World-renowned intellectual Noam Chomsky recently engaged in a debate with pro-Israel advocate Rudy Rochman on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Chomsky justifiably spoke about some legitimate criticism towards Israel. The Palestinians do suffer from oppressive colonial structures, as Rochman also concurred. But while referring to the Palestinians as indigenous on several occasions, Chomsky refrained from applying the same terminology to Jews.
Later in the debate, Chomsky leaked some more of his flexible perception of mainstream history. It appears he has embraced attempts by a number of fringe ideologues to rewrite Jewish history, referencing Shlomo Sand, writer of The Invention of the Jewish People, as well as essentially denying the Jewish exile by implying that the Romans expelled only “the elites.” Chomsky topped his “history lesson” off with no less than a dash of Khazarian conspiracy theory.
In reality, of course, the Jews who returned to Israel from dozens of different countries across Africa, Europe, the Americas and elsewhere in the Semitic region were never inexplicably “switched” by some other people who “hijacked” all-things-Jewish. Jewish history is well recorded as spanning both time and place. Judea is an archeological goldmine, revealing that the same t’filin used today by Jews were used by their ancestors in Qumran. All Jewish communities celebrate the historical Judean revolt for independence on Hanukkah, and share the same culture, language, and overall gene pool descending from the Judeans and other ancient Israelites.
To be fair, I do not think Chomsky’s objective was to gaslight Jewish identity and history. As an anti-imperialist at heart, his main plight is to fight systemic oppression. He seems to care less about this or that historical or cultural narrative, and more about the rights of Palestinians who are currently living under a state that excludes them.
And while I believe both sides are indigenous, I can respect those who hold the opinion that Palestinian indigeneity is more relevant to the current discourse for various reasons. However, I do not respect falsely representing historical narratives as a tactic for supporting a particular ideology. Furthermore, by choosing the “facts” that most support his pre-constructed narrative, Chomsky might be emotionally shutting-off Israelis who would otherwise be open to listening to his legitimate criticisms.
But Chomsky’s misinformation about Jewish history and identity is not a product of his own cognitive biases alone. Rather, it is also a consequence of Israel’s failure in the field of semiotics — the science of ensuring that conveyed communication and its meaning is understood unambiguously by the receiving end.
Indeed, Israel’s awkward situation is unique in history. It is the only case in which an indigenous population has returned to reclaim the land from which it was driven out by foreign conquerors. Israel is thus not a colonial power in the Middle East. However, Israel does engage in behaviors that have been historically and culturally associated with colonialism. Apart from the moral predicament, building walls or putting military forces in populated areas also creates an ambiguous narrative at best. To aggravate matters further, Israel’s ruling class often chooses to project the society’s most Western features rather than its deeply Semitic culture to the outside world.
In truth, it is the Jewish people’s post-exile identity crisis that has heavily contributed to an unfortunate “colonizer-colonized” relationship between Israel and Palestinians. Israel’s actions have thus been a source of confusion, and problematic perceptions of Jewish identity such as Chomsky’s get reinforced through Israel’s semiotic malfunction.
This, however, is not to excuse Chomsky’s perspective of Israel as a colonial entity foreign to the region. On a meta-scale, Chomsky’s paradigm actually serves as the prototype-narrative that perpetuates the conflict.
Several times during the debate, Chomsky accused Israel as of living “in a bubble” that is out of touch with “the world.” Yet, it is Chomsky who lacks awareness of how the “on the ground” identity of Israeli Jews plays a decisive role in the unfolding of events, and the Israeli Jewish response to those events.
One such example might be the ways in which Israeli society reacts in the face of terrorism. While anti-colonial violence can be an effective tactic against foreign rulers with home countries to retreat to, it’s less effective against populations that self-identify as indigenous and see themselves as having nowhere else to go. When faced with destabilizing political violence, such a society doesn’t retreat but responds with maximum force.
Chomsky’s perspective thus lacks the necessary nuance to understand the dynamics at play and envision realistic steps that could lead to achieving real Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. It might ironically be an embrace of Jewish Semitic identity roots (although not in the weaponized sense that some pro-Israelis utilize) and an acknowledgment of the native status of both peoples, that would prove as the most effective way to dismantle the oppressive structures Chomsky takes issue with.