By Carlo Strenger
Professor Noam Chomsky, the left-wing radical thinker and activist, is regularly voted the most influential public intellectual in the world. He has been highly critical of Israel’s policies for many years, particularly since the time of the first Lebanon war in 1982.
On Sunday, Chomsky was denied entry at the Allenby Bridge on his way from Amman to Ramallah, where he was scheduled to lecture about American foreign policy at Bir Zeit University.
By his own account, it seems the authorities had been expecting to detain him because he was respectfully asked to follow a young man, who seemed somewhat embarrassed by the task, for questioning.
During the hours there, the young man repeatedly spoke on the phone, apparently to the Interior Ministry in Jerusalem. Chomsky was, among other things, told that Israel doesn’t like what he is.
Nobody in his right mind can claim that Chomsky represents a security threat to Israel. He’s 81 years old. He is not a specialist on armed insurrection, and he has never called for violence against Israel.
While reading talkbacks to the reports that he was denied entry I came upon statements like “He’s a well-known Holocaust denier” that fall somewhere between total ignorance and the onset of paranoia.
So just for the record: Chomsky is in favor of the two-state solution, and neither calls for violence against Israel nor for dismantling the state. He is even against an academic boycott of Israel’s universities – a rather popular cause of the European left in recent years.
I have heard Chomsky speak on a number of occasions in Israel in the 1980s and 1990s. According to his own testimony, he was here last in 1997.
Chomsky has not changed his views since, so it must be Israel that has changed – and very much for the worse. Otniel Schneller, a Knesset member from the Kadima party – a supposedly centrist faction – had the following to say about the Chomsky affair: “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.”
I have never heard of a democratic state denying entry to thinkers (or anybody else for that matter) who neither call for violence or break local or international law. So what on earth is happening to Israel? Is the Interior Ministry offended that Chomsky didn’t also plan to speak in Israel? If so, is this a reason to deny him entry?
Israel is currently fighting international calls to boycott Israeli universities and academics. Does anybody think that denying entry to Chomsky will strengthen our case?
If anything, barring Chomsky gives ammunition to those who say that Israel is infringing on academic freedom in the Palestinian Authority, and that a boycott against its universities is therefore justified.
If Israel feels it can defend its actions morally and politically, it should not fear thinkers who criticize it. But Israel is beginning to tamper with free speech, and this is a truly worrying development.
If Israel feels it cannot survive free speech, then it is one step closer to flirting with totalitarianism. In fact, during his questioning, when Chomsky was asked whether he was ever denied entry into a country he said, yes: into Czechoslovakia in 1968, after the Russian invasion, when he wanted to visit his friend Dubcek. This puts Israel into very poor company indeed.
This shameful episode, once again, reminds me of Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s dictum: “I don’t know whether Israel’s policies since 1967 are evil stupidity or stupidly evil.” This particular case I would argue is both.
It is evil to deny Bir Zeit University lectures, even if some government official here doesn’t like their content. And it is utterly stupid, because Israel has once again succeeded in making the world’s headlines as a brutish state that infringes on human rights, freedom of speech and academic freedom, all of which many of us here are working so hard to defend.