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Noah Cohen: Advocacy For What And For Whom?

The Cohen-Chomsky Debate Continues: Chomsky's "Realism" and "Advocacy" : Advocacy for what and for whom?

By Noah Cohen
Aug 30, 2004, 12:15

Axis Of Logic Editor's Note: Noah Cohen ( New England Committee to Defend Palestine) challenged Noam Chomsky in his 8/23/04 critical analysis: Noam Chomsky and ‘Left’ Apologetics for Injustice in Palestine (originally published on Axis of Logic). Cohen's challenge goes to the heart of the horrific conditions faced by the Palestinian people every day. Until Cohen opened this debate, the "Left" - so-called, has dominated the discussion in the Corporate Media and in large sectors of the Alternative Media, presenting a "two-state solution" as the only realistic alternative for Palestine. Chomsky took Cohen's critique seriously enough to respond in an article titled: Advocacy and Realism: A reply to Noah Cohen (published on ZNet and posted on Axis of Logic and Scoop)

Noah Cohen's reply to Chomsky's defense is published below. Readers are encouraged to submit comments on this debate to Axis of Logic. - Les Blough, Editor


Chomsky's "Realism" And "Advocacy" : Advocacy For What And For Whom?

August 30, 2004 - I'm glad to see that Chomsky took the trouble to publish his response to my article, if for no other reason than that his response has provoked ZNet to print the critique. (I sent it to ZNet when I wrote it; up to now it has circulated on e-mail and on other websites.) Perhaps ZNet will also print this further reply.

In fact, Chomsky largely ignores the substance of the critique. He comments directly only on one passage from the beginning, which he also misconstrues. In discussing Chomsky's apologetics for injustice, I gave first the general form of an argument for Israel continually advanced by its 'left' apologists; I then gave its specific form in Chomsky's hands. I trust that readers will look back at the original and see whether they think that the quotations I cited from Chomsky contain the basic assumptions of the general argument. Their specific form, for Chomsky, is as follows:

1) that Israelis, though a colonial-settler community, have a legitimate concern about losing their special privileges in a Palestinian democracy;

2) that their military superiority (a superiority supplied largely by the US) makes all proposals to end the Apartheid regime moot. The assumptions that underlie the first of these positions are also everywhere evident in Chomsky's reply. It's only by reference to those assumptions that we can understand Chomsky's preference for a "bi-national state" (advanced in this case in the pure abstraction of his "seminar on Mars")--which would codify a special status for Jewish people (largely settlers) over against all indigenous groups within the Palestinian community together--over a single, Palestinian state in which all have equal rights. But I won't recapitulate my article; I'll confine myself to answering Chomsky's central contentions about "advocacy" and "realism."

The limits of advocacy, as Chomsky proposes it, require that we lend our support to the "settlement" which--according to Chomsky--has the greatest support in the international community, the broadest support in the US, and the possibility of support within Israel if the US would pressure the Israelis to accept it. US activists should play their limited role of compelling the US government to "implement" this proposal. The proposal is some version of the two-state solution (and most immediately, the Geneva Accords); it requires that Palestinians officially give up virtually all of their rights in return for an agreement on paper that gives full legitimacy to Israel, and disarms Palestinians of any practical power to defend their territory.

Can this truly be called "advocacy" on behalf of Palestinian rights? It sounds rather like much of the current peace movement both in Israel and in the US (though not in the rest of the world), which isn't even concerned about Palestinian rights. This movement looks instead for a "resolution" to the "conflict" that would allow a colonial settler community to retain its privileges without suffering the consequences of Palestinian resistance. This involves a refusal to see Israel within the broader context of legitimate struggles of indigenous people against racist, colonial regimes.

Unlike Chomsky, I don't believe that a "settlement" in any way favorable to Palestinians will be "instituted" by Israel (as Chomsky suggests that a "Bi-national state" might have been in the land Israel had occupied in the 1967 war) or by the US, or produced by negotiations under circumstances in which US and Israeli power determine the limits of choice. Under those circumstances, it hardly matters what name such a "settlement" would take ("one-state," "two-state," "bi-national," or anything else.) The only one-state proposals I've seen that depend on such conditions are equally objectionable.

The Geneva Accords are consistent with the primary goals of US/Israeli negotiations: these are generally aimed at stopping Palestinian resistance under a sham "peace-process" and continuing to move forward with a colonial program. This is clearly the goal on the Israeli side for the Geneva Accords. They are the initiative of the so-called "opposition," which disagrees with the current government in Israel about the best methods for achieving what are essentially the same goals. Mitzna's discussion of the process as a war for territory--and also as a "different tack" aimed at stopping the Second Intifada--supports this assessment. (Since Mitzna was a central player in the negotiations and an architect of the proposal, that's hardly an "irrelevant citation.")

