Q&A: Noam Chomsky on Palestine, Israel and the state of the world

Eliyahu Freedman

Al-Jazeera  /  April 9, 2023

The renowned US academic also spoke to Al-Jazeera about his career and positions he regrets not taking in the past.

Noam Chomsky, the world-famous academic and known public intellectual and philosopher, sat down with Al-Jazeera to discuss the way things have been going lately in the region. He also shared his views on the sins of society, mementoes of his travels and the things he wishes he’d said.

Al-Jazeera: The prophet Amos – who you’ve called your favourite – speaks of “three sins which I will forgive and the fourth which I will not forgive”. What are the sins you see accumulating in society ?

Chomsky: We don’t have enough time to run through it. Let’s start with the obvious. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. It’s now been moved forward to 90 seconds to midnight.

Midnight as the termination of the human experience on Earth, racing towards the threat of nuclear war. The threat of imminent climate disaster is increasing – Israel will be one of the major victims.

And our leaders, their major sin is that they’re racing towards disaster. We’re just now commemorating the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq … worst crime of the century, it’s being commemorated here. The US Navy just commissioned its most recent assault vessel and named it the USS Fallujah in memory of one of the worst atrocities of the US attack. Fallujah had been … a beautiful city. Marines invaded, destroyed it, killed thousands of people … People are still dying from the weapons that were used with phosphorus, depleted uranium.

It’s more than atrocious, it’s symbolic. Look over the past 20 years, see if you can find one sentence anywhere near the mainstream that says that the invasion of Iraq was a crime – it was the worst crime of the 20th century. The worst criticism you can make is it was a ‘mistake’. It’s been reconfigured, reshaped to be presented – even by liberal commentators – as a failed effort to save the Iraqi people from an evil dictator, which has absolutely nothing to do with why the war began.

And furthermore, it overlooks a small fact the United States strongly supported Saddam Hussein during the period in which he carried out his most horrible crimes, including things like the poisoning of Iraqis and the Halabja massacre, chemical weapons, killing hundreds of thousands of Iranians. The US was delighted, supported him right through.

So now, history is reconstructed so that we were trying to ‘save Iraqis’ from the person we were strongly supporting. Iraqis were not exactly clamouring for rescue from the country that had imposed sanctions in the 1990s that were so vicious and murderous that there were leading international diplomats who resigned because they regarded them as genocidal. But that’s the way the intellectual classes managed to reconstruct crimes of state. There are people who object around the periphery. You don’t hear their voice, they’re marginalised. You want to learn about the USS Fallujah? You’re not going to read it in the American press. You can read it in critical commentary around the edges where people like me were able to find out about it, not from the American press, but from Al Jazeera.

Al-Jazeera: Shortly after Netanyahu was elected in 1996, you predicted that the shift from Labour to Likud would be more style than substance and that, eventually, the highly Americanised Netanyahu would adapt to a style more palatable for Americans. Looking back at the Netanyahu era, were you correct in these predictions ?

Chomsky: For a few years, more or less. But through the 2000s, Israeli politics shifted, Netanyahu moved much further to the right. He still knows how to speak to his backers in the United States. You have to remember, opinion in the United States with regard to Israel has shifted. Israel used to be the darling of the liberal American Jewish community.

Well, that began to change … now, the main support for Israel is the far-right evangelical community that has become politicised in the last 20 or 30 years as very strong supporters of Israel, mostly for extreme anti-Semitic reasons. Meanwhile, liberals, liberal Democrats, have drifted away. Look at the last poll: among Democrats, there’s more sympathy for Palestinians than for Israel. It’s particularly true among younger people, including younger Jews.

Netanyahu understands the United States, so he’s appealing strongly to his constituency on the right wing and the far right. So when he went to speak to a joint session of Congress to condemn Obama’s move to establish a joint agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons, he was speaking to the American community that supports him, the right wing, the far right, and the right wing and evangelicals.

He’s a skilful politician, he’s changed his tactics.

Al-Jazeera: You’ve said Israel’s most illegal actions are only possible because of US support. And yet we see Netanyahu publicly embarrassing the Democratic Party with his speech before Congress in 2015, along with his public support for the re-election of Donald Trump in 2018. And this past week’s war of words with President Biden. Does Netanyahu know something we don’t about the decline of American global power? Or is he taking a gamble on continued bipartisan US support in spite of his behaviour ?

