Israel, the Holocaust, and Anti-Semitism
Excerpted from Chronicles of Dissent, 1992
|QUESTION: One of your books, The Fateful Triangle,
focuses specifically on the Middle East, and I was wondering if you
could talk about your position on a possible two-state solution to the
CHOMSKY: I don't think that's the optimal solution, but it has been the realistic political settlement for some time. We have to begin with some fundamentals here. The real question is: there are plainly two national groups that claim the right of self-determination in what used to be Palestine, roughly the area now occupied by Israel minus the Golan Heights, which is part of Syria.
So there are two national groups which claim national self-determination. One group is the indigenous population, or what's left of it -- a lot of it's been expelled or driven out or fled. The other group is the Jewish settlers who came in, originally from Europe, later from other parts of the Middle East and some other places. So there are two groups, the indigenous population and the immigrants and their descendants. Both claim the right of national self-determination. Here we have to make a crucial decision: are we racists or aren't we? If we're not racists, then the indigenous population has the same rights of self-determination as the settlers who replaced them. Some might claim more, but let's say at least as much right. Hence if we are not racist, we will try to press for a solution which accords them -- we'll say they are human beings with equal rights, therefore they both merit the claim to national self-determination. I'm granting that the settlers have the same rights as the indigenous population; many do not find that obvious but let's grant it. Then there are a number of possibilities. One possibility is a democratic secular society. Virtually nobody is in favor of that. Some people say they are, but if you look closely they're not really. There are various models for multi-ethnic societies, say Switzerland or whatever. And maybe in the long run these might be the best idea, but they're unrealistic.
The only realistic political settlement, for the time being, in the past ten or twelve years, that would satisfy the right of self-determination for both national groups is a two-state settlement. Everybody knows what it would have to be: Israel within approximately the pre-June 1967 borders and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and a return of the Golan Heights to Syria, or maybe some other arrangement. This would be associated with maybe demilitarized zones and international guarantees of some sort or another, but that's the framework of a possible political settlement. As I say, I don't think it's the best one, but that's the realistic one, very realistic. It's supported by most of the world. It's supported by Europe, by the Soviet Union, has been for a long time, by almost all the non-aligned countries, it's supported by all the major Arab states and has been for a long time, supported by the mainstream of the PLO and, again, has been for a long time, it's supported even by the American population, by about two to one according to the polls. But there are also people who oppose it. It's opposed by the rejection front in the Arab world, the minority elements of the PLO, Libya, a few others, minority rejectionist elements, but crucially it's opposed by the leaders of the rejection front, namely the United States and Israel. The United States and Israel adamantly oppose it. The United States will not consider it. Both political groupings in Israel reject it totally. They reject any right of national self-determination for the indigenous popula- tion in the former Palestine. They can have Jordan if they want, or the former Syria, or something, but not the area that they now hold under military occupation. In fact they're explicit about it. There are carefully fostered illusions here that the Labor Party is interested in compromise over the issue. But if you look closely, there's no meaningful compromise. The position of the Labor Party remains what was expressed by their representative, who is now President, Chaim Herzog, who said that "no one can be a partner with us in a land that has been holy to our people for 2000 years." That's the position. They're willing to make minor adjustments. They don't want to take care of the population in the West Bank, because there are too many Arabs; they don't want a lot of Arabs around, so what they would like to do is take the areas and the water and the resources they want from the West Bank but leave the population, either stateless or under Jordanian control. That's what's called a "compromise solution." It's a very cynical proposal, even worse in many respects than annexation. But that's called here compromise and the reason is that we are again educated elites in the United States and national discussion takes a strictly racist view of this. The Palestinians are not human, they do not deserve the rights that we accord automatically to the settlers who displaced them. That's the basis of articulate American discussion: pure, unadulterated racism. Again, that's not true of the population, as usual, but it is of the politically active and articulate parts of it and certainly the government. As long as the United States and Israel reject the political settlement, there can't be one.
