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Controversy (3rd and last part)

How Chomsky eclipsed the influence of the pro-Israeli lobby on the United States’ policy

In this last part of his study of Noam Chomsky’s work, Jeffrey Blankfort shows how the latter voluntarily eclipsed the role of the AIPAC. This powerful lobby mobilizes the United-stator Jewish community to put pressure on Congress and to obtain an unfailing support for Israel, often to the detriment of American national interests.

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To consult the first part of this study, click here: «Damage Control: Noam Chomsky and the Israel-Palestine Conflict». For the second part, click here: «Contrary to Chomsky’s theories, the United States has no interest to support Israel».

If there are any constants in Washington, they are the power of AIPAC over Congress and the combined power of both over the White House when it comes to issues in the Middle East. While the lobby and its legislative lackeys may not win every battle, they ultimately win every war as the three living ex-presidents, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush the First, who ended up losers at the polls can attest.

Founded in 1959, with each passing year, the organization gets bigger and stronger. With a base in Washington, offices across the country, 85,000 energized members, a staff of 165, and a $33.4 million annual budget, 58AIPAC is at the pinnacle of a massive complex of Jewish organizations and Political Action Committees (PACS) across the country, from the national to the local, that are devoted to maintaining Israel’s privileged status in the nation’s capitol.

It no longer has serious concerns about the White House, but in the past, Ford, Carter and Bush Sr. publicly challenged Israel’s territorial aspirations and crossed the lobby on numerous occasions. There is little evidence of this in Chomsky’s writings. Instead, he would like us to believe that they, as well as their predecessors, supported Israel’s settlement building and its efforts to integrate the territories into Israel proper. The historical record proves otherwise. And yet he writes: «Through the most significant facts are missing from mainstream, commentary, and often ignored or misrepresented even in scholarly work, they are not controversial. They provide the indispensable background for any serious understanding of what is happening now». [1]

Much of what Chomsky tells us is "not controversial," invariably proves to be very much so and particularly when it comes to the relations between Israel and the White House. The late revered Israeli scholar and human rights activist, Professor Israel Shahak pointed out that Chomsky’s analysis suffers from

«his undoubted tendency of demonizing the American presidency and the Executive in general, while ignoring the Legislature, but also from his very mistaken, in my opinion, tendency of assuming that not only the principles but literally everything concerning the American imperialism was laid in detail long ago, in 1944 or about that time, and from then on the policy is, so to say, a follow-up of instructions from a computer.

This ignores not only the human factor in the US itself but also the completely different nature of the foes and the victims of the US during the last decades. There can be no doubt, in my own opinion, that the actual policies of the US are complex even when they are evil, influenced, as in the case of all other states, by many factors of which AIPAC is one and human stupidity (for which he never allows) is another».

And finally, this very insightful paragraph: «But such simplistic theories, backed by his memory and ability to pick isolated examples (sometimes from a long time ago like his stock example of Eisenhower in the case of Israel while ignoring everything else from 1967 on) can appeal to [the] young who look for certainty and also for those who don’t want to [be] engaged in actual work and so find substitute for it in crude and useless display of emotion». [2]

I had written to Shahak after hearing Chomsky’s reply to a question following a speech he made in Berkeley at the outset of the first Gulf War. A member of the audience wanted to know his thoughts about AIPAC’s role in that war and his opinion of the lobby, in general. Chomsky was predictably dismissive:

«Personally I don’t think AIPAC played much of a role in this, in fact, my own feeling is that the role of the Israeli lobby, in general, is pretty much exaggerated. That’s a matter of judgment. It’s not a simple factual question. In my opinion the Israeli lobby gets its input in large part because it happens to line up with powerful sectors of domestic US power». [3]

Chomsky’s comment, notwithstanding, AIPAC, «was widely credited with having played a key role" in rounding up the necessary votes in the Senate to give Pres. Bush his majority. "[B]ecause of the extreme sensitivity to the issue, AIPAC was anxious to camouflage its role to avoid providing evidence for the accusation... that the Persian Gulf War was fought at the behest of the Jews to protect Israel." [4] To disguise their role, the Washington Jewish Week’s Larry Cohler reported that AIPAC had prominent Jewish senators vote against the war while lobbying non-Jewish senators in states with small Jewish populations to support it. That Saddam Hussein was not removed at the time brought strong criticism from the primarily Jewish neocons and on a lower register from AIPAC. During the Clinton presidency they would press their demand for regime change in Iraq and under Bush Jr., they made sure that task would be carried out». [5]

The most troubling part of his answer, however, was his downplaying of the lobby. Since most political observers view elected officials at virtually every level as representing to varying degrees their major campaign contributors, much like lawyers representing corporate clients—and AIPAC has been acknowledged as a leader in the field—his response answer was at best disingenuous.

