Barring Chomsky, Another Blow to Democracy

I had been wondering only recently when Israel would bar the entry of Noam Chomsky. That time has come today.

About two years ago, I recall that the controversial scholar Norman Finkelstein had been detained at Ben Gurion Airport and eventually deported. I got some heat for not wanting to raise that as an issue for Americans and American Jews. My reasoning was that a country has the right to restrict who may enter its territory. In a democratic society, we expect that the country in question hold very stringent standards for who it might bar, and that the null assumption is that a visitor with a valid passport may enter.

Noam Chomsky

In Finkelstein’s case, he had, not long before, appeared publicly in strong support of Hezbollah. Did that make him a security threat? No one in their right mind believed that, but, in my view, it gave Israel enough of an excuse to bar him from entry that I felt the issue was one that should be taken up by Israelis and Palestinians, not Americans.

In reality, of course, Finkelstein was not being barred because anyone believed him a security risk, but because of his political views and scholarship. But he also acted in a way that gave Israel an excuse to do what it did.

The same cannot be said about Chomsky. I find it interesting that Chomsky is consistently described as “anti-American and anti-Israel.” I wonder how many of those folks have actually studied the breadth and scope of Chomsky’s work. He is, above all, anti-state. I cannot imagine a single country that would consider him a supporter of their government.

As with any writer who states his opinions consistently and clearly, Chomsky has been attacked, usually through misrepresentations of what he actually wrote. Having said that, I find myself in disagreement with Chomsky as often as I find myself agreeing with him, particularly when it comes to his extensive writing about Israel.

So what? Chomsky does not call for or cause riots. Indeed, when I’ve heard him speak, I don’t get energized—his droning manner of talking usually makes me fight to stay awake.

Israel has always had very real security issues, ones which Americans simply cannot relate to, on the whole. But it also has a long history of using those legitimate concerns to justify all sorts of repressive acts. And that dynamic got worse by leaps and bounds in the wake of Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report.

It is quite possible that Chomsky will soon be granted entry to the West Bank to do his appointed speaking engagement at Bir Zeit University. But that won’t matter, it will simply be the result of cooler heads realizing the enormous damage this will do to Israel’s contention that it is the “only democracy in the Middle East,” if it happens at all.

And Chomsky’s denial of entry is a small example of so many other anti-democratic trends in Israel. The security excuse and other rhetorical devices hid some acts in Israel for years, and in that, they were not much different from other countries, including the USA. But what has been happening in recent months is a serious intensification of these issues. Gag orders over arrests of former IDF soldiers, increasing harassment and intimidation of human rights and peace groups, threats to all sorts of social service organizations, even non-political ones, new laws increasing the power of the rabbinate, harsh police crackdowns at left-wing rallies…and that is just what is happening inside Israel, saying nothing of the increasingly draconian and brazen methods being used against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

Chomsky brings one thing to Bir Zeit and that’s ideas. Israel, and indeed, the PA, won’t like those ideas. But is there anything more fundamental to democracy than the free exchange of ideas?

Chomsky’s barring could be a watershed event. One need only look at the comments in the Ha’aretz report on Chomsky to see it. These forums are often rather ugly and stark exchanges. But in these comments, with a few exceptions, it is the pure racists who demonize anyone who dare speak of Israeli excesses and crimes against advocates of free speech and free ideas. It’s rarely that clear.

At one time, Israel’s pride in its democracy was widely accepted. No democracy is perfect, and all of them strain when the country is in conflict. Most of the West saw Israel as a democracy under stress.

That image is fading now, and is largely being relegated to those who will support Israel with their own nationalistic fervor no matter what actions it takes (unless it acts against its own nationalist and religious zealots).

On a personal level that I know is shared with a great many Jews around the world, Israel is becoming an indefensible country. In my view, there has been a massive step up in the opposition to democracy in Israel. I believe this acceleration resulted from the massive death and destruction wrought by Operation Cast Lead and its associated feelings of guilt and fear of indictment, coupled with by far the most right-wing and anti-democratic government in the country’s history.

I believe this can change, but Israel is making it very difficult for her supporters like me to hold on to hope that it will happen. After all, it’s one thing to blame a government led by Likud which includes parties that are mostly to the right of that party. But when the largest party in the Knesset, which sits in supposed opposition and is supposed to be the moderate choice includes an MK, Otniel Schneller, that says, about the Chomsky barring, “It’s good that Israel did not allow one of its accusers to enter its territory. I recommend [Chomsky] try one of the tunnels connecting Gaza and Egypt,” how much hope can I possibly hold?