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This is the first in a three-article back-and-forth between Noah Cohen and Noam Chomsky about how peace can be achieved between Israelis and Palestinians and their disagreement over the applicability of the principles of human rights and equality.

Noam Chomsky and ‘Left’ Apologetics for Injustice in Palestine

Noah Cohen works as an activist with the New England Committee to Defend Palestine in Boston, MA. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East, Palestine included, and has been fighting for the rights of the people of Palestine through the Palestinian struggle for the right-of-return and a single-state solution.

By Noah Cohen
Axis of Logic
August 23, 2004

It’s particularly interesting in the case of Palestine to see where US intellectuals and progressives decide that it’s necessary to be “realistic” and where “principled;” where they choose to accept more or less the general media consensus about “the boundaries of acceptable discourse” and where they reject it. In the case of Palestine, people who are generally on record as calling for forthrightness and honesty in the demand for justice in political discourse, who criticize a false “pragmatism” oriented toward the corporate media and academic political consultants and who question generalizing statements about popular consensus, suddenly become believers in pragmatism and the limits of what the discourse will allow. An interview with Noam Chomsky published on Znet under the title “Justice for Palestine?” (Znet, March 30, 2004) is an exemplary contribution to this genre of left apologetics. Since it contains so many of the arguments generally advanced to legitimize some form of continued existence for an Israeli system of colonialism and Apartheid—and to shore up rear-guard support for it among US progressives—it is worth examining in full. In general, the argument rests on two pillars:

(1) Israel’s history of colonial occupation and expansion must be separated from all other colonial histories as a special case and special consideration must be given to Zionist colonial settlers as a historically vulnerable group;

(2) Since this “historically vulnerable group” also has massive military power, nuclear weapons, and U.S. military and economic support, calling for an end to the colonial regime is unrealistic; it only hurts the colonized, and should be redirected to more useful activities.

The first is a tortured attempt to meet arguments about justice; the second is an attempt to make them moot by arguments about realism.

These essentially are the two arguments that Chomsky advances against calls for democracy and equal rights for all the people of historic Palestine. In this case, their particular form runs as follows: a democratic Palestine, in all of historic Palesine, with equal rights for everyone would only end up making Jews an oppressed minority (moral argument); such calls are unrealistic in any case, and will only be used by Zionist extremists to further justify their program of ethnic cleansing against Palestinians (pragmatic argument). Palestine is thus not like South Africa morally, where in the discourse against Apartheid the fact that whites were a minority was not supposed to give them the right to maintain special privileges by military force—they were a colonial-settler regime, and special privileges were exactly what the anti-Apartheid movement was opposing. Somehow in the case of the “Jewish state” a colonial-settler minority is supposed to be able to maintain a privileged status by force on land seized through military aggression. Palestine is not like South Africa pragmatically, since calls for an end to the colonial-settler regime are doomed to failure because they will never get sufficient international support to be effective.

As in the famous case of Freud’s “leaky-pot logic” of dreams, one should ask oneself whether these two arguments don’t rather cancel each other out—the first providing the unspoken assumptions and motivations of the second.


Here is how the discussion works in Chomsky’s hands. Asked by interviewers Stephen S. Shalom and Justin Podur how he views the possibility of a “single-state solution, in the form of a democratic, secular state,” he responds as follows:

“There has never been a legitimate proposal for a democratic secular state from any significant Palestinian (or of course Israeli) group. One can debate, abstractly, whether it is ‘desirable.’ But it is completely unrealistic. There is no meaningful international support for it, and within Israel, opposition to it is close to universal. It is understood that this would soon become a Palestinian state with a Jewish minority, and with no guarantee for either democracy or secularism (even if the minority status would be accepted, which it would not). Those who are now calling for a democratic secular state are, in my opinion, in effect providing weapons to the most extreme and violent elements in Israel and the US.”

