Why doesn’t Noam Chomsky support BDS?

July 15, 2014

Palestinian activist Wael Elasady examines Noam Chomsky's critique of the international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israeli apartheid.

IN 2003, I picked up a copy of Noam Chomsky's Hegemony and Survival and devoured it within a week. It had been two years since 9/11, and I was still reeling, trying to wrap my head around the daily racism that I was now being subjected to.

The year before, I had spent hours watching Israeli forces pummel the West Bank on my parent's Arab satellite stations--dramatic images of Israeli soldiers laying siege to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, combat bulldozers crashing through the homes of families in the old city of Nablus, helicopter gunships firing missiles at the refugee camps in Jenin, Israeli tanks surrounding Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah.

With the racism unleashed by September 11, the drowning of the Second Intifada in blood, and the shock and awe of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, I, like many young Arabs and Muslims in the U.S., was beginning to draw radical conclusions about the nature of U.S. empire, the roots of Islamophobia and its connections to a system of capitalist exploitation.

Protesters in New York call for boycotts against Israeli occupation
Protesters in New York call for boycotts against Israeli occupation

Hegemony or Survival helped fortify my newfound radicalism, confirming my suspicions of the long and ugly history of U.S. imperialism and the economic interests that it served. I soon was reading every Chomsky article and digging up every Chomsky YouTube video I could find. Along with Edward Said and Karl Marx, Chomsky's ideas and biting critique of the capitalist system were critical in helping to shape and give confidence to my emerging socialist leanings.

Over a decade later, Israel is again terrorizing Gaza and the West Bank, and the Israeli state is, as Max Blumenthal aptly put it, inciting Israel's population into a "tribalistic frenzy."

But the most recent article I've read by Chomsky was published on July 2 at TheNation.com, with the title "On Israel-Palestine and BDS." The article on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli apartheid amounts to a disappointing rationalization for abandoning some of the core rights of the Palestinian people.

The effect of such an article--if its suggestions were taken seriously--would be to narrow the horizons of a movement that is finally changing the mainstream dialogue in the U.S. about the Israel-Palestine conflict--and gaining serious momentum that neither Israeli nor U.S. officials can any longer ignore.

In writing this article about Chomsky, I kept asking myself what had changed from 11 years ago. At that time, Chomsky gave me confidence as an emerging young radical, and he was clearly a stalwart of the Palestine solidarity movement. Today, his critique feels like a betrayal to that same generation.

The more I researched and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Chomsky's approach has been consistent. It is the movement that has changed.

Today, a thorough critique of all that is wrong in the world is still necessary, but it is no longer sufficient. Criticism that doesn't also seek to identify the strategies and actual forces that can advance an alternative vision of what's possible can have a conservatizing, rather than radicalizing effect, because it gives the impression that there is little we can do to change the world.

But the lesson of social movements throughout history is that they must begin to organize themselves at a time when the rest of society dismisses them as "impractical." In recent years, the BDS strategy has begun to show that the goals of equality and Palestinian liberation once dismissed as "wishful thinking" are now gaining a wider hearing. Today, it is Noam Chomsky, not the BDS movement, that lacks a sense of practicality.

CHOMSKY'S CRITIQUE of the BDS movement derives from his overall strategic vision of the resolution of the Palestine-Israel question.

Chomsky regularly repeats that he has supported a one-state solution for 70 years, but that this is currently just a "proposal" with no way of being implemented. Instead, according to Chomsky, the most "realistic" way for those in solidarity with Palestinians to move forward is to apply pressure to implement the "internationally supported" two-state solution.

Given this strategic orientation, Chomsky criticizes two of the goals of the BDS movement, as put forward in the July 2005 call for a campaign by more than 170 Palestinian civil society organizations.

While Chomsky approves of the BDS movement's goal of "(1) Ending [Israel's] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall," he rejects the remaining two goals of "(2) Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and (3) Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194."

The movement's tactics should focus on only the first demand, according to Chomsky, which he claims has a "clear objective and is readily understood by its target audience in the West."

