Over a year ago Steve Shalom and I interviewed Noam Chomsky about Israel/Palestine. I was hoping to get him to clarify a few things. I felt that I disagreed with him on the Palestinian right of return and on the so-called ‘one-state solution’ to the conflict. His arguments against both these things were unique and unlike any I’d heard before, and given how much I’ve learned from him over the years, I figured (as no doubt many do) that if we disagreed, it must be because I misunderstood something. But no, after the interview more than ever, I realized that I understood what he was saying just fine, and really did genuinely disagree.
In fact, the idea to interview Noam about this stuff came out of some reading I’d done while thinking about writing a strategy piece disagreeing with Noam on these issues and also disagreeing with some other folks who I thought go too far in the other direction, or not too far (since I don’t think that’s possible in some directions), but off in the wrong direction. I was reading someone named Jeff Blankfort, for example, who I didn’t know. A book called ‘Fallen Pillars’, and another by someone in a group called the ‘Council for the National Interest’. These pieces and books had some very compelling arguments, but also missed some important things. I was hoping that by evaluating all of these writers together I could provide something useful for activists. But somehow I couldn’t quite pull it off, and ended up shelving it, and then settling for an interview with Noam.
Recently Jeff Blankfort wrote a long article with lots of quotes from Noam’s work as an extended critique of Noam’s analysis on Israel/Palestine. Like Blankfort’s other work, I thought it made good points. I also thought it was very unfair to Noam, very personal and vituperative, and undermined its own argument and principles in important ways with the audience it is intended to sway. Since his article ends with a call for open and civil debate all with a view to making the Palestine struggle more effective, I wrote him. Two email exchanges ensued, and we agreed that they would be useful for folks to read. I am including them below. His words will be bolded.
Justin, from ZNet, here. You might have seen the interview Steve Shalom and I did with Noam some time ago. I was, in that interview, trying to change his mind about some of the things you mention in your piece. Do you know Finkelstein? I also tried taking some of these things up with him, with no luck (I wrote about that encounter in my blog). I’ve interviewed Ilan Pappe on some of these things too.
Yes, I did see that interview while preparing my article. No, I don’t know Finkelstein although I have a great respect for him. It is not surprising that he declined since he feels very close to Chomsky who has come to his defense as he has to others who have been under attack. I have interview Pappe twice and he seems to be in general agreement with my position on the lobby as is Tanya Reinhart who I also have interviewed twice and who is also close to Chomsky who mentored her in her early academic years.
I wanted to say that I like your piece, ‘Damage Control’, and, indeed, agreed with a lot of it. About a year and a half ago I was thinking of trying to write a piece that critiqued both you and Noam, but things got ahead of me and I couldn’t figure out a way to do it properly.
I have two criticisms of your piece, however, that I believe undermine your stated intention of helping the Palestine solidarity movement.
1) The tone. You obviously think Noam has done a tremendous amount of damage to the cause. But you are snarky about it, even though you criticize Noam for being ‘smug’, etc. Calling Barsamian his ‘devoted Boswell’ is one example. But more important than that is when you quote right wing critics of Noam saying he only looks at evidence that suits him, acts more like an attorney than a historian, and is only appreciated for the sheer volume of what he’s done. On the first point, how are any of us, including you and certainly Sharp, any different? When you go into the details of how counterevidence is ignored in his work, you give people a basis to evaluate your arguments. When you say that Noam only looks at evidence that favours his conclusions, you’re smearing Noam in a way that does no service to any movement. When you say he’s mostly appreciated for the volume of work, you’re certainly not speaking to all the people who have learned a great deal from him – people you dismiss as his ‘followers’ and imply – as you accuse him of doing – of being stupid, etc. I’m not going to go through and list the reasons Noam is so much appreciated. I disagree with him most strongly on the points you bring up in your work, and on various other points. But you aren’t going to make headway with your (important) case by sounding mean-spirited.
