Painting the world in stark dichotomies, famed linguist Noam Chomsky explained the Israel-Palestine conflict in simple terms to a crowded audience in LeFrak Gym: “Israeli Jews are people and Palestinians are ‘unpeople.’”
Sponsored by the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University, Chomsky’s speech “America and Israel-Palestine: War and Peace” was a harsh critique of American foreign policy in Israel. Professor of Linguistics Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky is one of the foremost American intellectuals to speak against American foreign policy concerning Israel and Palestine.
In a speech that read like a laundry list of Israeli-Palestinian history, he returned to the people/unpeople theme many times to explain Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and America’s acquiescence.
“Remember, these are all ‘unpeople,’” he said. “So naturally, no one cares.”
In addition to his psychological analysis, Chomsky focused on what he considers to be the greatest obstacle to moving forward in the peace process: the United States. The United States is one of Israel’s last allies, offering political and financial support to the country despite decades of criticism from the international community.
“Israel offers a lot to the United States,” Chomsky said, referring to American investments in Israel—especially in military capital and military technology—and its role as a strategic American ally in the Middle East. He also referred to “cultural” similarities, saying that both the United States and Israel share a history of removing indigenous peoples from their lands. “We did it, so it’s got to be right. Jews are doing it, so it’s got to be right,” he said.
In the end, Chomsky said there are two simple options: that things continue the way they are or Israel and the United States allow for a two-state solution.
“If you’re opposed to a two-state settlement at this point, you’re telling the Palestinians to get lost," he said. “Of all the problems in the world, this has to be the easiest to solve,” he said.
Following his speech, questions ranged from aggressive attacks on his political positions to practical inquiries about the details of his proposal for peace.
One student challenged Chomsky’s claim that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak walked away from a peace settlement during the 2000 Camp David Accords, saying it was Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat who refused Barak’s offer to give Palestinians all of Gaza and most of the West Bank. But Chomsky said that the terms of the agreement were unworkable from the beginning. “Clinton recognized that no Palestinian, no Arab, would ever accept the terms that they proposed,” he said. “There’s no need to discuss it.”
He also questioned the veracity of many students’ facts. “There is an official story, which is true, but like most official stories, it falls apart quickly if you look at the facts,” he added.
Despite enthusiastic applause through much of his talk, Chomsky’s wording attracted a crowd of mixed opinions.
“When he says ‘unpeople,’ what he means the audience to understand is racism,” said Ryan Arant, SIPA. “But what I think he’s describing are traditional power dynamics between the powerful and the powerless.”
“There are real things to talk about,” Arant added. “But calling Israel and the West racist is not one of them.”
But others considered the event a valuable learning experience.
“It was a good way to get a view of it from a well-informed source,” said Yaas Bigdeli, SEAS ’14. “I was impressed,” she said, adding that she was drawn to Chomsky by his fame and a desire to learn about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
But as Bigdeli noted, the notably dry Chomsky did end on a positive note.
“I think it’s kind of optimistic,” he said. “Because it means that the future is in our hands.”