With this rationale, Chomsky sweeps aside the elementary demand of equal rights for the Palestinian citizens of Israel--even though one might think that equality before the law is also a clear objective readily understood in the West. Indeed, Chomsky's willingness to gloss over Israel's differential granting of rights on the basis of ethno-religious distinctions illustrates just how much he is willing to concede to the empty arguments of the Zionist right (which is why they are so enthusiastic about quoting from his Nation.com article).

According to Chomsky:

There are "prohibitions against discrimination" in international law, as [Human Rights Watch] observes. But pursuit of (2) at once 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?

THIS ARGUMENT is problematic on several levels.

Other writers have pointed out why demanding that a movement must simultaneously take on all injustices is nothing more than an attempt at deflection. If applied consistently, such a criterion would disqualify many of the most important movements for social justice from being worthy of support before they got started.

But even if we set this aside, the logic of Chomsky's argument is still flawed. The "glass house" charge in this case raises a tactic to the level of a principle. If we could end the scourges of U.S. imperialism by boycotting Harvard University or by starting an entire BDS movement against the U.S., this would be a great tactic to pursue. But BDS would not be an effective tactic against the world's largest economy and military superpower.

Israel, on the other hand, is economically and politically dependent on Western trade--and specifically U.S. support. Therefore, BDS as a tactic is appropriate for isolating Israel and helping to pressure it.

Chomsky might say that he doesn't agree with the glass-house criticism, but is merely pointing out that demanding full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel is bound to elicit such a criticism. His article, however, doesn't make clear that this is his meaning.

Even if we grant him this interpretation, though, it flies in the face of the experience of BDS campaigns that have been carried out. Chomsky says that initiatives focused on the full equality demand of BDS will continue to fail "unless educational efforts reach the point of laying much more groundwork in the public understanding for them, as was done in the case of South Africa."

The problem with this argument--if we can set aside the casual dismissal of the educational work that Palestinian rights activists and intellectuals have done over many years--is the fact that BDS campaigns themselves are among the greatest educational tools we have available to us.

What better education about the nature of Israeli apartheid can there be than packed student senate halls and campus newspapers debating divestment bills introduced by chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine across the country? Or churches debating their ethical investment rules and how they apply to Israel's violations of human rights? Or supporters of academic boycott in the American Studies Association having to argue with and win their colleagues to support their resolution? Furthermore, education about Israeli apartheid through BDS campaigns is less abstract and directly draws out the complicity of American institutions in the oppression of the Palestinians.

More importantly, the demand for equal rights for Palestinians, far from falling outside of "public understanding," readily invites comparisons between Israel's racist apartheid policies and the more familiar history of racism and the struggle for civil rights in the American South. "The unfairness of it is so much like the South," said Alice Walker in a 2012 interview. "It's so much like the South of 50 years ago, really, and actually more brutal, because in Palestine so many more people are wounded, shot, killed, imprisoned. You know, there are thousands of Palestinians in prison virtually for no reason."

Especially for young people, for whom it seems self-evident that discrimination based on one's ethnicity is unacceptable, this comparison is compelling, and its power derives from the idea of equality before the law, which is one of the few remaining gains of the civil rights movement at a time when many of its material gains are being or have already been clawed back.

Some of these BDS campaigns are being won, and some are being lost, but in every situation, a new generation of young people--largely Arab and Muslim, but also a growing number of young Jews--is learning how to stand up for justice and challenge Israel's impunity. Students and community members are no longer just organizing events for well-known speakers to come lecture on Palestine and Israel--they themselves are presenting their ideas before student groups, student senates, fellow church members and boards of investment firms to explain why business-as-usual with regards to Israel must end.

CHOMSKY ALSO admonishes the BDS movement for not doing more to challenge U.S. military and financial support for Israel. Of course, the BDS movement does call for an end to U.S. support for Israel, but it is hard to imagine how the BDS movement can grow to the size and gain the support necessary to truly challenge U.S. policy on Israel without the current campaigns it is engaged in at universities, churches and businesses.

