Advocacy and Realism: A reply to Noah Cohen

Noam Chomsky

ZNet, August 26, 2004

Noah Cohen’s charges raise some interesting questions about advocacy, principle, and realism, which have much broader applications. Let’s focus on his particular case – defense of Palestinian rights — bringing up the broader issues in this context. The core question, then, has to do with the stands that can be taken by people with serious concerns for the fate of the Palestinians, who have suffered severely and face an even more miserable future unless we find ways to reverse the processes now underway, for which we bear considerable responsibility and accordingly, can influence if we choose.

Among the options under discussion are one-state and binational approaches. These are crucially different. There are many forms of multinationalism in the world: Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, etc. The concept is a cover term for arrangements that allow forms of autonomy for groups within complex societies, not necessarily only those that choose to regard themselves as “nations.” Quite different are one-state systems, with no form of autonomy for various communities. In the US, for example, Latinos do not have autonomy or control over language or education in the areas stolen by violence from Mexico (or elsewhere); nothing approaching, say, the partial autonomy in Catalonia, to mention one of many cases of some form of multinationalism.

Let’s turn to some of the relevant background. Pre-1948, binationalism was a minority position within the Zionist movement. From 1967-73 Israel had a real opportunity to institute a binational settlement in cis-Jordan in the context of a full peace treaty with Egypt and Jordan, hence the relevant part of the Arab world. There was no interest. The PLO had no interest. US articulate opinion was bitterly opposed. My own writings on the topic were harshly attacked from all sides.

After the 1973 war, that option was effectively closed. Palestinian national rights were, for the first time, clearly and forcefully articulated in the international arena. A two-state settlement was brought to the UN Security Council in January 1976, vetoed by the US, an act condemned by Syria, Jordan, Egypt and the PLO. Since then there has been a broad international consensus in favor of a two-state settlement, blocked by the US and Israel alone. It should be unnecessary to review this history once again.

In contrast, there has been no support for a one-state solution from any significant actor throughout this period. It has never been considered an option in the international arena. The PLO spoke about “democratic secularism,” but in a form that called for liquidation of all Jewish political, social, and cultural institutions within an “Arab nation.” For this reason alone – there were many others – the stance had no impact, except as a weapon for advocates of US-Israeli rejectionism. These matters were discussed in print in the 1970s; there is a brief review in my book Toward a New Cold War (1982, 430n). To say that the idea has had no support in Israel is an understatement. It is rejected with virtual unanimity and considerable fervor, and would be even if there some basis for taking seriously the rhetoric about democratic secularism. Under the (virtually unimaginable) circumstance that some meaningful international support would develop for such a plan, Israel would oppose it by any possible means: that includes the ultimate weapons, which Israel has available and can use.

Since the late ‘90s, a “one-state settlement” has become a welcome topic of discussion in elite circles, so much so that the New York Times Magazine and the New York Review of Books have run major articles proposing this approach – I won’t say “advocating” it, for reasons to which I will return. Same in similar circles elsewhere. It is worth bearing in mind that when the solution was realistic and would have saved a lot of blood and agony, it was utter anathema. Why the change? The only explanation I have seen is what appears in the interview with Shalom-Podur, which I won’t repeat. But let us put that aside, and turn to the current situation.

Right now, there are several possible stands that might be taken by those concerned with the people of the region, justice for Palestinians in particular. Evidently, such stands are of only academic interest unless they are accompanied by programs of action that take into account the real world. If not, they are not advocacy in any serious sense of the term.

Perhaps another word of clarification is in order. Attention to feasible programs of action is sometimes dismissed as “realism” or “pragmatism,” and is placed in opposition to “acting on principle.” That is a serious delusion. There is nothing “principled” about refusal to pay attention to the real world and the options that exist within it – including, of course, the option of making changes, if a feasible course of action can be developed, as was clearly and explicitly the case with regard to Vietnam, discussed in the comments that Cohen brings up and completely misunderstands. Those who ignore or deride such “realism” and “pragmatism,” however well-intentioned they may be, are simply choosing to ignore the consequences of their actions. The delusion is not only a serious intellectual error, but also a harmful one, with severe human consequences. That should be clear without further elaboration.

I will keep here to advocacy in the serious sense: accompanied by some kind of feasible program of action, free from delusions about “acting on principle” without regard to “realism” — that is, without regard for the fate of suffering people.