There certainly have been very plausible opportunities for a political settlement over many years, in fact, just to mention a few which have disappeared from history because they're too inconvenient: in February 1971 President Sadat of Egypt offered a full peace treaty to Israel on the pre-June 67 borders. In accordance with official American policy, incidentally, but not operative policy, offering nothing to the Palestinians, he didn't even offer them a Palestinian state, nothing. Nevertheless Israel rejected it, and the United States backed them in that rejection. In January 1976 Syria, Jordan and Egypt, the so-called "confrontation states," made a proposal in the U.N. Security Council for a two-state settlement with international guarantees and territorial rights secured and so on. That was backed and even prepared by the PLO, supported by the Soviet Union and most of the world. It was vigorously opposed by Israel, which even boycotted the session, in fact, it bombed Lebanon in retaliation against the United Nations, killing about 50 people, no excuse at all, just a fit of anger, "We're going to kill anybody who gets in our way if you push this," and the United States vetoed it. There have been a series of such things ever since. The United States has always blocked them and Israel has always refused them, and that means there's no political settlement. Rather there is a state of permanent military confrontation. That's aside from what it means to the Palestinians, which is obvious and terrible; it's very bad for Israel. It's leading to their own destruction, in my view, certainly to their economic collapse and moral degeneration and probably, sooner or later, their physical destruction, because you can't have a state of military confrontation without a defeat sooner or later. It's leading the world very close to nuclear war, repeatedly. Every time we have an Arab-Israeli conflict -- and there will be more of them, as long as we maintain a military confrontation -- the Soviet Union and the United States come into confrontation. Both are involved. The Soviet Union is close by, it's not like Central America, it's a strategic region right near their border, they're involved; it's very far from us but it's a strategic region for us because of the oil nearby, primarily. So we're involved, the fleets come into confrontation, it's very close. In 1967 it came very close to nuclear war and it will again. So it's very dangerous, it's the most likely spot where a nuclear war would develop, but we are pursuing it, because we don't want a political settlement. The United States is intent on maintaining a military confrontation.
QUESTION: You mentioned racism vis-à-vis the Palestinians. To what extent, if any, have Israelis of Ashkenazic origin absorbed German racial attitudes toward not just Arabs but even to the Oriental Jews, the Sephardim, is there anything in that?
CHOMSKY: I wouldn't call it particularly German.
CHOMSKY: Yes. It's part of European culture to have racist attitudes toward the Third World, including us, we're part of Europe in that respect. Naturally the Jewish community shared the attitudes of the rest of Europe, not surprising. There certainly are such things inside Israel. My feeling is they could be overcome in time under a situation of peace. I think they're real, but I don't think they're lethal, through slow integration they could probably be overcome. The one that probably can't be overcome is the anti-Arab racism, because that requires subjugation of a defeated and conquered people and that leads to racism. If you're sitting with your boot on somebody's neck, you're going to hate him, because that's the only way that you can justify what you're doing, so subjugation automatically yields racism, and you can't overcome that. Furthermore, anti-Arab racism is rampant in the United States and much of the West, there's no question about that. The only kind of racism that can be openly expressed with outrage is anti-Arab racism. You don't put caricatures of blacks in the newspapers any more; you do put caricatures of Arabs.
QUESTION: But isn't it curious that they're using the old Jewish stereotypes, the money coming out the pockets, the beards, the hooked nose?
CHOMSKY: I've often noticed that the cartoons and caricatures are very similar to the ones you'd find in the Nazi press about the Jews, very similar.
QUESTION: What dimension does the Holocaust play in this equation? Is it manipulated by the Israeli state to promote its own interests?
