The Legitimacy of Boycotting as a Tactic
by Kim Petersen / August 3rd, 2010
Progressivism values solidarity, and within that solidarity there is respect for diversity. It is expected that there will be differences of opinion on the causes of injustices and solutions to the injustice. What best captures the essence of progressivism is its adherence to principles. It seems obvious to declare the right to non-violently resist an occupier/oppressor must be one of those principles. There appears, however, a schism on this principle within the progressivist movement.
One renowned leftist, Noam Chomsky, is against boycotts as a tactic to resist oppression.
Jeffrey Blankfort objected to Chomsky’s stand on boycotts and his stance vis-à-vis Israel.1 Jeremy Hammond objected to Blankfort’s criticism of Chomsky.2
Hammond, who usually writes quite articulately on social justice issues, began his recent offering in an intemperate manner: “Tirades against Noam Chomsky never cease to amaze me.” One might surmise from Hammond’s opening sentence that he would address tirades against a man who is revered by a segment of the Left. Amazingly, what followed is best described as a tirade against Jeffrey Blankfort who dared to analyze and question the positions of Chomsky. Chomsky is an important thinker, but I do not believe that reasoned questioning of the words and actions of anyone is beyond reproach.
Chomsky, for his part, does not show signs of relishing his celebrity status. Nonetheless, because of the spotlight afforded him, his reputation, and his articulation, his message has reach and influence. Consequently, if Chomsky were to be averse to a form of social justice activism, then the effect would not be beneficial for that activism.
Blankfort, a well-informed thinker and proponent of social justice, examined the struggle of Palestinians and Chomsky’s repudiation of a non-violent form of resistance by Palestinians to their oppression; namely, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Because of Chomsky’s opposition to boycotts, among other points, Blankfort asks whether Chomsky is an asset or a liability to social justice for Palestinians.
Hammond does not directly state that Blankfort’s piece was a tirade, but he accuses Blankfort of ignorance and deliberate misrepresentation. Those are heavy charges, and they should be backed up solidly.
Yet Hammond, himself, appears guilty of deliberate misrepresentation. An example is his discussion of Chomsky’s meeting with Palestinian “prime minister” Salam Fayyad.
Blankfort wishes to know whether Chomsky “considered the Palestine Authority’s endorsement of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, of its attempts to suppress a UN investigation of the Goldstone Report, and of the role played by its US-trained militia in protecting Israel.”
Hammond says that Blankfort implies that Chomsky favors Fayyad. This is a straw man. There is no such implication. Blankfort wonders why Chomsky would meet Fayyad. Given the history surrounding the Palestine Authority (PA), this is a fair question.
Hammond likes to point out omissions, yet he omits mentioning that Fayyad is a member of a government which evades democracy. The electorally mandated term of Abbu Abbas, “president” of Palestine, expired in January 2009.
Now why would a party that heads a government seek to avoid elections? Probably most people would answer that such a government is afraid of losing. Hence, any policies that the PA implements are lacking democratic legitimacy, whether Chomsky considers them “quite sensible” or not.
Contrary to Hammond’s assertion, Blankfort does not portray “Chomsky’s support for a de facto Palestinian state as a blanket endorsement of the PA and all its actions.” Blankfort calls into question the democratic legitimacy of the PA. Without the imprimatur of the Palestinian electorate, who does the PA represent? Many critics point to it as a stooge of Israel and the United States. With such a reputation, is it any wonder that the PA is afraid to face the electorate? The last election for the Palestinian legislature, in 2006, amply revealed how the Palestinian electorate responds to a disloyal government.
Given that whatever democratic legitimacy the PA held had expired, Blankfort asked a serious question: “Why had Chomsky been invited to speak at Bir Zeit in the first place? For those puzzled by that question, be assured that it is meant to be taken quite seriously.” As for democratic legitimacy: how legitimate and representative are elections under occupation? How much credence should people give to such elections?
Chomsky has the right to meet with whoever. He is not a representative of the Palestinians, and he is meeting with the US-backed prime minister (bearing in mind that Chomsky holds the US largely responsible for Israeli-committed crimes in Palestine) whose government is accused of collaborating in Israeli occupation of the West Bank. However, given Chomsky’s opposition to US imperialism and crimes against Palestinians, it is not unusual to wonder why he would meet Fayyad. One should be careful, though, in drawing any conclusions about such a meeting. If I had a chance to honestly dialogue with Fayyad, I would likeliest do so.
Hammond employs the rhetorical device that he accuses Blankfort of throughout his article. Hammond constructs a straw man. He states that Blankfort’s “intended implication, of course, is that Chomsky supports the Zionist theft of Arab land, the Israeli blockade, the blocking of the Goldstone Report, and P.A. collusion with Israel.” In Hammond’s mindset, asking a question carries an implication.