Chomsky: The United States is increasingly split – so is Israel. This is the first time Israeli leadership has openly broken with US leadership … when Smotrich and Ben-Gvir and sometimes Netanyahu say: ‘We’re just going to disregard what you want,’ openly and brazenly to American leadership, that’s new.

Recently, Israel may not have liked US policies, but when the United States demanded that it do something, it would do it. That was true of every US president up until Obama. Trump, of course, went all out to offer Israel anything it wanted, in love with Israeli power, violence and repression. Recognised the Golan Heights annexation, Jerusalem annexation, supported settlement policies all in violation not only of international law but of US policy. US had supported the Security Council resolutions that banned the Israeli takeover of Golan Heights and of Jerusalem. Trump reversed all that. … He did the same thing with Morocco, recognising Moroccan takeover of Western Sahara, which is somewhat analogous to the Palestinian situation.

But the new administration, especially the leading figures like Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, are simply telling the United States: ‘Get lost.’ Netanyahu has made pretty strong statements, saying: ‘We’re a sovereign country, we’ll do what we want.’ It’s the first time the confrontation has been this clear and it’s not clear how the United States will respond.

Two or three years ago … a US representative in the House of Representatives, Betty McCollum, introduced legislation calling for the United States to reconsider US military aid to Israel in light of US law [which] has been regularly violated by US aid to Israel. Didn’t get very far.

Just a couple of days ago, Bernie Sanders introduced legislation calling for prohibition of US aid to Israel … asking for inquiry into its possible conflict with US laws which ban US military aid to any country which is involved in human rights violations. The IDF [Israeli army] is involved … so if there’s an inquiry into this, it might lead to a debate about the legality of the US aid to Israel.

Well, I think all of these things could lead to big changes in the future … It is based to a large extent on substantial shifts in public opinion. I can tell this just from personal experience, I’ve been giving talks, writing and so on about Israel-Palestine issues. Up until pretty recently, I used to have to have police protection if I gave a talk on a campus because of the violent antagonism of the pro-Israel forces. Police insisted on walking me to my car after a talk because of the threat. Even on my own campus, city police and campus police would be there if I was giving a talk. That changed radically.

The point at which it changed is easily identifiable: Operation Cast Lead. That was so brutal, violent, young people just weren’t going to take it any more. I think that was a real tipping point. You could see it very clearly in things like talks on campuses, even strongly pro-Israel campuses like Brandeis University …changed very sharply. These are attitudes of younger people that are going to have a big effect on all of us in the future. So there are conflicts brewing. You don’t see it yet in policy, but I think you can see the beginnings of it.

Al-Jazeera: You have criticised the Israeli Supreme Court for considering Israel the sovereign state of the Jewish people … but not as a state of its citizens. At the same time, you have noted instances where the court protected the rights of Palestinians, such as the 2000 case in which the court held that the Katzir settlements built through the Jewish Agency for Israel could not legitimise discrimination against the Palestinian couple. [The court ruled that the Palestinians could not be excluded from the community.] What is your overall impression of the court ?

Chomsky: The Israeli Supreme Court … has a reasonably good record with regard to Jewish citizens of Israel. With regard to Palestinians in Israel, not so good.

There are a few cases, like the one you mentioned in Katzir, but notice that was 2000. In the year 2000, for the first time, the court concluded that a settlement can’t exclude Israeli citizens who are Palestinians. It’s pretty shocking that it’s that late. And in fact, apparently the community in Katzir has figured out ways to evade the decision. I think the Palestinian couple wasn’t even able to come in for half a dozen years and other devices were set up to try to find ways around the decision.

Nevertheless, within Israel proper, the court is – it’s not above criticism – but it has a fairly decent record. As I’m sure, you know, there has been criticism, Moshe Negbi, the leading Israeli journalistic correspondent on legal issues … was concerned mostly with issues of corruption and so on, but also talked about the way they handled Palestinian issues inside Israel.