Predictably, it drew applause from the supporters of Israel who were happy to have the distinguished scholar absolve organized American Jewry of any responsibility for what their co-religionists were doing to the Palestinians or for the lobby’s activities in support of the first war on Iraq. I decided to express my feelings to Professor Shahak. Here was his frank reply:

«I had the same, only greater, differences of opinion with Noam Chomsky, who is my personal friend for quite a time, on the subject of AIPAC and the influence of the Jewish lobby in general as you have. What is more, a number of mutual friends of Chomsky and me have also tried to influence him, in vain, on that point.
I am afraid that he is, with all his wonderful qualities and the work he does, quite dogmatic on many things. I have no doubt that his grievous mistake about the lack of importance of AIPAC, which he repeats quite often, helps the Zionists very much as you so graphically described»
. (Emphasis added) [6]

At least, I realized I was not alone in my assessment of Chomsky. His position has been a boon for AIPAC and therefore has benefited Israel’s position in the United States. In fact, as noted earlier, he has never even mentioned the organization by name in any of the books he has written on the Middle East. By steering activists away from confronting the liberal politicians that the lobby holds in thrall and placing the blame for Israel’s actions on the resident of the White House, Chomsky has, without question, been doing "damage control" for AIPAC.

Another good friend and admirer of Chomsky, the late Professor Edward Said, did not mince words on the issue. In his contribution to The New Intifada, entitled, appropriately, «America’s Last Taboo», he wrote:

«What explains this [present] state of affairs? The answer lies in the power of Zionist organizations in American politics, whose role throughout the "peace process" has never been sufficiently addressed—a neglect that is absolutely astonishing, given the policy of the PLO has been in essence to throw our fate as a people into the lap of the United States, without any strategic awareness of how American policy is dominated by a small minority whose views about the Middle East are in some ways more extreme than those of Likud itself». (Emphasis added) [7]

And on the subject AIPAC, Said wrote: « [T]he American Israel Public Affairs Committee—AIPAC—has for years been the most powerful single lobby in Washington. Drawing on a well-organized, well-connected, highly visible and wealthy Jewish population, AIPAC inspires an awed fear and respect across the political spectrum. Who is going to stand up to this Moloch in behalf of the Palestinians, when they can offer nothing, and AIPAC can destroy a professional career at the drop of a checkbook? In the past, one or two members of Congress did resist AIPAC openly, but the many political action committees controlled by AIPAC made sure they were never re-elected... If such is the material of the legislature, what can be expected of the executive? » [8]

With the lobby, the checkbook is always open. In 2002, for example, Israeli-American Chaim Saban donated $12.3 million to the Democrats with little public notice. Compare that with the media hoopla over Exxon having donated $10 million to the Republicans over a six-year period. Moreover, according to the Mother Jones web site, approximately 120 of the top 250 donors to the 2000 elections were Jewish which is interpreted in Washington as Israel lobby money.

University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole sounded the alarm on AIPAC with equal vigor, noting a CNN report that AIPAC, «holds 2000 meetings a year with US Senators and Congressmen, leading to the passage of an average of 100 pro-Israel pieces of legislation every year! » He further writes:

«Some readers have suggested that I have exaggerated AIPAC’s hold on the US Congress. But I have direct knowledge of senators and congressmen being afraid to speak out on Israeli issues because of AIPAC’s reputation for targeting representatives for un-election if they dare do so. And, it is easy to check. Look in the Congressional record. Is there ever /any/ speech given on the floor critical of Israeli policy, given by a senator or representative who goes on to win the next election? And look at the debates in every other parliament in the world; there are such criticisms elsewhere. The US Congress is being held hostage by a single-issue lobbying organization that often puts Israeli interests above US interests... » [9]

Two decades earlier, well before the emergence of the Christian Zionist factor, Seth Tillman had pointed out that

« American presidents have sought to avoid a direct confrontation with Israel and its strong supporters in the United States because of the terrific domestic controversy sure to be engendered by such a face-off; because of the powerful and undiminished hold Israel and its supporters have upon Congress; because of the exorbitant amount of political capital that would have to be expended in such a battle, placing at risk an administration’s other objectives, foreign and domestic; and because of the uncertainty that even with the use of the full political and educational powers of his office, a president would prevail in a domestic showdown... » [10]

Unlike other domestic lobbies, AIPAC has no serious challengers, the Arab-American organizations in Washington, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Arab-American Institute (AAI), being both too small and too timid to challenge even their shadow. What gives the lobby its strength, besides its significant organizational skills, is that its members are intimately tied to Jewish organizations, federations, and community relations councils across the country, as well as to labor union officials, and in recent years, to the growing Christian evangelical movement, which provides Israel with unprecedented support in what is generally right-wing Republican territory. It is noteworthy that it was only when the Christian Zionists joined the fray did Chomsky and his acolytes, most notably Professors Stephen Zunes and Joel Beinin, and the Institute for Public Studies’ Phyllis Bennis began to speak about "the lobby," suggesting that the evangelicals were now its most powerful component. The subtext was that they were welcome because they took the attention away from AIPAC.

