Noam Chomsky INTERVIEW: On charges of anti-semitism and sensible tactics for Palestine solidarity

December 6, 2020

[Chomsky responds to a question about accusations of anti-semitism which stifle debates about justice in Israel-Palestine.]

I think the question we should be asking ourselves is: Have our tactics helped develop the charges of anti-semitism? There are tactics that would not encourage that development. So for example, the Presbyterian Church has adopted a strong policy of boycotts and divestment against anything involving the Occupied Territories, including even US corporations involved in the Territories in any way. They have never been accused of anti-semitism.

In fact if you look closely, activist work that has focused on the Occupied Territories has not elicited accusations of anti-semitism. And there’s a very good reason for that. It’s simply saying, “Let’s follow international law and the positions of the major actors in the world–even the human rights organizations.” …

The kinds of actions that have been brought to the fore and that have been the basis for the outrageous laws–charges of anti-semitism and so on–are different ones. Not these. That tells us something. That tells us if our tactics are focused on Israeli crimes in the Occupied Territories, we have a very strong case. The chances of bringing up charges of anti-semitism are slight and such charges wouldn’t get anywhere. That’s important to think about. Like, the Presbyterian Church and others have taken this position, as a good example.

The United States does make a fuss when the European Union says it’s going to label products from the Occupied Territories as from Palestine, not from Israel. The US gets angry but it doesn’t do anything. That doesn’t have much hold. That’s a very difficult position for the US to maintain. And the charges of anti-Semitism are based on other things, like the demand that Israel should accept all Palestinian refugees. That does open charges of anti-Semitism.

This is independant of whether it’s right or wrong — quite apart from whether it’s right or wrong. If you’re a serious activist, you want to help the victims. You ask yourself: “What are the consequences of taking that position?” It’s always a question that serious activists have to raise, no matter what the issue — in the United States or anywhere else. Not, “Do I think I’m right?” but “What are the consequences going to be?” And the consequences of this are that immediately there will be a charges that “You want to destroy Israel. You want millions of Palestinians to come and overwhelm Israel.” …

Tactics have to be selected so that you don’t give weapons into the hands of your enemies. You don’t carry out tactical moves that are going to strengthen those that want to destroy you. I could give you examples right here and now on the facts about slogans that are used, but it’s constant. I think those are the things that have to be thought through — quite carefully. Tactical choices are sometimes disparaged as “not principled.” That’s wrong. They are what matters to the victims. The victims don’t care what your principles are. They care what actions you carry out and the effect on them. And that’s what serious activists have to keep in mind. …

[Question about Palestinian refugees.]

We should face the reality of the fact that whatever we think about the rights of the refugees, mass refugee return is not going to happen. There is no support for it in the world. There actually is no real legal support for it. If it ever gained any support, Israel would use its ultimate weapons to prevent it, for obvious reasons. Palestinian negotiators have always understood this. If you go back to the seventies, this was put forth as a public demand. But in the quiet negotiations in the backrooms, it was always understood that at most there will some kind of symbolic return. That goes back to the internal discussions way back to the seventies. And that’s because they have to recognize they live in the real world.

In the United States for example, there are proposals to remove statues of Robert E. Lee. There’s no proposal to evacuate Washington. You could make a case for it: Washington was a brutal slave holder, he is a symbol of the extermination of the indigenous population. Why not remove him? But no serious advocate of Indigenous American rights proposes it because that’s not going to happen. You want to propose things that might happen, not that you think are right. At least if you’re serious about the victims.

[Question about anti-Zionism: If opponents of Palestinian rights conflate it with anti-semitism, how can Palestinian refugees even communicate their experiences as victims of Zionism? And how can someone act as an ally to oppressed Palestinians?]

We should make very clear the plight of the Palestinians who are refugees. We should also make very clear the plight of Indigenous people in the United States, and many others like them. But we should accompany that with efforts to improve their lives, not to make their lives worse. Not to take positions which cannot be realized, and will offer help to those who want to destroy the Palestinians by giving them an opening to say: “You’re all just a bunch of anti-semites, so let’s make you illegal.” It doesn’t help Palestianians; it doesn’t help Palestianian refugees. Just as it would make no sense for Indigenous rights activists in the United States to say, “Let’s destroy Washington–the worst symbol of our oppression.” You can believe that. You can discuss it. You can bring it to the consciousness of the population, but it’s not a tactic. …

– Transcribed by Dave Markland

From the Youtube video: “Conversation with Noam Chomsky: what’s new for Palestine, Israel, the world after the US election,” an interview with Arizona Palestine Solidarity Alliance (Dec 6, 2020). [link]
(Transcript lightly edited for clarity. Begins at about 51:00.)

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