Responses to Noam Chomsky on Israel-Palestine and BDS
Writers defend the tactic of boycott, divestment, and sanctions.
JULY 10, 2014
How BDS Is Educating the Public About Israel’s Brutal Policies
Instead of offering suggestions for changing the prevailing power dynamic, Chomsky warns against the one strategy that offers the most hope.
by Yousef Munayyer
Noam Chomsky rightly recognizes the injustices done to Palestinians, as well as the US role in perpetuating those injustices. Yet instead of offering suggestions for changing this power dynamic, he warns against the one strategy that offers the most hope: the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Chomsky’s criticism of BDS seems to be that it hasn’t changed the power dynamic yet, and thus that it can’t. There is no doubt the road ahead is a long one for BDS, but there is also no doubt the movement is growing by the day. All other paths toward change, including diplomacy and armed struggle, have so far proved ineffective, and some have imposed significant costs on Palestinian life and livelihood.
In my years of giving talks about Palestine to Americans, one question is inevitably asked at the end—a question that, before BDS, I had always dreaded having to answer: “What can I do myself to make a difference?”
For advocates on many other issues, a typical answer is “Write your Congress member.” But anyone who has worked on Israel-Palestine knows that Capitol Hill might as well be a hilltop settlement in the West Bank, so thorough is its ideological support for Zionism. While efforts to change this are important, BDS offers a practical alternative for citizens, in America and around the world, to act in their own capacity, whether through their own investments and actions or the actions of institutions they are involved in. It also allows Americans to address their own complicity in a situation that their government, as Chomsky rightly observes, so problematically supports.
BDS is also changing the conversation and educating the public. Chomsky notes the recent decision by the Presbyterian Church on divestment. Just as important as the economic impact of that vote was the fact that a massive convention in Detroit, representing an important institution in American life, was engaged in lively debate about the impact of brutal Israeli policies—and Washington’s role in that impact—on Palestinians half a world away. That debate would not have happened if not for BDS. Conversations like it are happening increasingly across the country in response to BDS initiatives. So BDS is not at risk of “shifting attention away” from the Palestinian plight, as Chomsky claims; it is actually shifting attention toward the Palestinian plight. It is doing so before new audiences, and in ways and places that were not imagined a mere five years ago.
Further, Chomsky questions the wisdom of BDS demands and dismisses the apartheid designation. His dismissal of the right of return and downplaying of the demand for equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel suggests he is unable to see how these issues are connected—indeed, inseparable—and caused by the same overarching problem.
Zionism’s goal in Palestine has always been to establish and then empower, by force, a Jewish majority in a land where the vast majority of the native inhabitants are Arab non-Jews. Over time, the state has employed various abuses, including denial of fundamental refugee rights, relegation of Palestinians in Israel to second-class citizenship and denial of self-determination. Despite Chomsky’s contention, the right of return is backed by international law and it is a human right. The right of return is enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration that all UN members, including Israel, agree to uphold. It is further enshrined, among other places, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination—two treaties to which Israel is also a state party. For Palestinians, it is also a sacred right.
Without massive denial of human rights, Jewish majoritarian control cannot subsist in Palestine. This is apartheid, and rather than challenging it head on, Chomsky advises Palestinians, and those concerned for them, to accept the prevailing power structure and fight for only a fraction of their rights. Such fractioning of a people’s humanity in the name of pragmatism is the stuff of eighteenth-century America and the “three-fifths compromise”; it is unbecoming to the twenty-first century.
Chomsky also downplays the role that divestment initiatives played in bringing down apartheid South Africa, ascribing credit instead to Cuban intervention. This is a matter for debate, but just because we no longer live in a bipolar, Cold War world does not mean there aren’t other ways of bringing pressure on Israel. Surely, state-level sanctions to coerce Israeli behavior are desirable, but in the absence of that, the response should not be to abrogate basic Palestinian rights. Rather, it should be mobilization of civil society to support those rights and convey that message to Israel through isolation and economic means, as BDS does. This may not lead to state-level action in the short term, but as the movement grows and the conversation changes, nations will eventually impose sanctions and Israel will be pressed to change its policies. The absence today of an actor like Cuba is actually all the more reason why BDS is necessary.