Hammond constructs a straw man, accusing Blankfort of misleading readers on what Chomsky did not mean by being a “supporter of Israel.” Nowhere is such interpretation by Blankfort apparent. Instead Blankfort left it for readers to draw their own conclusions.
Hammond states “taken together with his enormous body of work on the subject, clearly what Chomsky means by saying he is ‘a supporter of Israel’ is not that he supports Israel as a ‘Jewish state’, that he supports Zionism in the contemporary understanding of the word, that he supports the occupation, or any other such asinine nonsense, but just the opposite — that he opposes all of these policies. It’s those who support Israel’s criminal policies, in Chomsky’s view, who in fact are acting against Israel’s own best interests by encouraging its “moral degeneration.” Chomsky bears some responsibility for the lack of clarity. He is a linguist, he must be aware of the connotations carried by his words.
Hammond points to an interview where Chomsky explained what he meant by being a “Zionist”:
What I said was that I remain a Zionist in the sense of Zionism in the 1940s. Zionism has changed. That doesn’t mean my views have.
This is an interesting explanation Hammond points to. Is it a clear statement? Do people understand what a Zionist was in the 1940s? Is it a Zionist like David Ben Gurion – a Zionist in the 1940s? Yitzhak Shamir? How was being a Zionist in the 1940s different from now?
Hammond constructs his next straw man when he insinuates that Blankfort alludes to Chomsky’s work to be lacking in merit on the Palestinian cause. Really? Blankfort wrote, “Chomsky’s background – is a reflection of the political culture of the American Left which was and remains substantially if not predominantly Jewish, particularly in its leadership positions. Support for Israel had become so ingrained and fear of anti-Semitism so deeply embedded in the psyche of American Jewish Leftists in the aftermath of World War 2, that if the Jewish state was to be criticized it had to be by someone from within the tribe who unequivocally supported its existence.”
Through Hammond’s construction of straw men, one might infer that he seeks to evade the points Blankfort raises. Does Hammond deny a Jewish predominance in leadership positions in “political culture of the American Left”?3 Does he deny the fear of pro-Palestinian rights activists of being smeared as an anti-Semite?4
Much of Chomsky’s work on Palestinian issues has merit; surely, Blankfort recognizes that. In Fateful Triangle, Chomsky identifies unequivocally the rampant racism against Arabs and abuses perpetrated against them.5 What would it mean though if someone both aids and hampers a social justice movement?
Hammond constructs another straw man when he writes, “Chomsky has written extensively on which crimes he means, and anyone even modestly familiar with his work knows he is referring to U.S. financial, military, and diplomatic support for Israeli violations of international law…” He adds, “But Blankfort doesn’t turn to anything Chomsky has ever actually written about U.S. support for Israel for examples.” Hammond has widened the scope of discussion.
Of course, the US supports Zionism (along with other western governments), and it supports the Israeli occupation. Blankfort, in his article, focuses on what Israel does to Palestine. Chomsky points to who supplies the gun. Blankfort points to who fires the gun. Israel is the occupying state. It is Israeli soldiers that commit war crimes on behalf of Israel.
Blankfort does not deny that US support for Israeli crimes exists. Yet, this does not restrain Hammond from constructing another straw man argument, alleging that “Chomsky is here blaming Israel for the Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 — suggestions for which Blankfort offers no supporting evidence from any of Chomsky’s voluminous writings and talks on the subject.”
Hammond is way off base here. Blankfort does not blame; he mainly asks pertinent questions which Hammond does not deal with. Blankfort says Chomsky is “shifting blame for Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians to the US.” Blankfort is arguing against the notion that Israel never acts independently of the US. To illustrate this, Blankfort asks whether the Nakba or the Israeli takeover and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 were also the fault of the US?
To buttress his argument that Chomsky may be a liability to the Palestinian struggle, Blankfort analyzed an exchange between Alison Weir, of If Americans Knew on Jerusalem Calling, and Chomsky where the latter stated,
What I have opposed, is BDS proposals that harm Palestinians. If we are serious about BDS or any other tactic, we want to ask what the consequences are for the victims. We have to distinguish always in tactical judgments between what you might call ‘feel good’ tactics and ‘do good’ tactics. There are tactics that may make people feel good in doing something, but maybe they harm the victims.
The obvious question that arises from Chomsky’s statement: Why does Chomsky presume to speak on behalf of Palestinians? Do Palestinians not have the right to determine what hardship they would be willing to endure for an end to their occupation? Courageous writer Vittorio Arrigoni, in his eyewitness accounts of Israel’s Cast Lead massacre, lamented, “Gaza’s muted Palestinians survive while others speak for them while they may not speak for themselves.”6
Moreover, how is it that a Palestinian people already having suffered massacres, an illegal siege, and — as Chomsky’s colleague Edward Herman states — a slow-motion genocide might be further harmed by Israel?
