Four hundred people packed into Spangler Auditorium last week to hear the legendary left-wing intellectual, Noam Chomksy. Another 200 had to be turned away and there was a large number of protestors and supporters outside the hall. The HBS Business, Industry and Government Club hosted Professor Chomsky, who has been a professor of Linguistics at MIT for 50 years and has spoken at HBS several times during this time.
Chomsky is credited with the creation of the theory of generative grammar, often considered to be the most significant contribution to the field of theoretical linguistics in the 20th century. However, Chomsky is best known for his political activism and is considered to be the leading intellectual figure within the left wing of American politics and an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy. His views on Israel are often contrasted with HLS Professor Alan Dershowitz, who spoke at HBS last November.
Chomsky began by describing the history of U.S. interest in the Middle East and Israel. In 1945 President Eisenhower described this as the “strategically most important region of the world.” Chomsky believes “the reason for this is very simple – the world’s major energy reserves. And not only are they valuable because of the enormous profit that comes from them, but control gives a veto power over others.” According to him, it is against this context that US-Israel relations developed, since Israel was the most reliably pro-Western state in the Middle East.
He went on to describe the events in the region in the 1950s -1970s which reinforced the U.S.-Israel relationship. By 1976 recognition of Palestinian rights had raised international attention and the UN Security Council debated resolution 242, calling for Israel to leave the occupied territories. Chomsky said that the U.S.-Israel relationship had become so strong that the U.S. was the only country to veto the resolution, along with Israel. “From this point onwards the U.S. has been alone with Israel in blocking every UN resolution on Israel. There were almost annual votes of a similar nature at the General Assembly, usually resulting in votes of 150 to 2,” he continued.
Moving to more recent events, Chomsky discussed the proposed settlement in 2001 under the Clinton administration to break down the West Bank into separate 3 cantons, cut off from East Jerusalem, that even Clinton recognised was unviable. Chomsky said that Clinton proposed new parameters that went some way to satisfy Palestinian rights and the final reservations were addressed in Taba. Both sides agreed that they could have reached a settlement with more time, but Chomsky noted that Israel “called off the negotiations 4 days early” and there have been no more agreements since then. “Israel has since undermined negotiations by increasing settlements by 7% each year,” he continued.
“Israel has never accepted the creation of a Palestinian state,” said Chomsky. He cited Perez who said in 1996 that there will never be a Palestinian state. In addition he quoted Netanyahu’s director of communications who said that, “If the Palestinians want to call these scattered areas ‘a state’ we won’t mind. In fact – if they want, they can call it ‘fried chicken.'”
Chomsky then raised the issue of the legal status of the Israeli occupation. “There is near unanimity that this violates international law,” he said. Since 1967, moving one person into the occupied territories has been a violation of the Geneva Convention. In addition, U.S. Judge Buergenthal ruled in the World Court (the International Court of Justice in The Hague) that the new separation wall being built is illegal and is in violation of international humanitarian law. Chomsky said that the U.S. continues to provide the required economic, military and diplomatic support to Israel to allow this to continue. “It has been doing so for 30 years, in violation of the international consensus on a two-state settlement,” he continued.
During the Q&A, in which his views were strongly challenged by some of the audience, he set out further thoughts on the path to peace. In his view, the best proposal for peace is the Geneva Accord of 2002. This proposal would give Palestinians most of the West Bank the Gaza Strip and part of Jerusalem, drawing Israel’s borders close to what existed before the 1967 war. In return for removing most of the Israeli settlements in those areas, the Palestinians would limit their right of return to Israel and drop all other claims.
“The proposal was welcomed by virtually the entire world and rejected by Israel and Washington, but could have been the basis for a just peace. It cannot happen unless the U.S. leaves its extreme rejectionist position.” Chomsky is against the Israeli proposal to create three separate cantons for the Palestinians, “which would literally be like prisons.”
Chomksy was mixed on the recent paper by KSG professor Stephen Walt (and John Mearsheimer from University of Chicago). They contend that the centerpiece of U.S. Middle East policy is its intimate relationship with Israel. The authors argue that although often justified as reflecting shared strategic interests or compelling moral imperatives, the U.S. commitment to Israel is due primarily to the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby.’ (The paper can be read on //kgnotes1.harvard.edu/Research/wpper.nsf/rwp/RWP06-011).
Chomsky believes that it is hard to test Walt and Mearsheimer’s argument because the interests of the two nations do coincide. “I am also sceptical whenever anyone makes judgements like this with confidence. It is a very subtle question.”
Chomsky believes that the coverage of Iraq has been like that of the Soviet newspaper Pravda during the Afghanistan invasion. News stories only cover how the U.S. is doing and what we are bringing to the people. Journalists are not allowed to roam around to see what is going on for themselves, which is even worse than during Vietnam. He believes that the Bush administration has only started claiming it invaded Iraq to bring democracy to the country after it found no weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion.
Chomsky thinks that U.S. foreign policy has driven Iran to build nuclear weapons and caused the rise in terrorism we see today in the world. He believes it is understandable for Iran to seek to protect itself when it has been threatened by the U.S.
After the speech, Chomsky encouraged Harvard students, in typically radical fashion, “to challenge the system you are in. Universities and the media train you to accept what you are told. For example, apply the principles of the Nuremburg trials to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The leaders of the Bush administration should be prosecuted. Unless you question what is presented to you there can be no change.”