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Chomsky's Gift

By David Weinfeld

MIT Institute Professor of Linguistics Noam Chomsky recently gave the greatest Hanukkah gift of all to opponents of the divestment campaign against Israel. By signing the Harvard-MIT divestment petition several months ago—and then denouncing divestment on Nov. 25 at Harvard—Chomsky has completely undercut the petition.

At his recent talk for the Harvard anthropology department, Chomsky stated: “I am opposed and have been opposed for many years, in fact, I’ve probably been the leading opponent for years of the campaign for divestment from Israel and of the campaign about academic boycotts.”

Earlier this year, however, the “leading opponent” signed a petition that called for divestment. On Nov. 25, he outlined the three concrete objections to divestment. First, Chomsky argued that divestment is meaningless. Second, he argued that it is wrong in principle. Third, Chomsky opposes divestment for tactical reasons. He argued that a call for divestment is “a very welcome gift to the most extreme supporters of U.S.-Israeli violence…It removes from the agenda the primary issues and it allows them to turn the discussion to irrelevant issues, which are here irrelevant, anti-Semitism and academic freedom and so on and so forth.”

These are three incredibly powerful reasons to oppose divestment. Yet sure enough, Chomsky signed the petition. Why? Roughly, the petition demands that Israel evacuate military forces from the territories, end legal torture, cease building and begin dismantling settlements and allow the right of return or compensation for refugees. To apply pressure on Israel, the petition calls for three things: that the U.S. government make military aid conditional on the above, that Harvard and MIT divest from U.S. companies that sell arms to Israel and that Harvard and MIT divest from Israel.

Chomsky supports the first two tactics of the petition but strongly opposes the third. Chomsky had input on the creation of the petition and stated that the words “divest from Israel” were included “over [his] objections.”

The result, to Chomsky, was “totally predictable.” He noted that divestment “is the only thing that’s talked about. Not the main thrust. Nobody talks about the Geneva Conventions, nobody talks about any of the issues that matter.”

According to Chomsky—and I agree—divestment is a foolish idea. And Chomsky doesn’t just oppose divestment the same way some people oppose the designated hitter rule; he is the self-proclaimed “leading opponent” of divestment. So why did he attach his name to a petition that calls for divestment as one of its demands?

When I asked him about this via e-mail, Chomsky wrote: “The reasons are well understood by anyone who is involved in human rights and related activities: one signs petitions when one agrees with their main thrust and recognizes their human significance. No one who signs a petition is expected to approve of every word, even of large parts, if the main thrust is appropriate and sufficiently important. That’s second nature to human rights activists.”

Nevertheless, Chomsky, a world-renowned Linguistics professor, is especially accountable for what he signs because of his name recognition.

“He was the reason that many people signed the petition. His was the single most important name on the petition,” Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz said. “Anyone who’s an expert at petitions knows that the key is to get important names…The vast majority of the people who signed the petition believe that Chomsky supports divestment.”

Interestingly, of 56 MIT faculty who signed the petition other than Chomsky, 14 teach linguistics and another seven are in brain and cognitive sciences. Four out of five professors at Israeli universities who signed studied linguistics at MIT.

“There is no question that Chomsky influenced the petition-signers,” MIT’s Florez Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker wrote in an e-mail. Pinker, a well-known linguist who signed the anti-divestment petition, stressed that differing political viewpoints do not affect the MIT linguistics department’s work environment. Nonetheless, Pinker noted that Chomsky “has enormous influence, both scholarly and political, among many MIT linguists, philosophers, political scientists and cognitive scientists.”

Because of his prominence and academic position, Chomsky was irresponsible and inadvertently deceptive in his signing of the petition. More importantly, Chomsky completely discredited the petition. If the most famous signer of the petition is actually a leading opponent of divestment, the petition is worthless.

Even worse, as Chomsky correctly predicted, the call for divestment has turned attention away from the true problems of the Middle East; divestment has been “a gift, a gift to the extremists who want to maximize U.S.-Israeli atrocities and crimes, and I don’t see any point in giving them that gift.” Ultimately, he concluded that a call for divestment was “a big mistake.”

Yet Chomsky made that same mistake by giving his opponents a flawed petition with his influential name attached. In the spirit of giving, the Harvard and MIT communities should give Chomsky a gift in return. We should officially end the divestment campaign and focus on the real issues of the conflict. That might be the greatest Hanukkah gift of all.

David A. Weinfeld ’05, a Crimson editor, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Mather House.

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