Chomsky said, “It is so hypocritical … why boycott Israel and not boycott the United States? The US has a much worse record.”
This is true, and a boycott against the US would be justifiable, but does avoidance of hypocrisy stand up to logical scrutiny?
Extrapolating from Chomsky: if all the criminals are not prosecuted, then none should be. No justice is better than a little justice.
Another extrapolation: It is hypocritical to resist your resistible tormentors, if you do not or cannot defeat all your tormentors at once. This is a strategy doomed to defeat.
Furthermore, a defeat of Zionism would also be a defeat for US imperialism, this by the very fact that it would signal to other people who suffer under the US yoke that US imperialism can still be defeated abroad. So, in effect, the success of the Palestinian-based BDS campaign would strike at the heart of US imperialism.
Chomsky uses tu quoque argumentation.7 Because you do not resist all oppressions equally, does that mean all resistance is illegitimate and/or hypocritical? Because you do not resist all oppressions equally, does that mean all resistance is illegitimate and/or hypocritical?
A Thought Experiment
Imagine you have two groups of enemies. One group of enemies is three small boys who wake you up in the middle of every night. The second group is a gang of two dozen knife-wielding ruffians who encourage the small boys to carry out their nightly disturbances. You decide that you can deal with the small boys by reporting them to the police, but you fear reporting the gang of ruffians to the police. What do you do? Do you continue suffering the nightly disturbances of the small boys to avoid being a hypocrite?
Chomsky’s argumentation requires that a non-violent resistance be abandoned because there are more deserving calls for resistance elsewhere. This argument serves the Israeli occupiers and the supporters of Israel’s occupation. It does not serve the victims of occupation. Ergo, it could be reasoned that — in some sense — Chomsky sides with the oppressors over the victims of the oppressors.
Nevertheless, to answer Chomsky’s boycott question is futile because — if I understand correctly — he rules out boycotts in every case since a boycott would harm the people of whichever state was being boycotted.
Supporter of Israel
Chomsky said, “I don’t regard myself as a critic of Israel. I regard myself as a supporter of Israel.”
This is a statement that on its face is suggestive, but given the history and meaning attached to “Israel,” it requires further clarification to get at its significance.
Based on Chomsky’s former desire to live in Israel, Blankfort suggests, that Chomsky “seems to have no problem with the Jewish ‘right of return’ to what, until 1948, was Palestine, but considers a similar demand by the Palestinians who were actually born there to be not only unrealistic but potentially dangerous.”
Chomsky did act to “return” to Israel knowing that Palestinians were denied the same right.
Blankfort quotes Chomsky that “… there is no detectable international support for it [the ‘right of return’], and under the (virtually unimaginable) circumstances that such support would develop, …”
Two points: 1) International support? Chomsky must be referring to support expressed by governments. Since Chomsky writes often about and is well aware of US hegemony, that there should be “no detectable international support” for a position contrary to the hegemon should be unsurprising. Does the position of the governments of the international community abrogate the rights of an Indigenous people to land they have occupied for millennia? What does elementary morality posit here? If the international community is defying elementary morality, then why refer to such a community to seemingly exculpate a crime?
2) Virtually unimaginable? Is this not the pessimistic mindset that Chomsky so often battles when he refutes the gainsayers of those seeking social justice — those who point out that resistance is futile and that things will never change — by pointing to gains made by activists against slavery, for the right to vote, worker rights, women’s rights, etc.?
Hammond notes Chomsky’s opposition to BDS is specifically aimed at the boycott while Chomsky supports divestment. He takes issue with Blankfort’s contention and the paucity of his explanation on why “the kind of divestment campaign Chomsky favors — one targeting the U.S” would fail and be harmful to Palestinians.
I do not presume to speak for Blankfort, but he leaves unexplained what should be palpable. As Chomsky has noted, it is the investor class (i.e., the ruling class) that predominately invests. Why would this class move against its interests or desires? Divestment is a call for the ruling class to militate against themselves. Although there are some sizable retirement and union funds, such a call for divestment does, indeed, seem doomed to failure.
Another straw man of Hammond follows:
Blankfort next quotes Chomsky as saying, “once Israel was formed in 1948, my position has consistently been that Israel should have all the rights of every state in the international system, no more and no less.” We are supposed to draw the conclusion, apparently, that Chomsky views Israel’s creation through an act of ethnic cleansing as having been legitimate.
Hammond has drawn a conclusion and presented it. His conclusion is a non sequitur though. Yes, readers are supposed to draw their own conclusions, and writers should grant that readers can consider the facts cited, the views given, check sources, discuss … otherwise writers would only be indoctrinators, of a sort.
But Hammond persists with his straw men through conjuration. He takes issue with Blankfort not informing readers that Chomsky has “explicitly rejected that Israel has a ‘right to exist.’” It is as if Hammond realizes the weight of evidence that Blankfort presents bodes ill for Chomsky — that he has to fish for ways to support his man.
