Two versions of history were recounted Thursday afternoon, as students and faculty members packed into Salomon 101 to contemplate the role of the United States in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But determining which version of history was correct was a question on which Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and former Ambassador Dennis Ross, counselor and distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, could not agree.
Chomsky and Ross focused on the timeline of peace negotiations as well as the United States’ historic participation in the process during their discussion, hosted by the Political Theory Project as part of the Janus Forum Lecture Series.
The best way to address the question of the United States’ role in the conflict is to “run through the records,” Chomsky said, adding that he would only draw from “well-documented” historical moments. Chomsky has been outspoken about the conflict for years, and his 1983 book “The Fateful Triangle” is regarded as a seminal work on the topic.
Throughout its history, Israel has faced “crucial” decisions between territorial expansion and national security, Chomsky said, noting Israel’s 1971 decision not to withdraw military forces in return for peace talks as one of its “most fateful” choices. That year, Israel chose expansion over security, Chomsky said, and “that’s been pretty much the story since.”
Chomsky also listed instances when the United States vetoed resolutions that would lead to a two-state solution.
The United States is “essentially alone” in its support of Israel, Chomsky said, adding that “the U.S. continues to provide crucial economic, military, diplomatic and ideological support to Israel,” preventing peace in the region.
But Ross said while he would never challenge Chomsky on topics related to linguistics, he feels compelled to challenge his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to his experience as a “practitioner” in the field.
Ross served as a leading figure in peace negotiations during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. He has also served in the Obama administration as an adviser on the peace process.
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they’re just not entitled to their own facts,” Ross opened, quoting the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Chomsky echoed the quote back at him during his rebuttal.
Ross said the very framing of the question of whether U.S. support of Israel prevents peace implies that Israel is responsible for the lack of peace in the region. Unlike Chomsky, Ross focused on times at which Israel wanted to accept agreements that were subsequently rejected by other powers in the region.
“You can’t say that Israel is the only reason there is not peace,” Ross said.
Ultimately, Israel deserves American support, Ross said, noting that it is the only country in the Middle East that governs by the rule of law, holds regular elections, promotes freedom of civil rights and freedom of the press and has a separation of powers. Israel “lives in a tough neighborhood,” Ross said, and without U.S. support could suffer harm.
In his rebuttal, Chomsky said Ross gave “a very accurate account of government position, what they believe and what they would like people to believe,” but that as long as the United States remains the lead organizer of peace negotiations, such talks are useless. The United States has been involved for years and is a participant in the conflict, he said.
As long as this is the case, “prospects for peace are very dim,” he added.
But Ross disagreed with this claim. The United States can be “an honest broker” that can respond to the needs of both sides, he said.
Following an hour of heated dialogue between Chomsky and Ross, audience members were given the opportunity to directly question the speakers. Attendees immediately scrambled over each other to reach microphones placed in the two aisles. Questions focused on the nature of the speakers’ dialogue, as well as about their thoughts about change in the region.
A chorus of snaps and claps in the audience followed a comment directed at Ross, which noted that some of the points he made and his use of the word “Arabs” were “painfully ethnocentric.”
When asked about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Ross and Chomsky disagreed from the outset about the nature of the question, drowning each other out and barely letting each other get a word in.
Ross said he generally does not support the movement, which calls for worldwide economic measures targeting Israel to force the country to accept a host of Palestinian goals. This approach is wrong because of its link with a one-state solution, he said. Chomsky avoided the question, saying the movement does not exist in practicality, so talking about it is a “total waste of time.”
But Chomsky said he does support certain boycotting efforts, including those targeting businesses building in the West Bank.
Prior to the event, Chomsky told The Herald that he does not support the boycotting of Israeli universities, adding that the United States is involved in international crimes as well, and he would not suggest boycotting MIT or Harvard.
Boycotts need to be “principled” and “targeted” in order to be effective, he told The Herald.
Despite disagreement on almost every issue, the speakers did find one topic to agree on: the importance of changing the perceptions Israelis and Palestinians have of each other.
“The key to mediation is getting each side to focus on the other side’s needs,” Ross said. The morning before the lecture, the New York Times reported that Israel had decided to halt peace talks due to the reconciliation of two Palestinian factions. One of the groups does not recognize Israel as a legitimate state, the Times reported.
Chomsky told The Herald that this new development did not change what he had planned to speak about, adding that the peace talks were probably going nowhere based on their “very nature.”
The lecture was a “productive” opportunity to hear discourse between distinguished speakers who “could challenge each other so well,” said Ian Reardon ’16, a Janus fellow. Often in these discussions, one speaker dominates the discussion, Reardon said, but neither Chomsky nor Ross did so in this one.
This discussion is an important one to have because while Brown is a “homogenous” campus on a lot of topics, students hold different opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Reardon said.
In light of recent protests regarding Brown/RISD Hillel’s invitation of Israeli Sgt. Benjamin Anthony to campus, this discussion is “very timely and really the best way to go about handling the situation,” said Omar Nema ’15, suggesting that the University should hold similar events in the future.