I gave a summary at the end of my article of all the Palestinian concessions required by the Accords; readers can refer to the document to see whether or not this assessment is valid. See the full text on Haarezt). The single most important one is Article 5 (Security), Section 3 (Defense characteristics of the Palestinian state), which stipulates that "Palestine shall be a non-militarized state;" in the face of this concession, any language about Palestinian gains (e.g. Chomsky's mention of the 1 to 1 land swap) is purely academic.

It should be obvious to anyone who actually read the article, that I did not make an objection to being "realistic"; I offered rather a critique of Chomsky's competing applications of the notion of "realism." As I have reiterated here, Chomsky finds it "realistic" to think that a negotiated settlement in which Palestinians have no military power to defend themselves, no true sovereignty over borders, no control of resources--and in which they have signed on to these conditions as a binding agreement of international law--is a way forward for them that "could lead to something better." On the other hand, he tells us that it's unrealistic to think that there would be any guarantee of freedom of worship and other rights for Jewish people in a Palestinian state in which Jewish people are a minority. I suggested that there is either an inconsistency in Chomsky's application of his principle of "realism," or an inconsistency in his evaluation of the "realism" of different scenarios, and that this inconsistency serves an ideological agenda favorable to Zionism.

Chomsky's demand that we work out a step-by-step series of stages toward a one-state solution is not a call for "realism," but precisely a call for us to engage in an academic exercise (e.g. his own proposal for the "two-state solution" as a stage toward a "bi-national state"). I think that our problem is much more immediate and practical: how do we build a movement to support the Palestinian struggle, without binding our support to concessions that limit the ability of the struggle to move forward? To do this, we have to build a movement that opposes the fundamental principles on which Israel is founded - and that continually asserts the full rights of the Palestinian people.

There is hope in a growing regional resistance that shifts the balance of power away from Israeli and US dominance. We can contribute by working to end all aid to Israel; by participating in an international movement to isolate Israel; and by giving whatever practical support we can to the people who are resisting on the ground.

Chomsky cites his statement in the interview that Palestinians "shouldn't give up the right of return." This is perhaps the best place to view Chomsky's idea of effective advocacy on behalf of Palestinian rights: Palestinians go on fighting for the right of return, while Chomsky calls their struggle unrealistic, tells activists who read Znet that they will only be doing harm to Palestinians by supporting this struggle, and he calls the treaty in which Palestinians are required to give up the right of return "the best possible compromise" for Palestinians. Again, is this really advocacy on behalf of Palestinian rights? I recommend instead that your readers take a look at the web-site of Al-Awda (the Palestinian Right to Return Coalition) to see what initiatives the international refugee community has been taking on this issue, and that they find ways to support those initiatives.

Finally, it's interesting to note Chomsky's evasion on a historical point. In the original interview, he had said that there "had never been a legitimate proposal for a secular, democratic state from any significant Palestinian (or of course Israeli) group." I don't contend that the Israelis have ever proposed it; I do contend that the DFLP, PFLP and much of the PLO leadership proposed it several times, and even fought to keep the hope for it alive in the face of massive Israeli rejection.

He now says,

"The PLO spoke about “democratic secularism,” but in a form that called for liquidation of all Jewish political, social, and cultural institutions within an 'Arab nation.' For this reason alone – there were many others – the stance had no impact, except as a weapon for advocates of US-Israeli rejectionism."

Notice, once again, how Chomsky blames Palestinians for Israeli rejection when Palestinians fight for their legitimate rights. I'll let readers judge for themselves whether Chomsky's characterization is accurate; here is a typical statement of the "one-state" position from the PLO emissary to the UN, Saadat Hasan, in 1969:

"The Palestinian revolution is humanitarian in its goals. It seeks the establishment of a just and democratic society that guarantees to all its citizens, irrespective of their faith, the same rights and responsibilities and the same duties. It seeks the establishment of a society free from racism and bigotry, free from repugnant concepts of supremacy and racial purity, free from economic exploitation and social ills. It seeks the establishment of a State and not a beachhead for perpetual waves of invasion by followers of one faith or another. It seeks the establishment of a democratic secular State -- a pluralistic State -- for all its people."

This is not just an isolated statement, but the main current of much of the Palestinian thought of its time and through the 1970s. More importantly, this is not just a documentary or historical question. I personally can say that I have found the spirit of commitment to pluralism, and against racism and religious intolerance, very much alive everywhere I have traveled in Palestine.


© Copyright 2004 by

Noah Cohen is a friend of Axis of Logic and works as an activist with the New England Committee to Defend Palestine in Boston, MA. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East, Palestine included, and has been fighting for the rights of the people of Palestine through the Palestinian struggle for the right-of-return and a single-state solution.

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