Within the occupied territories… the court has an awful record. The Israeli Supreme Court is the only judicial body in the world that doesn’t recognise that there is an occupation … it’s just … administered territories. That’s been rejected by the World Court, every government I know of, including the United States, the Red Cross. Everyone disagrees with Israel and its Supreme Court goes along with the government. The Supreme Court has regularly authorised illegal settlements, illegal occupation measures, brutal restrictions on Palestinians within the occupied territories, almost daily occurrences of violence. Sometimes it delays action a little. But the general record is shocking. So it’s a split story.

Al-Jazeera: You have long advocated for a binational solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the two-state solution based on international consensus as the only plausible stepping stone. You still believe that this is the most desirable solution ?

Chomsky: Well, there’s a big substantial debate now between the two-state international consensus and a one-state alternative that is increasingly supported by many commentators, including quite knowledgeable ones like in the United States, like Ian Lustick for example.

But there’s something wrong with that debate. It’s omitting a third alternative, namely the one that is being systematically implemented by Israel, ever since 1969 or so, is the creation of a ‘Greater Israel’, which will take over. Everything that’s of value to Israel will leave out the Palestinian population concentrations.

So, Israel doesn’t want to incorporate Nablus within what will be the ‘Greater Israel’. Has to maintain a large Jewish majority in a racist, Jewish-dominated state. So that means take over the Jordan Valley, kick out the population. One or another pretext is used … and then it turns into Jewish settlements. They take over towns deep in the West Bank like Maale Adumim, built mostly in the 1990s, state-subsidised pleasant housing … You can go from your subsidised villa in Maaleh Adumim to your job in Tel Aviv and not even know there are any Palestinians. By now, the Palestinians who are left in the regions that Israel’s integrating and planning to take over are divided into … about 160 or so small enclaves surrounded by Israeli forces, which may or may not allow Palestinians to tend their crops, tend their livestock and pick their olives and so on, basically imprisoned.

And the idea is to try to see if we can just get rid of them somehow, get them to leave intolerable conditions. Meanwhile, recently, just a couple of days ago, the far-right nationalist religious government, extended the right of Israeli settlement to the northwestern West Bank, what Israel calls Western Samaria … [seeking to] integrate into Israel whatever is valued of Israel within the occupied territories. Jerusalem’s now maybe five times whatever it was historically, taking in surrounding villages to ensure a Jewish majority. There’s mechanisms, not formally just, slowly, step by step … just below the radar. By now, young Israelis don’t even know that there is a green line.

If you want to talk about long-term outcomes, you can’t just talk about one state and two state. You have to talk about what’s happening, ‘Greater Israel’. I understand the reasoning of the one-state advocates, but I think … it’s almost inconceivable that Israel will ever agree to destroy itself and become a Jewish minority population in a Palestinian-dominated state, which is what the demography indicates. And there’s no international support for it. Nothing. So my own personal feeling is the real options are ‘Greater Israel’, or move towards some kind of two-state arrangement. It’s often claimed that that’s now impossible because of the enormous settlement project. Maybe, maybe not. I think if the United States insists, decides to join the rest of the world in supporting some kind of two-state settlement, not just rhetorically, but in practice, Israel will be faced with a very serious decision.

You have to look back and see what the Israeli policy has been in the last 50 years. Go back to the 1970s … when the basic decisions were made. In the 1970s, the UN Security Council was debating a resolution calling for the establishment of two states, on the international border, maybe some small modifications, but two-state settlement in which there’s a guarantee of the right of each state to live in peace and security within secure and recognised borders.

Israel was passionately opposed. Yitzhak Rabin, the UN delegate, angrily denounced it. Israel refused even to attend the sessions. It was supported by Egypt, Jordan, Syria, the so-called ‘confrontation states’. There’s a long international record, votes in the General Assembly for similar resolutions, votes like 150 to 3, United States, Israel and US-dependent states. Israel decided in the 1970s, it made a fateful decision to choose expansion over security. Well, that meant that Israel was dependent for its security and support by the United States. That’s the bargain. If you choose expansion over security, you depend on a powerful state. If the US changes its policy, Israel has difficult choices to make.

Al-Jazeera: Few intellectuals have caused greater controversy than yourself. Do you have any regrets for any of the positions that you have taken or not taken related to your advocacy ?

