There’s no pleasing some people. After my post on Noam Chomsky’s remarks to the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, his admirers started writing to me indignantly demanding that I explicitly acquit him of antisemitism. Here’s one of them:
I think you should make a note of that either in the current post or one of the future ones. Because there are people out there who consider him an anti-Semite or self-hating Jew and they're going to quote you hinting (in their view) at it.
I do not consider Chomsky an antisemite, but for reasons that will become clear I shall certainly not do what this correspondent believes is my duty. I thought I’d been clear already, but evidently wasn't; let’s try again. Here is what Chomsky said:
You find occasional instances of anti-Semitism but they are marginal. There’s plenty of racism, but it’s directed against Blacks, Latinos, Arabs are targets of enormous racism, and those problems are real. Anti-Semitism is no longer a problem, fortunately. It’s raised, but it’s raised because privileged people want to make sure they have total control, not just 98% control. That’s why anti-Semitism is becoming an issue. Not because of the threat of anti-Semitism; they want to make sure there’s no critical look at the policies the US (and they themselves) support in the Middle East.Chomsky’s remark is shabby and repellent. It marks the first case I have come across in his writings on the Jews that crosses the line from bombast to bigotry. The plain interpretation of his remark is that the Jews have 98% control of the US and want total domination. Typically, however, Chomsky leaves himself enough wiggle room to be able to claim that no such impure thoughts crossed his mind. He insinuates his message – by talking of “privileged people” instead of Jews – rather than states it unambiguously, but he has already declared, a couple of sentences earlier:
By now Jews in the US are the most privileged and influential part of the population.
It’s an antisemitic remark, all right, if words have meaning and sophistry is not your trade. The extenuating factor for Chomsky, ironically, is that sophistry is his trade. That is the only reason I would be unwilling to infer purely from this episode that the man is an antisemite. My actual conclusion about him is scarcely more elevated, though.
What I believe explains Chomsky’s ‘deniable demagoguery’ is that he is a vacuum where a sense of decency ought to be. I commented earlier in this series that it would be a mistake to see Chomsky’s principal political message as a defence of totalitarian regimes; rather, it is a nihilism concerning democratic values. Whereas someone of civilised and – in the broadest sense - liberal beliefs would acknowledge the inherent imperfection, innumerable errors and many injustices of Western democratic societies, yet at the same time be thankful that the world’s only superpower is a free and humane society that promotes global democracy rather than imperial conquest, Chomsky’s political obsession is to liken the United States to Nazi Germany. (I have cited various instances of this absurd and malevolent charge, and could – and will – quote more.)
If you believe that the US is a totalitarian society and a genocidal force comparable to or worse than Nazi Germany – which, I repeat, is the axiom of Chomsky’s political philosophy – then you will sooner or later be forced to try to reconcile your beliefs with a real world that does not remotely conform to them. In those circumstances, if you are honest then you will revise your view sharply and immediately, and if you are not then you will adopt some obfuscatory stratagem. Chomsky takes the second of those courses (again, I have cited his dishonest use of source material, and will give further examples).
The stratagem Chomsky adopts is to minimise the ugliness of the causes arraigned against the US and Israel. As we have seen, this leads him even to such perverse positions as defending the political legitimacy of the views of the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson while being fully aware of the pro-Nazi content of those views. Chomsky does not himself deny the historicity of the Holocaust, and is not part of the neo-Nazi campaign that propounds this obviously deranged proposition; but he is an ideological apologist for it, by denying the obvious antisemitic connotations of that campaign.
This sort of behaviour is, I believe, the explanation for Chomsky’s resort to antisemitic imagery in the remarks I have quoted. Chomsky is not an antisemite: he’s a cynic. His campaign of denigration of democratic politics is so extreme and amoral that he will temporise the most disreputable political causes in order to promote his anti-American animus. (If you believe I exaggerate, then try to name a political cause more disreputable than Holocaust denial.)
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign - clearly the parent body, though its Scottish campaign is nominally independent - has “form” in lionising personalities who really are ferociously antisemitic. Last September, its Leicester branch played host to the jazz musician Gilad Atzmon, a bigoted crank who believes the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion accurately describe the state of American society. Those who admire Atzmon and his message (Socialist Worker described Atzmon’s crude Jew-baiting as “fearless tirades against Zionism”) will be receptive to conspiracy theories about Jews.
I suggested in my previous post the possibility, however remote, that Chomsky misspoke when uttering his antisemitic remarks. (I am told that he is not an especially eloquent speaker, though I have never heard him and so cannot judge this point.) That is a measure of my generosity as a commentator on Chomsky’s work, for, while I believe that in the absence of other instances of antisemitic utterances by Chomsky we have to give him benefit of doubt on the question of personal antisemitism, I do not really believe he is that artless. What strikes me as the most likely explanation is that, aware of the political inclinations of those he addressed, he moulded his message accordingly. That is what I find so shocking. The proper course with campaigns that are host to antisemitic sentiments is to condemn and oppose them. That is not Chomsky’s way; instead, he ingratiates.
What a disgrace.