Reading these comments, one wonders how Chomsky understands the words “legitimate” and “significant.” Do Palestinians ever qualify? Both the PDFLP and the PFLP explicitly proposed a “democratic secular state” in all of historic Palestine as early as 1969, and the foremost official representatives of the larger PLO umbrella organization expressed this goal within the same year. This continued to be the vision of the core left within the PLO for years to come. More importantly, the Palestinian idea of liberation expressed in the PLO charter of 1968 rejected the colonial construction of ethnic and religious division: all the historic people of Palestine, regardless of religion, were considered Palestinians; all were entitled to freedom of worship. The PLO rejected not Jewish people, but colonial settlers and the state created for their exclusive interests. The “democratic, secular state” espoused by a significant portion of the Palestinian movement throughout the 1970s was an implicit concession to the settler community—a generous attempt to include settlers and their descendants in a liberated Palestine, provided that they were willing to renounce special privileges. This generosity was never answered by any significant movement within Israel. Does this Israeli rejection condition then the limits of justice for which Palestinians and their supporters should struggle?

What’s clear is that Israelis will necessarily determine the limits of the discourse for Chomsky; anything that they do not accept is “unrealistic.” Pressed again on the subject, Chomsky becomes even more emphatic:

“The call for a ‘democratic secular state,’ which is not taken seriously by the Israeli public or internationally, is an explicit demand for the destruction of Israel, offering nothing to Israelis beyond the hope of a degree of freedom in an eventual Palestinian state. The propaganda systems in Israel and the US will joyously welcome the proposal if it gains more than even marginal attention, and will labor to give it great publicity, interpreting it as just another demonstration that there is ‘no partner for peace,’ so that the US-Israel have no choice but to establish ‘security’ by caging barbaric Palestinians into a West Bank dungeon while taking over the valuable lands and resources. The most extreme and violent elements in Israel and the US could hope for no greater gift than this proposal.”

This last threat is rather curious. When I visited Palestine in the summer of 2003, the Israelis were in the process of caging Palestinians into a system of open-air prisons in the name of “security,” and were busily annexing their land to settlements, even as representatives of the Palestinian Authority were meeting with Sharon and Bush to discuss the “Road Map to Peace.” None of this required anyone proposing a “democratic, secular state”—since that, according to Chomsky, wasn’t even on the table.


It’s especially disturbing to see Chomsky so consistently placing the limits of activism at the limits of the prevailing discourse—what is “taken seriously” by “the Israeli public” or “the US public” or “internationally”

In his article “The Bounds of Thinkable Thought” (The Progressive, 1986), Chomsky argued that a genuine criticism of U.S. imperial policies in Vietnam had been kept out of the mainstream political debate largely through a process of self-censorship oriented toward the boundaries of acceptable discourse. According to Chomsky, anyone not wishing to be considered “beyond the pale” knew that it was necessary to funnel all opposition to U.S. policy through the discourse of “winability”—not to challenge U.S. goals in Vietnam, but rather to challenge tactics and strategy. The prevailing discourse allowed for two positions:

1) the U.S. was successfully defending democracy in Vietnam, and could win the war by intensifying its military operations;

2) the U.S. was attempting to defend democracy in Vietnam, but its possibilities for success were increasingly poor, and casualties both to U.S. soldiers and to the Vietnamese made the war unsupportable from the perspective of a cost-benefit analysis. According to this model, even those within the mainstream debate who may not have supported the basic assumptions of the discourse—e.g. those who recognized that the U.S. was in Vietnam in order to pursue U.S. regional hegemony, against the interests of the people who lived there—learned to couch their opposition within the acceptable terms. This was done to preserve “credibility” and to serve the pragmatic goal of ending the war.

As Chomsky observed, this means that the basic assumptions at work in U.S. propaganda for its various wars of expansion and domination are never significantly challenged within mainstream debate. This makes it difficult to build a movement that opposes basic policies. Even a limited “pragmatic” victory for the opposition—e.g. success in shifting U.S. policy away from troop deployment in Vietnam—can be effectively absorbed within the overall system of empire. The subsequent writing of history created what was called the “Vietnam syndrome”—narrowly understood as a tactical problem in winning ground wars against guerilla resistance in foreign lands—and George Bush the First was thus able to declare the “syndrome” broken after the intensive aerial bombardment of Iraq and the deliberate massacre of tens of thousands of retreating troops and fleeing civilians on the Basra highway in 1991. By then the “Vietnam syndrome” did not include the deliberate massacre of civilians and other war-crimes, but only significant losses to U.S. forces.