It is these campaigns that are training a layer of sophisticated activists, educating the American public about Israel's crimes, and eroding U.S. institutional and corporate support and complicity with Israel. As Chomsky knows, it takes more than a simple knock on the door of congressional representatives, or a phone call to your state senator, to upend the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

In the U.S., organizing around the issue of ending support for South African apartheid began as early as the 1950s. Already by 1965, the shape of the anti-apartheid movement would sound familiar to us today. As one history of the struggle against South African apartheid explained:

Activist student groups began to target investments by educational institutions in these companies, while activist caucuses within Protestant denominations and the ecumenical National Council of Churches began to target investments by church agencies. While the specific demands varied, from calls to ensure that the companies implement fair employment practices in South Africa to demands that they withdraw entirely, each such action provided the opportunity for debate about the apartheid system and the complicity of US business.

It was not until 1986 that Congress passed a bill breaking ties with South Africa, and it took until 1994 for the election of Nelson Mandela, the country's first Black president. The Palestinian BDS movement was launched in 2005, and as many observers have noted, it appears to be making more rapid progress than the anti-apartheid struggle from which it draws inspiration.

Breaking the U.S.-Israel relationship may prove to be more difficult due to the greater strategic weight of U.S. interests in the Middle East and the historic role that Israel has played as a watchdog of those interests. But this speaks to the need to deepen and strengthen the BDS movement and continue to connect it to other struggles against oppression and economic injustice in this country, so that we can rally the necessary forces to end U.S. complicity in Palestinian suffering.

PERHAPS MOST shockingly, Chomsky casually dismisses the right of return that millions of Palestinians living for decades in refugee camps throughout the Middle East still dream of. For Chomsky, however, the BDS movement should simply drop this demand:

While there is near-universal international support for (1), 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.

Apparently, Chomsky does not believe the Palestinian people's own overwhelming support for the right of return is worth describing as "meaningful." Unfortunately, erasing Palestinian agency appears to be a central theme of Chomsky's essay, as I'll discuss further in a moment.

But what about Chomsky's claim that the right of return of Palestinian refugees in UN Resolution 194 is "conditional"? This is a red herring. The right of refugees displaced by war, including Palestinian refugees, to return to the homes from which they fled is a basic component of international law that supersedes any UN resolution. This principle is enshrined in international law, as the Cambridge Journal of International Comparative Law explains:

UN law renders the right of return unquestionable...All these international legal bases indicate that the right of return for refugees is a customary rule. Such a right has long been deemed to constitute a natural entitlement for any citizen. The right of return has not during the course of history been subjected to questioning by states.

Chomsky's assertion that the right of return should be dropped from BDS demands because Israel regularly violates UN resolutions is deeply troubling. As Tom Suarez wrote in one of the responses to Chomsky, such a position renders all international law irrelevant, because "non-compliance becomes self-justifying." Instead, Suarez points out, "exposing the non-compliance is part of the very value of BDS."

Chomsky is surely aware of this dynamic, but he seems to prefer to pick and choose which aspects of international law should be enforced, based not on the wishes of the people whom he purports to advocate for, but on what he has deemed within the realm of "realistic" possibilities. Chomsky thus dismisses the right of return, but doesn't shrink from excoriating the U.S. and Israel for their failure to abide by international law by ending the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

We should have no illusions in international institutions, under a capitalist system, to bring justice to the oppressed, and we should understand that these institutions ultimately function as a form of "soft power," wielded by dominant states to ensure their international supremacy while providing a veneer of concern for human rights.

But that said, it's also clear that international law, like any other laws, should be used in the fight against oppression wherever possible--if for no other reason than to expose the hypocrisy of the ruling classes when it comes to living up to the values they profess to have.

Whether a particular aspect of international law can be enforced to the benefit of an oppressed people is dependent on the balance of forces for and against, and the role of any individual or movement that stands for social justice is to weigh in on the side of the oppressed, not legitimize the actions of the oppressor and demand that the oppressed lower their expectations.

ALL OF these problems in Chomsky's analysis stem from his wider strategic orientation--not on Palestinians as agents of their own liberation, but on the so-called "international consensus" of nation states and their diplomatic maneuvering.

Chomsky speaks of Palestinians strictly as "victims" who lack a "savior"--and therefore, he sees compromise of their rights as inevitable in order to accommodate the demands of that "international consensus." Chomsky may claim to support a "one-state" or a "no-state" solution and the full rights of the Palestinians, but political ideas without practical or organizational forces behind them amount to empty rhetoric.

