Noam Chomsky discusses conflict in Middle East at lecture in Oakland

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Middle East Children's Allowance, Chomsky gave a talk on U.S.-Israeli relations

Tsar Fedorsky/Courtesy

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Professor is the most prosaic of Noam Chomsky’s titles, but it explains how the octogenarian mustered the stamina to lecture at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland a couple of weeks ago for more than an hour (standing up, pausing once for a sip of water). The occasion celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Middle East Children’s Alliance. After cultural activist and singer Holly Near and the Peace Becomes You band opened with a brief set, Chomsky shuffled onto the stage in a navy sweater and khakis, head slightly bowed like a spent Charlie Brown. His talk, entitled “Palestinian Hopes, Regional Turmoil,” condemned “the astonishing level of U.S. support for Israeli action,” recapitulated the relationship between the United States and the Middle East during the past few decades and parsed recent statements made by Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel. Aside from the rare anecdote (“Kids ask questions all the time, but my kids would ask a question and add, ‘Just the five-minute lecture!’”), Chomsky was untrammeled in his focus, discussing topics such as the Nixon doctrine, the Arab Spring, and WikiLeaks. The event was an unfussy affair with a deferential crowd. As expected, ticket rates got astronomically higher the closer you sat, creating a sort of inverse relationship between reaction and proximity to the stage: The farther away you were, the younger and louder you tended to be.

On imperialism: “If you take a look at the crimes, atrocities and horrors around the world, overwhelmingly they are the result of places where the imperial power drew borders for their own interests — irrelevant to the people who live there. Whether the centuries of imperial dominance can be unraveled without doing even worse harm — and if so, how — is not a simple question, but I think it’s an important task for the future to think about — if there will be a future in which we can even consider this question which is, unfortunately, not at all obvious.”

On secular nationalism: “The U.S., like Britain before it, has typically supported radical Islam. And there’s a good reason for that. Secular nationalism is dangerous. One danger is it might lead to democracy, and that’s very threatening. The other is that secular nationalism always threatens to take over the resources of a region, which is the only thing the West cares about — take them over and use them for the benefit of the domestic population, not for the benefit of the West, the oil companies, the small group of dictators who run the places for us.”

On the U.S. role in establishing preconditions: “The Palestinians are accused of imposing preconditions on negotiations, so the U.S. administration will say we just want to negotiate, but the Palestinians are obstructive and that they insist on preconditions. The reality is approximately the opposite. The U.S.-Israel alliance imposes very strict preconditions. These are taken to be so obviously correct that they’re never even mentioned in the press, but they are not so obviously correct. One precondition — one crucial precondition — is that the negotiations should be, must be, run by the United States. That makes about as much sense as if Iran insisted that the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq … that the negotiations should be run by Iran.”

On U.S. rhetoric regarding settlements: “The U.S. history on this topic [settlements] is kind of interesting. In the early period of occupation, the U.S. also declared the settlements to be illegal. That changed under Reagan, when the violation of law was downgraded to ‘an obstacle to peace.’ And we can even further a couple of weeks ago with President Obama a few weeks ago visiting Israel, he described the expansion of settlements as ‘not helpful to peace.’ That leaves us in splendid isolation.”

On Israeli expansion: “It’s very crucial to notice that these areas being taken over by Israel step by step are going to be practically free of Arabs — in some cases, by direct expulsion. They would be linked to Israel by Jewish infrastructure projects, superhighways … which, of course Palestinians, will be barred from. So there will be no demographic problem of too many non-Jews in a Jewish state, no civil rights struggle, no apartheid struggle. If we want to do something about this situation, we have to face those realities — not live with fantasies and illusions.”

Contact Neha Kulsh at [email protected].