From someone with this analysis regarding Vietnam, it’s all the more distressing to see Chomsky’s repeated insistence on what the discourse will allow in the case of Palestine. To say that one should not speak on behalf of a democratic Palestine with equal rights for everyone because there is no broad support for that position and it will only play into the hands of Israel’s right wing supporters is rather like the equivalent argument continually advanced within certain sectors of the anti-war movement in the case of Vietnam (and still continually advanced today): Talking about U.S. goals in Vietnam as “imperialism”—or worse, speaking of “the right of the Vietnamese people to defend themselves against U.S. invasion”—will only make us all look like a bunch of left-wing fanatics out of touch with the rest of America; that’s exactly what the pro-war crowd wants us to do; we had better confine ourselves to criticizing the “winability” of the war and decrying U.S. casualties.

Now listen to Chomsky on the right of return:

“there is no detectable international support for it, and under the (virtually unimaginable) circumstances that such support would develop, Israel would very likely resort to its ultimate weapon, defying even the boss-man, to prevent it. ... In my opinion, it is improper to dangle hopes that will not be realized before the eyes of people suffering in misery and oppression. Rather, constructive efforts should be pursued to mitigate their suffering and deal with their problems in the real world.”

The right of return—a fundamental human right that Palestinian refugees posses both collectively and individually, and that cannot be bargained away on their behalf by anyone—is thus dispensed with in a few sentences referring to prevailing “international support.” Notice the kindly paternalism with which Chomsky refuses to “dangle hopes that will not be realized before the eyes” of the Palestinian people—as if the right of return were something that he, or “we,” could offer or withdraw to an oppressed community that is entirely passive and dependent on his benevolence, and not a right for which the Palestinian refugee community has organized itself in an international struggle. The right of return is not a “hope” which Chomsky can “dangle before the eyes” of Palestinians; it is a right which they possess and which they are actively fighting to realize. He can either support their struggle or fail to support it.

It is a striking fact about the entire interview that Palestinians nowhere occur as a people with historical agency. When Chomsky tells us that a majority of Israelis and US citizens now support a two-state solution, he fails to mention that the very recognition of the existence of the Palestinian people—in the face of half a century of genocidal Israeli attempts to negate their society, their history and their culture—is a direct product of Palestinian resistance against overwhelming military, economic and political odds. It also seems that Chomsky’s assessments of “international support” are very much out of touch with the global opinion on the streets. Wherever one finds masses of people showing serious opposition to U.S. and European systems of empire—whether against imperial wars, or against the instruments of economic conquest—the Palestinian resistance has captured the imagination and sympathy of the global community. “Globalize the Intifada!” is now a rallying cry from Europe to South America.


Against the call for justice and equal rights for everyone—a call that we are being told is at once unjust and too idealistic—Chomsky offers his realistic compromise of justice: a two-state solution based on the Geneva Accords. (That is to say, if only the US would back it—which it just might do if we deluded pro-Palestine activists would devote our energies to that realistic solution.) Here is Chomsky’s calculus of compromise:

“Which compromises should be accepted and which not? There is, and can be, no general formula. Every treaty and other agreement I can think of has been a ‘compromise’ and is unjust. Some are worth accepting, some not. Take Apartheid South Africa. We were all in favor of the end of Apartheid, though it was radically unjust, leaving highly concentrated economic power virtually unchanged, though with some black faces among the dominant white minority. On the other hand, we were all strenuously opposed to the ‘homelands’ (‘Bantustan’) policies of 40 years ago, a different compromise. The closest we can come to a formula—and it is pretty meaningless—is that compromises should be accepted if they are the best possible and can lead the way to something better. That is the criterion we should all try to follow. Sharon’s two-state settlement, leaving Palestinians caged in the Gaza Strip and about half of the West Bank, should not be accepted, because it radically fails the criterion. The Geneva Accords approximates the criterion, and therefore should be accepted, in my opinion.”

It’s notable that Chomsky recognizes, in the case of South Africa, that the compromise ultimately reached falls short of justice: even the official end of Apartheid does not undo the immense inequality in the concentration of wealth and power among white South Africans. In the case of Palestine, “realism” demands that Palestinians strive not even for this much, since Chomsky’s solution is to impose some version of what the anti-Apartheid movement rejected in South Africa 40 years ago: a militarized state “for Jews only” next to a system of demilitarized Bantustans. Make no mistake—in spite of all of Chomsky’s claims, this really is the solution offered by the Geneva Accords.