Hammond constructs straw men by alleging straw man building by Blankfort. Hammond claims that “Blankfort chooses to ignore Chomsky’s own specific examples, which he’s written on constantly and documented extensively, of how the U.S. is ‘responsible for a lot of Israel’s criminal behavior’, instead preferring to create a straw man argument by suggesting he was referring to Israeli actions in ’48 and ’67 …” This is disingenuous. It was sufficient to merely posit a few examples that supported his contention that Israel does act on its own initiative. That there are examples that do not suggest otherwise does not nullify what Blankfort stated.
Hammond writes, “Yet, after all this, Blankfort has the chutzpah to accuse Chomsky of “intellectual dishonesty.’” This is bizarre considering that Hammond also has the chutzpah to accuse Blankfort of dishonesty in his article.
Hammond ends with praise for his hero. One certainly can learn much from Chomsky. As for his place as a critic of Israeli crimes and as a supporter of Palestinian rights, that is something that history will decide. He has been a critic of Israeli crimes, and he has supported Palestinian rights. But he does not support the Palestinian right to urge a boycott of Israel. By not supporting the Palestinian-based BDS, Chomsky arguably takes away a non-violent means of resistance that further exposes them to Israeli crimes.
Blankfort raised an issue, and it is a pertinent issue — despite what Hammond opines — whether a high profile progressive is hampering Palestinians attempt to non-violently resist their occupation.
Whatever other issues are raised by Chomsky to question his support for Palestinian rights, glaring is his lack of support for the BDS campaign.
Thought Experiment 2
Imagine that you and your kith and kin have been dispossessed, your land occupied, and you have endured oppression and massacres for six decades. You are living under a brutal siege where people live in fear, where your children are malnourished … and much, much worse. You are basically disarmed (backyard tin-can rockets hardly count), and your oppressor is a military heavyweight. The governments of the entire western world side with your oppressor. But you remember South Africa, you have heard how boycotts and sanctions brought an end to apartheid in that land. It is a non-violent means of resistance. It is a campaign that provides a profile for your cause. It a campaign that allows the citizens of western countries to reject their government’s collaboration with a racist regime of occupation and oppression by doing something simple: not purchasing products of the occupier. It is a ray of hope for the oppressed people to resist. (And living with a ray of hope beats living with pessimism and despair.)
Then a venerated professor of the Left living overseas in a nation that collaborates steadfastly with your oppressor tells you that a BDS campaign is wrong. He has inflicted a dent in your non-violent means of resistance, and he has given you no substitute means of resistance. The platform is seemingly pulled from under your feet. You wonder why, and you discover because the professor has determined that you will be harmed. It is not for you to decide. The professor has influence. Many people are followers of the professor, and his pronouncements have sway. The BDS campaign has been wounded. How do you as one of the oppressed people living under occupation feel about this?
Although this writer believes violent resistance to violent oppression is legitimate, BDS appears to be a legitimate, non-violent means to combat the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. Chomsky would seemingly take this non-violent tactic out of the hands of Palestinian resistance because it might harm the people who are behind the occupation and oppression of Palestinians. Since Chomsky rejects a tactic of Palestinian resistance, he should at least proffer a realistic means of ending the occupation and oppression of Palestinians.
Viewing the devastation heaped upon Gazans, Arrogoni decried the absence of “any tangible sign from the international community of a will to boycott these actions.”8
Arrogoni argued, “It’s [sic] now our turn, as ordinary citizens without citizenship … to get away from this hellish contraption.”9
Arrogoni looked to the historical struggle against racism in South Africa: “Refraining from boycotting the regime of apartheid back then was a little like being an accomplice of it. What has changed today?”10
Does Arrogoni capture the will and right of Palestinians to resist their tormentor, or does the logic and elementary morality of the professor stand up to scrutiny?
3. Much has been written on this. See, for example, Israel Shamir, “Part Three: The Left,” in Masters of Discourse (New York: Surge Books, 2008); Philip Weiss, “‘Increasingly vocal’ Jewish left is taking over the American Jewish ’street’,” Mondoweiss, 7 June 2010. and “List of Jewish American activists,” Wikipedia.
5. Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel & The Palestinians (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1983, 1999).
6. Vittorio Arrigoni, Gaza: Stay Human, Translated by Daniela Filippin, (Leichestershire, UK: Kube Publishing, 2010): 113.
7. “Chomsky’s attempt to rationalize Israel’s ongoing discrimination of those Palestinians who remained after the Nakba, by lumping it together with the forms of racism practiced in the US” is also tu quoque. The fact that a wrong is committed at another time or place does not legitimize commission of the crime in the present instance.
8. Arrogoni, 64.
10. Ibid, 66.
Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim[at]dissidentvoice.org.