Lastly, Professor Chomsky repeatedly states that he offers his advice out of “concern for the victims.” But what the victims truly need is recognition of their rights and support for their agency. It is the victims, after all—the Palestinians themselves, as represented by a broad array of civil society institutions—that issued the call for BDS, and we are asking for international solidarity in the assertion of our rights. Every. Last. One of them.
How Chomsky Obscures Israel’s True Nature
Just as in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the Israeli regime within the Green Line is predicated on inequality and permeated with racism.
by Nadia Ben-Youssef
As a Palestinian legal center and human rights organization based in Israel, Adalah is continually thinking through how best to promote and protect the rights of Palestinians, be they citizens of Israel or residents of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). In considering our own tactics of whether, how and in which forum to intervene, we defend the right of the Palestinian community and its allies to freely protest against Israel’s discriminatory laws and policies, its brutal forty-seven-year military occupation and its continued disregard for international law. When the Israeli Knesset passed the anti-boycott law in 2011, which exposes any individual or institution to a civil torts lawsuit for calling for a boycott, Adalah, together with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, immediately appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court to cancel the law and secure freedom of expression. Surprisingly, in his evaluation of the tactic of boycott, which he suggests may be irresponsible, Professor Chomsky relies on the same distinctions as the Israeli Supreme Court, and risks bolstering a fragmented international discourse that conceals the hard truths.
During the hearing in 2014, the expanded panel of nine justices asked whether there should not be a distinction between calling for a boycott of the illegal settlements in the OPT (Chomsky’s (1)), and a boycott of Israel within the Green Line (Chomsky’s (2)). The court suggested that the former was very much part of public debate in Israel and thus potentially legitimate, whereas the latter was offensive and thus unacceptable. The court’s query took advantage of the accepted paradigm, which distinguishes between the regime administering the prolonged occupation of OPT, and the regime that operates inside Israel. The occupation and the ever-expanding settlements may be problematic, so the narrative goes, but Israel “proper” is a democracy, like any other democracy in the world.
While there are indeed legal characteristics that differentiate the geopolitical realities within the Green Line and in the OPT, the international community’s obsession with partition has sidelined the crucial conversation about basic human rights (and reality). By focusing almost exclusively, though with bracing accuracy, on the injustices and humiliations Palestinians face in the OPT, Chomsky’s analysis reinforces a false paradigm that deflects from the problematic nature of the single Israeli regime.
Even a brief look at the history of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the population, exposes Israel’s entrenched system of privilege, exclusion and inequality. After the Nakba in 1948, although the overwhelming majority of Palestinians became refugees, some 150,000 Palestinians remained in their homeland, becoming a minority in Israel. From 1948 until 1966, these Palestinians lived under a military regime, subject to permits and curfews, and witnessed the legalized confiscation of the vast majority of their land; this despite the fact they were granted Israeli citizenship in 1952. Significantly, this Citizenship Law created the unique bifurcation between citizenship and nationality whereby one’s citizenship is Israeli, but one’s nationality is either Jewish, Arab, Druze or “Other.” As there is no guaranteed right to equality enshrined in Israeli law (nothing like the US Constitution’s “equal protection clause”), the government often applies different policies and standards to citizens on the basis of ethnic or national belonging. To date, more than fifty laws have been passed that restrict Palestinian citizens’ rights in all areas of life.
The discrimination is not only severe, as Chomsky describes, but institutional and ideologically prescribed. Thus, when the Arab political leadership in Israel calls for a “state for all of its citizens,” they and their parties face attempts to disqualify them from participating in the Knesset under the argument that such demands contradict the constitutional values of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state. Just as in the OPT, the Israeli regime within the Green Line is predicated on inequality and permeated with racism. It is this reality that Palestinians and their allies are aiming to change, and it is this that demands our attention.
Rather than evaluate the tactics used or how ready the world is to deal with their implications, justice will be better and more swiftly secured by squarely facing the conditions of inequality and oppression.