CHOMSKY: It's very consciously manipulated. I mean, it's quite certainly real, there's no question about that, but it is also undoubted that they manipulate it. In fact, they say so. For example, in the Jerusalem Post, in English so you can read it, their Washington correspondent Wolf Blitzer, I don't recall the exact date, but after one of the big Holocaust memorial meetings in Washington he wrote an article in the Jerusalem Post in which he said it was a great success. He said, "Nobody mentioned arms sales to the Arabs but all the Congressmen understood that that was the hidden message. So we got it across." In fact, one very conservative and very honest Zionist leader, Nachem Goldman, who was the President of the World Zionist Organization and who was detested towards the end because he was much too honest -- they even refused to send a delegation to his burial, I believe, or a message. He's one of the founders of the Jewish state and the Zionist movement and one of the elder statesmen, a very honest man, he -- just before his death in 1982 or so -- made a rather eloquent and unusual statement in which he said that it's -- he used the Hebrew word for "sacrilege" -- he said it's sacrilege to use the Holocaust as a justification for oppressing others. He was referring to something very real: exploitation of probably the world's most horrifying atrocity in order to justify oppression of others. That kind of manipulation is really sick.
QUESTION: That disturbs you and...
CHOMSKY: Really sick. Many people find it deeply immoral but most people are afraid to say anything about it. Nachem Goldman is one of the few who was able to say anything about it and it was one of the reasons he was hated. Anyone who tries to say anything about it is going to be subjected to a very efficient defamation campaign of the sort that would have made the old Communist Party open-mouthed in awe, people don't talk about it.
QUESTION: I ask you this question because I know that you have been plagued and hounded around the United States specifically on this issue of the Holocaust. It's been said that Noam Chomsky is somehow agnostic on the issue of whether the Holocaust occurred or not.
CHOMSKY: My "agnosticism" is in print. I described the Holocaust years ago as the most fantastic outburst of insanity in human history, so much so that if we even agree to discuss the matter we demean ourselves. Those statements and numerous others like them are in print, but they're basically irrelevant because you have to understand that this is part of a Stalinist-style technique to silence critics of the holy state and therefore the truth is entirely irrelevant, you just tell as many lies as you can and hope that some of the mud will stick. It's a standard technique used by the Stalinist parties, by the Nazis and by these guys.
QUESTION: There's tremendous support for Israel in the United States at least in elite groups. There's also on another level a very steady, virulent anti-Semitism that goes on. Can you talk about that?
CHOMSKY: Anti-Semitism has changed, during my lifetime at least. Where I grew up we were virtually the only Jewish family, I think there was one other. Of course being the only Jewish family in a largely Irish-Catholic and German-Catholic community--
QUESTION: In Philadelphia?
CHOMSKY: In Philadelphia. And the anti-Semitism was very real. There were certain paths I could take to walk to the store without getting beaten up. It was the late 1930s and the area was openly pro-Nazi. I remember beer parties when Paris fell and things like that. It's not like living under Hitler, but it's a very unpleasant thing. There was a really rabid anti-Semitism in that neighborhood where I grew up as a kid and it continued. By the time I got to Harvard in the early 1950s there was still very detectable anti-Semitism. It wasn't that they beat you up on the way to school or something, but other ways, kind of WASP-ish anti-Semitism. There were very few Jewish professors on the faculty at that time. There was beginning to be a scattering of them, but still very few. This was the tail end of a long time of WASP-ish anti-Semitism at the elite institutions. Over the last thirty years that's changed very radically. Anti-Semitism undoubtedly exists, but it's now on a par, in my view, with other kinds of prejudice of all sorts. I don't think it's more than anti-Italianism or anti-Irishism, and that's been a very significant change in the last generation, one that I've experienced myself in my own life, and it's very visible throughout the society.
QUESTION: How would you account for that?