I makes no bones about it. I do believe Noam has done a tremendous amount of damage to the Palestinian cause (and in a private letter he wrote before I began my article, he said the same of me). It is for this reason that I finally decided to write it and as I read more and more of his prolific output I realized that I had made the right decision. The irony, of course, is that at the same time that he has turned more people on to left politics and to the injustices heaped on the Palestinians than any one else, he has misled with what I believe is spurious information to the point that whatever efforts they have undertaken to now have been ineffectual. I have been active on this issue since spending four months in Lebanon and Jordan in 1970 and so I have had an ample opportunity to see how this has played out.
I know David and he does good radio but his failure to ask Chomsky the tough questions makes him appear some times like a lap dog. As far as the right wing critics, and I saw nothing that Sharp wrote that made me identify him as that, what was important to me was that he was saying exactly what my conclusions had been for some time. For that matter, I would recommend reading Pat Buchanan, a person I detest on many other issues, about US involvement in Iraq and our relations in Israel, before Chomsky because what Buchanan has to say, whatever his motives is what I see as the truth. And Chomsky does ignore or dismiss counter evidence. His failure, in my mind, to include the historic battles between Gerry Ford and Bush Senior in his many books, interviews and speeches is really unconscionable, and if I had additional space I would have criticized his description of Carter’s relations with Israel. To my mind, this is intellectually dishonest.
I would not use the term “stupid” for those who rely on him for information and whose eyes glaze over when you speak of him critically, but I certainly don’t have a great deal of respect for the political opinions of folks I know, mainly Marxists, in fact, who cite him verbatim (without attribution) when it comes to both the lobby and Israel’s alleged position as a US client state. If I had had the space I would have quoted from web sites in the UK and the US that do just that When I have tried to line up debates on these issues there are always excuses not to. Chomsky himself when approached in 1991 to debate me at the Socialist Scholars Conference after we had had an exchange in the old National Guardian, refused, saying “it wouldn’t be useful” (to whom, I wonder). When approached by the same person last year he again refused and didn’t recall the 1991 request. The same has been true with Joel Beinin and Phyllis Bennis, for the same reason “it wouldn’t be useful”) and Zunes, after agreeing to debate, kept putting it off with one excuse after another. He is now being asked by KPFA in Berkeley to do it. I won’t hold my breath, I don’t know about being “mean-spirited.” I am angry and I am not at all ashamed to admit it. What has been happening to the Palestinians is not a US directed exercise; the occupation is not something the US has supported for its own interests, but something it has opposed since Nixon, for geopolitical reasons, not for any benefit for the Palestinians and when Chomsky twists the truth about it, and people mimic that nonsense because of his ubiquitous presence, I am certainly justified and I want others to be angry to.
2) The quoting, with approval, of folks like Sharp, or folks from the Council on the National Interest. The fact that there is a group of imperialists who don’t like Israel doesn’t have very much to do with justice for Palestine. I found a part of Findley’s book where he discusses an arms deal with Saudi Arabia that was blocked by Israel. When Noam compares Israel to a powerless client state whose economy is controlled by the US, you can rightly and sarcastically say ‘poor Israel’. But when I read Findley’s line about the arms dealers, I thought: ‘oh, poor arms dealers.’ If, as you argue, Noam’s work has made it hard for some activists to come to grips with Israel’s real relationship to the US, how much worse have been unholy alliances with a variety of right-wing forces? This can be trumped up, to be sure, and inevitably is, with all the charges of antisemitism and so on. But we have to discern very clearly who our real friends and allies are and who our real enemies are. I don’t see CNI as being allies.
You pick out a line in Findley’s book whereas I can pullout whole chapters in Chomsky’s. Who is telling the truth about the lobby? Findley or Chomsky? That’s what’s important, not whether Findley qualifies in your book as an “imperialist,” a definition I don’t happen to agree with, although some of the folks in CNI well may be. What is important to me is that they are telling the truth regarding US support for Israel and the voices of the left are not. And frankly, one of the reasons the left is not is that as an American Indian leader told me back in 1988, “they’re are too many liberal Zionists.” When I sued the ADL for spying back in 1992, my lawyer was former congressman Pete McCloskey, a Republican and classmate at Yale with Bush Senior. He opposed the Vietnam War, defended Geronimo Pratt and has more integrity than any registered Democrat I have ever known with the exception of Cynthia McKinney. This weekend I will be on a program with Paul Findley, Azmi Bishara and Diana Buttu among others, speaking about Palestinian rights and the lobby and I have no problem with that.