For socialists, the liberation of the oppressed is impossible without their self-activity and empowerment. The BDS movement was launched by Palestinians themselves, and contrary to what Chomsky insinuates in his article, the movement is not a project of "Palestinian intellectuals," but enjoys nearly total consensus among all major segments of the Palestinian population--even at a time when Palestinians' formal political leadership has been isolated, ineffectual or even converted into collaborators with the Israeli occupation.

It is young Palestinians of the diaspora who have taken the reins and are leading the charge of the BDS movement on campuses across the U.S. They are the one who are unafraid of calling Israel what it is: an apartheid state. More to the point, we are demanding nothing less than the full rights and liberation of the Palestinian people.

For these reasons, the Palestinian BDS call has been essential--not because of its appeal to U.S. lawmakers, its acceptability to Israel or its supporters, or its conformity with some elusive "international consensus," but because it aims to realize the historic rights of the three segments of the Palestinian people.

For too long, the Palestinian Authority's commitment to the "peace process" has enabled the Palestinian cause to be reduced to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, while the demands of Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian citizens of Israel were left behind. The BDS movement has helped to restore the demands of these two forgotten segments of the Palestinian people to their proper place.

Moreover, before BDS, the dominant discourse about Palestine and Israel was about a "conflict" between two states. But the BDS movement--by highlighting all the historic injuries Israel has inflicted on the Palestinian people--has contributed to a new discourse (or, more accurately, the resurrection of a discourse forgotten during the decades of the "peace process"): about a colonial project carried out by a racist and violent settler society at the expense of an indigenous population.

This narrative has been a powerful tool in the hands of activists because it exposes the racist core of Zionism and places responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the colonizer--unlike the two-state paradigm that has made invisible many Israeli atrocities and limited Israel's culpability to the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

In other words, BDS has become a rallying cry for the oppressed fighting for their own self-emancipation.

Chomsky also points out the differences between South Africa during the apartheid era and Israel today. South Africa's colonial-settler society depended on the exploitation of Black South Africans in mining and other industries, while Israeli apartheid has tried to import its workforce from elsewhere, while seeking to exclude Palestinian labor and expel Palestinians from the land.

As Chomsky points out, this leads toward far nastier possible outcomes than what happened in South Africa. The more apt comparison might be to the extermination of Native Americans undertaken by the U.S. in the name of its colonial ideology of "Manifest Destiny."

Adam Hanieh's most recent book Lineages of Revolt explains that Israeli, Palestinian and regional capital have all tried to exploit Palestinian labor in the Occupied Territories as well as inside the Green Line. Nevertheless, the difference between the two types of colonialism still exists: by design, Palestinian labor is kept marginal to the Israeli economy, and in no way compares to the centrality of Black labor in apartheid South Africa.

So while ethnic cleansing was carried out in South Africa, exploitation of the colonized was the main order of the day. By contrast, exploitation of Palestinians by Israel does exist, but ethnic cleansing and expulsion is the primary expression of Israeli colonization.

This component of Chomsky's argument should be given serious consideration. It is one that many BDS supporters have thoughtfully explored, but without reaching Chomsky's false conclusion that such differences mean Israel cannot fit the definition of apartheid in any respect.

THE PALESTINIANS have a powerful set of forces arrayed against them. They are up against not only Israel, the dominant power in the region, but also the world's imperial powerhouse, the U.S., and the authoritarian Arab states of the Middle East, many of which are allied with the U.S. in defense of the regional order.

But if Palestinians have powerful enemies, they also have powerful potential allies. The naked force of Israel's 19th-century-style colonialism enforced with 21st-century military hardware, is a glaring example of the misery faced by millions of people around the world struggling to get by in a system that can only be described as global economic apartheid. The state of Israel has come to play a leading role in developing the techniques, weapons and training used by repressive forces the world over to maintain the privileges of the rich and wealthy.

For these reasons, the suffering of the Palestinians--as well as their resilience and resistance--continues to resonate with the workers and poor of the region as well as oppressed and exploited people the world over.

These may not be the "saviors" that Chomsky laments the Palestinians lack, but they are potent forces, whose struggles are increasingly being connected to the struggle for Palestinian liberation. And BDS has provided the framework in which this internationalism and solidarity are being forged.

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