One stand is support for a two-state settlement in terms of the overwhelming and long-standing and very broad international consensus (including the Palestinian Authority), barred by the US and Israel though supported by the majority of the US population and acceptable to majorities, possibly large majorities, within Israel (depending on how questions are asked in polls). There are various concrete forms. One version is the Geneva Accords, which, as noted in the interview, “gives a detailed program for a 1-1 land swap and other aspects of a settlement, and is about as good as is likely to be achieved.” The terms and maps are readily available. Since Cohen does not address these matters, apart from citation of an irrelevant source, and does not suggest anything that is more “likely to be achieved,” there is no need to go beyond the interview. These proposals constitute a basis for negotiations that is vastly improved over the Clinton-Barak Camp David proposals as well as the (much less unacceptable) Taba proposals that followed. For the first time, they open the doors to a 1-1 land swap that could be meaningful, and they break from the cantonization programs of earlier proposals. They still have objectionable features, but the operative question is whether they can be taken as a serious basis for negotiations, and whether there is an alternative that is likely to offer more to the Palestinians than proceeding on this basis.

If there is such an alternative, let’s by all means hear it. Those who do not want to undertake that responsibility are choosing, in effect, to take part in an academic seminar among disengaged intellectuals on Mars.

Support for the international consensus is true advocacy, not posturing or academic debate. The reason is straightforward, as discussed in the interview: there are obvious and realistic programs of action associated with this stand. The main task is to bring the opinions and attitudes of the large majority of the US population into the arena of policy. As compared with other tasks facing activists, this is, and has long been, a relatively simple one. Relatively; no such tasks are easy. What has been lacking is commitment, not opportunities. Those who are unwilling to undertake the commitment have only themselves to blame for the likely outcome, which is taking shape before our eyes, in directions that are all too clear. To the extent that US policy can be shifted towards the international consensus and domestic opinion, support will increase in Israel, almost automatically, as a result of the dependency relation that Israel consciously adopted over 30 years ago. There will undoubtedly be settler resistance, but at least in the judgment of the most senior Israeli security officials, the problem should not be too difficult to deal with, as quoted in the interview.

A second possible stand is support for a binational settlement, perhaps a federal arrangement of the kind that has long been discussed and exists successfully elsewhere, or in some other form. This stand moves from rhetoric and posturing to true advocacy when it is accompanied by a feasible program of action. There is such a program, with two essential steps. The first is to implement a two-state settlement in accord with the international consensus, and reversing the escalating cycle of hostility, hatred, violence, repression, and dispossession. The second step is to proceed from there. For reasons that are clear to anyone familiar with the region, two states in cis-Jordan make little sense, and both communities have good reasons to seek further integration. That is a feasible program, but only in steps. Those who think otherwise have the responsibility of formulating their program to implement directly the alternative they propose; as noted, that was possible before the mid-1970s, but not since. Until we see that program, there is nothing to discuss, and there is no advocacy in the serious sense of the term.

A third possible stand is support for a no-state settlement, generalizing multinationalism (in the broad sense indicated) beyond the borders of a state. That approach would be based on the recognition that the nation-state system has been one of the must brutal and destructive creations of Europe and its offshoots, imposed by force on much of the rest of the world, with horrendous consequences for centuries in Europe, and elsewhere until the present. For the region, it would mean reinstating some of the more sensible elements of the Ottoman system (though, obviously, without its intolerable features), including local and regional autonomy, elimination of borders and free transit, sharply diminishing or eliminating military forces, etc. Applied elsewhere, say to North America, it would entail, to mention just one example, reversing Clinton’s post-NAFTA militarization of the (previously quite porous) Mexico-US border, with a severe human cost, and dealing in some humane way with the fact that the US is sitting on half of Mexico, acquired by brutal conquest. Similar issues arise throughout the world.

For what it’s worth, I’ve also advocated that in public, and in fact have been (maybe still am) under investigation for the crime of “separatism” by the Turkish security system for remarks on this matter in a talk in the semi-official Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir, later published, maybe posted on Znet. There’s also an (implicit) advocacy of something like that in Charles Glass’s excellent book Tribes with Flags.

Is there a feasible program for this, so that it reaches the level of true advocacy? Yes, along the path of advocacy of the more limited binational proposal. The no-state stand is more reasonable and probably more feasible in the longer term than the one-state position. At least this approach recognizes the realities of the region, and the importance of some form of self-determination and autonomy for the complex array of intermingled groups and interests.

How should we rank these objectives in order of preference? My own judgment, since childhood and still today, is that among these alternatives, the no-state solution is by far the best (not just in this region), a binational state second, and a two-state solution worst. Note that I have omitted the one-state version. One reason I have already indicated: a binational system is much better suited to the needs and concerns of the two communities, and I suspect would be preferable to them if it can be approached in steps. But we need not speculate about that. Until the immediate one-state proposal accepts the discipline of “realism,” and is accompanied by some indication of a feasible program of action, we are back to the Martian seminar.

