Commentary Magazine

Peace in the Middle East?, by Noam Chomsky

Peace in the Middle East? Reflections on Justice and Nationhood.
by Noam Chomsky.
Pantheon. 200 pp. $7.95.

The grievance of the Arabs and others against the Jews organized into a nation-state in Israel has replaced the war in Vietnam as the foreign trouble agitating ordinary Americans. A book in connection with this subject by Noam Chomsky will not be read by masses of people, yet his thoughts can be expected to seep through to a good-sized public, for the Vietnam decade has made more Americans than before open to the ideas of intellectuals with views that are perceived or advertised as fresh or dissenting from the conventional wisdom or really more realistic than the generals’, the politicians’, and the diplomats’.

In the writings that gained him a larger audience than he could ever have had as an honored academician in a rather esoteric field (linguistics), Chomsky described the Vietnam war as a criminal attack by the U.S. on a small, inoffensive people, for the purpose of destroying a national liberation movement by genocide, in order to protect an imperialistic stake in Asia and promote business stateside. This was not an inadvertent war, he insisted with generous amounts of documentation, but the logical, necessary expression of American foreign policy. Chomsky tried to shake the slumbering conscience of his readers to indignation leading to forceful protest, and in a measure he succeeded, especially in the universities. There he continues to enjoy unusual respect. Some of this must have been excited by the stream of wrathful sarcasm he directed at intellectuals who worked for the government or military, or apologized for policy, or even, while criticizing it, stopped short of damning it absolutely—thereby betraying their trust.

For Chomsky, the U.S. and the Saigon regimes against the Viet-cong and the North Vietnamese was a struggle between the Forces of Darkness and the Children of Light. His imagery was never so theological (Daniel Berrigan, his friend, comrade, and hero, was, and remains, more partial to that usage), yet it is fair to say that in his own style Chomsky drew the picture in black and white. He was a polemicist, without apology.



When it comes to the Jews and Arabs, although the scrap of land they both want is in a part of the world where Chomsky again finds American imperialism menacing and stifling national liberation movements, he promises to shun polemic. If there is one thing Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs don’t need, it is more polemic supposedly on their behalf by foreign partisans. Since the Israelis and the Palestinians both have justice on their side, according to Chomsky and the predominant conventional wisdom, as well as symmetrical or congruent crimes committed against each other on their consciences, and since their present course seems headed to “Semitic suicide,” what is called for is quiet, though no less urgent, mediation between them. As an interested foreigner who happens to have a perspective on their problem, this is what Chomsky says he wishes to provide. If the implicit demand of all his writings and utterances on Vietnam was “U.S. GET OUT,” here he says he will have no demands to make or confident prescriptions to advance.

And in fact, with many small and one extended and crucial lapse, Chomsky’s tone is more tentative than what is familiar to readers of his Vietnam works: it is tentative, that is, by comparison. The lapses are not accidental or out of character. They come when he is pushing beliefs he admits holding: namely, that discourse in the U.S. regarding Israel is narrow-minded, emotional, “hysterical,” to the actual detriment of the Israelis, and that many of the worst troubles that the Jews in Israel and the Palestinians in their dispersion have suffered in the last twenty-seven years follow from the mistake they made in giving up the idea of a “binational” state. Chomsky will contribute by trying to raise the discussion to a more intelligent, constructive, educational level; he will also keep the idea of binationalism alive, for although he doubts it is about to be embraced, it may offer the best hope for peace. His book, a collection of essays and speeches written and delivered on various occasions over a period from 1969 to after the Yom Kippur War, is held together loosely by this tone of concern and the more familiar passages of polemic that break through like motifs.

“There can be few things more sad,” Chomsky told a gathering of Arab, Israeli, and American students at MIT in 1969, “than the sight of young people who are, perhaps, fated to kill each other.” This speech appears as one of the chapters of the book, covering a lot of ground in roughly the same style as other chapters. Chomsky, sick at the spectacle of Arabs and Jews bedeviling each other, says he approaches “these questions with no particular expert knowledge or even intimate contact. . . . Nor do I have any specific policy recommendations.” Yet during some obligatory remarks about his personal background, he reveals that he “grew up with a deep interest in the revival of Hebrew culture associated wih the settlement of Palestine,” lived briefly and happily on a kibbutz, and “thought very seriously about returning permanently.” Furthermore, he maintains “close connections” with friends who “now live in kibbutzim and elsewhere in Israel.” In other words, he is not a stranger to the case, and from his numerous quotations from the current Hebrew press it is clear he keeps up-to-date.

