Problematizing My Faves: Susie Linfield on Noam Chomsky

Dear Max,

The following passages are from Susie Linfield’s book, The Lions’ Den:  Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky.  While the focus is on Middle East matters,  you may see some similarities to things we’ve discussed about Chomsky and the Left in the last year or two.



Noam Chomsky, the subject of my last chapter, is a different case from the other writers in this book. First, unlike most of those I discuss, he is alive and prolifically publishing as I write. More important, I chose to include him primarily because of the vast influence he has had on debates over Israel-Palestine and the reverence he inspires among so many. But of all the writers discussed in his book, he is the one whose strict adherence to ideology has most severely handicapped him and who has promulgated a palpably erroneous history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet Chomsky clearly self-identifies as a member of the Jewish people; in no sense is he an anti-Semite. The great paradox, I believe, is that some of his most deeply flawed ideas about Israel stem from his fears about its survival.  13

In constructing a world where Arab dictators and PLO militants spent decades seeking peace and Amos Oz opposed it, Chomsky has, unsurprisingly, been forced to ignore the actual history of the conflict.  269

No, the foundation of Chomsky’s analysis is not the actual, on-the-ground, highly complex history of this conflict and this region. Rather, Chomsky rests his argument almost completely—dare I say religiously?—on a little-known, and never passed, United Nations resolution of January 23, 1976.  269    In book after book, Chomsky characterizes this resolution as “quite clearly” establishing the PLO’s acceptance of Israel’s sovereignty and claims that, from 1976 on, “The Arab states and the PLO continued to press for a two-state solution.” And he habitually describes the resolution as having been “proposed by the PLO and the Arab states” or, sometimes, as “introduced by the Arab ‘confrontation states’ (Egypt, Jordan, and Syria).” He affirmed these claims in his 2014 United Nations speech.  None of this is true. 272  Through what powers of alchemy does Chomsky transform this resolution, and these speeches, into an olive branch—one he has repeatedly excoriated the stiff-necked Israelis for rejecting? How did the proudly defiant, anti-Zionist “Axis of Resistance” suddenly renounce its existential purpose and melt into its meek opposite? Chomsky’s profound misrepresentations of this resolution and the political positions it articulated—misrepresentations that he repeats time and again, as if that would somehow make them true—are staggering. Even worse, he has constructed an entire edifice, moral and political, on these fallacies.  273  The idea that in this particular year, in the midst of this particular war, all these hostile factions would suddenly unite and reverse their long-standing animus to Israel, their one common enemy—the idea is, frankly, inconceivable. I repeat: It did not happen and it could not happen—something Chomsky would have known had he widened his blinkered field of vision.  274

Basic knowledge, research, fact-finding, an informed and capacious perspective: These, too, are the responsibility of intellectuals. So is a respect for the constraints of history, which is to say for what is possible at any given moment. Chomsky simply lacks the humility this demands, which has freed him to propound theories that are startlingly unmoored from actuality. He does not understand that political reality, which is to say human beings, cannot be twisted into whatever shape we desire. 276

In the worst tradition of Left sectarianism, Chomsky is especially hostile to Israeli leftists who opposed the 1982 war. These men and women viewed the aggression toward Lebanon as a departure, which means they regarded Israel as a moral agent with choices to make. They saw Lebanon as a profoundly disastrous milestone in their nation’s history and anguished over it as such. Chomsky mocks this as a form of self-flattery. He attacks Amos Oz as a disseminator of “familiar falsehood” about the war and Jacobo Timerman, whose book The Longest War is a stinging indictment of it, as a spinner of “concoctions” with a “remarkable record of falsification.” 278

The Manichean history that Chomsky presents demands that he cleanse away, misrepresent, ignore, and deform an immense amount of evidence. This is nothing less than intellectual fundamentalism. 279

What, indeed? Whatever the answer, it is difficult to square Chomsky’s verbal bullying with his oft-proclaimed dedication to the free flow of ideas and information, a culture of dialogue and dissent, and a more egalitarian world in which every human being can participate. In a sober, beautiful 1969 piece for Liberation called “Some Tasks for the Left”—the best and most humane thing Chomsky ever wrote—he urged Left activists to “be motivated by compassion and brotherhood” and to reject “dogmatism, fantasies and manipulative tactics.” That Chomsky—the “early” Chomsky—has long since disappeared. 286

Chomsky depends on Israeli sources for much of his information, but in his emphasis he differs somewhat from these groups. He has little interest in things like house demolitions, land seizures, or checkpoint closures; instead, he tirelessly offers almost prurient descriptions of sadistic violence. He tells us of a gang rape with a dog; a woman beaten with rifle butts; a man genitally tortured. (These are attributed to Israel’s Lebanese allies, but Chomsky clearly holds Israel directly responsible.) He recounts Israeli soldiers who force Arab workers to masturbate, attack with leather whips, club a three-year-old child, throw an eleven-month-old baby on the floor, rake an adolescent along barbed wire, and threaten to “fuck” young boys in a West Bank school. I assume that Chomsky’s purpose—there are pages upon pages of this in Fateful Triangle—is to disgust and enrage the reader. And he does. He also deadens her; reading Chomsky is like being trapped in a room with a jackhammer. Chomsky must, surely, be motivated by deep solicitude for the victims of Israeli violence, and he is right to expose these crimes. Yet one senses no real empathy or grief for the victims—which flood every page of Timerman—but, rather, a cold, grim anger that approaches self-satisfaction.  288

All this raises a basic question—a great black hole in the midst of Chomsky’s work—that he does not address. That question is: Why is there a conflict at all? He depicts the Israelis as mad dogs on a rampage. They reject peace again and again. They seek militarism, torture, death; they launch savage war after war on their peace-loving neighbors. They waste their wealth on useless armaments and send their children to be maimed and killed in equally useless battles. Their fears are mere paranoia. They destroy rather than create. Chomsky prides himself on being a rationalist and logician. What is the logic here? 290

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