Obama, Campus Activism, Mexico and the Middle East
Noam Chomsky’s latest books are Occupy (Zuccotti Park Press) and Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire and Resistance (City Lights Publishers).
RICARDO LEZAMA: Have you heard about the Stand With Us group/campaign?
NOAM CHOMSKY: No. Tell me about it.
LEZAMA: They are a group that spread favorable propaganda regarding the IDF on different campuses.
CHOMSKY: Never heard of them.
LEZAMA: Just trying to see how prominent their campaign was – must be a West Coast/Midwest thing. Moving on, What kind of repression do Palestinian Americans face in the U.S.?
CHOMSKY: In America, for one thing, all Muslims are subjected to a kind of Islamaphobia that is endemic to the United States, and ranges from being detained in the airport, being followed by the FBI, problems at colleges, and elsewhere. Palestinians, of course, are a part of that, and there has been more in the past than today for Palestinian scholars in universities. For example, there have been efforts to defame them as anti-Israeli terrorists. However, it is the kind of repression that is familiar to ethnic groups out of favor with the U.S. government. I have plenty of Palestinian friends who make out fine.
LEZAMA: It is not off the charts?
CHOMSKY: It is not off the charts, it shouldn’t be there, but yeah, if you’re a Mexican American in Arizona and you get pulled over, the police can claim you’re doing anything, basically.
LEZAMA: Ok. Well, in March 2012, the Israeli Air Force bombed the Gaza strip. I thought this was a particularly harsh period for Palestinians. I was hoping you could give us a brief overview of what happened?
CHOMSKY: Well, just to go back a bit to June 2008, when a ceasefire was reached between Israel and Hamas, the dominant force in the Gaza strip. Right after the ceasefire there were no missiles at all fired by Hamas at Israel. The missiles don’t amount to much. They are kind of home-made missiles.
LEZAMA: They never even make it to Tel Aviv.
CHOMSKY: The missile launches from Hamas stopped altogether during that period, even though Israel didn’t observe the ceasefire. Part of the ceasefire was that Israel was supposed to stop the siege. Still, no Hamas missiles. You can read that on the official Israeli government website. In November 2008, the day of the presidential election, Israeli military forces invaded Gaza and killed half a dozen Hamas militants. Well, that was followed by a missile exchange for a couple of weeks in both directions. Like always, all the casualties were Palestinian but there were some Hamas missiles, followed by a much heavier, far bloodier response from Israel. This leads us to mid-December 2008. At that point, Hamas offered to renew the ceasefire. Israel considered the offer, rejected it and decided instead to invade and attack Gaza. That is Operation Cast Lead, which started on December 27, 2008. It was brutal and murderous.
There is a very good account of Operation Cast Lead by independent participants. For example, there were a couple of Norwegian doctors working at the Gaza hospital through the attack. I mean, they just called it infanticide. The IDF killed a lot of children, were attacking ambulances, committing all kinds of atrocities. [These doctors], they wrote a very graphic and dramatic account of what the invasion was like. The Israeli military must have killed 1500 people. There was a UN Security Council effort to call a ceasefire early in January, but the U.S. blocked it – it wouldn’t allow it. It was very carefully planned. It ended right before Obama’s inauguration. The point of that was to protect Obama from having to say anything critical about it. He was asked about it before he was elected and said ‘I can’t comment on that, I am not president’. It started a few days before the election, and ended before the inauguration. When he was asked about it after the election, Obama took the position that we shouldn’t look backwards but should move forwards. There was no punishment for those involved, and, it was a really criminal assault on a completely defenseless population. It was one of the most brutal attacks in recent years – that’s Operation Caste Lead. There is no pretext for it. They claim it was to protect the population from Hamas missile, but an easy way to do that would have been just to renew the ceasefire.
LEZAMA: That’s an interesting point regarding the timing of the attacks. Right now, we have to pick between one really bad candidate, and Romney. It seems like the Israeli government is taking advantage of the Obama administration’s bid for re-election. Israel is talking a lot about attacking Iran, and trying to mobilize support for it in the U.S. These kinds of things tend to have consequences for Palestine; what will happen in Palestine? I think Israel is bluffing, and looking for something else.
CHOMSKY: Well, Israel is a pretty crazy state. My suspicion is that they are trying to create the circumstances under which the U.S. will attack Iran – they don’t want to do it themselves.
LEZAMA: They want to set up a rationale?
