Chomsky on BDS: a transcript

The other day ZNet ran an interesting article by one Miss E, who writes from Berlin and offers some insightful reflections on the activist scene there. In “The right way to be ‘left‘,” Miss E seconds the notion put forward by another speaker that we ought to avoid perfectionism in left wing activist culture since it feeds unattractive and unhealthy rejectionist tendencies. The cultivation of these negative tendencies, rather than affirmative and aspirational motives, will ensure that “fear, not hope, becomes the public’s only motivation for living up to the Left’s demands.”

Her suggested remedial action is apt I think:

“[P]erhaps Berlin’s left scene could try organizing meetings where the only goal is to meet new people and share everyday experiences and backstories… without judgement. … [Activists] need the same freedom to explore, enjoy and even (gasp) make mistakes without judgement that all people have. Currently, capitalism has the market cornered on all those kinds of mindless and fun activities.”

Miss E notes the almost reflexive tendency for activists to negate and exclude, which is quite understandable given the terrible realities of our world. But interestingly she adds that rejection and avoidance are a means of delaying the tasks necessary to understand a problem and win change. She further wonders if rejectionist attitudes result from “leftists slotting their ideals into a pre-existing social construct, limiting their efforts to negation, because that’s what the superficial mainstream tells them to do?”


Miss E’s essay caused me to reflect on discussions I’ve read, heard and taken part in over the years concerning BDS tactics. Back in the 90’s, when I first heard of campaigns to boycott the illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I thought it was a splendid idea that was long overdue. I mean, boycotts were ubiquitous among community and campus activists at the time, no doubt spurred by the successes of anti-apartheid activism in years recently past. There was even a magazine, Boycott Quarterly, which was a sort of compendium and promoter of a myriad progressive-minded boycotts. Boycotts were in the air we breathed. So the boycott idea seemed like a real no-brainer.

Then as further campaigns arose, the way forward seemed less clear. Perhaps as Miss E surmises, the reflex of rejection and avoidance had caught hold. I remember being confused about the BDS campaign to the point that I e-mailed Noam Chomsky to ask for his take on it. His (ridiculously prompt) response was the short version of what he has said many times since. (Chomsky’s most recent answer to the BDS question, given in an interview in April with Doug Richardson, can be seen here.)

It is the long version of Chomsky’s answer, which he gave to interviewer Frank Barat in 2010, that I present below. I transcribed this years ago, but never did anything with it. While the video of their discussion (link) has been on Youtube for seven years or so, I don’t believe a transcript has appeared anywhere.


[N.B.: I’ve very lightly edited the transcript for clarity and readability. – DM.]

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Frank Barat, September 2, 2010. (Transcript by Dave Markland)

FRANK BARAT: I’ll just come to my question about the BDS movement because that’s where a lot of criticism about your position on Palestine is coming from. The last three paragraphs of the call for BDS say:

“We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.”

Then there’s three steps:

“1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

When you read this it sounds like a call for self determination on the part of the Palestinian people —

NOAM CHOMSKY: — and the destruction of Israel. Furthermore, the hypocrisy rises to heaven. Yes all of these things are the right things to do. It’s a hundred times worse in the United States, or in England or in any other country you talk about. Why not call for [a boycott against] the United States?

FB: But I think that’s a call from the Palestinian people.

NC: It’s not a call from the Palestinian people. It’s a call from groups who call themselves the Palestinian people. In fact it’s been hard enough to try get the Palestinian people to boycott settlement produce. And the very people who are calling for this are perfectly happy to study in Tel Aviv University. So it’s not a call from the Palestinian people.

FB: But it’s been signed by….

NC: Let’s say it were a call from the Palestinian people. If I care about any people, let’s say it’s the Somali people, and if the Somali people issue a call, do I blindly follow it? Or do I ask is implementing the call going to help them or hurt them? If I care about them I’m going to ask [that] question: Will it help them or hurt them?

Now, it’s pretty obvious what this call will do. It’s a gift to Israeli and US hard-liners. [Those making the call for BDS] know perfectly well that there’s not going to be an implementation of the right to return. The hypocrisy is so transparent that [hard-liners] just use it as a weapon to discredit the entire movement. And that’s happened over and over incidentally. So, yes if you really hate the Palestinians it’s a good step, because it’s going to harm them — predictably. And in fact it’s already happened; I can give you examples if you like.

