I’m planning to write a long piece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and my personal journey from Bar Mitzvah boy and teenage Zionist to an eventual supporter of Palestinian self-determination. But to even begin to understand that political transformation, I figure that I also need to look at how I grew up believing that no fate could be more noble than dying in the defense of the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, but by the time I was nineteen, arriving at the conclusion that the U. S. was waging a war of terror in Southeast Asia that I could not support.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my freshman year at college (in 1965) was the beginning of dramatic personal change. I spent the latter half of that academic year sporadically attending classes at the University of Michigan and hanging out in coffee shops with anti-war activists for extended periods. I began, then, to move away from my youthful patriotism to a more critical view of American militarism and the war in Vietnam.
In the process, I was greatly influenced by the writings of Noam Chomsky, particularly individual essays that were later collected and published in the book American Power and the New Mandarins. I’m rereading the book, now, trying to understand some of the emotional intensity of my political transformation some 40 years ago. And though I have every intention of following through with the aforementioned long piece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am discovering anew the power of what Chomsky wrote so long ago, and how resonant his book seems now. In particular, there are two quotes from the introduction that I would like to cite and explore here.
First: “No one who involved himself in antiwar activities as late as 1965, as I did, has any reason for pride or satisfaction. This opposition was ten or fifteen years too late. This is one lesson we should have learned from the tragedy of Vietnam.”
And this one: “By entering into the arena of argument and counterargument, of technical feasibility and tactics, of footnotes and citations, by accepting the presumption of legitimacy of debate on certain issues, one has already lost one’s humanity. This is the feeling I find almost impossible to repress when going through the motions of building a case against the American war in Vietnam. Anyone who puts a fraction of his mind to the task can construct a case that is overwhelming… In an important way, by doing so he degrades himself, and insults beyond measure the victims of our violence and our moral blindness. There may have been a time when American policy in Vietnam was a debatable matter. This time is long past… The war is simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men, including all of us, who have allowed it to go on and on with endless fury and destruction—all of us who would have remained silent had stability and order been secured. It is not pleasant to use such words, but candor permits no less.”
Here Chomsky calls himself out twice. In the first quote he says that he was unconscionably late in his opposition to the Vietnam War. “Ten or fifteen years too late,” he writes.
In the second quote, Chomsky raises the possibility that despite the essential wrongness of the war, had the U.S. been able to secure “stability and order” in Vietnam, he might well have remained silent. Had the “fury and destruction” been transient enough, he might never have been moved, he suggests, to speak out against the war, at all.
The concept that Chomsky develops here still resonates and seems to apply decently well to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After all, if Palestinians did not continue to resist Israeli occupation, if they did not engage in acts of “terror,” if they did not lob rockets from Gaza into Israel, if Israel were able to exercise greater control of the Palestinians, “had stability and order been secured,” others might not raise issues with the circumstances surrounding the creation of the state of Israel, might ignore the blockade of Gaza, might remain silent about the Occupation of the West Bank, might excuse the continuous process of expropriation and settlement on occupied territory. How unconscionable would that silence be?
Do some Palestinians lob rockets from Gaza into Israel because they want to awaken our conscience? Do they do so because they want revenge for dispossession, or revenge for the slaughter of innocents? Or because they hate Jews and wish to kill them? For an awakened conscience, aroused by the mortal threat and explosive power of the rockets, which questions have a higher priority? Do we condemn the rocket attacks and look away from the dispossession of Palestinians?
The biggest problem that I can see with the certainty that seems to characterize the two quotes from Chomsky is the apparent assumption that there comes a time when the moral question has been settled, a time when everyone must conclude that to argue any further that the dispossession of Palestinians is debatable “insults beyond measure the victims of our violence and our moral blindness.”
That statement is too absolute, too sweeping to be true. There were lots of reasons why people had not yet begun to oppose the Vietnam War in 1965, though Chomsky may be right in not excusing himself for his own too-long delayed opposition. And there are lots of reasons why supporters of the state of Israel remain unwilling to question the circumstances surrounding the creation of that state and all the violence against Palestinians that has happened since. But in my mind and heart we ought to be thanking the Palestinians who continue to resist because without that resistance the rest of us would almost certainly look away.