Chomsky also thinks it is proper to inform his audience that from his youth, whatever he saw as attractive politically in the Jewish revival in Palestine was “some form of libertarian socialism,” epitomized in the kibbutz and opposed to the development of a nation-state. In 1947 the partition of Palestine seemed “at best a dubious move, and perhaps a catastrophic error.” His view has not changed. “I think that a socialist binationalist position was correct then, and remains so today.” He allows that this view is challengeable on grounds of factual evidence and principle; therefore he will proceed “quite tentatively.”

This said, he gives a comprehensive account of the misgivings that not only Israeli intellectuals and Arabists like Amos Oz and Shimon Shamir, but politicians like Arieh Eliav and Pinchas Sapir, were voicing soon after the Six-Day War about the effects of the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank on the Jewish character of their country and the democratic quality of its institutions, including the army. By any definition, these are Zionists Chomsky cites, who would not freely give up the substance of Jewish state-sovereignty before the millennium. So far as Chomsky with his avowed slant against all state sovereignty, and perhaps especially Jewish sovereignty, is concerned, the seeds of the problems these Zionists face were planted when Jews created a state against the will of a resident population. The emergence of Fatah and other Palestinian armed groups that he notes, though perhaps only a nuisance militarily so far, signals to Chomsky that the dispossessed, the imposed-upon, have formed “a liberation movement modeling itself on others that have proven successful.” He does not expect that Israeli retaliation will accomplish anything but spur the cycle of violence. Though this type of war may somewhat demoralize Israeli soldiers, Chomsky puts his Arab listeners on their guard against the belief or hope that the situation is analogous to Vietnam or Algeria. “There is no possibility that the Jewish population of Israel will give up its cultural autonomy, or freely leave, or abandon a high degree of self-government.”

That is an example of Chomsky being realistic with those who wish the Jews could be scared off or ground down, like the French colons. There are other examples sprinkled through the book. They always leave Chomsky the possibility of advancing, with whatever protestations of tentativeness and however dim a prospect of achievement, his own solution. He conspicuously refrains from warning that the Jews will not surrender statehood. His prescription, then, is for “a binationalist state that preserves some degree of communal autonomy” for both peoples in it. Accurately he recalls that this was the hope, and to some extent the vague program, of a section of the Zionist movement, until the Holocaust made it seem “irrelevant.” Hitler “jarred the Zionist movement into a new and somewhat different course, which might still be modified.” As “the Nazi massacre” recedes into history, an alternative to a Jewish state becomes plausible again, he says.

Chomsky is never very specific about most of the details but he is clear enough on one thing. The lopsided Law of Return, allowing any Jew in the world to come and claim citizenship while denying that special privilege to others, will have to be amended or repealed: it is a fruit of the Holocaust and most offensive in the eyes of the Palestinians with whom the Israelis will have to live as equals in a setup that is not quite one nation, and not quite two. Despite his certainty that so-called “pragmatists” and “realists” (in Chomskian language these appellations are heavy with negative value) will do their best to prevent Palestinians and Israelis from getting together, Chomsky permits himself “some slight degree of optimism” when he reads “such statements as this by a spokesman for one of the Palestinian Arab organizations”:

It is not enough simply to wear khaki and shoot to have a revolution, and the Palestinan youth are not giving their lives just to restore the oppressive rule of landlords and big businessmen.

The self-described Marxist faction of the PLO whose spokesman evoked Chomsky’s optimism in 1969 with these words had. already been responsible for premeditated massacres of civilian bystanders in Europe and Israel, operations which were multiplied in the intervening years. For a long time, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has not been considered except with revulsion by any of the Israelis unhappy with their governments’ policies and unsure about the course of Zionism. Whether Chomsky should be taxed with crimes committed and gloried in by those in whose pronouncements he found hope of peace, reconciliation, and close coexistence is not directly to the point. What is more important is that Chomsky lends his prestige to calling into question the right of Israel to continue to exist as a state.



