Noam Chomsky and the Sydney Peace Prize
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
It was a sublime moment of coincidence. In the midst of reading The Finkler Question, English novelist Howard Jacobson’s comic meditation on contemporary Jewish identity, a message flashed across my phone’s screen: the darling of the radical Left, American Jewish intellectual Noam Chomsky, had won the 2011 Sydney Peace Prize.
The eponymous academic philosopher cum media tart Sam Finkler might be a fictional character but Jacobson clearly draws inspiration from real-life diaspora Jews who publicly describe themselves as personally ‘ashamed’ of Israel. Indeed, Finkler, originally a staunch Zionist, becomes the figurehead of a grandstanding anti-Zionist group of “ASHamed Jews”.
Chomsky, a one-time kibbutznik and Zionist youth organiser, does not ascribe himself ‘ashamed’ status. He bridles at suggestions of Jewish self-hatred and supports, as an interim measure, a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. He is not an advocate for the controversial Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. Nonetheless the choice of Chomsky for the prize is a puzzling one. The Sydney Peace Foundation (SPF) jury’s citation for his award applauds him “for inspiring the convictions of millions about a common humanity and for unfailing moral courage” and “for creating hope through scholarship and activism to promote the attainment of universal human rights”.
Leaving aside his myopic, conspiratorial views on American foreign policy (the United States is “a leading terrorist state”), it is difficult to reconcile Chomsky’s peacemaking efforts with this laudatory description, in particular those pertaining to Israel–Palestine.
Most fair-minded observers agree that a negotiated peace settlement based upon a two-state solution will only be attained by bringing together moderates on both sides of the equation and sidelining extremists, whether Greater Israel Zionists or Arab–Palestinian militants committed to a ‘one-state’ solution. Aside from practical steps such as ending the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Palestinian leadership recognising Israel’s right to exist, in simple terms what is required is a rhetorical sea change. Ending the demonisation of the Palestinians by sections of the Jewish and Israeli community must be accompanied by ending the demonisation of Israel by much of the Arab world and, notably, sections of the western Left.
Few individuals have contributed more to the Left’s vilification of Israel than Chomsky, who adopts the central tropes of what left-leaning Jewish intellectual Philip Mendes terms “anti-Zionist fundamentalism”. Critics such as he simplistically construct Israel as a colonialist and racist Goliath oppressing (or committing genocide against) a powerless Palestinian David. All Jewish Israelis and diaspora supporters are complicit parties. Thus, in a 2008 interview, Chomsky claimed that “Israelis would mostly breathe a sigh of relief if Palestinians were to disappear.”
Chomsky’s polemic criticisms of the Jewish state can be usefully compared with his uncritical embrace of Israel’s enemies. In May 2006, for instance, Chomsky visited Lebanon where he met with, and praised, leaders of the fundamentalist Shia Muslim group Hezbollah (‘Party of God’). Its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has labelled Jews the “grandsons of apes and pigs”. According to its own manifesto, Hezbollah is committed to the creation of Iranian-style theocracy and conceives of its “struggle” as ending only when the Zionist “entity is obliterated”. Chomsky’s fraternisation with a group that calls for the physical destruction of Israel is hardly likely to help foster a “common humanity”.
Chomsky’s solidarity with religious and nationalist fanatics also contrasts with his hostility towards Jewish solidarity. Chomsky has repeatedly argued that some members of the Israeli state and Jewish diaspora “consciously” manipulate the memory of the Holocaust. This is the man who, during the late 1970s, defended Robert Faurisson – a far-right professor of French literature who denied that the Nazi gas chambers ever existed – under the rubric of freedom of speech. In an essay later published as a (unauthorised) preface to a book by Faurisson, Chomsky stated denying “the existence of gas chambers [or even the Holocaust] plainly did not demonstrate that he was a Nazi or anti-Semite”. Faurisson appeared to be a “relatively apolitical liberal”.
Why has the SPF lent unwarranted credibility to Chomsky’s extremist politics? The SPF, and its academic arm, the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS), shares Chomsky’s kneejerk anti-Americanism and anti-Israel worldview. Jake Lynch, the CPACS director and a former BBC journalist, is a leading Australian BDS campaigner and perpetuates a Chomskyite binary view of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The SPF – itself headed by Professor Stuart Rees, and whose executive officer is the current general secretary of the Communist Party of Australia, Hannah Middleton – clearly seeks to legitimate anti-Zionist fundamentalism as well as resuscitating a discredited brand of far-left politics by juxtaposing extremists such as Chomsky (and John Pilger, Israel critic and 2009 prizewinner) with respectable previous recipients such as Indigenous leader Patrick Dodson and former Governor-General Sir William Deane. The decision to decorate Chomsky also hallmarks another strategy deployed by anti-Israel activists, whereby the views of a tiny minority of far-left Jewish anti-Zionists – the journalist Antony Loewenstein being the most notorious local example – are promoted so as to avoid charges of anti-Semitism.
One of The Finkler Question’s memorable passages describes Finkler wiping the floor in a debate with several “hysterical” Zionists. During question time, however, when a “gentile” woman compares Finkler’s “sublime Jewish ethic” with Israel’s status as “an apartheid country ruled by racist supremacists”, even the ASHamed Jew takes umbrage: “How dare you […] tell Jews what sort of country they may live in, when it is you, a European Gentile, who made a separate country for Jews a necessity?”
It is doubtful that Chomsky will experience a Finkler moment when he delivers the annual Sydney Peace Prize Lecture in November. There will be the usual denunciations of rapacious American imperialism, Zionist intransigence and other western crimes against humanity. Chomsky is less an ideological warrior than a performative brand: his listeners are, in effect, consumers who expect to hear what they have paid for.
It is doubtful his future Sydney audience – likely a middle-class assortment of non-Jewish and non-Arab professionals – will pause to consider Chomsky’s peace credentials. For Chomsky’s acolytes, he represents the holy trinity of radical left politics: the good leftist whose political views have remained cryogenically frozen since the 1960s; the good American willing to denounce his own country; and, finally, the good Jew who has transcended tribe and religion.
As such, Chomsky is the lineal successor to Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (born Lev Bronstein). For many western leftists, Trotsky was not a brutal Red Army commissar and potential Stalinist despot but a freedom-fighting martyr for a humanitarian communism. His latter-day admirers also keenly point to his Jewishness and anti-Zionism. Yet Trotsky denied any solidarity with his fellow Jews. In 1920 Moscow’s chief rabbi, Jacob Mazeh, asked him to protect Jews from pogroms. Trotsky responded: “Why do you come to me? I am not a Jew.” To which Mazeh answered: “That’s the tragedy. It’s the Trotskys who make revolutions, and it’s the Bronsteins who pay the price.” Today the rabbi might amend his words thus: It’s the Chomskys who win the prizes, and the Israelis and Palestinians who pay the price.