As already mentioned, I presume this is why the proposal has become acceptable in elite intellectual circles, as distinct from the years when a binational version was feasible and was anathema. Now the ideas are welcome, demonstrating our humanity, but without concern that they might lead anywhere. There are, however, those who greatly welcome this proposal as an immediate demand, rejecting the intermediate stages, and hope that it will be widely adopted. To quote the interview:

“The propaganda systems in Israel and the US will joyously welcome the proposal if it gains more than even marginal attention, and will labor to give it great publicity, interpreting it as just another demonstration that there is “no partner for peace,” so that the US-Israel have no choice but to establish “security” by caging barbaric Palestinians into a West Bank dungeon while taking over the valuable lands and resources. The most extreme and violent elements in Israel and the US could hope for no greater gift than this proposal.”

If the only alternative open is a “one-state settlement” without preliminary stages, we can have little doubt that Israeli and US hawks would rejoice, and would proceed, with overwhelming public support to impose their own brutal arrangements on the occupied territories. Since Cohen ignores these matters entirely, I’ll leave it at that, simply noting that we do not reach the level of advocacy, in a serious sense, unless these topics are addressed with care.

Much the same holds with regard to the “right of return.” As stated explicitly in the interview, “Palestinian refugees should certainly not be willing to renounce the right of return.” That is not in question (Cohen’s misrepresentation omits this crucial sentence). A different question is whether the right will be implemented. In this case too, under the (virtually unimaginable) circumstances that any meaningful support might develop for it, Israel would resort to its ultimate weapons to prevent it. Those who have any concern for the fate of the refugees will not dangle before their eyes hopes that will not be realized. And they can hardly claim that to do so is a moral stance.

The same is true generally, including the other examples mentioned here. The Cherokees have the right of return to the lands from which they were driven, and “should certainly not be willing to renounce” that right. The 10-15 million Kurds of Turkey have the right to self-government in a much broader Kurdistan, and “should certainly not be willing to renounce” that right. Suppose that someone were to dangle in front of the eyes of Cherokees or Turkish Kurds the hope that those rights will be realized if only they reject any arrangements that to some extent mitigate their grim circumstances. Such a person might believe him/herself to be a “defender of the Cherokees” or of the Kurds, and to be acting “on principle,” but would be seriously misled.

I have been assuming so far that the discussion is among people who care about the people involved and their fate, in particular the Palestinians, the most miserable victims. There is, of course, another possibility. We might shift to the academic seminar among disengaged intellectuals on Mars. We can then join them in deriding “realism” and feasibility – that is, attention to the real world and consideration of the consequences of our actions for the victims. And we can engage in abstract discussion of what might be “right” and “just” in some non-existent universe. But if partipicants in these exercises decide to come down to earth, and to have some concern and compassion for the victims, they have the duty of explaining to us how we proceed from here to there. If they have a suggestion, let’s hear it so we can evaluate it, and if it is reasonable, act on it. Those who are convinced by the proposals if they are ever presented should by all means pursue them, but for the moment the matters is entirely academic, since there are no meaningful proposals for action other than the step-by-step ones already outlined; at least none that I have ever seen. For the reasons I explained, I think that those who take these stands without reaching the level of serious advocacy are serving the cause of the extreme hawks in Israel and the US, and bringing even more harm to suffering Palestinians. Since the comments have not been addressed, I have to leave it at that.

I don’t see anything substantive in Cohen’s charges that has not already been answered. To illustrate the pointlessness of response, I will simply take the first charge, skipping the rhetorical flow that precedes:

“In general, the argument rests on two pillars:

1) Israel’s history of colonial occupation and expansion must be separated from all other colonial histories as a special case and special consideration must be given to Zionist colonial settlers as a historically vulnerable group; 2) Since this “historically vulnerable group” also has massive military power, nuclear weapons, and U.S. military and economic support, calling for an end to the colonial regime is unrealistic; it only hurts the colonized, and should be redirected to more useful activities.

The first is a tortured attempt to meet arguments about justice; the second is an attempt to make them moot by arguments about realism.”

Pillar 1) is an invention, unless Cohen means that this is a “special case” in the exact sense in which every other case is a “special case,” with its own properties that should be taken into consideration by anyone who has the slightest concern for the people involved, in particular the Palestinians. The rest of 1) we can ignore.

In pillar 2), Cohen is quoting himself, not me. The reference to “U.S. military and economic support” is also his invention: the interview to which he refers, and everything I’ve written and said about that topic for many decades, make it unmistakeably clear that ending that support should precisely be our objective – not reinforcing that support by adopting a stand that is extremely welcome to the ultra-hawks, as just explained. To the extent that the charge of “realism” is accurate, I certainly accept it, and would recommend it to anyone who hopes to do something useful in this world, and therefore takes into account real world circumstances and the consequences of our actions for suffering people.

The rest continues along the same lines. If any reader thinks there is some point that should be addressed, I’ll be glad to consider it.