“It takes popular activism to change things,” Noam Chomsky says.
The renowned author and leading intellectual wants Palestinian rights organisers to step up and continue to pressure politicians to advance their cause in the United States. He is also urging people to vote for Joe Biden to prevent Donald Trump from gaining another four years in the White House.
For members of Congress, he says, being unconditionally pro-Israel is the easy position to take, so it is on advocates and organisers to press them in the other direction to acknowledge the Palestinian people’s demands for justice and self determination.
In an interview with Middle East Eye, Chomsky cited the achievements of the anti-war, labour rights and feminist movements. “These things aren’t given as gifts from above,” he said.
With the suspension of Bernie Sanders’ campaign in April, Chomsky called on Palestine solidarity activists to “keep the pressure on” beyond the presidential race.
He noted that the ideas of Sanders, who energised left-wing and Palestinian rights advocates, are already gaining influence within the Democratic Party.
Shifting opinions on Israel
Sanders endorsed Biden in April, making the former vice president the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party to take on Trump in November.
The Vermont senator’s electoral loss after promising victories in early contests was a blow for those who have embraced his ideas, including universal health care, free public colleges and a more balanced US policy in the Middle East.
“Sanders is the one person in the mainstream political arena – certainly one of the only presidential candidates – who has some degree of understanding and sensitivity towards the Palestinian issue. Not as far as I would like, but way beyond what anyone else is doing,” Chomsky said.
Still, there is an open “opportunity” for Palestinian solidarity activists to press against the “weak points” of US-Israeli relations, Chomsky told MEE via a video feed from his home in Tucson, Arizona.
The 91-year-old linguist, philosopher and emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) says Israel was seen 20 years ago as the “noblest country in the world” and Palestinians were dismissed as a “bunch of terrorists”.
“There’s something to bear in mind about this: Public opinion on Israel-Palestine has shifted radically,” Chomsky said. Now, he says, a debate is opening in the mainstream left about the conflict, while strong support for Israel has become limited mostly to the ultra-nationalist right and Christian evangelicals.
“Israel used to be the darling of the left liberals. Support for Israel was based in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Left intellectuals were in love with Israel. Israel was the recipient of accolades and praise like no other country in the world at the time. That has changed dramatically. By now, most people who identify as liberal Democrats are more sympathetic to the Palestinians than Israel.”
Chomsky said bringing Democratic politicians in line with their supporters’ views on the conflict would have real-world implications.
“There’s an opportunity in one of the two parties to get the mood to reflect the changing opinions of their popular base and move towards very different policies towards the Middle East,” Chomsky said.
Chomsky makes case for Biden
As the US public grows increasingly sceptical of Israel, American policies have never been more supportive of the Israeli government.
Under Trump, Washington moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, cut aid to Palestinian refugees and most recently signalled that it will accept the new Israeli government’s plans to annex large parts of the West Bank.
Chomsky lambasted Trump’s pro-Israel policies, including the proposal to end the conflict, which was prepared by the US president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and released in January. The scheme, dubbed the ‘deal of the century’, would allow Israel to keep all of its settlements in the West Bank, while Palestinians would get a disjointed state without armed forces or sovereignty over its borders and airspace.
“The Trump administration is way to the right of any past government – the most reactionary – and anyone in the world on the Palestinian issue,” Chomsky said. “The famous ‘deal of the century’ was written by Netanyahu handed to the little baby-faced guy, Trump’s son-in-law, and he gave it to the world.”
The professor, who has published more than 120 books on various subjects including scathing critiques of US foreign policy, said the worst outcome for Palestinians would be another term for Trump, despite Biden’s staunch support for Israel.
“With a Trump administration in for another four years, it’s going to be very difficult to do anything. In fact, we might not even survive, but that’s another story,” Chomsky said.
“But on issues like this, you can’t press the Trump administration. In the past, it was possible to influence Republican administrations. Reagan, Nixon – awful people, but they were sort of half-human. You deal with them as human beings.
“We’re now dealing with a gang of psychopathic maniacs. It’s off the spectrum of traditional parliamentary politics, something new.”
Compared to the Trump White House, Chomsky said a Biden administration will be “susceptible to pressure” from organisers, especially that a large part of the voting base of the Democratic Party is open to the idea of holding Israel accountable for its human rights abuses.
Chomsky went on to make an unambiguous case for voting for Biden in November.
“What does it mean to say you can’t vote for the lesser of two evils, that means: I’m going to vote for the greater of two evils,” Chomsky said.
He warned people considering voting for a third-party candidate that they should think about the consequences of the election on the human race even if it means “holding your nose” and voting for Biden.
Chomsky said that in a two-horse race, every vote that does not go to the former vice president will benefit the current occupant of the White House. “If you abstain or vote for someone else, you’re essentially voting for Trump. Is that what your conscience tells you to do?”
Targeting aid to Israel
Several Palestinian rights activists who backed Sanders told MEE early in April that the suspension of the senator’s presidential campaign will not be the end of their struggle for justice and equality.
And Chomsky says there is fertile ground for activism around Palestine in the United States now more than ever. He called for exploiting the legal vulnerabilities of US aid to Israel.
“Activists should be pressing on the weak points of the US government’s support for Israel. It’s based on crucial lies,” Chomsky said.
“Why doesn’t the United States admit that Israel has a nuclear weapons programme? Of course, everybody knows it. But the US can’t concede it. Why? Because if they do concede it, serious questions arise about whether all US aid to Israel is illegal under US law.”
Section 101 of the US Arms Export Control Act explicitly bans foreign aid, including military assistance to countries that acquire nuclear enrichment or materials outside the scrutiny of the international community.
Israel’s covert nuclear weapons programme is an open secret in the region, but Washington has never officially acknowledged it.
The United States gives about $3.8bn in military aid to Israel annually, funds that are crucial to sustaining the Israeli army.
Chomsky also called for bringing up the Leahy Law, which prohibits military aid to countries engaged in gross violations of human rights.
“What activists ought to be doing is pressing to follow US law to terminate all aid to Israel. That sounds like a stretch, but it’s not,” Chomsky said.
“For one thing, a large part of the country will probably agree with that already. They don’t like aid to anybody for their own reasons…. And the left ought to be able to pick that up.”