Fighting a lonely fight against AIPAC has been the Council for the National Interest (CNI), a group made up of former State Department and Foreign Service diplomats with experience in the Middle East, and ex-members of Congress such as Paul Findley and Pete McCloskey whose criticism of Israel and support of Palestinian rights led to their being targeted for defeat by AIPAC. The former government officials are disdainfully referred to by Israel’s supporters and it’s friends in the media as "Arabists," as if to imply that their experience in the Middle East has compromised their patriotism. In practice, the term has become a euphemism for "anti-semitic," and occasionally their Jewish critics do not bother with the euphemism. The position of CNI is, simply, that the support by Washington of Israel’s policy of occupation and expansion is not in the US national interest.

The effects of an accusation of "anti-Semitism" are like none other. Being so branded as has brought such powerful and diverse public figures as Rev. Billy Graham and Actor Marlon Brando to their knees and to tears with their apologies. The fear of being called "anti-semitic" or of provoking anti-semitism, ironically, inhibits the actions of US-based Palestinian organizations despite the fact that they are Semites themselves. As if losing their land was not enough, in America they have also been robbed of their ethnic identity.

The result is that they have found it easier to go along with Chomsky’s positions. Unfortunately, they do so to the point where the issue of AIPAC and the pro-Israel lobby is never discussed at their conferences. This is also at least partly due to their affiliation with various political organizations that are led by self-proclaimed Jewish anti-Zionists who, fearful themselves of provoking anti-Semitism, prefer to blame everything on US imperialism, a much safer, if more remote target.

No series of events provide a deeper understanding of AIPAC’s power than President Gerald Ford’s losing battle with Israel and the lobby in 1975—one of the most significant encounters in the history of US-Israel relations. It rated less than three lines from Chomsky in 1982, and not one word since. [11]

The confrontation involved Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on one side and Israel and AIPAC on the other. This is how Seth Tillman described it:

« Among the lobby’s many victory trophies from the legislative arena, one of the most conspicuous and consequential was "the letter of seventy-six" addressed to President Ford by that number of Senators on May 21, 1975. Following the collapse in March of Secretary of State Kissinger’s first round of shuttle diplomacy toward a second Sinai disengagement agreement [as a result of the 1973 war], the angry and frustrated secretary of state announced a "reassessment" of American Middle East policy, during which the Ford administration conspicuously delayed the delivery of certain weapons to Israel and suspended negotiations for pending financial and military aid, including the new F-15 fighter plane.
In the course of the policy reassessment, experts from within the government and others called in from the outside reached a near consensus in favor of the United States calling for a Middle East settlement based on Israeli withdrawal to the borders of 1967 (with minor modifications), coupled with strong guarantees for Israel’s security... Kissinger’s advisers envisioned a national television appeal by President Ford to the American people spelling out the basic issues of American national interest in the Middle East, and on the basis of these, making the case for Israeli withdrawal in return for guarantees. »
 [12] (Emphasis added)

With the administration’s gauntlet down, AIPAC went into action. Three weeks later, after intensive lobbying, 76 senators signed a letter to Ford that reaffirmed Israel’s role as a barrier to Soviet influence in the Middle East and warned that

«withholding military equipment from Israel would be dangerous, discouraging accommodation by Israel’s neighbors and encouraging a resort to force. Within the next several weeks, the Congress expects to receive your foreign aid requests for fiscal year 1976. We trust that your recommendations will be responsive to Israel’s urgent military and economic needs. We urge you to make it clear, as we do, that the United States acting in its own national interests stands firmly with Israel in the search for peace in future negotiations, and that this premise is the basis of the current reassessment of US policy in the Middle East. » [13]

That effectively ended the administration’s "reassessment" plan and coupled with his pardon of Nixon, Ford’s election hopes for 1976.

«Any document », observed UCLA’s Stephen Spiegel, «that brought together such disparate Senatorial voices as [Teddy] Kennedy and Barry Goldwater, Frank Church and Paul Laxalt, Walter Mondale and Strom Thurmond, was bound to challenge the administration’s Mideast diplomacy. » [14] The realization that AIPAC was able to get such a diverse group of senators to sign a letter at any time was not lost on future presidents, but as we shall see, underestimating the lobby would trip up Bush and James Baker 15 years later. (It is still the case today. Only the names have changed. There is no other critical issue that finds liberal Democrats eagerly locking arms with the most right wing Republicans and thanks no little to Chomsky’s efforts, paying no political price for doing so).

