The value of free speech

Blocking Chomsky makes it easier for him to win over new critics.

Noam Chomsky 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Noam Chomsky 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Though an Interior Ministry spokesperson later called it a “misunderstanding,” the blocking of Noam Chomsky’s entrance to the West Bank by an Israeli border official earlier this week has been hailed by some prominent Israelis. MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union), for instance, has argued that an incendiary anti-Zionist like Chomsky should not be permitted to further exacerbate anti-Israeli sentiment among the Palestinians.
Chomsky, 81, had been on his way to Ramallah’s Bir Zeit University to lecture. A day after he was prevented from entering, the Interior Ministry denied that the linguist had been blacklisted and announced that if he still wished to cross into the West Bank, he would be allowed to do so.
Chomsky, who in the 1970s publicly defended French neo-Nazi Holocaust-denier Robert Faurisson, represents a particularly pernicious strain of anti-Zionism. He embodies the “proud to be ashamed to be a Jew” figure, so unfortunately rampant in recent years in certain academic circles.
Not much is more attractive to extremist Palestinians and their supporters than a respected Jewish professor from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology vocally delegitimizing the Jewish state.
Chomsky, to some extent, is the intellectual grandfather of a growing number of Jewish university professors and intellectuals who link anti-Zionism to anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-globalization and anti-racism.
Others plowing a similar course include Jacqueline Rose, professor of English at Queen Mary, University of London, who has defined Zionism as “a form of collective insanity”; Michael Neumann, professor of philosophy at Trent University in Canada, who has accused Israel of waging a “race war” against Palestinians; historian Tony Judt, who has called for dismantling Israel and replacing it with “a single integrated, binational state,” and Joel Kovel, professor at Bard College, who claimed that “to be a true Jew,” an Israeli had to “annihilate the Jewish Zionist state.”
Chomsky, in short, should not be seen as an isolated eccentric. Any country with a healthy instinct for survival would want to protect itself against the likes of him. And it is not inconceivable that his opinions, expressed among Palestinians, could lead to violence. Consider, for instance, remarks he made in Boston in January of last year.
“In the West Bank by now there’s very little resistance, because of Israeli violence which has indeed subdued the population,” said Chomsky then. “And by now, because of collaborationist Palestinian forces, as I’m sure you know, Israel, the US, with its allies, the Arab dictatorships – Jordan, Egypt – have trained security forces, Fatah security forces, whose main task is to subdue the population.
“If they have a demonstration, you know, against the atrocities in Gaza, instead of the Israeli army going in, they’ll do it. That’s a typical colonial pattern.”
Given statements like that, indeed, it would not be surprising were the Palestinian Authority, not Israel, primarily interested in blocking a Chomsky visit to Ramallah.
NEVERTHELESS, WHILE one might empathize with an instinctive response to bar Chomsky – a response apparently shared by the Interior Ministry officials who initially denied him entrance to the West Bank – blocking free speech is the wrong approach. That freedom is too precious to sacrifice in circumstances such as this one.
If Chomsky had been allowed to pass freely into Ramallah and to speak, the attendant risks notwithstanding, his visit would have received just a fraction of the media attention he ended up enjoying. His lecture, incidentally, was relayed by video-conference from Amman to Bir Zeit University anyway.
But more substantively, Chomsky should be allowed to voice his crackpot claims – such as that Fatah is collaborating with the US, Jordan and Egypt to subjugate its own people – so they can be scrutinized for their veracity and logic, or lack thereof. The marketplace of ideas should be open to Chomsky and others like him. In the end, reason will win out.
Our dismay and fury at Elvis Costello for canceling his appearances in Israel next month stems from the correct conviction that, had he come here and seen our country for himself, he would never again be fooled by those who distort and manipulate our reality to peddle false stereotypes and advance rejectionist boycotts.
Chomsky is doubtless far too set in his hostility to internalize that reality and be swayed by it, but in blocking him, Israel makes it easier for him to win over new critics.
In contrast, by ensuring Chomsky’s civil liberties, as Israel did when he visited in 1997 and spoke freely at Israeli universities, the Zionist state that Chomsky so vilifies helps prove to a watching, uncertain world just how baseless are his attempts at delegitimization.