 

The irony of this orientation of the intellectual is that it collides directly with the State Department conception of the new anti-Semitism. In other words, to avoid the blanket charge of anti-Semitism as now officially defined Said would have to renounce his chosen identity as a public intellectual. This would weaken the quality of academic freedom as well as undermine public discourse. No resource of higher education is more precious, in my judgment, than the presence of those all to few public intellectuals who challenge the prevailing wisdom of the society on the basis of conscience and truthfulness. It is the foundation of vigilant citizenship, already recognized by Thomas Jefferson as indispensable for sustaining democracy, and it is also the basis for challenging vested interests and mistaken policies. This role of public intellectuals is threatened by this assault on freedom of expression wrapped up in a false effort to discourage anti-Semitism, and it relates to such broader concerns as the stifling of political discourse due to the corporatization of the media and higher education.

 

On no issue is this unfettered dialogue more needed in the United States than in relation to Israel/Palestine. As Michael Oren showed in his memoir Ally the special relationship bonding Israel and the United States implies the absence of any public acknowledgement of policy disagreements and a policy of unconditional support. Israel did its bit to uphold its end of this unseemly bargain recently by being the only country of 194 in the UN that supported the United States determination to maintain sanctions on Cuba despite the Obama renewal of diplomatic relations. After all American taxpayers have long sent annually billions of dollars to Israel, as well as a range of weapons and munitions. They are entitled to know if this money is being spent in a manner that accords with international law and American national interests. The overriding of Israel’s objections to the Iran Nuclear Agreement illustrated the extent to which Israel can challenge vital policy

initiatives undertaken by the elected leaders of the American government.

 

Never have we more needed to protect and celebrate our public intellectuals, and never more so than in the context of Israel/Palestine. For this reason we

should be celebrating the legacy of Edward Said, a world famous public intellectual, and the person, who more than anyone on the planet fulfilled the role of responsible public intellectual. Instead of defending him against these incendiary charges of anti-Semitism we should be honoring his memory by studying his ideas and enacting the values of resistance and struggle that he commends in the face of injustice.

 

IV

 

In concluding, there is an obvious tension that exists more vividly than when Edward Said was alive, and commenting on the Palestinian struggle. Israel has created on the ground a set of circumstances that seem irreversible and are institutionalizing a single apartheid Israeli state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine (minus Jordan). The Israeli leadership has made clear the inappropriateness of establishing a Palestinian state, and given the insistence on making even the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as ‘a Jewish state,’ the dye seems cast. At the same time, the international Palestinian solidarity movement has never been stronger, with the BDS campaign leading the way, moving from success to success. And so as ‘the battlefield’ has shifted to a legitimacy war that the Palestinians are winning, the Israeli tactics have retaliated with an all out effort to demonize as anti-Semitism these new forms of non-violent resistance. This is the essential objective of the new anti-Semitism, and it is scandalous the U.S. State Department has endorsed such demonization with its newly adopted formal definition of anti-Semitism. To defeat this effort is essential not only for the Palestinian struggle, but to keep America safe for democratic discourse and universities hospitable to the kind of critical thinking that Edward Said’s scholarship and activism exemplified.

 

In Further Memory of Edward Said

27 Dec

In Further Memory of Edward Said

 

Always, always

 

That voice

remains

is gone

needed

 

What he gave

we miss

we need

we want

 

Our loss

his loss

remains

an echo

 

Sunsets bright

that shine

yet soon

depart

 

Unlike waves

that beat

on shore

remains

 

Relentless

is loss

his gift

our hope

 

Remembering

our loss

our tears

his hopes

 

Honor such a loss

clear eyes

brave words

courage

 

XII..27…2012