Response to Tom Suarez’s article entitled “Chomsky and BDS”

This article is a slightly modified version of a Facebook comment previously made by me[1] in response to a Facebook post from the journalist and blogger Jonathan Cook.[2] In that Facebook post, Cook offers an article by Tom Suarez in Mondoweiss[3] as being, in Cook’s eyes, a good starting point for criticisms of Chomsky’s position on the one-state/two-state debate that has been elucidated in multiple fora, for example in a recent article for The Nation[4], and in a 2010 interview.[5]

Unfortunately, there is a mismatch in my view between Suarez’s approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and that of Chomsky. Chomsky is arguing on the level of tactics, strategy, and pragmatism in order to find the best way to reduce immediate suffering on the part of the Palestinian people. Suarez exhibits an interesting ability to simultaneously recognise and yet not recognise this, as he seeks to respond ‘courageously’, using absolute principles of justice, to what he views as Chomsky’s cop-out position. I believe this is an inappropriate stance for Suarez to take, both from the point of view of Palestinians, as well as from an intellectual integrity standpoint. It is easy to take a principled stand when we are not the ones in the firing line.

Suarez says that the “Right of Return is an individual right that cannot be bargained away on someone’s behalf.” No doubt. But the question is whether Palestinians should bargain in such a way on their own behalf as an intermediate step in an act of self-sacrifice, and as a show of reasonableness, in order to humiliate Israel into a politically untenable position, such that the occupation and state of siege on the West Bank and Gaza would be mitigated.

According to Suarez, because “Chomsky also argues that Israel regularly violates even the Security Council resolutions that are binding, and therefore one is asking for something that will not happen”, Chomsky is thus conceding that “all international law by definition becomes irrelevant, because non-compliance becomes self-justifying.” Another unfounded leap in logic here—the supposed “irrelevan[ce]” of “international law” is a conclusion that Suarez arrives at prematurely, not something that Chomsky himself states. Non-compliance with an act that is likely to give false hope to a desperate people is self-justifying. Some laws are unjust, others are just, non-compliance with acts that seek to undermine just laws (e.g. the ones that afford Israel the same status as any other nation) is self-justifying. We can certainly quibble with Chomsky’s strategical opinions and judgements, but we must be open about how we are doing it and what we alternatives we are offering. Suarez is prepared to prolong Palestinian suffering in order to take a courageous and principled stand against Israel. I am not being facetious, this seems to be the calculus.

Suarez attempts to link the reasoning of “relative badness” to the, in his eyes, logically connected position that “no injustice could ever be targeted except the one that is (according to criteria of one’s choosing) the absolute most egregious on the planet. All others need simply point the finger downward.” But this ignores the principle of “elementary morality” that Suarez certainly must be aware of. Chomsky is fond of saying that values and principles should be consistent on both sides of the border between “us” and “them”. And if those principles lead us to find something wrong with what “we” do (e.g. Harvard being complicit in the American imperial project) then we should prioritise activist strategies that seek to right those (i.e. our) wrongs first, rather than, say, the wrongs, culpability, and complicity of Israeli cultural institutions.

This distinction between ‘our’ wrongs and ‘their’ wrongs is a real one for any activist strategy that seeks to undermine powerful elite institutions perpetuating unjust policies, contrary to what Cook may suggest.[6] The state has tools that can be used to aid this public attack against those institutions, and to the extent that we can primarily influence a state to offer this aid, the responsibility is ours, else the responsibility is that of another state’s populace. Israeli-Palestinian social justice activists and Western social justice activists have clearly distinct responsibilities: firstly, and most importantly, to organise on their own home fronts against the institutions that are accountable to them directly, and secondly, to organise and contribute to the international solidarity movement that strides across continents and which seeks to deconstruct international corporations and power relations that are not directly accountable to any one populace, but which stand on the shoulders of those domestic institutions that have the Achilles’ heel of democratic accountability. There will not be the ever-passing-buck scenario that Suarez asks us to imagine if we focus on our crimes, and they (Iranians, Israelis, Venezuelans, Russians) focus on theirs.

Suarez sneaks in a feel-good misrepresentation attack on Chomsky when he says, “[t]he cumulative wealth of documentation and activism [leading up to the BDS movement's call to action] is extraordinary. Yet Professor Chomsky dismisses the movement for justice in Israel-Palestine as not having done its homework?” It is elementary to demonstrate that no one here is dismissing “the movement for justice in Israel-Palestine”.

Suarez ends with a supposedly new and scandalous discovery. Apparently, because Chomsky recognises the truism that “[t]here is no reason to expect a settler nation to accept the people whose land it took [into the land it took from them]”, he has ceased to be “the same Noam Chomsky whose [books] Manufacturing Consent and Fateful Triangle sit on [Suarez's] bookshelf”. Well, Suarez does not care to mention any specific points of departure between the two versions of Chomsky that he sees, or produce any quotes that highlight this supposed shift in Chomsky’s position. Suarez might like to consider the following quote that he may indeed find in his copy of Fateful Triangle, and rethink his dramatic discovery:

“Within the international consensus, there has been little discussion of whether such a settlement – henceforth, a ‘two-state settlement’ – reflects higher demands of abstract justice; rather, it has been taken to be a politically realistic solution that would maximize the chances for peace and security for the inhabitants of the former Palestine, for the region, and for the world, and that satisfies the valid claims of the two major parties as well as is possible under existing conditions. One can imagine various subsequent developments through peaceful means and mutual consent towards a form of federation or other arrangements.”[7] (my emphasis)

Suarez says that, with Chomsky, “[e]verything is framed in terms of what Israel wants, or what Israel will or will not agree to.” He relies on the readers’ leftist ego, and distaste of letting the Israeli establishment get the ‘upper hand’ anywhere on anything, to do his analysis for him. Palestinian suffering can fall by the wayside apparently, we just cannot let Israel win this war of words, frames, and activist egos.


[1] Jeevathol, A. Comment on Facebook post. [Online] 8th July 2014. Available from: https://www.facebook.com/Jonathan.Cook.journalist/posts/556998841075434?comment_id=557038291071489&offset=0&total_comments=23 [Accessed 13th July 2014].

[2] Cook, J. Facebook post. [Online] 8th July 2014. Available from: https://www.facebook.com/Jonathan.Cook.journalist/posts/556998841075434 [Accessed 13th July 2014].

[3] Suarez, T. Chomsky and BDS. Mondoweiss. [Online] 6th July 2014. Available from: http://mondoweiss.net/2014/07/chomsky-and-bds.html [Accessed 13th July 2014].

[4] Chomsky, N. On Israel-Palestine and BDS. The Nation. [Online] 2nd July 2014. Available from: http://www.thenation.com/article/180492/israel-palestine-and-bds [Accessed 13th July 2014].

[5] Chomsky, N. Interviewed by Barat, F. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2nd September 2010. For a video recording of the interview, see Films of Conscience, Noam Chomsky on Palestine & Israel, [Video; time reference: 02m16s] 2012, Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRu2mUcFXpg&t=2m16s [Accessed 13th July 2014].

[6] Cook, J. Comment on Facebook post. [Online] 8th July 2014. Available from: https://www.facebook.com/Jonathan.Cook.journalist/posts/556998841075434?comment_id=557081131067205&offset=0&total_comments=23 [Accessed 13th July 2014].

[7] Chomsky, N. Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel & The Palestinians. [Paperback] Updated ed. London, Pluto Press; 1999. p. 42.

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