Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky. Photo by AP
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"Denying my entry to the West Bank was a minor event, but significant because it indicates irrational behavior on the part of Israel," the linguist Noam Chomsky said at the start of his lecture last Tuesday to a few dozen students and faculty members of Bir Zeit University. He delivered his lecture, "Americans and the World," by video conference, of course: He in Amman, his audience in one the university's lecture halls. With all due respect to technology, the sound system did not allow for a real dialogue, much less an opportunity to pause for clarification. Thus it was impossible to interrupt Chomsky and ask him to define "irrational" and to say whether he considers this to be a new stage in Israeli policy.

Chomsky spent time discussing a political decision taken by Israel in 1971, but he did not explicitly define it as irrational. Then, he said, Israel turned down a proposal from Egyptian president Anwar Sadat for a peace treaty in return for withdrawal. The same principle has guided Israel ever since, Chomsky said: It favors territorial expansion over security. He did not say "peace," but rather "security," repeating this at least twice. Many of his examples fell victim to technology, but not these nuances. He criticizes policy, but he cares about people - and he makes a distinction between governments, which are the object of his criticism, and nations, sometimes excessively so, to the point of exempting societies, particularly ones with internal democracy, of responsibility for the policies of their governments.

Chomsky went on to say that the 1978 Camp David Accord (between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat ) was "a diplomatic disaster" - and not the achievement it is generally hailed as being, because it came after a major war with many casualties. These casualties could have been avoided, it was implied, were Israel genuinely interested in security and were the United States motivated by concern for the fate of nations and not only by its interests as a superpower.

Without the full support of America, Israel would have acted differently - then as now, he said. That was the underlying theme of his lecture, disappointing those who believe that U.S. policy is dictated by a Zionist lobby. The Israeli occupation and its continuation, he said, must be seen in the context of the imperialist policy of the United States, which is guided by considerations of profit for the few and the control of global oil resources.

It can be inferred from Chomsky's second example of Israel's irrational behavior - the recent incident involving the humiliation of the Turkish ambassador - that in his opinion a policy can be defined as irrational when it harms itself and its agents (rather than "merely" nations and the principles of justice ).

Irrational should not be confused with thoughtless. On the contrary, Chomsky's reception at the Allenby Bridge border crossing last Sunday indicates intent and aforethought. He emphasized that the border inspector was following clear directives from shadowy superiors in the Interior Ministry. There was even something touching in the inspector's lack of sophistication, as evidenced by the official's preliminary questioning of the two friends who accompanied Chomsky and his daughter on their aborted journey. Both are U.S. citizens, he an Arab-American math professor, she a professor of international relations.

Here is the former's description of the encounter, relayed by e-mail.

"Our interview was about 40 or 45 minutes. For the first half hour or so the inspector asked a series of inane questions, apparently in order to get us to talk. Then, without any preamble, he said: 'We in Israel have a problem with Noam Chomsky.' I: 'What do you mean?'. He: 'Do you know about anarchism?'. I: 'Do you mean Prof. Chomsky is an anarchist?'. He: 'Yes.' I: What is wrong with anarchism?' No answer from him. I wanted to hear his definition of anarchism but he wouldn't oblige. It was at this point that he indicated that they would deny Noam entry and wanted to know if we would consider entering without him," an offer they vehemently refused. "On the way to the waiting room," the math professor continued, "the inspector instructed me not to say anything to Noam and Avi [Chomsky's daughter Aviva] about our interview."

Interior Ministry officials insisted that the denial of entry was a technical slip-up. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories is responsible for the entry of foreigners to the West Bank, they said, and due to an error the matter did not reach the unit. But further inquiries ascertained that the Interior Ministry has the final say, particularly when it fears that this is a case of settling down, even in the West Bank. Moreover, the official stamps used at the border crossing (permitting or denying entry ) belong to the Interior Ministry.

Perhaps to avoid further embarrassment, the Interior Ministry said in a statement that the matter was transferred to the coordinator as soon as the error became apparent. But it was not passed up to the highest levels, as one might expect in a case of denied entry with such international reverberations, and there were no official expressions of regret over the denial itself. Perhaps that is why the coordinator of government activities, who is subordinate to the Defense Ministry, did not pick up the gauntlet and publicly declare: "Please, Prof. Chomsky, come back to the Allenby Bridge and we shall let you in. We shall undo this scandal." Just imagine: Then it could have been claimed that Defense Minister Ehud Barak was interfering in the authority of Interior Minister Eli Yishai. Who needs that kind of coalition trouble?