Challenging Noam Chomsky’s opposition

Picture of CHomsky

Notes on Ali Abunimah and Jeffrey Blankfort interviewed on KPFA’s show Voices from the Middle East and North Africa (audio here).

Excerpts of Chomsky’s previous interview given: he distinguishes ‘feel-good’ and ‘do-go’ actions; the former might do harm to the victims; the latter could involve compromise. Key issue here is whether sanctions are educational or miseducational, and often boycott actions are often miseducational (as would be a boycott of an Israeli dance group); then he says that choosing a bad target offers ammunition to jingoist hardline supporters of Israel.

Chomsky offers two criteria for a good (he says: intelligent) boycott: it must be educational, and it must be designed in such a way as it helps the victims, rather than harming them. Any hardline supporter of Israeli crimes can claim with justification that boycotting Israeli crimes (and not U.S.) is transparently hypocritical, and so offers justification for those who support Israel’s crimes. So it is counterproductive from an educational perspective (the hardliners gain propaganda space).

Ali Abunimah then comes on the show, and agrees with Chomsky — but says that the boycott movement has made the right decisions and meets Chomsky’s criteria. Abunimah complains that Chomsky leaves no room for any boycott actions at all. Take the dance group example: we know, he says, because the Israeli government has said it many times, that Israel is using such artistic activities to burnish its image. If we can’t boycott them, then this leave the field open for Israeli government to use artistic forms for propaganda purposes.

Then they turn to the academic boycott, and guidelines issued by the Boycott National Committee (see websites). The guidelines, Ali Abunimah says, make clear distinctions between what is being boycotted and what isn’t. The academic boycott is directed only at the institutions; and there is a clear and documented link between Israel’s academic instutitions and the crimes that Israel commits. There is direct complicity between the academic instututions of Israel and the crimes, he insists (a link being different from complicity, I guess). Also, thanks to U.S. support of Israel, Israeli academics have much greater access to Western institutions than Palestinians, and that the boycott (he implies, but does not say) is directed towards redressing this balance. ‘We want to end the separate and unequal access to education and research which its the direct outcome of Israel’s restriction on travel and so forth’.

Then Ali Abunimah says that Chomsky’s comparison between breaking windows (defined as violent) and boycott (defined as nonviolent). Not clear that Chomsky would think that his point had been understood. And then Abunimah gets febrile and says that this is ‘disrespectful’ to the boycott and all it has achieved. We can’t dismiss it as a ‘feel-good action’, and that the boycott has a special relevance because it has been called for by the Palestinians.

Ali Abunimah then says that the boycott was used to great effect in South Africa, but does not address the disanalogy which Chomsky cited.

We then go on to one- and two-state solutions, which gives Ali Abunimah a change to rail at Chomsky’s insensitivity – ‘callous’. He thinks Chomsky is taking his lead from Israel and the U.S. in saying that there is a consensus for a two-state solution. But this is not the issue here. (Though he insists that one should not decide what one do based on what the powerful will accept.)

(Chomsky also makes the point that there is massive corporate and media agreement in the U.S. for its policy in Israel: therefore, what’s to lobby?)

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Boycott: Chomsky and Pappé

Frank Barat interviewing Ilan Pappé and Noam Chomsky in CounterPunch magazine, June 6 2008.

Barat: During my recent trip to Israel/Palestine it became obvious (talking to people, reading newspapers, watching the news) that something scared Israel a lot: a Boycott. Are you in favor of this type of actions and do you think that they could bare fruit?

Ilan Pappé: Yes I am and I do think it has a chance of triggering processes of change on the ground.

Noam Chomsky: Boycotts sometimes make sense. For example, such actions against South Africa were effective, even though the Reagan administration evaded congressional sanctions while declaring Mandela’s ANC to be one of the “more notorious terrorist groups” in the world (in 1988). The actions were effective because the groundwork had been laid in many years of education and activism. By the time they were implemented, they received substantial support in the US within the political system, the media, and even the corporate sector. Nothing remotely like that has been achieved in this case. As a result, calls for boycott almost invariably backfire, reinforcing the harshest and most brutal policies towards Palestinians. Selective boycotts, carefully formulated, might have some effect. For example, boycotts of military producers who provide arms to Israel, or to Caterpillar Corporation, which provides the equipment for destroying Palestine. All of their actions are strictly illegal, and boycotts could be made understandable to the general public, so that they could be effective.

Selective boycotts could also be effective against states with a far worse record of violence and terror than Israel, such as the US. And, of course, without its decisive support and participation, Israel could not carry out illegal expansion and other crimes. There are no calls for boycotting the US, not for reasons of principle, but because it is simply too powerful — facts that raise some obvious questions about the moral legitimacy of actions targeting its clients.

Key claims being:

Boycott without necessary groundwork within the political, corporate and media spheres will harm Palestinians and reinforce Israeli policies.

Selective boycotts can be effective (e.g. on Caterpillar).

Boycotts, selective or not, should first be directed at the most violent and terrorizing state, and the fact that they are not suggests hypocrisy on the part of Israel boycotters.

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Starting with revision

It’s late in the day to start thinking about the ethics of a boycott of Israel, since debate swelled originally in 2003, as the article this is all about shows. Still, it’s as well to start with revision of what people have alreday said. In this article in the Times Higher Education Supplement, a vile and mediocre rag, two characters who, I am guessing, don’t have any fundamental criticisms of Israeli or Western policy, are yoked to Chomsky, all in opposition to the academic boycott.

Here the story editor generously sets Chomsky up as saying that the boycott is counter productive.

Nevertheless, he says, the effects of the boycott run counter to the intentions of those pursuing these means. [Philip Fine]

In fact, in the exact previous sentence Chomsky says something different:

I think the action is wrong in principle

This is what makes the TES a vile and mediocre rag. Gross errors this are fine provided you don’t sell yourself as nourishing the higher intellectual faculties. But now I’m wandering.

The claim assigned to Chomsky in this article is that academic campaigners should focus on the

cases where their actions can make the most significant difference, such as ‘crimes and atrocities to which their own state makes a crucial contribution’

Meaning what? Presumably Chomsky isn’t confused about this, but the article underspecifies whatever it is he’s saying.

— it could be that it is more effective to concentrate on our own state;

— it could be that it is hypocritical or inconsistent to focus on Israel when our own state is doing evil too;

— it could be that action at the level of academia is the wrong place to focus; and that the arms trade with Israel is a higher, or more hopeful, or more principled objective [not so sure I haven’t said this already]

In response, the two minor characters yoked to Chomsky say that academics themselves are critical of the Israeli government, and that Israel is country with a high ‘moral, political character’. This rules them out of the debate, probably because it shows they have no clue, that they’re engaging in a ploy, suggesting that Israel is a normal state which can be subject to normal civil political criticism. If it is, then boycott might be unneccesary. So the boycott I guess must turn on the idea that Israel is essentially not a polity with this kind of character. And for this point, I thank the aforementioned yokees.

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