CHOMSKY: How would I account for it? I think partly that the Holocaust did have an effect. It brought out the horrifying consequences of anti-Semitism in a way that certainly is striking. I presume, I can't prove this, but there must be, at least I hope there is, a kind of guilt feeling involved, because the role of the United States during the Holocaust was awful, before and during. They didn't act to save Jews, and they could have in many respects. The role of the Zionist organization is not very pretty either. In the late 1940s there were plenty of displaced persons in the Jewish DP camps. Some survived. It remained awful, they stayed in the DP camps, in fact, for a while they were dying at almost the same rate they were under the Nazis. Many of those people, if they had been given a chance, surely would have wanted to come to the United States. There are debates about how many, but it's just unimaginable that if they'd been given a chance they wouldn't have wanted to come here. They didn't. A tiny scattering came. There was an immigration bill, the Stratton bill, which I think admitted about 400,000 people, if I remember, to the United States, very few Jews among them. Plenty of Nazis, incidentally, straight out of their SS uniforms. The reason that bill passed, I think it was 1947, was that it was the beginning of the Cold War and priority was being given to basically the Nazis, because we were resurrecting them all over the world, a lot of them were brought in, a lot of Nazi war criminals, and others, but very few Jews. That's not a very pretty sight. You say, during the war you could have given some argument, not an acceptable argument, but you could have given at least a not ridiculous argument that you had to fight the war and not worry about the people being sent to the gas chambers, but after the war you couldn't give any argu- ment. It was a matter of saving the survivors, and we didn't do it. I should say the Zionist organization didn't support it either, they didn't even lobby for the bill. The only Jewish organizations that lobbied for the admission of Jewish refugees to the United States were the non-Zionist or the anti-Zionist organizations. The reason was that they wanted to send them off to Palestine. Whether they wanted to go there or not is another story, the same matter being relived today, incidentally, with the Russian emigres. The Zionist organization wants to force them to go to Israel. Most of them, especially from the European parts of Russia, want to come to the United States, and all sorts of pressures are being brought to bear to prevent that. It's kind of a reenactment at a less hideous level of the same story. I suppose there's some element of guilt, certainly over the Holocaust and maybe over the post-war matter.
Besides that, the Jewish community has changed socially and economically. It's now become substantial, not huge in numbers, but given its numbers it's a substantial part of the dominant privileged elite groups in every part of the society -- professional, economic, political, etc. It's not like the anti-Semitic stereotype, they don't own the corporations, but relative to the numbers they're very influential, particularly in the ideological system, lots of writers, editors, etc. and that has an effect.
Furthermore, I think it's changed because of what's happened since 1967. In 1967 Israel won a dramatic military victory, demonstrated its military power, in fact, smashed up the entire Arab world, and that won great respect. A lot of Americans, especially privileged Americans, love violence and want to be on the side of the guy with the gun, and here was a powerful, violent state that smashed up its enemies and demonstrated that it was the dominant military power in the Middle East, put those Third World upstarts in their place. This was particularly dramatic because that was 1967, a time when the United States was having only minimal success in carrying out its invasion of by then all of Indochina, and it's well worth remembering that elite opinion, including liberal opinion, overwhelmingly supported the war in Vietnam and was quite disturbed by the incapacity of the United States to win it, at least at the level they wanted. Israel came along and showed them how to do it, and that had a symbolic effect. Since then it has been presenting itself, with some justice, as the Sparta of the Middle East, a militarily advanced, technologically compe- tent, powerful society. That's the kind of thing we like. It also became a strategic asset of the United States; one of the reasons why the United States maintains the military confrontation is to assure that it's a dependable, reliable ally that will do what we want, like, say, support genocide in Guatemala or whatever, and that also increases the respect for Israel and with it tends to diminish anti-Semitism. I suppose that's a factor.
QUESTION: But you've pointed out that as long as U.S. state interests are being served and preserved, Israel will be favored, but the moment that those interests...
CHOMSKY: That's right, it'll be finished, in fact, anti-Semitism will shoot up. Apart from the moral level, it's a very fragile alliance on tactical grounds.
QUESTION: So what happens to the moral commitment, the concern for justice in the Jewish state and all that -- out the window?
CHOMSKY: On the part of whom?
QUESTION: The United States.
CHOMSKY: There's no concern for justice and there never was. States don't have a concern for justice. States don't act on moral grounds.
QUESTION: Except on a rhetorical level.
CHOMSKY: On a rhetorical level, they all do, even Nazi Germany. On the actual level, they never do. They are instruments of power and violence, that's true of all states; they act in the interests of the groups that dominate them, they spout the nice rhetorical line, but these are just givens of the international system.