It’s good that, at least in this case, we know what the “realistic” demand for a two-state solution looks like. In the usual variants of this argument from pragmatism, there is the added wrinkle that the spokesman only believes in a highly idealized, utopian two-state solution, which he can’t quantify exactly with details. It’s usually a two-state solution that isn’t like any of the proposals advanced so far; one that “really gives both sides equal rights” and has them living happily ever after “along side one another” and “in peace.” Here Chomsky at least does give us something specific and historical—a solution based on the Geneva Accords.

What the Geneva Accords are in reality—what they actually are meant to accomplish for Israel—is best expressed by one of their foremost negotiators and spokesmen, Amram Mitzna (the Israeli Labor candidate famous in the US as a candidate for “peace,” and infamous among Palestinians as the man who instituted the bone-crushing policy against Palestinian children during the first Intifada). The following passages are culled from Mitzna’s article on the Geneva Accords published in Haaretz (“They are Afraid of Peace,” October 16, 2003). I quote them here at some length because they demonstrate, better than any discussion I might give, that “negotiation” is here merely a continuation of colonial war by other means:

“If the prime minister decided to implement the Geneva initiative, he would go down in history for confirming the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, by agreement. That would be even more important than the declaration of the state in 1948, since that was unilateral and recognized by only a few other countries at the time.” ...
“For three years the prime minister brainwashed the public on the grounds that only force will bring victory.
“He and his colleagues made the public believe that there truly is ‘nobody to talk to,’ that ‘the IDF can win’ and that if we use more force, the Palestinians will break.
“They told the citizens that if we are strong, the terror will end. But the situation only worsened. The assassinations became the government’s only policy and instead of eradicating terror threaten to wipe out all that remains of the country.
“The terror is intensifying, the economy continues to collapse, and society to break down, and the demographic reality threatens the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. But none of that has made the government change course and try a different tack.” ...
“...We conducted battles for Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and Gush Etzion. We fought for the permanent borders of the state of Israel, for the very existence of the state and its character, and we reached many achievements.
“For the first time in history, the Palestinians explicitly and officially recognized the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people forever. They gave up the right of return to the state of Israel and a solid, stable Jewish majority was guaranteed. The Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter and David’s Tower will all remain in our hands.
“The suffocating ring was lifted from over Jerusalem and the entire ring of settlements around it—Givat Ze’ev, old and new Givon, Ma’ale Adumim, Gush Etzion, Neve Yaacov, Pisgat Ze’ev, French Hill, Ramot, Gilo and Armon Hanatziv will be part of the expanded city, forever. None of the settlers in those areas will have to leave their homes.”

Two things are clear from Mitzna’s discussion: 1) the second Intifada has been far more successful than anyone would imagine from the press here in the US, or from Chomsky’s discussion, in threatening the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state; 2) the Geneva Accords were meant to accomplish by means of negotiation what the Sharon regime has failed to accomplish by means of force—to break the Palestinian resistance, to give full and permanent international legitimacy to ‘48 occupied land, and to increase by one huge bound the amount of ‘67 occupied territory that would belong to this now fully legitimate “Israel.” As Mitzna puts it, it is a matter of trying “a different tack.”

At the same time, the Geneva Accords would be an international treaty giving legal legitimacy to a set of conditions on the ground that set the stage for Israel’s then inevitable ongoing colonial expansion. The agreement would ensure that the “Palestinian state” has no means of defending itself against Israeli aggression and that Israel would maintain the de facto power to invade at any time. The dense settlements around Jerusalem, which contain the highest concentration of settlers in the West Bank, and which effectively cut the West Bank in half, would be conceded as part of “Israel” forever. The only guarantee that Israel would not continue to expand these settlements, build more of them, and re-invade militarily whenever Palestinians attempt to defend themselves from these encroachments is a vague promise that the majority of Israelis “really want to live in peace.” Once again, neither the history of Israel nor the general history of colonial projects is supposed to guide us in assessing the realism of this “realistic” scenario.

