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Reflections on a Lifetime of Engagement with Zionism, the Palestine Question, and American Empire: An Interview with Noam Chomsky

[Noam Chomsky. Image from Wikimedia Commons.] [Noam Chomsky. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

In the following interview conducted for the Journal of Palestine Studies by Jadaliyya Co-Editor Mouin Rabbani, Noam Chomsky reflects on a lifetime of engagement with the Palestine Question. He reflects on his early engagement, and how it developed over the course of his lifetime. He also considers how things have –and have not—changed, and where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could and should be heading. The interview was conducted in Lexington, MA in 2009 and 2010, and the full text is available in the Journal of Palestine Studies 41:3 (Spring 2012), pp. 92-120 and online.

Mouin Rabbani (MR): With regard to U.S. foreign policy today, you have been quite critical of the Mearsheimer and Walt thesis of U.S. Middle East policy. 

Noam Chomsky (NC): Well, I wish they were right, because if so there’s an obvious tactical implication and I could stop all this endless work, writing, speaking, trying to organize—it would all be a waste of time. All you would have to do is put on a jacket and tie and go to the corporate headquarters of General Electric, JP Morgan Chase, the American Chamber of Commerce, the Wall Street Journal, and politely explain that U.S. policy in the Middle East on Israel is harming their interests. It’s no secret that concentrated private capital has an overwhelming influence on government policy in all sorts of ways, so if in fact the “Lobby” is forcing the U.S. into policies that are against the interests of these people who effectively run the country; we should be able to convince them. And they would put the Israel Lobby out of business in about five seconds. The Lobby is peanuts compared to them. The military industry lobby alone vastly outspends and has much greater influence than the [Israel] Lobby does. So why hasn’t anybody tried that? Well, because it is so totally implausible that it is not even worth talking about except as a joke. 

The fundamental problem is the failure to face the fact that government policies don’t come out of a vacuum. Mearsheimer and Walt are realists in international relations theory, which basically holds that the domestic power structure is not a significant factor in the formation of state policy. State policy is supposed to be concerned with something called “the national interest,” which is a kind of abstraction made in the interest of the population, but isn’t. For centuries it’s been understood that there are different factors within the society, different distributions of power, some more powerful than others…. 

That should be a truism, but it is kind of erased from international relations theory. On the other hand, if we did accept it as a truism—and there is overwhelming evidence that it is, right to the present—then we would have to ask why those in a position to shape and determine U.S. government policy to a very substantial extent would be willing to accept something harmful to their interests? We would have to explain this strange contradiction, since they could easily change the policy if they wanted. I think the reason is very plain: that major sectors of private power in the United States find U.S. policies towards Israel quite acceptable. 

MR: Because? 

NC: Because Israel is a rich and advanced society. It has a powerful high-tech sector which is closely integrated with the U.S. high-tech economy, in both directions. It is very militarily powerful, very closely connected to the U.S. military industry and in fact to military policy. When Obama says “I’ll give you F-35s,” that’s a boost to Lockheed Martin—a double boost because once the U.S. taxpayer pays Lockheed Martin, they send advanced jets to Israel and Saudi Arabia does not object to being sent second-rate equipment. 

It’s happening right now. The biggest arms deal ever has just been made with Saudi Arabia for $60 billion to give them military equipment. That’s fine with Israel: the equipment is second-rate and there’s not much they can do with it anyway. But quite beyond that, connections between U.S. military and intelligence and Israel have been extremely close for years. U.S. firms have been building facilities in Israel (for example, Intel, the largest chip manufacturer), and our military is going there to study urban warfare techniques. Israel is an offshoot of U.S. power in a strategically critical segment of the world. Now of course this enrages Arab public opinion, but the United States has never been concerned with that. 

MR: Are you saying the Lobby isn’t a factor? 

NC: No, the Lobby is real. It’s significant. That’s not even a question—neither I nor anyone has ever questioned it. It’s very well organized, it has its victories. But if it runs up against crucial power interests of the state or the corporate sector, it backs off. There is case after case I could mention. But when what the Lobby does more or less conforms to the interests of powerful domestic sectors, then yes, it is influential. That’s quite true of lobbies generally. For example, India’s lobby in the U.S. apparently played an important role in pressuring Congress to accept the U.S.-Indian treaty, which effectively authorized the U.S. to support indirectly India’s nuclear weapons program. 

MR: But if we go back to some of the things we were discussing earlier, many people would say that where these lobbies are most effective is not specific deals, but in shaping public opinion. 

