Noam Chomsky’s critique of the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement against Israel, in solidarity with the Palestinian people, attracted wide attention. The Nation, where his article appeared, published ﬁve responses, to which Chomsky responded, and at least ﬁve appeared independently. Chomsky’s views were not new, but were ﬁrst expressed during a BDS initiative in 2002, at Harvard and MIT. The wide attention his recent remarks earned was due to the growth of the BDS movement since.
The Harvard-MIT initiative was a response to Israeli suppression of the al-Aqsa intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in September, 2000. It was provoked by the swaggering entrance to the Islamic shrines in Jerusalem of then-defense minister Ariel Sharon, accompanied by a thousand Israeli police. There was a demonstration, an Israeli massacre, and resistance across the West Bank that Israel attacked with utmost ferocity. The uprising expressed seven lean years of frustration with Israel’s exploitation of the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization to further engorge the occupied territories and suffocate Palestinian life. As prime minister, Sharon ordered Operation Field of Thorns, the lavishly violent reconquista of Palestinian areas of the West Bank, including the drunken bulldozing of the center of Jenin refugee camp, and its inhabitants.
Against this sanguinary backdrop, a Harvard-MIT petition called for “the US government to make military aid and arms sales to Israel conditional on immediate initiation and rapid progress in implementing the conditions listed below. We also call on MIT and Harvard to divest from Israel, and from US companies that sell arms to Israel.” The petition called for Israel to comply with UN Resolution 242 and withdraw from the territories conquered in the June, 1967 war; stop torturing, as called for by the United Nations Committee Against Torture Report of 2001; comply with the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibiting settlement and other practices in the occupied territories; and acknowledge in principle the Palestinian right of return as expressed in UN Resolution 194 (and related international law).
The petition garnered 443 signatures from Harvard and MIT faculty, staff, students and alumni, while a counter-petition garnered more than 3,200 signatures, amidst animated discussion. Then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers opined that “Harvard should not be an organ for advocacy on an issue as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conﬂict.” He did exactly that by stating: “The suggestion that [Israel’s] defense against terrorist attacks is inherently immoral seems to me to be an unsupportable one.” At a prayer meeting on campus at the start of fall term, Summers stated: “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent…. Where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly ﬁnding support in progressive intellectual communities.”
Chomsky could have defended divestment as amply justified by Israel’s conduct and denounced Summers as unfit to lead an institution of higher education. He would have been vindicated resoundingly by Israel’s ongoing atrocities, and by Summers’ later claims about women’s inability in science, faculty no-conﬁdence votes, and his resignation in 2006 after the shortest presidential term at Harvard in 144 years. Instead Chomsky was as upset as Summers that Israel could be sanctioned. In November, Chomsky told a Harvard audience: “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.” One witness told this writer that the audience was “astonished.”