QUESTION: You've been very critical of the American liberal community and in fact you've said that they're contributing to Israel's destruction. Please talk a little bit about that.
CHOMSKY: The American liberal community since 1967 has been mobilized at an almost fanatic level in support of an expansionist Israel, and they have been consistently opposed to any political settlement. They have been in favor of the aggrandizement of Israeli power. They have used their position of quite considerable influence in the media in the political system to defeat and overcome any challenge to the system of military confrontation using all the standard techniques of vilification, defamation, closing off control over expression, etc. and it's certainly had an effect. I don't know if it was a decisive effect, but it had some noticeable effect on bringing about U.S. government support for the persistent military confrontation and U.S. government opposition to political settlement. For Israel that's destructive. In fact, Israeli doves constantly deplore it. They constantly refer to it as Stalinism. They refer to the Stalinist character of the support for Israel on the part of what they call the "Jewish community," but that's because they don't understand enough about the United States. It's not just the Jewish community, which is what they see; it's basically the intellectual community at large.
QUESTION: Edward Said, for example, has pointed out that there is much more pluralism in terms of the discussion, the debate, in Israel itself than inside the United States.
CHOMSKY: There's no question about that. For example, the editor of the Labor Party journal, the main newspaper of the Labor Party, has asked me to write regular columns. I won't do it because I'm concerned with things here, but that's totally inconceivable in the United States, you can't even imagine it, you can't even imagine an occasional op-ed. That's quite typical. Positions that I maintain, which are essentially in terms of the international consensus, they're not a majority position in Israel, but they're part of the political spectrum, they're respectable positions. Here it's considered outlandish.
QUESTION: In the time we have remaining, I'd like to ask you two questions. The first one is, in what ways, if any, has your work in linguistics and grammar informed your political analyses and perspectives?
CHOMSKY: I suspect very little. Maybe, I don't know, I'm probably not the person to ask, but I think working in a science is useful because you somehow learn, you get to understand what evidence and argument and rationality are and you come to be able to apply these to other domains where they're very much lacking and very much opposed, so there's probably some help in that respect. There's probably, at some very deep and abstract level, some sort of common core conception of human nature and the human drive for freedom and the right to be free of external coercion and control, that kind of picture animates my own social and political concerns. My own anarchist interests, which go way back to early childhood, and on the other hand, they enter here in a clear and relatively precise way into my work on language and thought and so on, but it's a pretty loose connection, not a kind of connection where you can deduce one connection from another or anything like that.
QUESTION: You have an international reputation for your work in linguistics and philosophy and obviously you weren't content with that, you wanted to go out into the social and political world--
CHOMSKY: Quite the contrary. It's one of the many examples that show that people often do things that they don't want to do because they have to. I made a very conscious decision about this. Actually, my political views haven't changed much since I was about 12 or 13. I've learned more, I suppose they're more sophisticated, but fundamentally they haven't changed. However, I was not an activist. I was, until the early 1960s, working in my own garden, basically, doing the kind of work I liked, intellectually exciting, rewarding, satisfying, you make progress. I would have been very happy to stick to it. It would have been, from a narrow personal point of view, much better for me in every imaginable respect. I remember I knew as soon as I got involved in political activism that there was going to be no end, the demands would increase forever, there would be unpleasant personal consequences -- and they are unpleasant. I mean there are less unpleasant things than being maced, for example, or spending a day in a Washington jail cell or being up for a five-year jail sentence or being subjected to the endless lies of the Anti-Defamation League and its friends, etc. There are more pleasant things. I didn't know in detail, but I knew it was going to be much less pleasant than just working in the fields where I felt I was good and I could make progress and so on. And I knew I had to cut back on things I really wanted to do and that I enjoyed doing, many things in personal life, and I knew personal life was going to contract enormously, something has to give, and in many ways there would be negative consequences, and I really thought about it pretty hard and I finally took the plunge, but not with any great joy, I must say.
QUESTION: I think a lot of people are grateful that you did.