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Banning Chomsky is not the answer

By Omar Radwan

On Sunday, Israel stopped Professor Noam Chomsky, the prominent American dissident academic, from entering the West Bank to give a lecture on American foreign policy at Birzeit University. Chomsky was held by the Israelis for four hours and interrogated at the Allenby Bridge border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank, before being told to return to Amman. Chomsky said that he would not try to return to the West Bank.  He will instead give his lecture by video link from Amman. Despite reports in the Israeli media that the Israeli government would reverse its decision and allow him to enter, Chomsky has received no official guarantee of this from the Israeli government.


There were two reasons why the Israeli government decided to deny Noam Chomsky entry to the West Bank. Firstly, Chomsky has been an outspoken critic of Israel and its occupation of the Palestinian territories and secondly, he was only planning to visit Birzeit University, and was not going to lecture in Israel.  Chomsky is an 81-year old academic who has never engaged in any armed activity.  He has never called for violence against Israel and has even stated his opposition to an academic boycott of Israel.  He supports a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is unheard of for a democratic government to ban an individual from its territory for criticising its foreign policy and Israel's decision shows its lack of respect for freedom of opinion and expression. Chomsky, who is considered to be the world's foremost intellectual, has not only been a critic of the Israeli government in his extensive writings, but also of the U.S. government, European governments, and Arab governments.  Chomsky said that he asked his Israeli interrogators at the border "if they can find a government that does like the things I say". Despite his opposition to the Israeli government, Chomsky has visited Israel several times before.  In 1997, he spoke at several Israeli universities and also at Birzeit University without any problems.  However, on this visit, the fact that he was only going to Birzeit and not to an Israeli university was a reason to deny him entry. This is a ludicrous justification for the decision but it shows the contempt that the Israeli authorities have for Palestinian educational institutions.  Palestinian universities have been closed down by the Israeli army before and Palestinian academics have been subjected to harassment by the Israeli authorities.

The decision to ban Chomsky not only shows Israel's contempt for free expression, it also betrays a lack of confidence in its ability to defend its policies. If Chomsky's criticisms are unjustified, why can't Israel simply refute them? Why does it have to resort to this tactic against a peaceable academic?  It seems that Israel does not realise that it cannot silence ideas. In recent years the Israeli government has been resorting to the tactic of preventing critics and potential critics from entering the territories it controls (including the West Bank) frequently. It deported the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk in 2008.  It barred Richard Goldstone from entering Israel and speaking to Israeli officials – not bothering to present its case to him – and complained loudly when he produced a report accusing it of war crimes during the Gaza conflict. It also deported Professor Norman Finkelstein in April 2008.  No state would behave like this if it believed its policies were morally justified. 

Israeli academics who have uncovered uncomfortable facts about Israeli history and spoken out against Israeli government policy have also found themselves persecuted. Professor Ilan Pappe, author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, was forced to leave Israel for the United Kingdom following a campaign of intimidation and harassment in 2007. The year before, linguistics professor Tanya Reinhart had to resign from Tel Aviv University and leave the country after receiving similar treatment when she spoke out against Israel's policies towards the Palestinians.  Teddy Katz, a student who wrote about a massacre which took place in the village of Tantura in the 1948 war for his masters' thesis at Haifa University, had his degree withdrawn after initially receiving a mark of 97%. In perhaps the most absurd case, a Palestinian lecturer with Israeli citizenship at a college in Southern Israel was dismissed after failing to make a declaration of respect for the Israeli army, after he gave a warning to a student who turned up to his class in military uniform, carrying a gun. Noam Chomsky describes the Israeli decision to deport him as reminiscent of a "Stalinist regime" and Israeli journalist Carlo Strenger says that his country is beginning to "flirt with totalitarianism" because of this decision and because of its frequent attacks on free speech. Israel's supporters are up in arms over the threat of an academic boycott of Israel, saying that such a boycott would be an attack on academic freedom, but the Israeli government's behaviour shows who the real enemies of freedom are.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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