How BDS Has Galvanized the Struggle for Justice in Palestine
What is deemed acceptable to the United States and Israel should not define the borders of Palestinian politics.by the Organizing Collective of the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel
Few public intellectuals on the left in the US academy have the track record Noam Chomsky has of energetic, committed activism and writing on a wide range of political concerns. This has rightly earned him the admiration and appreciation of millions of people worldwide. We count ourselves among them. So it was with great interest that we read his July 2 (July 21/28 print) piece in The Nation, “On Israel-Palestine and BDS.” We disagree, however, with his critique of the tactics and some of the goals of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which is summarized by his basic principle that “if we’re concerned about the fate of the victims, BD and other tactics have to be carefully thought through and evaluated in terms of their likely consequences.”
Before we get into a more detailed response to Chomsky’s article it is essential to note that BDS was not, as he describes it, simply a call that came from “Palestinian intellectuals.” It was a call for solidarity issued not only by intellectuals but also by a collective of some 170 civil society groups, including labor unions, teachers unions, healthcare providers and many others. This distinction matters, because otherwise it is easy to imagine that endorsing BDS is done without regard to the likely consequences for the “victims” of Israeli policy, when it is in fact members of Palestinian social movements who themselves decided on the tactics they wish us to employ and have called upon the world to do so.
Having made that distinction, let’s move to the specifics. Chomsky basically believes that we should be aware of the likely efficacy of our tactics, and he argues that some of the arguments for BDS have little political support in the current international scene, thereby increasing the chances BDS will fail. The Palestinian campaign for BDS has often been compared to, and is in fact inspired by, the international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions that targeted another apartheid state—South Africa. The recognition of Israel as an apartheid state has been a centerpiece of BDS campaigns. Chomsky dismisses this argument by differentiating Israeli practices from South African practices. However, as Hazem Jamjoum wrote, apartheid is “not an analogy.” Apartheid is a crime, defined in international law. In the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, apartheid is so defined: “Inhumane acts…committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”
Apartheid is not measured in similarities or differences to South Africa, but through the definition. It should be noted here that the African National Congress, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and other South African organizations integral to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa have lent their support and their voices to the campaign against Israeli apartheid and for the Palestinian BDS call.
Moreover, the distinctions Chomsky makes between Israeli and South African practices of apartheid do not entirely hold, even as they do take distinct forms. It is a known fact that South African apartheid entailed ethnic cleansing, a subcategory of apartheid in the UN definition. Antonia Caccia and Simon Louvish’s classic film End of the Dialogue offers an exemplary exposé and analysis of this.
Likewise, as Chomsky himself knows, the Zionist movement and the Israeli state have always aimed to rid “greater Israel” of Palestinians, that is, to ethnically cleanse the region of non-Jews. He is wrong, however, to state that the Israeli system rejects Palestinian labor. When Chomsky claims that Israel and South Africa differ because the black South African population was the “country’s workforce,” whereas Israel “wants to rid itself of the Palestinian burden,” he ignores the oppression, exploitation and immiseration of Palestinian labor under occupation and the massive profits it has helped to generate for Israel and investor states like the United States.
Chomsky’s claim rehearses a falsehood that has been propagated ad infinitum and serves to divide the Palestinian (and solidarity) movement. Zionists/Israelis have always employed Palestinian labor, even though doing so appears to undermine Zionist ideology and certain Israeli laws and directives. Palestinians from the occupied territories have and continue to be employed, whether irregularly or illegally, in Israel (even after Oslo and, moreover, since the second intifada) and by Israelis in the occupied territories themselves (e.g., SodaStream and Jewish-only settlement construction). In this regard, the difference between South African and Israeli apartheid may lie more in the expression of their respective ideologies, not in their albeit varying practices—although, again as Chomsky (and Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu) knows, Israel’s apartheid/ethnic cleansing strategy and tactics are nonetheless perceivably worse, as such comparisons go.
In turn, Chomsky’s statement that “within Israel” it is “not South African–style apartheid” is a misdirection to support his displeasure with the apartheid label. As noted, similarity to South Africa is generally irrelevant in determining whether a state is engaged in the crime of apartheid. However, this statement also acts to minimize the very real and extensive oppression and discrimination faced by Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship. These “1948 Palestinians” were subjected to martial law for nearly twenty years, and today more than fifty laws discriminate against Palestinians holding Israeli citizenship. Overt advocacy of racist policies targeting Palestinian citizens is an accepted part of the Israeli political scene.