That is the strongest impression a reader will come away with who is not too knowledgeable or interested in going over the old controversies, emergencies, and makeshift arrangements of Zionism since Herzl. Chomsky may exaggerate, for the sake of presenting a symmetrical picture, the willingness of Palestinian Arabs at any time to parley with Jews. He may attribute too much freedom of choice to Jews and Arabs both, slighting when it suits him the role of big powers that compete to bring the Middle East into their spheres. But for the non-specialist—it should be assumed most Americans fall in this category—historical and geopolitical considerations will not loom as important as Chomsky’s objection to the very existence of a Jewish state today or tomorrow, at war or at peace. This objection is couched in terms of an absolute moral judgment that is made as if logically deduced and empirically proved. “In a Jewish state, ‘klein aber mein,’ there can be no full recognition of basic human rights,” he asserts in his Introduction. “Such limitations are inherent in the concept of a Jewish state that also contains non-Jewish citizens.” Again, in a talk at Holy Cross College: “If a state is Jewish in certain respects, then in these respects it is not democratic. That much is obvious.” Chomsky becomes assertive, cavalier with proofs and definitions, if not yet polemical, whenever he confronts the fact, ugly to him, that Israel is a national community where Jews are the majority. To declare a state undemocratic by nature, not circumstance, is fairly to damn it; to do so in regard to Israel is to put a question mark over its right to exist, for Israel is unversally judged by different standards from those applied to other nations.

From what vantage point does Chomsky require more of Israel than he would of other nations at war, say North Vietnam? His autobiography suggests that the burden of exceptional vocation assigned the Jews in Palestine by Ahad Ha’am, Buber, and Magnes (not to mention Ben-Gurion) may be weighing on his mind. But he does not write, or prescribe, as a Zionist, even as a throwback to those who held out for a solution other than partition as long as they could. It is not simply by his changeable tone that he is far removed from Buber’s steady, sweet pacifism—Chomsky’s world-view is charged politically. However special the Arab-Jewish conflict, it cannot escape his formulas. These have been associated in the West with Communists of Jewish extraction sooner or later frozen out by Communist states. “[The invocation of] national interests,” Chomsky quotes Rosa Luxemburg in support of his charge against Jewish nationality, “can only serve as a means of deception, of betraying the working masses of people to their deadly enemy, imperialism.” This is a slogan, but it fits Chomsky’s “tentative” way of thinking well enough. When he proposes that the Jews in Israel give up a substantial part of their sovereignty, Chomsky does it in the context of his world-view. A federation or something of Jews and Arabs at this late date when the whole world is organized for better and worse into nation-states would be the prototype for what the whole world should become.

Rhetorical style aside, the difference between this and the messianic or prophetic vision is that Chomsky, otherwise sufficiently vague, is ready to blink at means of hastening the millennium that are neither vague nor peaceful. For him to write, “the Palestinians resort to terrorism as a last resort, to impress their existence on popular consciousness” is to offer extenuating circumstances; to grant the PLO probationary status among national-liberation movements is to go a great deal further, because “national liberation” (illogically for one who detests nationalism) is a code-phrase loaded with positive value.

Some of Chomsky’s American readers will warm to the PLO if it is related to the Vietcong. Chomsky is at pains to draw distinctions between his “binationalism” and the PLO’s “democratic, secular state.” The more he insists on these distinctions, the foggier they seem. There is remarkable similarity between his picture of what things would be like should binationalism come to pass, and the hortatory passages of Yasir Arafat’s “olive branch” speech to the UN. “It seems to me,” Chomsky says,

not impossible that after the experience of building and living in new Montenegros and Lithuanias, Jews and Arabs may turn to a better way, one which has always been a possibility. It will be based on the fundamental principle, already cited, “that whatever the number of the two peoples may be, no people shall dominate the other or be subject to the government of the other.” Each people will have the right to participate in self-governing national institutions. Any individual will be free to live where he wants, to be free from religious control, to define himself as a Jew, an Arab, or something else, and to live accordingly. People will be united by bonds other than their identification as Jews or Arabs (or lack of any such identification). This society, in the former Palestine, should permit all Palestinians the right to return, along with Jews who wish to find their place in this national homeland. All oppressive or discriminatory structures should be dismantled, and discriminatory practices should be condemned rather than reinforced. The society will not be a Jewish state or an Arab state, but rather a democratic multinational society.