In evaluating the «Congressional Impact on United States Policy Toward Israel» a comprehensive study of that period, Marvin Feuerwerger concluded that

«Congress played a key role in shaping the course of American-Israeli relations during the 1969-1976 period... Congress was willing at times to exert its authority by blocking measures that the administration contemplated but Congress believed would threaten Israel’s security. This willingness helped keep United States policy within certain pro-Israel boundaries... [referring to the letter from the senators to Ford, and] virtually forced the executive branch to abandon the option of imposing a Mideast settlement which Israel considered to be potentially detrimental to its security. Similarly. Congressional and interest group [AIPAC] activity in response to the 1969 Rogers Plan ‘virtually insured that no further pro-Arab initiatives would be undertaken’ by the Nixon administration. » [15]

If Chomsky’s ignoring of the Ford administration’s losing battle with AIPAC was inexcusable, the same must be said for his revisionist history of George Bush Senior’s relations with Israel. While an overall evaluation of Bush’s career would have him standing in the dock as a war criminal, his confrontation with the lobby was one of the bright spots for opponents of the US-Israel alliance. It also probably cost him re-election.

While it is generally acknowledged both in Israel and within the American Jewish community that the first Bush administration was the most unfriendly to Israel since the establishment of the state, Chomsky, incredibly, maintains otherwise:

«There is an illusion », he wrote, «that the (first) Bush Administration took a harsh line toward Israel. The truth is closer to the opposite. » Chomsky bases that on «the official administration position of December 1989 (the Baker Plan), which endorsed without reservations the May 1989 plan of Israel’s Peres-Shamir coalition government... [that] declared that there can be no "... Palestinian state" and no change in the status of the occupied territories and no negotiations with the PLO». [16]

Chomsky complained that the story was unreported in the press, while «What one does read is that Baker strongly reiterated US support for ‘total withdrawal from territory in exchange for peaceful relations’—while he was quietly lending decisive support to programs to ensure that nothing of the sort would happen ». Not only does the historical record not back Chomsky up, this is another typical example in which Chomsky «examines a handful of accounts until he finds one which matches his predetermined idea of what the truth must be... [he] selectively gathers ‘evidence’ which supports his theories and ignores the rest ». _ In this case, "the rest" is massive, much of it provided by former Israeli foreign minister Moshe Arens whose book, "Broken Covenant", was an angry rebuke of the Bush administration’s treatment of Israel.

As Ronald Reagan’s vice-president, Bush had already shown his animosity toward Israel when he urged the president, unsuccessfully, to implement sanctions against Israel when it destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor 1981. He fared no better the following June when he once again urged sanctions when Israel invaded Lebanon but was outvoted by Reagan and Secretary of State Al Haig. [17]

Of his first meeting with the newly elected President Bush in Washington, Arens writes, «The President raised the question of Israeli settlements in the territories, leaving no doubt of his objection to further settlement activity. » [18] Later conversations with Baker led Arens to conclude that

«The ‘new world’ the State Department was talking about was a world in which the Bush administration had decided to assume a confrontational posture toward Israel, its longtime ally and friend... that the ‘final status’ it was promoting was a return of Israel to the lines that existed prior to June 1967 ». [19]

It was time to call in "the lobby".
« [T]he Bush administration would have to learn that Israel would not be bullied or pushed around. It was clear to me that the only possible constraint on the Bush administration’s tactics toward Israel was domestic politics... .If Bush and Baker were to realize that there was public opposition to their bullying tactics, then they would be likely to relent, certainly as election time approached...

I realized that we would have to fortify support for Israel in Congress and among US public opinion... .I spent the next day on the Hill meeting with congressional committees and with individual members of the Senate and the House... » [20]

Arens’s visit and the work of AIPAC were to pay off when Baker launched a shot across its bows. Speaking at its annual convention in Washington in May of 1990, in the second year of the Bush administration, he told the assembled lobbyists and their Congressional guests that

«For Israel, now is the time to lay aside once and for all the unrealistic vision of Greater Israel. Israeli interests in the West Bank and Gaza, security and otherwise, can be accommodated in a settlement based on Resolution 242. Forswear annexation; stop settlement activity; allow schools to reopen, reach out to the Palestinians as neighbors who deserve political rights». [21]

Baker, a longtime player on Capitol Hill should have known what was coming next. Here is how Arens described it:

«Early in June, in an extraordinary display of support and collective acknowledgement that there had been a turnaround in official US sympathy for Israel, ninety-four of the one hundred US senators signed a letter to the secretary of state asking that the administration ‘strongly and publicly’ endorse the Israeli [Peres-Shamir] peace initiative. _«Israel’s proposals», said the letter, «have not always received the consideration they deserve by other parties to the conflict or by the international community at large. To prevent that from happening now, the United States must be fully supportive, both in fact and appearance».