NC: Yes, but they’re pushing on an open door, because there are independent reasons why Americans tend towards Israel. Remember, this is a long-standing relationship that goes back long before Zionism. There’s an instinctive identification that’s unique. There’s the American Indian comparison, you know, the barbaric redskins trying to prevent progress and development and attacking innocent whites: that’s Israel-Palestine. In fact, it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, the most libertarian of the founding fathers. One of the charges in the Declaration against King George III is that he unleashed the merciless Indian savages against us, whose known way of warfare is torture and killing and so on. That could come straight out of Zionist propaganda. This is a very deep strain in American culture and history. After all, the country was founded by religious extremists who were waving the Holy Book and describing themselves as children of Israel returning to the Promised Land. So Zionism found its natural environment here. 

MR: So would you situate the Lobby primarily within the broader cultural background, where Americans look at Israel and recognize themselves? 

NC: For many Americans, it’s just instinctive that the Jews in Israel are reliving our history. They recognize themselves, and furthermore they recognize the crusaders who succeeded in throwing out the pagans. There’s the analogy to the American conquest of the national territory, the Zionists use this analogy as well, but positively. We are bringing civilization to the barbarians, which is after all the whole core of Western imperialist ideology. It’s very deeply rooted. 

MR: But all this is about the broad American public, “Middle America,” if you will. What about the American intellectual community? Why would they turn toward Israel? 

NC: Well, it wasn’t because the Lobby suddenly became more effective in 1967. Let’s say some left-liberal intellectuals who previously had little interest in Israel or were antagonistic to it suddenly became impassioned supporters. Lobby propaganda had always been there. In fact, before 1967 it had failed in its efforts to get leading American journals like Commentary, or publications like the New York Times, to adopt a more Zionist line. 

But of course, talking about the Lobby is difficult because: what is the Lobby? Is the Lobby American intellectuals? Is the Lobby the Wall Street Journal, the main business newspaper in the political system? Is it the Chamber of Commerce? The Republican Party, which is considerably more extreme than the Democrats even though most Jewish voting is Democrat and most Jewish money goes to the Democrats? 

MR: What are the implications of these points you are making for people who would like to see a change in U.S. Middle East policy? 

NC: Well, I think it means we have to recognize that if government policies are going to change, they’re going to change because of popular mass movements influential enough to become an element in policy planning like the antiwar movement of the 1960s.

MR: You’ve alluded a number of times to the explosive nature of the issue, the difficulty of debating it in the U.S. Have you seen any change? 

NC: For a very long time, it was hard to discuss, and lectures on the subject would create great furors and sometimes violence. I have hundreds of examples, but I’ll give one from the late 1980s when I was invited to give a week of philosophy seminars at UCLA. Of course I gave political talks on the side. The main issue then was Central America, which is what most of these talks were about. But one professor there, a kind of dovish Zionist, asked me if I could give a talk on the Middle East and I said sure. A couple of days later I got a call from the campus police, who wanted me to have uniformed police protection the whole time I was on campus, would I agree? Well, no, I would not agree. But undercover police followed me all over anyway—they’d sit in the seminar room when I’d be giving lectures and follow me to the faculty club and so on, their holsters on their hips. There was a lot of commotion and rising fervor about my Middle East talk, which was held in the central auditorium on campus—airport-type security, entry by just one door, everything inspected, and so on. The talk went on, it wasn’t broken up, but after I left there was a huge personal attack on me in the college press there, not only on me but on the professor who had invited me. There was even a movement on campus to revoke his tenure, which failed, of course—he was a major figure. But it was indicative of the mood at the time. 

It was like that even here at MIT. Whenever I would give a talk, the police would be there and would always insist on accompanying me and my wife back to wherever we were parked afterwards. When Israel Shahak spoke here in 1995, his talk was physically broken up by MIT students. Some of it was grotesque. I remember a 20-year-old kid wearing a yarmulke who stood up and said, “How could you say that about us, when 6 million of us died?” This is Israel Shahak, survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen!! And this kid is telling him about how 6 million of “us” died and getting big cheers from the audience. A couple of my friends were in the back, who happened to be European refugees; they got out around 1939. They said they hadn’t seen anything like that since the Hitler Youth. And this was 1995. Since then they have changed. They were beginning to change already at that time, but in the next ten or fifteen years, they changed a lot. 

MR: What accounted for the change?

NC: There were a number of reasons. For one thing, young Palestinian students here in the U.S. really began organizing, and not the way the PLO had been doing. The issues they brought—oppression, occupation, aggression—were based on standard, liberal principles. They began to organize the way Central American solidarity and the anti–Vietnam war movements were organized, and it began to have an impact. It was dramatic after the Gaza invasion. I mean the Gaza invasion really did infuriate a lot of people. It was just so blatant—here was a huge military force attacking captured people who were completely defenseless and devastating them.

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