A portrait of Chomsky as a young Zionist


I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to meet with leading American social critic Noam Chomsky in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where we spoke about a number of issues of international youth activism regarding American involvement in the Israel-Palestine conflict. One of the issues I was curious about was his youth advocacy work within the Zionist movement during the waves of foreign immigration to—and settlement of—Palestine, before Israel was established.

Today, as a result of Zionist expansion over the area whereby 78% of former Palestine has been swallowed up, the remaining 22% (Gaza, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem) is held under a harsh and crushing 44-year military occupation, while starkly illegal Israeli settlement rapidly continues in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem at the authorization of, and through provisions provided by, U.S. power and policy.

In the opening paragraphs of his 1969 essay, “Nationalism and Conflict in Palestine,” Chomsky begins by providing some personal background to his remarks on the subject: “I grew up with a deep interest in the revival of Hebrew culture associated with the settlement of Palestine… enormously attracted, emotionally and intellectually, by what I saw as a dramatic effort to create, out of the wreckage of European civilization, some form of libertarian socialism in the Middle East.”

Though Zionism today has many different meanings to many different people, a point that elicits some wonderment, even confusion, among both those who call themselves “pro-Israel” and among those who struggle to end Israeli apartheid, is this old brand of Zionism, seemingly all but extinct today. While clearly accepting, or at least trying to shape in a particular direction, foreign settlement of Palestine as the norm in the pre-state period, these Zionists advocated for what they described as a democratic and secular Palestine, as opposed to a Jewish state. Here Professor Chomsky speaks about his experiences within this little-known area of history:

SCHIVONE: You’ve mentioned that you were a Zionist youth organizer opposed to a Jewish state. What sort of Zionism did you and other youth envision and want to organize around?

CHOMSKY: I was connected to a considerable part of the Zionist movement which was opposed to a Jewish state. It’s not too well known, but until 1942 there was no official commitment of Zionist organizations to a Jewish state. And even that was in the middle of World War II. It was a decision made in the Hotel Biltmore in New York, where there was the first official call for a Jewish state. Before that in the whole Zionist movement, establishing a Jewish state was maybe implicit or in people’s minds or something, but it wasn’t an official call.

The group that I was interested in was bi-nationalist. And that was not so small. A substantial part of the Kibbutz movement, for example, Hashomer Hatzair, was at least officially anti-state, calling for bi-nationalism. And the groups I was connected with were hoping for a socialist Palestine based on Arab-Jewish, working-class cooperation in a bi-national community: no state, no Jewish state, just Palestine.

There were significant figures involved in that. Actually one of them in Philadelphia was Zellig Harris, the guy I ended up studying with at the University of Pennsylvania. He was one of the leaders of a group called Avukah. By the time I got there it had disbanded but through the 1930s and early 1940s it was quite an important organization of left-wing, Zionist, anti-state, young Jews. Plenty of people went through that—a lot of people who are pretty well-known now—from all over the place. It was not an insignificant part of the young, left Jewish community in the United States, and happened to be partially in Philadelphia.

I can remember when the UN partition resolution was announced in 1947. It was almost like mourning in these circles because we didn’t want a Jewish state.

The Anglo-American Commission claimed that about 25% of the Jewish population in Palestine was opposed to a state. There was kind of a different mentality at the time. To talk about socialism wasn’t considered a joke at that time. It was a real meaningful, live phenomenon. And a large part of the Yishuv—the Jewish community in Palestine—was, in fact, a co-operative community with collectives, co-operative industry, commerce, lots of socialist institutions. They were also racist Jews. But there was also a lot of opposition to that, too in our groups. We thought they should be Arab-Jewish.

From about then, from the late 1960s until the mid-1970s, I think bi-nationalism was actually a feasible objective. Even then it could have moved in that direction. By then it would have taken a different form than pre-1948, of course. But there could have been moves toward a kind of federalism, which might have evolved further into a more integrated, bi-national community. And, in fact, even elements of Israeli intelligence were pressing for something like this.

By 1975, the opportunity had been lost. By that time, Palestinian nationalism had entered the international agenda and mainly among Palestinians. And since about 1975, I don’t think there has been any way of realizing objectives like that except in stages with a two-state settlement being the first stage. If there was some other way of doing that, I’d be in favor of that, but I’ve never heard of it.

People now talk about one state—which would, of course, be a bi-national state—but without saying how you get there. At that time of my youth, there was, pre-1948. In the early 1970s, it was possible to think about how to get there directly. Now, as far as I can see, the only way to achieve goals like that is indirectly, through a two-state.

And incidentally, I’ve never been really in favor of a bi-national state because I don’t see any reason to worship the imperial borders. They’re perfectly arbitrary. Actually, when my wife and I lived on a kibbutz back in the early 1950s, we were backpacking around the place.

Before you were at MIT?

Before MIT, we were grad students.  We were backpacking in the Northern Galilee, in Israel. We happened to cross the border. The border wasn’t marked. We didn’t know. There was a road, and we just walked across the border. The only reason we knew is, a jeep came by on the Israeli side and the guy started yelling at us, telling us to get back on that side. But aside from the imperial powers, there’s no reason to honor those borders. There ought to be a more regional integration, in which communities run their affairs as integrated as they choose—sort of what existed under the Ottoman Empire. True, nobody wants the Ottoman Empire but some of the structures it had were pretty reasonable for that area.

Was going to live there part of actualizing your ideals of Arab-Jewish cooperation?

Yeah, at the time we intended to. We were in the middle of school and thought we would go back and stay. In fact, my wife went back and stayed for a longer period. We thought we might go and never did. There were a lot of impediments. The country [Israel] was very different from the way it is now, but there were a lot of problems. But at that time these were not considered outlandish ideas. They were not at the center of the Zionist movement but they were an element of it.

Gabriel Matthew Schivone is a Chicano-Jewish American, founder of Jewish Voice for Peace at the University of Arizona and co-founder of U.A. Students for Justice in Palestine. He is also a volunteer with migrant justice organization No More Deaths/No Más Muertes. He currently attends Arizona State University and can be followed on Twitter via @GSchivone. He writes the Other Voices column for the New Voices Magazine blog.


One Older Response to “A portrait of Chomsky as a young Zionist”

  1. Ilene Rosenblum
    November 12, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    Whoa, whoa whoa. I couldn’t continue reading this article after you described “Zionist expansion over the area whereby 78% of former Palestine has been swallowed up” and accused Israel of unqualifyingly of “harsh and crushing” military occupation and of “apartheid”. Did you know that Israel was established by the colonial British powers and an act of the UN? Jews didn’t just come in and take the land by force! Did you know that Palestine also included Jordan? Last time I checked, Jordan is a LOT bigger than Israel. Most of Palestine became Jordan, not Israel. That is a factual error.
    Come here and see Arabs and Jews studying at the same universities, going to the same hospitals, and shopping in the same malls and then tell me this is an “apartheid” state.
    Some criticism of Israel is well-deserved, but you just threw in some pretty harsh accusations, stating them as fact, with no explanation or reason or purpose to this article.
    This is not just a disagreement about politics or perspectives. This is a dispute about factual error and anti-Zionist lies.

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