A triumphant Arens concluded:

«There could be no misreading the message to the administration, or the implied rebuke. It was reported to me that Baker was genuinely taken aback by the letter and the fact that ninety-four senators had signed it... » [22]

Over the years Congress has been at the ready to give Israel additional funding, even when money has been unavailable for essential domestic programs, as happened in 2002 when the Senate, after defeating a bill that would have provided $150 million for inner-city schools that had been impacted by 9-11, turned around and tucked an additional $200 million for Israel into the Homeland Security Bill as if Israel had been targeted that day and not New York and Washington.

Things were no different in 199l when six out of ten US cities were unable to meet their budgets and several states their payrolls. In March of that year, over the objections of the Bush administration, the House voted by a 397-24 margin to give Israel $650 million in cash as part of the Gulf War emergency spending bill. Bush had publicly threatened to veto the bill but backed down when he realized it would be overridden.

In September 1991, with the war over, the Bush administration presented AIPAC with its greatest crisis since the battle with Ford. In the midst of the administration’s efforts to assemble the cast for what became the Madrid «peace conference», much to the consternation of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Israel sprang a surprise on the President—a demand for $10 billion dollars in US guaranteed loans over a five year period.

Congress, of course, was ready to jump through Israel’s hoops again over the opposition of President Bush. Angered at Israel’s demand and fearing, perhaps, that approval of the loan guarantees would allow Israel to withdraw from the conference while antagonizing the Arab invitees, Bush asked Shamir to postpone the loan application for 120 days, and made its approval conditional on Israel freezing Jewish settlements.

When Bush indicated that he was going to ask for the delay, Arens recalled, « [Sen. Daniel] Inouye [D-HA] was not equivocal at all. He said, «I am putting on my yarmulkle; we’re going to war.» (It was no coincidence that his first paying job after getting out of the Army after WW 2 had been as a salesman for State of Israel Bonds.)

Shamir refused, confident that he would prevail over Bush should it come to a showdown with Congress. On September 12, aware that AIPAC had secured sufficient votes in both Houses to approve the guarantees and override his veto, and taking note that «more than a thousand American Jews, representing various organizations and mobilized by AIPAC, went to Capitol Hill to express their support for [their] speedy enactment» [23] Bush took an unusual step. He called a press conference. What happened was graphically described in the Washington Jewish Week [24]

«Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, a long time darling of the liberal Democrats, had just promised a group of the Jewish lobbyists her vote for the guarantees when she was interrupted by an aide who handed her a note». Mikulski’s face "went ashen", wrote the WJW reporter, «I’ve just learned the president said he’s taking his case for a 120-day loan guarantee to the American people », said Mikulski. «The American people! » Imagine that, the very last folks AIPAC and Congress wanted included in their deliberations.

As Arens describes it
«Bush hastily called a press conference and made an extraordinary televised appeal to the American people. Visibly angry, pounding his fist on the lectern, he made it appear that Israel’s insistence on the guarantees was a threat not only to the forthcoming conference but to peace itself. "A debate now could well destroy our ability to bring one or more of the parties to the peace table... If necessary I will use my veto power to keep that from happening"».

Then the president took direct aim at the pro-Israel lobby. «We are up against some powerful political forces... very strong and effective groups that go up to the Hill’ he said, ‘We’ve only got one lonely little guy down here doing it... [but] I am going to fight for what I believe. It may be popular politically but probably not... the question isn’t whether it’s good for 1992 politics. What’s important here is that we give the process a chance. And I don’t care if I only get one vote... I believe the American people will be with me».
Then, his voice rising, the president said «... . Just months ago, American men and women in uniform, risked their lives to defend Israelis in the face of Iraqi Scud missiles, and indeed Desert Storm, while winning a war against aggression, also achieved the defeat of Israel’s most dangerous adversary». He also added that, during the current fiscal year, «despite our own economic worries," the United States had provided Israel with more than $4 billion worth of aid, "nearly one thousand dollars for each Israeli man, woman, and child». [25]

Never had a president addressed the American people with such frankness and none has since. Polls taken afterward indicated that Americans supported Bush by a 3-1 margin and half of those responding opposed providing any economic aid to Israel. Two weeks later, a NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed that while by 58 to 32% voters favored aid to the Soviet Union and by a margin of 55% to 29% supported aid to Poland, voters opposed economic support to Israel by 46% to 44%. Moreover, 34% saw Israel as the greatest impediment to peace in the region while only 33% saw the Arab nations in that role. [26] (Emphasis in original)