One reason Chomsky has been so effective is that his ‘followers’ can instantly know something about each other’s overall moral perspective and world view. Not everything, but something – and that’s more than you can say about most writers. Reading your stuff over a couple of years, I still don’t have a sense of where you’re coming from. That’s largely because of the things I mentioned above. When you said that Bush Sr.’s overall record adds up to being a war criminal, I thought – okay, this guy and I might be on the same page politically. Same with when you said there’s no limit to how much dirty work the US is ready to do for itself, these days, etc. But you are, in some sense, trying to convince Chomsky’s ‘followers’ that being really consistent with Chomsky’s positions on human rights, imperialism, etc., means breaking with Chomsky on the issue of Israel/Palestine. That’s how I think of it. You aren’t going to do that by smearing Noam or quoting right-wingers.
I agree that Chomsky has been effective, but at doing what? Certainly not building a movement which is something only those with rose colored glasses can see in this country. And yes, Chomskyites are like a cult. Some do good work. Some don’t. But when it comes to taking constructive action and building the kind of movement that these days require it just isn’t there. As Israel Shahak noted in his letter to me, Chomsky appeals to those who are looking for easy answers. Where am I coming from? Progressive and radical political activity going back to 1944 when I was ten and my father ran the congressional campaign of the first person to be elected to Congress as a write-in, and the SOB promptly sold out as did every other Demo I worked for until I understood how the system worked. I protested the Korean War, was doing civil rights work in LA before there was movement of that name, was active against the Vietnam war, worked with and for a time was the “official” photographer for the Black Panthers, and of course, my work around Palestine.. I, like my friend, Amira Hass, am pessimistic about the future and when she told me before the second intifada that the only things that kept her going as “anger,” what keeps me going is my sense of outrage..
I am guessing you are going to keep this up, and I think you should. But your work isn’t going to lead to the kind of critical thinking and rethinking this movement needs unless it’s cleaned up a bit, is my feeling.
From the responses I have received thus far, including some from friends of Chomsky, I would disagree. And the response, in general, have been overwhelmingly positive and the article is on a number of web sites including Deir Yassin Remembered of which I am a board member.
Thanks for the reply. I do understand you a bit better now, but you seem quite unmoved by what I have had to say, and I am unmoved by your answers It seems to me there wouldn’t be much profit in going back and forth endlessly over email. Though I do think that your article has had an impact, has perhaps opened the discussion, and I believe in your stated aims (of making the Palestine movement more effective), even though I think your work doesn’t fulfill those aims as much as it should, and easily could have.
JB: From what I have seen already, it has begun to stir a debate and further questions about the issues I raised. True, a few who appreciated the article suggested that it might have been organized differently, and even in a less personal manner, but it would have been less honest on my part since, at least from my evaluation, Chomsky’s role in organizing around the I-P issue has been critical and it overall, whatever his motives, it has been instrumental in keeping it ineffective. In real terms, this means not challenging either locally or nationally, liberal Democratic politicians who may be PC on every other issue but back Israel to the bloody hilt, literally, when called upon to do so. In San Francisco, we have Nancy Pelosi, the House whip who has been given a pass by all but a few of the marginalized left who know where the organizing begins, and Tom Lantos, who gets labor support because he is strong on their issues, and again, like Pelosi, is ignored by both ANSWER and UFPJ. Chomsky’s relegation of Congress to the sidelines when it comes to Israel has produced similar responses to culpable Democrats across the country.
1) You have great respect for Finkelstein, Hass, Reinhart, Pappe – but not Noam? You are happy to say all of them support your position, presumably because you think they are (justly) respected, but you don’t think the same of Noam, who you suggest is only respected because of sheer volume of writing? You really don’t think conceding that Noam has more going for him than output and friendships would strengthen what you are saying at all?