Presumably Chomsky wishes to be taken seriously. If so, his version chills much like Arafat’s. It puts things back to square one, the Balfour Declaration. The discriminatory Law of Return scrapped, entry of Jews into the “homeland” (evocative euphemism or evasion!) predictably becomes the cause of civil war, as it was from 1917 to 1948. Anyone familiar with the history of the Mandate remembers this; anyone acquainted, as Chomsky must be, with the views of Arabs across the political spectrum today knows that the right to make immigration policy within the boundaries of their state is the ordinary sovereign exercise the Jewish community in Israel is expected to be stripped of first. Immigration, Arabs say and perhaps believe, makes the Jewish state much more “expansionist.” “No serious person will succumb to romantic illusions . . .” Chomsky says elsewhere. The politician Arthur Balfour had the excuse of romance, ignorance, and cynicism that Chomsky, an intellectual re-promulgating the Declaration in revised form half a century later, surely would not care to claim.



It is no wonder that among Israeli “doves,” Chomsky’s proposal is considered irrelevant, at best. The only prospect that permits them still to hope for peace—an effective partition of the old Mandate into Jewish and Palestinian states with recognized international boundaries—fills him with distaste and ennui. But at a distance, how many Americans will eventually come around to the notion, that these troublesome people, cousins after all, with justice apportioned equally on both sides, should arrange or be encouraged to arrange to live with one another as the German-speaking and French-speaking Swiss do, for lack of a better example on earth? Today most Americans would instinctively call that unrealistic and unhelpful—look at Cyprus. Yet if the fighting goes on indefinitely, becoming even more dangerous and costly, there is no assurance that such views will not make headway. Though few Americans believe with Chomsky that American power is the scourge of mankind, after Vietnam and the books on Vietnam not so many are confident in denying it. Similarly, public opinion might eventually get battered about and fed up sufficiently so that the idea that the Jews should give up their state piecemeal for possible peace and quiet would no longer outrage common sense. It would then become easier to look away.

This will require agitation. If some of the leading figures of the Vietnam “Peace Movement” (Chomsky’s terminology) who have not forsaken politics have their way, the divided remnants might try to regroup over the issue of Israel, or “Peace in the Middle East.” Chomsky tentatively points the direction in the one chapter of his book where he dispenses with the forms of caution and qualification, to defend Father Daniel Berrigan against critics. Chomsky wants to show how “hysterical” reaction is when Israel is discussed in the U.S. in language he says Israelis use daily in Israel. Berrigan’s well-known “I am a Jew” speech to Arabs during the Yom Kippur War is the example he selects of such a discussion, that he wishes there could be more of, for the good of Israel. In other chapters, Chomsky pretty much puts the historical facts and current events in the light that makes his “binationalism” appear like the best, or only, hope that remains, but he does not flagrantly misrepresent or otherwise violate his intellectual’s responsibility to a standard of truthfulness. He does it defending Berrigan.



According to Chomsky, Berrigan evenhandedly admonished Jews and Arabs. “He condemned both sides in harsh terms. He refused to ‘take sides’ and urged non-violence.” This quite shamelessly misrepresents the gist, content, and tone of Berrigan’s performance. Berrigan explicitly said at the beginning that he would concentrate his remarks on the Jewish state because he owed Jews “a debt of love” by reason of their example as martyrs in Europe and war resisters in America. He was as good as his word; his speech was heavily weighted. After slapping the Arab regimes for “their contempt for their own poor” and “willingness to oil the war machinery of the superpowers,” Berrigan excoriated Israel at length in language that became notorious, an embarrassment to many of his former admirers: “. . . criminal Jewish community. . . . The coinage of Israel is stamped with the imperialist faces whose favor she has courted; the creation of an elite of millionaires, generals, and entrepreneurs . . . the classic: refugee people is now creating huge numbers of refugees . . . [with] a biblical justification for crimes against humanity. . . . [Israel is] an Orwellian nightmare.”

Not the faintest hint from Chomsky that Berrigan said such things, as if to give an accurate report of his utterances would make it impossible to argue that American Jews tend to be emotional about Israel. Nor does Chomsky show any awareness that for a priest to use such purple language on such a subject is remarkable. But this is Chomsky’s way finally. He is an absolutist in polemic, willful, more loyal than scrupulous, apparently unable to imagine faulting those who acted out in civil disobedience his writings in the 60’s. “No one can doubt,” he wrote in a previous book, “that they [the Berrigan brothers] are heroic individuals.”

To whose benefit could it be, and what kind of a contribution is it, to pretend so vociferously that heroes never make fools of themselves, or worse?


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