If there had ever been a «window of opportunity» for Middle East activists, this was it. Chomsky was to effectively close it. Writing of Bush’s appeal several months later, he was smug and, at best, naïve, and the polls were not mentioned:
«At the time of the US-Israel confrontation, it took scarcely more than araised eyebrow from the President for the Israeli lobby to collapse,while major journals that rarely veer from the Israeli Party line took the cueand began to run articles critical of Israeli practices and hinting thatUS support for them was not inevitable. That should also occasion littlesurprise. Domestic pressure groups tend to be ineffectual unless theyline up with significant elements of state-corporate power, or have reached ascale and intensity that compels moves to accommodate them. WhenAIPAC lobbies for policies that the state executive and major sectors ofcorporate America intend to pursue, it is influential; when it confrontsauthentic power, largely unified, it fades very quickly». [27]

Chomsky’s dismissal of Bush’s stance as "a raised eyebrow" was accepted with approving nods by the movement’s trained seals. AIPAC had become a "paper tiger" in Chomsky’s words, a sentiment that quickly moved across the country to be repeated by Prof. Joel Beinin of Stanford. What Bush’s press conference made clear, however, was the immense power that AIPAC wields over the US Congress to the extent that it stands ready to place the demands of Israel, a foreign country, above the wishes of an American president.

It forced Bush, in this instance, to take what was clearly a desperate and unprecedented action. While succeeding for the moment, within a week and under pressure, Bush had written a letter to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, a large umbrella group that lobbies the White House (and includes AIPAC), expressing his dismay that some of his remarks had «caused apprehension within the Jewish community... .My references to lobbyists and powerful political forces were never meant to be pejorative in any sense». [28]

Chomsky’s response to that series of events and his decision to erase them from his version of history reveals what side of the Israel-Palestine conflict he is on when forced to choose. Rather than urge activists to take advantage of the huge fissure that Bush’s dramatic appeal had opened between Israel and the American people and to suggest, if not call, for a campaign to stop aid, he provided «damage control» for AIPAC. While one must also fault the Palestine solidarity movement for not seizing the situation and acting upon those poll figures themselves, the influence of Chomsky on its actions was at the time, and unfortunately, still remains overwhelming.

AIPAC, of course, was not about to fold it tent depart the field. On the day after the press conference, Tom Dine, AIPAC’s executive director, declared «September 12 a day that will live in infamy», and declared war on the president. Both Israel and AIPAC had agreed, given the poll numbers that it would be unwise to challenge the president in Congress, but to wait for the 120 days. In the interim one could detect a considerable increase in the media of articles critical of Bush’s handling of the presidency and, particularly, the economy. With the November election in view, and after Yitzhak Rabin had replaced Shamir as prime minister, Bush agreed to the loan guarantees with the proviso that the amount of money that Israel was spending in the Occupied Territories be deducted from the total. It didn’t help him. Arens summed it up:

«... George Bush was defeated in his attempt to get a second term. His administration’s repeated attempts to interfere in Israel’s internal politics had been without precedent in the history of relations between the United States and Israel... Although in the months after the Likud defeat Bush gave Rabin everything he had withheld from Shamir, including the loan guarantees, he could not dispel the impression that his administration had been hostile to Israel. Bill Clinton had narrowly defeated Bush for the presidency of the United States. The vast majority of the Jewish community of America, as well as many non-Jews who were dedicated to the US-Israel alliance, could not bring themselves to vote for George Bush. The Bush administration’s confrontational style with Israel, especially the withholding of the loan guarantees, had contributed to the Likud’s defeat and, considering Rabin’s slim margin of victory, might well have been decisive. Now, it seemed as if the same policy had also contributed to the Bush defeat». [29]

Readers should ask themselves how this first-hand report squares with what Chomsky referred to as «the extreme pro-Israeli bias of the Bush-Baker administration» in an interview with his devoted Boswell, David Barsamian. [30]

Given the experiences of their predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush apparently decided that «if you can’t beat them, join them». Clinton turned his Middle East diplomacy over to pro-Israel Jewish lobbyists with ties to Israel’s Labor party while Bush Jr., after a bruising and losing encounter with the lobby and Ariel Sharon following his criticisms of Israel’s actions in Jenin in 2002, allowed a gaggle of right-wing pro-Israel Jewish neocons, to write his Middle East script which gave us the war on Iraq. He has even gone beyond that, to Sharon himself, as such diverse sources as Robert Fisk and Brent Scowcroft, the National Security Advisor under George Sr., have pointed out, Fisk suggesting that Sharon was running Bush’s «press bureau», and [31] and Scowcroft, that the Israeli prime minister has George Jr., «mesmerized». [32] The control over US Middle East policy by Israel and its American supporters now seems to be total.