JB: I have great respect for them because of the content of their writings as well as their personal courage. While such judgements, of course, are purely personal, I don’t think Noam measures up to any of that group in either category. What he has done, and for which credit is due, is support and assist numerous scholars here and in Israel but this while meritorious, does not account for the deficiencies that I have found in his writings. That is not to say we are on totally different pages, far from it. On most issues, we are in total agreement, but on the critical ones on this critical issue, we are poles apart. And since, in a manner inconsistent with any definition of “intellectual” he not only is unwilling to debate me, he says openly that he won’t even read what I’ve written.
2) It’s not one line out of Findley’s book I have a problem with, it’s the whole concept of ‘the National Interest’ as conceived by the figures who make up the CNI. Theirs is not a left critique. I believe that there is room for a left critique of Noam on Palestine issues, and you make some of the strongest points for that critique. But you also muddy the waters by throwing in these arguments about national interest, Pat Buchanan, and so on. What’s at stake is the kind of political alliance or coalition that could force change in the US-Israel relationship. Here’s where you and I probably have an analytical disagreement. I don’t think the US would abandon Israel unless the political culture in the US changed massively in favor of oppressed constituencies, anti-racist consciousness, more democratic media. I think you think that more conventional political pressure on politicians could make a bigger difference than I do. If you are right, then we can work with CNI or Pat Buchanan on an issue-by-issue basis. If I’m right, then by letting them in the boat we’re throwing others out – and I don’t mean liberal zionists but oppressed constituencies who are unimpressed by the politics of CNI on other issues.
JB: I understand and share your feelings concerning the term, “national interest.” but is that necessarily reactionary? Does it not depend on how that interest is perceived? I recently interviewed Prof. Andrew Bacevich who has written an important book, “The New American Militarism,” from what would be, I would guess, the CNI point of view, that the US military should exist to defend the country from attack from the outside and not as a global police force for US capital. He was coming to that point as a 23 year vet, West Point graduate, etc. While, no doubt, we have differing opinions on other issues, I think his book is more useful in convincing those not on the left of the unjustness of US policy and the present war in Iraq. How many progressives will buy and use the book? Not many, I would guess. In the case of Buchanan, it’s the same. If he is making the right arguments, ones that on the left you are only likely to find with Cockburn here, not to use them to stick one’s head in the sand. Back to the CNI, I am not aware that it takes positions on other issues than US support for Israel. If the left or progressive groups would adopt their position on this issue I would applause, but they don’t and I’m not holding my breath until they do.
3) On where you’re coming from: thanks for that. You didn’t have to say so much, but I do appreciate it. I’m much younger, though I think as outraged. And I don’t like the tendency our activists have of looking for ‘easy answers’ any more than you or Israel Shahak. But talk about easy answers, Jeff. As important as intra-left critique is for moving forward, and as important as I believe this particular critique is, you have to understand that there is a certain lack of proportion here? Surely Noam is not to blame for the situation in Palestine? And indeed, that even the movement has serious problems that go well beyond consequences of the bias towards Israel that Noam admitted he had in 1970?
JB: Of course, Noam is not to blame for the situation in Palestine. But I do know that the refusal over the years to place the Palestinian struggle for justice near the top of the movement’s international agenda has allowed it to develop to the point it has, and this has had to do with Chomsky’s point of view on the issues of Congress and the lobby and their connection to the aid issue and how it has been eagerly been taken up by those who are looking for the easy answers, “blame it all on US imperialism,” and, are either protective of Israel at some deeper level, like Chomsky, or afraid of provoking that bogeyman, “anti-semitism.”
The last comment in your email below suggests you are satisfied with the responses you’ve gotten and satisfied with your piece. If that’s the case I guess there’s not much point going too much further, especially in private email. On the other hand, if you’d like, I could post this all in my blog, along with your reply to this note (you should have the last word), and of course a link to your original leftcurve piece, in the interest of keeping the debate you opened going. I really do wish I found your piece as satisfying, but I don’t, for the reasons I’ve outlined. Still, there are important points there that activists should read.
JB: While I am pleased by the response that I have received so far, from sources that I respect, if I had more time and space, I might have organized the article differently. It’s essence, however, would be the same. As to putting this correspondence on your blog, that would be fine with me.