Missing the Nuance: Abunimah's Criticism of Noam Chomsky

A couple of days ago, Ali Abunimah, a prominent Palestine solidarity activist and co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, said he was "baffled by Noam Chomsky's contradictions on Palestine." A few months ago, Chomsky had harshly criticized "collaborationist" Fatah Security Forces for doing the Israeli occupation's dirty work of suppressing resistance to the occupation. More recently, Chomsky expressed a positive sentiment toward Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's state-building project in the West Bank. This struck Abunimah as a contradiction because it appeared (to him) that Chomsky was offering "endorsement and support to what he himself has described as a colonial collaborationist regime."

But is there really a contradiction? Hardly! Any given political actor can behave simultaneously in ways that are condemnable on one issue, and commendable on another. In such cases, it is also perfectly legitimate to condemn the negative actions of an actor while expressing support for their positive ones. This is basically what Chomsky has done here in relation to the Palestinian Authority.

Take the somewhat analogous case of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). ADC has, in the past, sued the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on the grounds that they have violated civil rights. However, ADC has also invited high-ranking officials from DHS to appear at their conventions to discuss policy developments of concern to their community. That's not a contradiction, but a pragmatic approach to engagement in order to enhance the chances of influencing policy positively. Many of us are glad that ADC doesn't have to choose between endorsing everything Law Enforcement Agencies do on the one hand, and developing a blanket antagonistic relationship with them on the other.

There is a need for a more nuanced approach when dealing with practical policy initiatives than when describing the context of a conflict in general terms. When speaking broadly, one can easily draw a historical analogy between Israel's relationship with Fatah security forces and the subcontracting of security functions under different colonial regimes to an indigenous police force to suppress resistance. But when we're finished with broad analogies and are back to the search for practical ways to end a contemporary brutal occupation, policy initiatives deserve a careful and independent assessment on their merits, rather than ad hominem dismissal because of who they are associated with.

In this case, the current Fayyad policies of institution-building, boycott of settlement products, and support for the non-violent resistance movement against the occupation are not only perfectly sensible Palestinian initiatives in the struggle to end the occupation, but also ones that were supported by many international Palestine solidarity activists long before Fayyad ever adopted them. Pointing that out takes absolutely nothing away from how horrible other things are about the PA, namely its corruption, mistreatment of prisoners from opposing political factions, suppression of acts of solidarity with Gaza, and so on. I'm certainly no huge fan of the Palestinian Authority; but I also see no virtue in placing heterogeneous entities into rigid boxes of "good guys" and "bad guys," and to monolithically categorize all their actions according to such labels.

And this is precisely where I think the disconnect lies between Abunimah and Chomsky: While likely coming from similar positions in principle, Abunimah's approach is often rigidly stuck to big picture stuff, while Chomsky is more attuned to the political reality, and operates from a pragmatic mindset that constantly checks the sensibility and reasonableness of policy choices against the available options and what is possible under these imperfect political realities and far-from-ideal conditions and actors that we have.

Of course, neither Chomsky (as he noted) nor I are have any illusions about the limits of the aforementioned initiatives or their possible (if not probable) failure in the face of Israel's hubris and the power disparity between the parties. But Chomsky also alluded to the lesson of a movement that succeeded, not by waiting for favorable political conditions to hand it the vision it sought, but by moving ahead with building its project and waiting for the right political conditions to incrementally achieve what it did.

For every disheartening obstacle one can cite in the face of viable Palestinian independence (settlements, home demolitions, siege, AIPAC & the US Congress, the further shift to the right in Israeli political discourse...etc.), one can also cite numerous signs of progress in terms of Israeli-Palestinian solidarity on the ground, as well as the growing global exposure, agitation, and impatience with Israel's occupation and its crimes (including in the US). This is why not only alleged "peace process industrialists," but also obviously fierce and honest critics of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, like Chomsky and Finkelstein, continue to support the struggle to end the occupation. It's about finding tiny openings of hope in an otherwise ugly situation, and doing all we can to move things forward.