Chomsky: For having not taken, yes. I wouldn’t retract those I’ve taken, but there are many things I should have done that I didn’t do. I was, by US standards, a very early opponent of the Vietnam War. I became quite active in opposing the war in the early 1960s … but that was too late. Should have been 10 years earlier when the US began to support the French effort to reconquer their former colony and, when the French failed, the US took over, undermined the Geneva Accords, established a client state in the south that killed 60 [thousand] or 70,000 people. That was when protest should have begun. Until the latter part of the 1960s, there was no really organised opposition. This was criminal and I should have started earlier, same on other things.

Take Israel, the leading issue of my life since early childhood. I started talking publicly about the criminal nature of Israel’s actions in 1969 – it should have been much earlier. I was familiar with the repression of the Palestinian population in Israel. I’d seen it first hand … In 1953, I lived in Israel for a couple of months at a kibbutz, which at that time was the basis for the outreach to the Arab community and the Palestinian community. I knew barely enough Arabic so that I could follow conversation. And I went, I travelled sometimes with the person in the kibbutz who ran the Arab outreach … I went with him out to the villages, heard the complaints of villagers that they couldn’t cross the street to speak to people in a friendly kibbutz unless they went to fight to get authorisation to cross the road.

I could also see the acts of repression and … insulting the non-Ashkenazi Moroccan Jewish population. All of those things should have been talked about. I didn’t become involved until after the ’67 war and Israel initiated its policies of settlement and development in the occupied territories, which expanded and led to the current situation. I was much too mild in my criticism and much too late.

Al-Jazeera: Abraham Joshua Heschel, who also strongly opposed the war in Vietnam, defined a navi [prophet] as ‘a person of agony whose life and soul are at stake in what he says, yet was also able to perceive the silent sigh of human anguish’. As others reflect upon your career, would it be accurate to describe Noam Chomsky as a navi ?

Chomsky: What’s a navi? It’s an obscure word of obscure origin. Probably an Akkadian borrowing, but nobody knows for sure. The people who were called navien were pretty much analogous to what these days we might call dissident intellectuals. They were people who condemned the geopolitical analysis, warned that the Evil Kings were leading the Jewish people into disaster, condemned the crimes and brutality of the kings, called for mercy for widows and orphans.

Pretty much the range of things called dissident intellectual opinion, and they were treated the way dissident intellectuals usually are – badly.  Driven into the desert. Imprisoned. Eliyahu was called Hater of Israel because he dared to condemn the acts of the Evil King. Well, that’s familiar, it has its own resonances throughout history right to the present. It’s obviously not 2,500 years ago, [it’s] a different world … [but] some similar characteristics.

Al-Jazeera: Is there anything in your home that is a physical souvenir from one of your trips to Israel and Palestine? And what does it represent ?

Chomsky: Well, I have one physical souvenir. I picked it up in the Kalandia refugee camp while the camp was under military curfew during the first Intifada. With a couple of friends, Israeli, Palestinian friends, I managed to work through the military curfew, through a back road. We were able to walk around the camp for a while before we were picked up by an Israeli patrol. Talked to people who were locked in their homes over there, over the fences. I did pick up a canister – I’m not enough of a military expert to tell you what it was, I assume it was a tear gas canister – that was left by the Israeli forces who’d been attacking it. So that’s one memento, of not a pleasant period.

Al-Jazeera: And what does it represent ?

Chomsky: It represents the harsh, brutal repression … in the occupied territories now for over 50 years, increasing in violence and repression … There are almost daily cases of one or another kind of violence, intimidation, repression … IDF watching, sometimes participating. You go to a place like Hebron, it’s shocking to see.

And Gaza of course, is much worse. I’ve been in Gaza … in between some of the Israeli attacks. It’s a … disgraceful crime … Over two million people basically imprisoned. No potable water to drink, the energy system, sewage systems destroyed by Israeli violence. Fishermen can’t go more than a couple of kilometres out beyond the sewage-infected waters: Israeli gunboats keep them in. That’s one of the major crimes of the modern period. The Golan Heights. Nobody even talks about it any more. It was just taken over in violation of the unanimous decision in the Security Council reversed by Trump. All of these things are current Israel.

Eliyahu Freedman is a PhD Student at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Department of Arabic Language and Literature)