Noam Chomsky, the internationally renowned linguist and outspoken political activist, offered an analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, criticism of Israeli and U.S. policy and advice on student activism to a rowdy Salomon 101 audience that spilled over into Sayles Hall Tuesday evening.
“Thank you. Now we can go home,” said the Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguistics professor as he stepped on stage before the clamoring crowd.
Though most often cited in academia for his work on linguistic theory, cognitive science and philosophy, it was Chomsky the political activist who spoke last night. He began his lecture by recommending a column in Tuesday’s New York Times — a piece on public opinion of Israel by the Times’ Jerusalem correspondent, “someone I rarely praise,” he said — and segued into a discussion of the relationship between Israel, the U.S. and the United Nations.
Israel’s policies in Palestine are against international law, but “as long as the master agrees, it doesn’t matter what the law says,” he said.
And by “the master,” Chomsky largely meant the U.S. government, which continuously fails to utilize its persuasive power in the U.N. and international trade to end injustice, he said.
Chomsky compared the Obama administration’s support of the Israeli government to Ronald Reagan’s continued trade with South Africa under apartheid in the 1980s. “As long as they had that one vote, the world could be disregarded,” he said of the U.S.’s vote against sanctions on South Africa.
As long as the U.S. government backs Israel’s violations of the Geneva Convention, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be resolved, he said.
Chomsky said the U.S. backs not only Israel, but also India and Pakistan — the two other countries that refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. “The U.S. is not supported by the world on this,” he added.
If the U.S. overestimates the world’s approval of its foreign policy, it is because the phrase “international community” in American press often “refers to Washington and whoever else agrees,” he said — a category which excludes most Americans, who “agree with the world outside the international community.”
One way the U.S. could exert positive influence on the real international community, he said, is to support Egypt’s goal of creating a weapons-free zone in the Middle East, as discussed at a recent meeting in Tehran.
Chomsky also called for a termination of arms shipments to Israel.
During the question-and-answer session, Chomsky addressed foreign policy issues across the board. The misperceptions held by American politicians, press and public are all culprits of the ignorance surrounding oppressive policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, he said.
“They don’t hate us because they hate our freedoms. They hate us because they want their freedoms,” he said of Middle Eastern populations under U.S. “neocolonialism,” addressing George W. Bush’s confusion over their objections to the U.S. government.
But Chomsky did not let Obama off the hook either. He criticized the president’s opinion on Egypt’s authoritarian government: that he doesn’t want to label “folks.” When a politician uses the word “folks,” Chomsky said, “get ready for the next series of lies.”
Chomsky added that a country requires awareness to examine its own mistakes. “It’s pretty hard to look in the mirror, but it’s crucial if you want to understand the world,” he said.
He also emphasized that ending American support of corrupt regimes begins with groups like the students he spoke to. “Every step forward in history comes the same way,” he said. “People like you do something about it.” He suggested protesting, gathering information and spreading awareness. “The task of those of us who care,” he said, is to “let people know.”
When asked what he would change if he could go back to his own early years of activism during the Vietnam War, Chomsky said, “My main regret is I was much too mild,” adding that his opponents would say just the opposite.
The student group Common Ground: Justice and Equality in Palestine/Israel sponsored Chomsky’s visit. Member Lucas Mason-Brown ’13 came up with the idea, he said, because Chomsky “voices an opinion, which is absent from mainstream discourse.”
But this was not Chomsky’s only recent interaction with the Brown community. On April 18, he wrote a letter to Brown Students for Justice in Palestine endorsing its campaign for the University’s divestment from corporations benefitting “criminal and brutal actions.”
“It is hard to imagine a more defensible stance,” he wrote.
Lindsay Goss GS, a member of Brown Students for Justice in Palestine, said she valued Chomsky’s take on “some of the ways the conflict gets talked about” that “don’t reflect the reality of the situation.”
Ruhan Nagra ’10 said she appreciated “Chomsky’s support for student activism throughout the country.”
Associate Dean of the College for Science Education David Targan, who posed a question at the lecture about student involvement, said he hopes Chomsky helped Brown students recognize their influence in the political process. “You have access to people that can really effect change,” he said, referring to state representatives. “You can see them from the Rock.”