Barring of Chomsky stirs up a political storm in Israel

MIT scholar Noam Chomsky has been critical of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. MIT scholar Noam Chomsky has been critical of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. (Majed Jaber/ Reuters)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / May 18, 2010

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In a vitriolic address to the United Nations in 2006, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela assailed US foreign policy and called President George W. Bush the devil. He then held up a copy of Noam Chomsky’s “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance’’ and urged the audience to read it.

Sales surged, catapulting the scathing critique of American foreign policy onto bestseller lists and the renowned and widely reviled MIT linguist into the media spotlight.

The 81-year-old scholar, who has drawn praise and scorn over a second career as a political dissident, once again has found himself at the center of a swirling controversy after being denied entry to the West Bank Sunday.

“He has a penchant for saying things very stridently,’’ said Rabbi Jack Nusan Porter of Newton, who has known Chomsky for years. “He doesn’t hold back, and that hasn’t changed.’’

The refusal to admit Chomsky, a fierce critic of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians, set off a soul-searching debate in Israel, with many denouncing the decision as antithetical to democratic principles.

“If Israel feels it cannot survive free speech, then it is one step closer to flirting with totalitarianism,’’ wrote Carlo Strenger, a Tel Aviv University professor and political commentator, on, the online edition of a leading Israeli newspaper.

Yesterday, Chomsky decided against trying to cross the border a second time, despite comments from Israeli officials suggesting that he would probably be allowed entry.

He will deliver the lecture instead by video conference from Amman, Jordan, according to Haaretz.

The lecture will also be broadcast live on Al Jazeera television, the newspaper reported.

Chomsky had been traveling with his daughter to deliver several lectures at Birzeit University, a Palestinian school, when he was detained for questioning at the border between Jordan and the occupied West Bank. After several hours, he was turned back.

Chomsky, who is Jewish, said he believed he was being targeted for his criticism of Israel, as well as his plans to speak at a Palestinian university without also visiting schools in Israel.

“They are carrying out an action of a kind that I’ve never heard of before, except in totalitarian states,’’ he said by e-mail.

Chomsky said he was not told why he could not cross the border, but said in a televised interview with Al Jazeera that the officials who questioned him were in contact with their superiors.

“There were two basic points. One was that the government of Israel does not like the kind of things I say, which puts them into the category of, I suppose, every other government in the world,’’ he said. “The second was that they seemed upset about the fact that I was taking an invitation from Birzeit, and I had no plans to go on to speak in Israeli universities, as I’ve done many times in the past, but not this time.’’

Israeli officials said the incident was a simple misunderstanding that was unrelated to Chomsky’s political views.

“The idea that Israel is preventing people from entering whose opinions are critical of the state is ludicrous,’’ a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told The New York Times.

“It is not happening. This was a mishap. A guy at the border overstepped his authority.’’

A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry said Sunday that border officials barred Chomsky because they mistakenly thought he was also planning to visit other places in Israel outside the Palestinian territory. She said border and immigration officials were consulting military officials about letting him enter the country.

Chomsky, who said he was “disappointed and surprised’’ by the rejection, said he made his plans clear.

“The facts were completely clear to everyone, so there’s no basis for any misunderstanding,’’ he said. “It was a decision on the part of the Ministry of the Interior.’’

Chomsky said he had been invited to give lectures on American domestic and foreign policy.

Chomsky has sharply criticized Israel’s role in the conflict with the Palestinians, as well as the US government’s strong support for Israel.

In a recently published article, Chomsky wrote that the “US and Israel have been acting in tandem to extend and deepen the occupation’’ of the Palestinian territories.

Chomsky has a long history of incendiary comments. In 2003, he labeled the United States “one of the leading terrorist states in the world.’’

He has compared the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to the American bombing of a chemical factory in Sudan. He described the US invasion of Afghanistan as “one of the most immoral acts in modern history,’’ and has written that if “the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every postwar American president would have been hanged.’’

While such inflammatory rhetoric has made Chomsky a darling of the European left, in the United States it has banished him from the mainstream of public discourse.

“Here he’s been so completely sidelined,’’ said Nancy Murray, a longtime friend of Chomsky’s from Cambridge.

Murray likens Chomsky to an “Old Testament jeremiad,’’ and said he is deeply committed to seeing a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Gennaro Chierchia, a Harvard linguist, said that barring Chomsky was a “serious mistake’’ by the Israeli government that would tarnish its image.

But he said Chomsky would not let public scrutiny stifle his outspoken ways.

“He’s been through these things all his life,’’ Chierchia said. “He has heard every possible praise; he has heard every possible insult.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at

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