CHOMSKY: I would not be surprised if they staged some kind of an incident in the Persian Gulf, which would not be hard. You and I can do it. The Persian Gulf is lined with U.S. Naval missiles, aircraft carriers, destroyers, and so on. Any small incident, a skiff, or, a boat bumping into an aircraft carrier could lead to a vicious response.
Actually, we should bear in mind that the United States is already at war with Iran by Pentagon standards. The assassinations – which is terrorism – the cyberwar, the economic warfare, are all considered by the United States as acts of war if they are done to us, but not if we do it to them. So, by our standards, we are already attacking Iran. The question is how much further we will take it. An important aspect of this never discussed in the United States. You never read about it. I write about it, maybe two or three other people, but you never read about it. There is a pretty straightforward solution to this, a diplomatic solution. Namely, move towards establishing a nuclear weapons free-zone in the region. That is strongly supported by virtually the entire world. The U.S. has been blocking the solution for years. However, support for it is so strong that Obama was forced to agree to it in principle, but stated that Israel has to be excluded. Well, that is a joke. Israel has hundred of nuclear weapons, carries out aggression, is a violent state, refuses to allow inspections, and so on. To say that Israel has to be exempted, then, kills the prospect of a nuclear-weapons free zone in the Middle East. This situation is coming to a head in December. There is to be an international conference on a nuclear weapons free-zone in the Middle East; Israel just announced that it is refusing to participate.
LEZAMA: Will the U.S. participate?
CHOMSKY: Everything always depends on what the U.S. is going to do. So far, there is nothing official. Up until now, Obama has said ‘yes, we are in favor of it, but Israel has to be excluded’. That exception essentially kills the possibility of a nuclear weapons free-zone. If anybody believes Iran is a threat, which I think is pretty much fabricated, but if you believe it, this is the way to do it: impose a nuclear-weapons free-zone.
Of course, that would mean Israel has to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The U.S. has to stop protecting the Israeli development of nuclear weapons. That is what is required to end whatever you think the threat of Iran is. There is a straightforward diplomatic approach. As usual, the media is supressing this information. I don’t think they even reported the fact that Israel announced its withdrawal. It was announced on the Israeli press. They all know about it.
LEZAMA: Assuming that the U.S. does not go into all out war, ground troops, airstrikes, and so on, assuming that doesn’t happen, which is what the Israeli’s want.
CHOMSKY: I don’t’ think they expect ground troops, they expect, or, want.
CHOMSKY: A major missile and aerial assault. Israel could do it too. Israel has submarines, which they received from…
CHOMSKY: …which can carry nuclear tipped missiles. I’m pretty sure they are deployed in the gulf. So, if they want, they can carry out a missile attack.
LEZAMA: Why don’t they do it themselves?
CHOMSKY: They are afraid it would be too costly. For one thing, the world would be furious. Everybody is already furious at Israel. Even in Europe, it is regarded as the most dangerous state in the world, and it is becoming a pariah state. Of course, in the third world, in the Arab and Muslim world it is very much feared and hated. An attack on Iran – maybe they don’t care – could turn them into South Africa. They would rather have the United States do it.
LEZAMA: Whether a larger scale attack on Iran happens or not, there will still be consequences for the Palestinians.
CHOMSKY: The Palestinians are in a dire state now. There is a political settlement, which is agreed upon by the entire world, the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, World Court, by everyone, namely, a two state solution. An easy, straightforward solution.
LEZAMA: Just abide to the two state solution, and the conflict is eliminated? What about the idea that Gaza and the West Bank be contiguous?
CHOMSKY: That’s required!
CHOMSKY: That is part of the Oslo agreement. The Oslo agreement stipulates explicitly that the West Bank and Gaza strip are a single territory. Ever since they signed the Oslo agreement, the United States and Israel have been dedicated to undermining them. The U.S. can violate law freely but it is never reported. Everybody else is too weak to do anything about it. The U.S. is just a rogue state.
LEZAMA: What should people in the U.S. be doing in response?
CHOMSKY: They should be breaking through the media and general doctrinal barriers to come to know what is going on. They should be helping people learn about this. I don’t have any secret sources of information. Everything I have said is public knowledge, but it is not known by anyone. The problem is self-censorship; the media just don’t report anything about it, and rarely do. There is just a tremendous amount of propaganda and indoctrination so people dont know what is going on. This is not the only case, but it is an important one. Everything I have just mentioned is straight on the public record. What activists ought to be doing is place this in the public’s attention.
