Last night, famous linguist and leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky spoke on “America and Israel-Palestine: Peace and War” at Barnard’s LeFrak Gymnasium. The line to get in was long, but Bwog’s radical correspondent Peter Sterne made it inside.
A full hour before Noam Chomsky was scheduled to begin speaking, the auditorium was already beginning to fill up, and by 5:40 pm, virtually every seat was taken. Attendees continued to stream in, but they were forced to stand on the sides or sit on the floor.
Professor Chomsky began by noting the distinction between “people” and “unpeople.” People, he said, were entitled to human dignity and human rights, while unpeople “look human but are considered unworthy of human rights.” Historically, unpeople have included indigenous peoples and “those the Constitution considered only 3/5ths of a person.” In the War on Terror, he proposed, “unpeople” now include non-Americans. He noted that even though many were critical of Obama’s decision to assassinate Anwar al-Awalki, an American citizen and alleged terrorist in Yemen, they didn’t mind when the United States killed non-Americans. Chomsky used this example to illustrate how Americans are considered people with certain rights that should be respected, while non-Americans are not.
The same, he argued, is true of Israelis (people) and Palestinians (unpeople) in both the U.S. and Israel. He pointed to an October 12th front-page New York Times article, “Deal With Hamas Will Free Israeli Held Since 2006” (the online version’s title is different), that was illustrated with a picture of Israeli women celebrating Gilad Shalit‘s release. In Chomsky’s view, the article focused on the impact of Shalit’s release on Israelis, while largely ignoring the individual Palestinian prisoners involved in the prisoner swap, because the Palestinians are considered “unpeople.”
Chomsky’s criticisms were harsh, and they could easily upset Israelis, for whom Gilad Shalit’s release has been a national fixation. But it didn’t seem like they were designed to inflame. Chomsky didn’t have the angry or self-righteous attitude of a demagogue, but rather the tired and exasperated tone of a professor struggling to explain something simple to his students. It was obvious that he was extremely knowledgeable about the subject of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab relations, and he proceeded to detail a brief history of diplomacy between Israel, Egypt, the U.S., Palestine, and other Arab states. He made a strong case that the United States has generally acted not to advance peace, but to advance its own interests, and that these are often tied to Israel’s. Serious and fair peace negotiations, he argued, would have to be mediated by a neutral third party—not the U.S.—and be based on the internationally-recognized 1967 borders.
One example of the U.S. and Israel choosing their own interests above peace, according to Chomsky, occurred in 1971, when President Anwar Sadat of Egypt offered the Israelis full diplomatic relations in exchange for the return of the Sinai Peninsula (which Israel had occupied since the 1967 war). Israel rejected the agreement, preferring to move settlers into the Sinai, and the United States, under Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, supported the Israeli rejection. According to Chomsky, this was partly for racist reasons: a memo circulated in the State Department arguing that Egypt posed no threat to Israel because “Arabs don’t know which end of the gun to hold!” With both Israel and the U.S. refusing to negotiate, Egypt launched an attack to reclaim the Sinai in 1973, which resulted in a war that killed 20,000 people and nearly caused nuclear war between the Americans and Russians. After the war, Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin met at Camp David to negotiate the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, which was almost identical to Sadat’s original proposal eight years earlier. Though these negotiations are often seen as a diplomatic triumph, Chomsky argued that the Camp David negotiations and 1979 treaty should instead be considered a diplomatic failure. After all, he explained, if the U.S. and Israel had simply accepted Sadat’s offer in 1971, they could have avoided a disastrous war.
The audience seemed supportive of Chomsky during his lecture. He received a standing ovation at the end of his talk, and the crowd spontaneously broke into applause and laughter at particularly interesting moments in his lecture. The line “[Palestinian prisoners] are all unpeople, so nobody cares. The racism is so profound that it’s like the air we breathe” was particularly well-received. The explanation that “the United States and Israel punished Palestinians with sanctions for voting the wrong way [i.e. for Hamas] in free elections. That’s called ‘promoting democracy,'” also caused a great deal of laughter.
The way questioners addressed Chomsky soon revealed that the audience were not uniformly fans. Two clear trends were discernible from the lines of questioning, which contributed to the divided atmosphere. Those who addressed their questions to “Dr. Chomsky” or “Professor Chomsky” asked why the United States tolerates Israel’s behavior and what Israel should do about illegal settlements to achieve a two-state solution, while those addressing “Mr. Chomsky” asked about Ehud Barak’s proposal to Arafat during the 2000 Camp David Accords (a central point in Dershowitz’s celebrated “In Defense of Israel”) and Binyamin Netanyahu’s proposal for ostensible “negotiations without preconditions” at the U.N. a few weeks ago. In sum, around half the participants in the Q&A asked challenging questions, just as Alan Dershowitz had called for.