Cheryl Rubenberg, after a detailed study of the lobby in her Israel and the American National Interest, concluded That

«The power of the Israeli lobby over the formation and execution of US Middle East policy has become a virtual stranglehold. It no longer matters whether elected officials subscribe to the perception of Israel as a strategic asset to American interests or not. What matters is that the Israeli lobby is able to maintain the dominance of that perception as virtually unquestionable political truth and to assure that regardless of how severely American interests in the Middle East are compromised by Israel’s policies, the US government will continue to provide Israel with complete support. The lobby’s effectiveness in impacting on the electoral process and its ability to shape public opinion and affect political culture are major factors in fostering this perception». (Emphasis added). [33]

It has arguably had no more effective ally in this cause than Noam Chomsky.

One foot still in Zion

While I knew, in a casual way, that Chomsky had been a Zionist in his youth, it had not seemed that important since his detailed descriptions of the injustices that had been heaped upon the Palestinians by the Israelis, described in detail in The Fateful Triangle and elsewhere, were exposing thousands of new readers and potential activists to the evils of Zionism. What was puzzling was why, at the same time, he was providing cover for the pro-Israel lobby.

While doing research for this article, I believe I found the answer. In 1974, Chomsky had written a little book, Peace in the Middle East, which contained many clues to the puzzle but this paragraph was the one that tied them all together. He wrote that: «...a few years later [after the establishment of the state] I spent several very happy months working in a Kibbutz and for several years thought seriously about returning permanently. Some of my closest friends, including several who have had a significant influence on my own thinking over the years, now live in Kibbutzim or elsewhere in Israel and I retain close connections that are quite separate from any political judgments and attitudes. I mention all of this to make clear that I inevitably view the continuing conflict from a very specific point of view, colored by these personal relationships. Perhaps this personal history distorts my perspective. In any event, it should be understood by the reader». [34] (Emphasis added).

Although Peace in the Middle Eastwas reprinted in 2003 as the first part of yet another Chomsky book, Middle East Illusions, it is questionable how many of Chomsky’s many fans and admirers know this about his past. A reference to his Zionist youth was in the Safundi interview cited earlier and seemed to account for his determination to protect Israel, for which he obviously maintains an affection, from being punished in any way for its misdeeds. Here is what he said in that later interview:

«...I’ve been involved in this since childhood in the 1930s. I was part of the Zionist movement, in fact, a Zionist youth leader, but I was opposed to a Jewish state, and that was part of the Zionist movement at the time. It was not the main part, but it was considered within the umbrella, so I could be an activist Zionist youth leader-the main thing in my life as a teenager- but opposed to a Jewish state, up until 1948». [35]

What becomes apparent in reading the Peace in the Middle East and his later writings is Chomsky’s naïve, romantic vision of the early Zionists and his sincere belief that leaders of the Jewish Yishuv (settlement) in Palestine—despite mountains of evidence to the contrary—were genuinely interested in peacefully sharing the land with the Palestinian Arabs who they were already dispossessing and only opted for a state in 1942 in the wake of the Nazi holocaust. Here is how he frames the argument in Towards a New Cold War:

«It is useful to recall that in the period before the Second World War, Zionist leaders, particularly those associated with the labor movement that dominated the Palestinian Yishuv, forcefully opposed the idea of a Jewish state «which would eventually mean Jewish domination of Arabs in Palestine, » on grounds that «the rule of one national group over the other» is illegitimate and that the Arabs of Palestine «have the right not to be at the mercy of the Jews» ». [36]

One needs to go to the footnotes to find that the speaker quoted was David Ben-Gurion who remains an admirable figure in Chomsky’s pantheon. What Chomsky did not mention was that in 1931, when Ben-Gurion made those comments, Jews in Palestine numbered 172,300, or 18% of the total population, as opposed to 784,891 Arabs and owned but 1,201,529 dunams or 4.6% of the land. [37]

It should not be surprising, under the circumstances, that Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders said what they did at the time, preferring, as they have done since, to «create facts on the ground». In the above quote from Chomsky, the word «publicly» would have been more appropriate than «forcefully». This was also the opinion of the late Zionist leader, Nahum Goldmann, who Chomsky cites, but then doubts «the accuracy of Goldmann’s interpretation, many years after the event and after a Jewish state had in fact been established». Goldmann, who would go on to form the World Jewish Congress, was actually in Palestine in the Thirties, participating in the discussions and debates. He pointed out in his autobiography that the silence on the part of Zionists regarding their intent, from the Twenties, to establish a Jewish state was purely tactical, but Chomsky believes what he wants to believe and he wants us to believe it, too. [38]

To those supporting Chomsky’s position as opposed to that of Goldmann, (and the majority of observers at the time) the question must be asked as to whether the Zionists, mainstream and revisionists, exerted all that energy, money, and political pressure over the years, before WW II, for anything less than the establishment of a Jewish state?