Long before this movement was organized I was involved in BDS activities — some of them of the right kind, which can be helpful. Some of them, which I just got into for reasons of solidarity, were of the wrong kind. So for example there was one here right where we are at Harvard and MIT in 2002 after Jenin. That was before this BDS movement got organized. It was a pretty good statement; it had, I thought, just the right things. But the people who put it together insisted on three words which I thought were a mistake. The words were to the universities: “and divest from Israel”. Now there’s a reason why that’s a mistake: because of the hypocrisy. Why not divest from the United States? First of all, every Israeli crime traces back to the United States — and that’s a fragment of US crimes. There are much worse.

Now, I’ve read that people say, well Israeli universities don’t condemn the occupation. Well, did Harvard and MIT condemn the invasion of Vietnam? No, they directly took part in it. Did anybody call for boycotting them? Are they calling for boycotting them now? And remember, US support for Israel, which is decisive, is a fraction of US crimes. And we can say the same about England and France and on and on.

So those particular words could be attacked and were attacked as pure anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, that was with justice. So the president of Harvard immediately picked on them and made an impassioned speech saying we’ve got to worry about anti-Semitism at Harvard. Okay, for the next couple of months the only issue around here was anti-Semitism at Harvard — which doesn’t exist. Jenin disappeared, the Palestinians disappeared and so on. So if you really want to harm the Palestinians that was a good proposal.

FB: Being in Israel-Palestine many times throughout the last few years, I’ve spoken to people who are not representatives of Palestinian civil society, they are just Palestinians living in [the occupied territories]. And they told me: We know [a boycott] might hurt us, that Isreali products are of better quality…

NC: That’s not what we’re talking about. They’re talking about what they should do. Now, if they want to take Israeli products, that’s their choice. I’m not saying they should or they shouldn’t. It is a fact, however, that Palestinians have not been able to implement a boycott even on the settlements, let alone on Israeli products. But that’s their problem.

We’re talking about an entirely different question: what should WE do? Should we take steps which we have every reason to believe are going to harm the Palestinians? I don’t think so. But if people feel like doing that, okay, just join AIPAC and do it straight out.

On the other hand there are very good BDS proposals, very effective ones. I’ve been in favor of them and in fact involved in them for years, even before this alleged movement began. They’re ones that make sense; they target the occupation.

These are tactics, not principles. To be a [good] tactic it has to meet at least two conditions. One, it has to be helpful to the victims, not harmful to them. And two, it has to be educational. That is, it’s directed at somebody. It’s symbolic of course, like other non-violent actions. It’s directed at somebody. It’s directed at an audience. It has to help educate them –not miseducate them– so that then they’ll be able to go on and take further actions. That’s the whole point of civil disobedience. And there are many proposals that have exactly that effect. So for example those that call for, say, an end to US arms sales to Israel have exactly that effect. It’s symbolic of course, but if implemented, yes, it would benefit the Palestinians. And it educates Americans and Europeans, who are the crucial people here. It educates them because it gets them to focus at home.

It’s really easy to blame the other guy. You know, look at those awful people in Darfur and so on. It’s a little harder to look into the mirror. But that’s what counts. Look into the mirror, find out what we’re doing, what we’re responsible for, what we can change — always crucial. And particularly crucial here because what we’re doing here has a decisive influence on policy. So you want to educate people here to look at home, do the hard thing and pay attention to what’s going on here and try to change it. That’s what we can do.

Well, if you focus on arms sales, on corporations operating in the occupied territories, on purchase of goods from the occupied territories and so on, it meets those two criteria. On the other hand if you say, let’s boycott Tel Aviv University, or let’s insist on boycotting Israel until they end internal repression, anybody with a brain is just going to laugh. I mean, there’s no internal repression in the United States? Do we boycott Harvard which has a much worse [history].They’re just going to laugh and it’s just going to be a weapon inthe hands of hard-liners.

FB: I agree but I think it’s a pragmatic decision and it’s a lot easier to hurt a small country like Israel through boycott than it is to hurt this huge imperial country, the US.