A far more realistic assessment of all such treaty negotiations was written during the Oslo process by Norman Finkelstein. Entitled “History’s Verdict: the Cherokee Case,” the article is a sustained comparison between the Zionist project in Palestine and the US colonial-settler project of dispossessing the Cherokee people of all of their native land through a combination of settler encroachment, military assault and treaty negotiations. Within this process, settlers steal land; natives defend themselves; self-defense is widely published as “savagery” or “terrorism”; this propaganda is then used to justify military attacks as acts of “self-defense;” and finally treaty negotiations are employed to enlist a certain number of the indigenous people—either those who are simply exhausted by the sustained military assault, or those who can be bribed into collaborating—to cede more of their land to the settlers with the guarantee that the remaining land will be theirs “in perpetuity.” Perpetuity lasts for about 10 to 20 years, and then the cycle begins again (if it doesn’t simply continue unabated). The treaty negotiations are particularly useful in dividing the colonized within themselves over their possible hopes; stopping resistance struggles under the guise of a negotiated peace; and finally giving a spurious appearance of legitimacy to the entire process.


There is unmistakable racism in the way in which Chomsky evaluates the realism of different scenarios: he tells us that it’s entirely unrealistic to imagine that Jewish people could live safely as a minority in a Palestinian state based on principles of democracy and equal rights. More disturbingly, this concern over the possible fate of Jews as a minority in a Palestinian state is so significant in his mind as to justify opposition to ending an actual situation in which Jewish people live as privileged colonizers on Palestinian land. Here we are supposed to apply the author’s concept of realism. On the other hand, it’s supposed to be realistic, in spite of all proven history to the contrary, for Palestinians to expect that a neighboring Israel, under a two-state solution, will respect their territory even though they have no arms to defend themselves. Or, even more amazing, that the US, under pressure from US citizens, could be expected to protect them. His hope for this rests apparently on the good will of Israelis and US citizens. (Even in the aftermath of decades of genocidal US policies in other countries, and protest movements that have never reached a level capable of stopping a US invasion.) Here idealism is supposed to apply.

In deciding what is realistic, we are supposed to ignore the most obvious historical facts: that Palestine had centuries of religious co-existence before Zionism—a co-existence to which all parties in the history of the Palestinian struggle for liberation have officially committed themselves; that the US, Europe and now Israel have an unbroken history of violating treaties and international agreements (including the highest conventions of international law) respecting territorial integrity—especially the territorial integrity of native peoples—and that this process has generally ended in near total genocide wherever such peoples have put down their arms and ceased to defend themselves.


Chomsky’s concept of “realism” has a striking resemblance to the colonial discourse of “manifest destiny”: Good or bad, right or wrong—so the argument goes—these are the facts on the ground; this is the way of history. In the name of this “realism,” activists and intellectuals in the international community have simultaneously asserted themselves as pro-Palestinian, and yet taken it upon themselves to concede every fundamental right to which the Palestinian people lay claim. In pointing to the Geneva Accords as a legitimate compromise, Chomsky concedes all of the following rights on their behalf:

  • the right to reclaim sovereignty over the land stolen from them in 1948;
  • the right of refugees even to return to this land;
  • the right to reclaim the most densely settled land in the West Bank;
  • the right to freedom of movement within the new Palestinian “state” (since the West Bank settlements—to be declared permanently a part of “Israel”—cut that territory into isolated cantons, and these cantons are in turn separated from Gaza);
  • the right to full sovereignty over borders and airspace;
  • the right to maintain an independent military capable of self-defense;
  • the right to full control of resources.

In general, this means that the “best possible compromise,” that promises to “lead to something better,” requires first that Palestinians officially concede all of the material conditions on which the right to self-determination depends. It’s hard to see how these concessions could possibly lead to “something better.”

More importantly for our purposes—however one evaluates the realistic possibilities available to the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation—it’s impossible to see how anyone in the international community can help their struggle by conceding ground on matters of fundamental principle. Honesty in these matters is our minimum responsibility; if we believe that colonialism, racism and Apartheid are unjust, we should oppose them systematically on principle and fight them with every means at our disposal.

Faced with the apologetics of pragmatism, a friend long active in the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, and now equally active in the struggle for justice in Palestine, put the matter succinctly: Since when is it the role of solidarity activists from the society of the oppressor to make concessions on behalf of the oppressed?

Read Noam Chomsky’s Reply
Read Noah Cohen’s Rebuttal

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