I noted, earlier, Chomsky’s criticism of the UN Security Council’s approval of Resolution 242 in 1967 which he dismissed as «rejectionist». His own thinking at the time, however, clearly revealed his affinity and concerns for Israel that informed his thinking then as it does now. In «Peace in the Middle East», he reveals that:
«At the time of the Six Day War in June 1967, I personally believed that the threat of genocide was real and reacted with virtually uncritical support for Israel at what appeared to be a desperate moment. In retrospect it seems that this assessment of the facts was dubious at best». [39]

It was an honest expressions of his affection for Israel and a rare admission by Chomsky that he had erred. It was apparently his last. Given this background, some other questionable statements of Chomsky in that South African interview become comprehensible. When asked to explain the differences between Israel before and after statehood, he responded:
«The post-1967 period is different. The concept of settler-colonialism would apply to the pre-1948 period. It is plainly an outside population coming in and basically dispossessing an indigenous population.: ... Without going into it, by 1948, that argument is over. There was a state there, right or wrong. And that state should have the rights of any state in the international system, no more, no less. After 1967, there is a quite different situation. That’s military conquest». (Emphasis added) [40]

What Chomsky seems to be saying here to the Palestinians after 1948, is «Get over it».

Is that a misinterpretation?
Could not the apartheid state of South Africa been defended on the same basis? And what was Israel’s war in 1948, if not military conquest? Israel took not only the area accorded it by the United Nations, but much of what would have been the Palestinians’ had they accepted partition. Finally, how could Chomsky’s ideal of a Jewish homeland in Palestine have been realized by any means other than by settler-colonialism? than by settler-colonialism? Those are a few of many questions that require answers from Chomsky.

Provisional conclusion

In these pages I have begun what, ideally, will lead to a further critical assessment of Chomsky’s work, not as academic exercise, but as an instrument to energize what has been a largely ineffectual movement with regard to the struggle for justice in Israel/Palestine that has relied on him for guidance. I am aware that what I have written will upset those who have accorded him god-like status as it will others who have allowed their friendship with Chomsky to keep them silent concerning his failings, even when aware of them.

That has been my intention!

Rather than being responded to with personal attacks, I would hope that the issues raised here will be examined on their merits.

Let the debate begin!

[1] The New Intifada, p.7

[2] Letter to the author, Aug. 10-11, 1991

[3] Univ. of California, Berkeley, March 16, 1991

[4] Benjamin Ginsberg, Fatal Embrace: Jews and the State, Univ. of Chicago, 1993, p. 208

[5] Jeffrey Blankfort, A War for Israel, Left Curve, Oakland, 2004

[6] Shahak, op. cit.

[7] The New Intifada, p. 260

[8] Ibid., p.262

[9] Information Clearing House, Aug. 30, 2004

[10] Tillman, United States Middle East Policy: Theory and Practice, Arab-American Affairs, Spring, 1983, cited by Rubenberg, p. 8

[11] Towards a New Cold War, p. 294

[12] Tillman, op. cit., p. 66

[13] Ibid., p. 67

[14] Stephen L. Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict, Univ. of Chicago, Chicago and London, 1985, p. 296

[15] Marvin C. Feuerwerger, Congress and Israel: Foreign Aid Decision-Making in the House of Representatives, 1969-1976, p. 296.

[16] The New Intifada, p. 12

[17] Moshe Arens, Broken Covenant, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1995

[18] ibid., p. 56

[19] ibid., p. 58

[20] ibid., p. 59

[21] May 22, 1990, ibid., cited by Arens p.. 69

[22] ibid., p. 72

[23] ibid., p. 246

[24] Washington Jewish Week, Sep. 19, 1991

[25] Arens, op. cit., p. 246-247

[26] Ginsberg, op. cit., p. 220

[27] Z Magazine, Dec., 1991

[28] New York Times, Sep. 20, 1991, cited by Ginsberg, op. cit, p. 221

[29] Arens, op.cit., p. 301-302

[30] The Progressive, January 21, 1993

[31] The Independent, June 26, 2002

[32] Washington Post, Oct. 16, 2004

[33] Rubenberg, op. cit., p. 375

[34] Peace in the Middle East, p.51

[35] Safundi, Znet, op. cit.

[36] Towards a New Cold War, p. 259

[37] John Chapple, Jewish Land Settlement in Palestine (unpublished paper) 1964, cited by Walid Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest, Institute of Palestine Studies, Beirut, 1971, Appendix 1

[38] Towards a New Cold War, p. 259

[39] Peace in the Middle East, p. 124

[40] Safundi, Znet, op. cit.

Jeffrey Blankfort

Jeffrey Blankfort A United-States Jewish journalist. He is a co-founder of Labor Committee of the Middle East, and the former director of Middle East Labor Bulletin.

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