the Disillusioned kid
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Thursday, June 17, 2004

Noam Chomsky is something of a personal hero and I am slowly working my way through everything he's written (yes, I'm aware I'm a lefty cliche). I've just finished his Peace in the Middle East: Reflections on Justice and Nationhood (Vintage, New York, 1974) which looks at the Israeli-Arab conflict and presents a possible solution. He argues that the best solution is "socialist binationalism", although he does not set out the details of how this would work.

One of the striking things about the book is its optimism. Chomsky's more recent works have been much more pessimistic. In the introduction to his latest book, Hegemony or Survival (Hamish Hamilton, London, 2003) he considers the work of biologist Ernst Mayr who was interested in the likelihood of intelligent life on other planets and looked at the evolutionary success of evolutionary species and concluded that the claim "it is better to be smart than stupid," is wrong, at least in biological terms. This leads Chomsky to comment,
We are entering a period of human history that may provide an answer to the question of whether it is better to be smart than stupid. The most hopeful prospect is that the question will not be answered: if it receives a definite answer, that answer can only be that humans were a kind of "biological error," using their allotted 100,000 years [the average life expectancy of a species] to destroy themselves and, in the process, much else. (Chomsky, 2003, pp. 1-2)
The bulk of the book consists of examples of situations where elites are risking continuing human existence in order to assert their domination. The picture he paints is a grim one indeed with the survival of the human race hanging in the balance. Movements working to ensure human survival, such as the massive opposition to the invasion of Iraq, receive only a cursory mention.

In Peace..., by contrast, he seems far more hopeful. Talking of widescale co-operation between Arabs and Jews in order to achieve a just solution, as if such a state of affairs was just around the corner. Tragically of course thirty years later this has yet to take place and if anything the conflict is more serious than ever. Certainly this is the case as regards civilian Israeli casualties with the emergence of suicide bombings. It is also worth noting that since writing Peace... Chomsky has changed his position and now supports the two-state solution which he describes as the "international consensus". He argues,
They had a chance to [establish a binational state], and that chance is gone. Maybe it will come back someday, but not now. The only feasible settlement now is through the international consensus: a two-state settlement or something like that, on or near the international border. (Safundi, April 04)
How far the failure of those involved to capitalise on the opportunities before them has influenced his apparent shift towards pessimism is unclear.

He stakes out a fiercely independent position in Peace..., noting that on their own terms the cases made by both Jews and Arabs are valid and so setting them against each other is a fruitless exercise, hence his emphasis on co-operation. He supports many of his arguments for a binational solution with quotes taking from leading Zionists such as David Ben-Gurion. He points out that contrary to typical assertions Zionism has not always been focused entirely on the idea of a Jewish state, indeed this only became official Zionist policy in 1942. Arthur Rupin for instance opined that "a Jewish state of one million or even five million (after fifty years!) will be nothing but a new Montenegro or Lithuania" (Chomsky, 1974, p. 33). Instead many leading Zionists argued for a solution broadly along the lines of that articulated by Chomsky in which Arabs and Jews live together in peace. It is tragic indeed that these hopes were never realised. The consequences, for both Jews and Arabs, have been serious.

It is terrible to think that a book written about a conflict taking place thirty years ago remains relevant today, but this does. I share Chomsky's dubiousness about the hopes for a single state solution at the present time. It is a nice idea to be sure, but probably not realistic. Nonetheless the historical background to the conflict and an alternative side to Zionism, one which both sides seek to underplay, is of considerable interest. His assertion that both sides have national rights which must be taken into consideration in any solution remains crucial and can easily be lost among the rhetoric about terrorism and imperialism.

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