Analogies can work against us again, Chomsky claims, because if one insists upon the second requirement of BDS, that Palestinian citizens of Israel should be endowed with full equality, one “opens the door to the standard ‘glass house’ reaction: for example, if we boycott Tel Aviv University because Israel violates human rights at home, then why not boycott Harvard because of far greater violations by the United States?”
Chomsky notes a counter-argument that has been made about boycotting US universities, but does that mean we have to accept it? Those of us involved in this movement and in USACBI also publicly challenge and mobilize against the collusion of the US academy with the military-industrial complex and state policy. Furthermore, the academic boycott has countered the censorship of the Palestine question that has plagued the US academy and mainstream discourse in this country, as it has supported the right to education of Palestinian academics and students working under conditions of occupation and repression in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.
Without a doubt, patience and educational groundwork are essential in creating a deeper and more accurate understanding of the realities in Palestine-Israel. We would argue that BDS has been more successful in both enabling and facilitating a broader educational effort toward solidarity with Palestine globally than any other initiative, and especially in breaking the taboo in speaking critically and honestly about the situation in Palestine. BDS is an initiative that has built into its own framework a sense of the long duration of struggle. No serious person imagines that equality for Palestinians or the implementation of the right to return is just around the corner. The intensification of conflict, the repeated failures of “normal diplomacy” to secure any form of justice for Palestinians and the widening sphere of Israeli violence demand that we work both patiently for longer-term goals and immediately and forcefully to bring about incremental change in public attitude. Again, we believe firmly that BDS has been successful in that regard.
Finally, for us, one of the most problematic aspects of Chomsky’s article is his dismissal of the third requirement of BDS, as found on its website, “Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.” Chomsky writes: “there is virtually no meaningful support for (3) beyond the BDS movement itself. Nor is (3) dictated by international law. The text of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 is conditional, and in any event it is a recommendation, without the legal force of the Security Council resolutions that Israel regularly violates. Insistence on (3) is a virtual guarantee of failure.”
It is a mistake to minimize the legal import of General Assembly Resolution 194; the General Assembly simply does not have enforcement powers, which is one of the reasons BDS is necessary if the right of return is to be achieved. The resolution and the multiple subsequent resolutions affirming it are grounded firmly in international law, including such basic texts as the United Nations Charter.
The actual text of the UN resolution in relevant part reads: “11. Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible…”
This statement has immense political and legal force, as well as moral rightness. As for the supposed “conditional” nature of the right, fundamental human rights cannot be denied simply because there are other concurrent obligations (not to mention the fact that Israel has failed to establish that the refugees cannot meet the purported condition). It should be noted that the right of return is at the core of Palestinian demands and the Palestinian movement for justice—and has been since its inception. It is not a new demand that emerged at the time of the BDS call in 2005, but has been the central principle of the Palestinian movement—even above the founding of a Palestinian state—since 1967, and indeed, since 1948.
We are uncertain what metrics Chomsky is using to reach his conclusion that there is no “meaningful support” for Palestinians’ right of return, especially in light of multiple UN resolutions to the contrary. We further reject the principle that what is deemed acceptable for the United States and Israel should define the borders of Palestinian or international politics and goals. The fact of US and Israeli opposition should be no deterrent to pursuing the right of return—not simply sentimentally, but energetically in a politically organized fashion.
We find no reason whatsoever for abandoning BDS or lessening our commitment to it. “Education” aimed at bringing more of the public into an honest way of thinking about Palestine and Israel can and must go on side by side with political action.
Indeed, BDS advocacy, far from eliding current issues, has been one of the most critical galvanizing tools internationally in the struggle for justice in Palestine. Israel is unleashing violence and damage on a massive scale, as evident in horrifying state and settler violence in the past week. BDS has been gathering strength worldwide. It is a critical tool and tactic in building substantial international public pressure against Israeli bombings, invasions and home demolitions, while official international voices remain silent and complicit. To reject it, or dilute its demands, at this moment in history is to vacate its gains and to grasp instead at a nonexistent alternative