By Vanessa Formato
It looked like a prank at first. The event appeared on Facebook in early March and spread like wildfire through the Clark University community. Before long, more than 700 students had decided to attend – and that’s more than a third of the school. Students whispered and debated openly on the web whether it was really happening. It turns out, Noam Chomsky really is coming to Clark.
The questions that lingered for sometime afterward revolved around what Chomsky would actually talk about. Hailed as one of the most-cited living scholars, he has a lot to say: he’s a linguistics expert, a media critic and a political
dissident – and that’s just for starters. One thing that many college students don’t immediately think of when they think of Chomsky is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but since Clark University Students for Palestinian Rights is sponsoring the event, this is exactly what he’ll be talking about.
Chomsky is a controversial figure, especially when it comes to his views on Middle East politics. He’s been unapologetically outspoken about his views, including the rejection of a single-state solution and the “Jewish state.”
“That stand [for a two-state solution], which I think is correct, is adopted essentially by the entire world: Europe, the non-aligned countries, the Arab League, the organization of Islam – essentially everybody except for the United States and Israel,” Chomsky says. “I have to agree with the world on this.”
Chomsky also approaches the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict as a human rights issue. The disputed territories, the Gaza Strip and West Bank, are extremely volatile areas, and Palestinians living there experience their share of horrors. His sympathy for the Palestinian people is just one of many reasons Students for Palestinian Rights sought him out.
“We’re always looking for speakers to kind of energize the people who are interested in the issue and also to change minds,” sophomore and Students for Palestinian Rights Vice President Rory Coursey says, “and I don’t think there’s anybody better for that than Noam Chomsky.”
As a group, the student organization encompasses a wide spectrum of political opinion, but they hope that Chomsky will be a perfect fit for their cause: “Grabbing the undecideds,” as Coursey says. They are careful to note that the group is anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic.
Coursey and two other Students for Palestinian Rights representatives are certainly not among those undecided, but they have each grown into their current philosophies for different reasons. Freshman Dana Alasker is Palestinian, and spent several years in the Middle East growing up. A sophomore in the group, who requested she remain anonymous, became inspired by the Palestinian cause while attending an international school. As for Coursey, it’s mostly “leftist politics” that led her here.
Of the 12 to 18 members who regularly attend meetings, a minority are actually Palestinian. Alasker estimates that of the current membership, three or four are Palestinian. Not every Clark student appreciates this statistic.
“The problem I have [with Students for Palestinian Rights] is that people who are actually from the area act much differently than the Americans in CUSPR,” Johanna Rothenberg says. Rothenberg is a senior and currently serves as the cochairman of Hillel’s Arts, Culture, and Education Committee. “Most of the people on Hillel have emotional, family and ethical ties to Israel. Many of them have been to Israel or have lived there for a time and are emotionally invested in what goes on there. [The non-Palestinian members of the group] don’t have that.”
Rothenberg claims that during one discussion with members, the topic turned to the West Bank barrier and related abuses. When a CUSPR member was asked to describe the wall, he did so – incorrectly. For Rothenberg, it was a telling moment.
Rothenberg has been to Israel, where she has family, as part of her education at a Jewish high school. As part of her study abroad program, she spent time living in the West Bank to learn what Palestinians experience there. The students also took a day to observe the borders, which are regulated by Israeli forces and limit Palestinians’ ability to travel freely.
“Clark students tend to want to support an underdog,” Ari Winograd, a senior and former Hillel officer, says, “and it’s great that we have people who are so motivated to be activists, but I don’t think CUSPR does enough research.”
Like Rothenberg, he has lived in Israel.
Chomsky has been called a Holocaust minimizer. Critics cite his opposition to the Jewish state, the Faurisson affair of 1979, in which he signed on to a petition defending Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson’s freedom of speech, and his feelings regarding the Holocaust’s role in Israeli politics.
When David Barsamian asked Chomsky if the Holocaust is “manipulated by the Israeli state to promote its own interests” for his book, Chronicles of Dissent, Chomsky replied that “it is very consciously manipulated.” And it is a statement like this that elicits a strong gut reaction from many people, especially those with personal ties to Israel.
“The Holocaust has created living ghosts in [the Jewish people],” Rothenberg says. “That to some people might seem like pushing the sympathy card, but this is an unfortunate part of our identity, and a part of our identity that has greatly affected us.”
Cristina Andriani, a graduate student in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, is currently studying how “the mutual impact of Holocaust trauma and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on Jewish-Israeli understanding and experience of past and present,” and she sees the Israeli government’s use of the Holocaust as somewhat natural.
“Most governments, to build nationalism, manipulate stories of their history to create national myths,” Andriani says. Citing author James Young, she continues to say that “while it is common for all states to create national myths and ideals that reflect political needs, Israel is different in that its ‘overarching national ideology and religion … may be memory itself: memory preserved, restored, and codified’ … Israel has a ‘perverse debt to the Holocaust,’ and in so creating the national narrative, it is ‘condemned to define itself in opposition to the very event that made it necessary.’”
Coursey does not agree on the “necessary” aspect.
“The narrative in Israel of Israel-Palestine is that we have to do this so that we’ll never be at risk again,” Coursey says, “but they have the fourth most powerful military in the world. It’s an inflation of risk.”
“[Chomsky’s] claim is based in fact,” Alasker adds. “If you just look at the fact that Germany still pays millions of dollars a year when Israel is not in need of international aid in terms of being able to cover the basic needs of their people … There’s a lot of reminding people of the Holocaust when there’s something – either a political agenda that it’s trying to push or a goal that it’s trying to meet. If Israel wants something done, it tends to bring up the Holocaust.”
Of course, it is important to remember that the Holocaust was not so long ago. It has only been 66 years since the Holocaust ended in 1945, and many survivors are still alive today – and because of that, many younger Jewish people have a very real, personal connection with the genocide they never experienced.
“We’ve always felt the Jewish state is important,” says Winograd. “There’s a rise in anti-Semitism and of attacks against Jewish people, and to not have a place that we can gather is dangerous.” He emphasizes that though Israel has a long history of being discriminated against, Holocaust reparations are appropriate, and it is certain that that money is going to the survivors. When there are no survivors left, it will be time to stop.
Winograd is critical, however, of Israel’s government. He acknowledges that Israel is a country in which religion is king. According to him, Orthodox rabbis dictate civil law, creating a conservative society that is possibly – but not necessarily – moving toward theocracy. However, many countries blur the line between religion and state. Though he believes in the importance of a Jewish state, he believes it needs to be one in which there is free practice and dedication to human rights. Muslims should not be treated as second-class citizens. It is undeniable that people on both sides of the conflict have committed abuses.
“Every country goes through a civil rights process, and that’s happening now in the Middle East,” Winograd says.
In 2009, Students for Palestinian Rights invited a much more controversial figure to campus: Norman Finkelstein. Finkelstein has written and spoken extensively on what he calls “the Holocaust industry” that exaggerates and exploits the event, benefitting Jews with victim status. He was invited to give his talk, “The Gaza Massacre,” on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which also coincided with Clark’s Holocaust Studies Conference. The talk was eventually rescheduled due to student, alumni and faculty protest.
Chomsky is not a minimalist. He expresses polarizing opinions. Some of his criticism of modern media, in fact, has been on “concision:” The need to speak briefly and concisely. Because of the way television limits speaking time, there isn’t always opportunity to flesh out larger ideas.
Fortunately, when Chomsky speaks at Atwood Hall on April 12, he will have ample time to express his opinions and challenge listeners. He will be speaking from 7 to 9 p.m. and the event is open to the public.