Reflections on a Lifetime of Engagement with Zionism, the Palestine Question, and American Empire: An Interview with Noam Chomsky
What is perhaps most striking about Noam Chomsky is his consistency. Over the course of more than half a century of political activism, accompanied by a ceaseless output of books and articles as well as innumerable talks and interviews, he has—to the best of my knowledge—never changed his mind on a significant issue. This is all the more impressive when considering the astounding range of his political interests, which span the globe geographically as well as thematically.
In many cases a refusal or inability to revise one’s perceptions and prescriptions over the course of multiple decades in which the world has been transformed beyond recognition would be dismissed—even ridiculed—as the product of narrow-minded, anachronistic dogmatism. Not, however, in Chomsky’s case. Not because he is a recognized pioneer in his chosen field of linguistics, and at the age of 83 remains the most significant public intellectual alive, but rather because he has consistently eschewed doctrinal commitments as the basis for his interpretation of reality.
Throughout his life, Chomsky has been motivated first and foremost by a deep, palpable commitment to the rights and dignity of human beings and their communities, and an equally visceral opposition to the elites and institutions that trample this humanity underfoot when it gets in their way, and has interpreted the world accordingly. His anarchist beliefs notwithstanding, I suspect he considers his main principle to be common sense, more often than not derived from an encyclopedic knowledge that he remains capable of deploying at a moment’s notice.
Although Chomsky the political activist first became known for his early opposition to the Vietnam war (an engagement which he continues to insist began far too late), his involvement with the Palestine question predates this by several decades, largely on account of the milieu in which he was born and raised. In the interview below, Chomsky recounts this early engagement, and how it developed over the course of his lifetime. He also reflects on how things have—and have not—changed, and where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could and should be heading.
The interview was conducted at his Lexington, Massachusetts home on 14 May 2009 and 21 November 2010. The occasional question was asked twice, to which he gave an almost verbatim response—itself a mirror reflection of things he had said and written a year, a decade, even decades earlier—yet made relevant to the context of today.
Between these meetings, in May 2010, he visited Amman en route to Palestine, where he was scheduled to deliver an address at Birzeit University. Banned by Israel’s Ministry of Interior from visiting the West Bank—a Neanderthal decision that instantaneously catapulted an otherwise low-key visit into global headlines—he spent the next several days in Amman, giving a number of hastily scheduled talks (including to Birzeit University by videolink), several dozen interviews, and various meetings, stopping only briefly to rest when left with no choice by his daughter Avi and friends Assaf Kfoury and Irene Gendzier, who accompanied him from Boston. Next to his consistency, his level of energy (activism in the literal sense) is equally impressive, not just for a man in his early 80s, but indeed at any age.
MOUIN RABBANI, a senior fellow with the Institute for Palestine Studies, is an independent researcher and analyst specializing on the Middle East currently based in Amman, Jordan.