Chomsky in Gaza: academic boycott “will strengthen support for Israel”
Legendary MIT linguistics professor and political author Noam Chomsky has been visiting the Gaza Strip for a linguistics conference and as a demonstration of political solidarity.
The Electronic Intifada’s Rami Almeghari sat down with Chomsky in Gaza City to talk about his views on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, the Palestinian Authority’s UN bid, and what a political settlement in Palestine may look like.
This is a rush transcript.
Rami Almeghari: Your current visit to the Gaza Strip is said to be within your own attempt to help break the Israeli siege of Gaza. Why has it taken place now?
Noam Chomsky: It has been a matter of arrangements and you know I am here taking part in the linguistic conference for the Islamic University of Gaza and this is a good chance for me to help break the blockade of Gaza .
RA: Do you agree with the international and Palestinian calls to boycott Israel academically and economically?
NC: So, in the case of South Africa, for example, in which I was involved in the boycotts, they were highly selective and they were selected in a way which would lead to help for the victims, not to make us feel good, help for the victims. The same in the case of the Vietnam war, where I was involved, and I was imprisoned many times, I was involved in civil disobedience, organizing resistance and so on.
But we always had to ask ourselves, when we pick a particular tactic, what does it mean for the Vietnamese not what does it mean for us? And sometimes there are things you should do and sometimes there are things you shouldn’t do and in fact they were very helpful in that regard.
And the same is true with boycotts. If you call for an academic boycott of say Tel Aviv University you have to ask yourself, what the consequences are of that call for the Palestinians and there’s an indirect answer. When you carry out an act in the United States, you are trying to reach the American population and you’re trying to bring the American population to be more supportive of Palestinian rights and opposed to Israeli and US policies.
So you therefore ask yourself, will an academic boycott of Tel Aviv University have – you ask yourself what the effect would be on the American audience in the United States that you are trying to reach. Now, that depends on the amount of organization and education that has taken place in the United States.
Today, if you look at the people’s understandings and beliefs, a call for an academic boycott on Tel Aviv University will strengthen support for Israel and US policy because it’s not understood. There is no point of talking to people in Swahili if they don’t understand what you are saying. There could be circumstances in which a boycott of Tel Aviv would be helpful, but first you have to do the educational and organizational work.
Same with South Africa. The equivalent of BDS, the boycott and sanctions programs, they began really around 1980. There were a few before, but mainly around then. That was after twenty years of serious organizing and activism which had led to a situation in which there was almost universal opposition to apartheid. Corporations were pulling out following the Sullivan law, the [US] Congress was passing sanctions and the UN had already declared embargo. We’re nowhere near that in the case of Palestine. We are not even close.
RA: Do you agree or not agree, do you agree partially… ?
NC:You can’t agree or disagree, it’s meaningless. In the case of any tactic, you ask yourself, what are its consequences, ultimately for the victims, and indirectly for the audience you are trying to reach. So you ask, do the people I am trying to reach see this as a step towards undercutting US policy and freeing the Palestinians or do they see this tactic as a reason to strengthen their support for US policy and attacking the Palestinians. That’s the question you ask when you carry out any tactic, whether it is disobedience, breaking bank windows, demonstrations, whatever it is. Those are the questions you ask if you care about the victims, if you don’t care about the victims, you won’t bother with these questions and you just do what makes you feel good.
RA: [Palestinian Authority] President Mahmoud Abbas called on the UN to recognize Palestine as a non-member state of the UN. What do you think about this move amidst Israel’s ongoing unilateral actions on the ground that change facts on the ground?
NC: The question is whether this act will improve the situation of the Palestinians and it is independent of what Israel is doing on the ground, which is a separate issue. Abbas can’t change what Israel is doing on the ground.
He can, or Palestinians can, take steps which will improve their situation in the international arena, so we ask ourselves whether a move towards recognition of Palestine as a non-observer status would be of benefit to the Palestinians or not.
Well, I think it could be of some benefit. For example, there’s a good reason why the United States and Israel are so passionately opposed to it. The reason they are passionately opposed is that it would be of benefit to the Palestinians. For example, it would give them the status in which they might consider bringing criminal charges against Israel to the International Criminal Court.
Now that’s almost certainly not going to succeed but it could be an important educational step. And that’s what you think about if you care about the victims. As I said, if you don’t care about the victims you don’t ask these questions.
But if you care about the victims you ask what this action will have to do, how will it affect their fate. How will it affect the people of Gaza and the people of Palestine generally. In this case, I think it can have some mild positive effects. And we should pay attention to the fact that both US and Israel are passionately opposed, and if they are passionately opposed we should ask ourselves why? And they are opposed precisely because it could be of benefit to the Palestinians.
NC: It is not a choice. I have been in favor of the what’s called a one-state-solution or binational state solution for seventy years and, so ok, I’m in favor of it. I am also in favor of peace in the world and … getting rid of poverty. There’s a lot of things I’m in favor of.
But if you are serious, you say, “how do we get from here to there?” That’s the question. We can all say it’s a wonderful idea. In fact I don’t think one state is a good idea, I think there should be a no-state solution that should erode the imperial borders. There’s no reason to worship French and British decisions on where to draw borders. A no-state solution would be much better, but again we ask, how do we get there?
Over the past seventy years I have been involved, there have been different ways in which you could move to that direction. Circumstances change, so your tactics change and under current circumstances, in fact since 1975, there is only one way that has ever been proposed, and that is in stages, through a two-state solution as the first stage. If there’s another way, nobody’s told us. They can say “I like this outcome,” but they don’t tell us how we get there. Now that’s as interesting as someone [who] says I’d like to have peace in the world.
RA: Thank you very much.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.