NC: Oh no it’s not. It’s quite the opposite. It’s immediately understood to be just saying let’s go after something that’s easy not after something that’s principled. So therefore it’s just hypocrisy and therefore we reject it. Which is exactly what happens, as in the case I mentioned.

Incidentally, if we’re going to talk about South Africa, let’s be serious about it. The real boycott movement took off around 1980. By the time it took off that was after decades of educational and organizational work which had led to a situation in which there was virtually no support for apartheid. American corporations were beginning to pull out for their own reasons, Congress was beginning to establish sanctions and so on. There’s nothing like that going on in this case because the work hasn’t been done. So if you want the South African analogy, do the work. Then when you get overwhelming opposition to the Isreali occupation and US support for it –fine, then you can [sensibly implement the BDS program].

In fact there’s more to the South African analogy if people would pay attention to the history. Around 1960 South African nationalists recognized that they were becoming a pariah state. The foreign minister actually approached the US ambassador and told him, look, we know we’re being voted down in the UN and so and so forth. But you and I know that there’s only one vote at the United Nations: yours. It doesn’t matter what the world thinks or does. As long as you support us, we’re okay.

And that’s turned out to be exactly correct. Exactly. By the 1980’s, as I said, even Congress was passing sanctions. Reagan had to get around the Congressional sanctions to keep supporting South Aftrica and he did. As late as 1988 the US denounced the African National Congress as one of the more notorious terrorist groups in the world — Mandela just got off the terrorist list last year. And apartheid was working fine, it looked like they had won everything. They were gloating in their victory. A year or two later, US policy shifted. A couple years after that, apartheid was gone.

Now, that tells you that if you’re serious about helping the Palestianians, you’ll pay attention to the South African analogy and not mythology about it.

FB: You call the BDS an “alleged movement”. … It’s really a movement.

NC: Yes, and what you’re missing is that I’ve always supported it even before it existed — when it was properly targeted. If it’s targeted in a way that meets the basic two criteria — helping Palestinians and educational — not only do I support it now but I supported it before it began. If on the other hand it’s designed to harm Palestinians and to miseducate people then I’m not in favor of it.

FB: But how could it [harm the Palestinians]? You’re saying that it’s not coming from the Palestinians but more and more organizations have signed this call for boycott. I think it’s 170 now inside Palestine. There is also a boycott from within Israel. So how are you actually saying that the Palestinians [have not issued the call]?

NC: That is just totally irrational. First of all, Palestinians within Israel: the Palestinian leadership has tried to get them to boycott Israeli settlements and Israeli products. That’s fine; that’s their business.

Let’s take away Palestinians. If, say, organized Somalis put forth a call to me which I can see is going to harm them, I’m not going to follow it at least if I care about Somalis. Of course, if I don’t care about them, I’ll follow it.

B: So again, let’s say, if really the call was from every single Palestinian in Israel and in Palestine, you’re saying that you wouldn’t support them and not harm them, but how would they feel if they’re saying to their supporters could you do this… ?

NC: … Could you do something which will harm us?

B: Yes.

NC: What I would do is exactly what I’ve done for years when I’ve talked to Palestinian groups — who’ve been pretty self-destructive, I should say. This goes back to the 1970’s when the PLO was extremely self-destructive. I met leadership and others with Ed Said and Eqbal Ahmad and other people who cared about the Palestinians and what we tried to tell them is, look, you’re calling for this and you’re acting this way but you’re harming the Palestinians.

That’s what we tried to explain to them. It didn’t work very well with the PLO. That was to Ed Said’s despair — and Eqbal Ahmad’s. But that’s exactly what you do in any case where you’re dealing with oppressed people.

If Black Panthers had said let’s go out and smash all the banks, I wouldn’t have said, well okay, you’re the blacks so therefore I’m going to go smash all the banks. If they had said that — which they didn’t — I would have said, “look, you’re making a mistake. The actions you’re calling for are going to harm you. And you should rethink what you’re doing.” If we care about people that’s the way we react to them.

If there are BDS tactics that help the Palestinians and help educate Americans and Europeans so therefore they will act in ways that matter, of course I’m in favor of them.

B: Okay. Thanks a lot, Noam.

Leave a comment