LEZAMA: I think that has been done in college campuses in California, and elsewhere. It is a good way to circumvent the media, but then the move administrators make is to begin charging for use of these spaces. They essentially price out minority organizations. (For example, UC Davis now charges for usage of buildings)
CHOMSKY: I know, and I’ve been following it. It is true, and I’ve spoken at universities in California. There is plenty of activism. Actually, it has changed a lot in the past four or five years. Just to illustrate, at UCLA back in 1985, I was invited to give philosophy lectures. I said ‘sure’, but the next day I got a call from campus police asking if they could have uniformed police accompany everywhere I went. I said ‘no’. The next day I saw police following me everywhere I went. They are not hard to detect in a philosophy seminar … I could not walk across from the faculty club to other parts of campus. The reason is that they had just picked up a lot of death threats. They don’t want someone killed on campus. I gave the talk at Royce Hall, the big campus hall, but it was airport security. One entry, everybody’s bag had to be checked. The next day there was a huge attack on the Daily Bruin. First of all, it was a huge attack on me, but also on the professor who invited me. In fact, there was an effort to take away the tenure of the professor who invited me. It was beaten back, but they tried. Well, that was back in 1985. I was back in UCLA maybe a year ago. There was a huge mob, very supportive, hard to get a critical word of what I was saying. That is a huge change. It changed because of student activism. It’s the kind of thing you asked about, you know, ‘what should people do?’.
LEZAMA: Would you say that the state of the country is reflected on campuses? So, if you get negative responses at a campus, you’ll get the same sort of thing happening in libraries?
CHOMSKY: It’s the same thing. Yeah, I can give the talk in public meetings, libraries etc. The general atmosphere has just changed enormously. Even in my own university, MIT, if I was giving a talk on Israel-Palestine, up until maybe 10 years ago, I had to have police protection. Now, it is unheard of. There is just a big change. The same is true in the town that I live, Lexington, MA.
LEZAMA: That is odd because you would expect the exact opposite response from the public. Just consider the enormous amount of September 11 related propaganda.
CHOMSKY: Yeah, the propaganda is not as effective as it used to be. That is exactly why this IDF group (Stand With Us) has to go around campuses, trying to counter the support for Palestine. It is trying to reverse the change in general attitudes.
LEZAMA: Seems like this IDF group was strong enough to get a favorable response from the Regents. Did you hear of Yudof statements regarding anti-Semitism? It was completely false, but he felt he could say them.
CHOMSKY: That’s the board of trustees, or, whoever runs the place. But the actual mood on campus I’m sure is quite different.
LEZAMA: What do we make of those people? Even with this climate, all the positive things going for students, there are tuition hikes, hostile police etc. There are so many things happening on these campuses.
CHOMSKY: Yeah, but that’s true of anything. The same is true for the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and so on. You are not going to get support from the authorities!
LEZAMA: Would that then imply that the legislation in California requiring colleges clamp down on anti-semitic speech on campus is nullified by student activism?
CHOMSKY: Yeah, activism can change things.
LEZAMA: Ok, ok.
CHOMSKY: It has done it in plenty of cases. That is how activism works. Take the feminist movement, in the mid-1960′s, these feminists were being ridiculed, people called them fem-nazi’s, all sorts of things, but eventually they broke through in many respects.
LEZAMA: What do you think of the Caravan for Peace?
CHOMSKY: I think it’s important. I met Sicilia a couple months ago; he’s an impressive guy. Everything depends on how many people the message reaches. You can’t count on the media, but others can. In fact, all through Latin America, there is a major effort to decriminalize Marijuana, maybe more, but, at least, Marijuana. In Uruguay, they are instituting state production of Marijuana. In most of the hemisphere, there is a strong effort to decriminalize it. In fact, in the Cartagena meetings, the hemispheric meetings held a couple of months ago, the United States and Canada were totally isolated on that issue. Everyone wanted to move in that direction. The U.S. and Canada refused. In fact, my guess is that if there are ever hemispheric meetings, the U.S. will not attend. The U.S. has lost Latin America on a lot of issues. The reason is pretty obvious: they are the victims! The U.S. is responsible for both the demand and the supply, the supply of arms since the arms are coming in from the U.S. What is tearing Mexico to shreds are the arms coming in from Texas and Arizona. They are getting it at both ends. The United States is creating the demand and providing the supply of arms. They are the ones getting massacred and smashed up. All through the hemisphere, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, of course, where it is a disaster. Naturally, they want to get out of it, and the U.S. won’t do it. The Caravan could be a way of educating Americans about it.
RICARDO LEZAMA is a student at the University of California, Davis studying psychology and linguistics.