Noam Chomsky: ‘White Supremacy Is a Deep Principle in U.S. Society – and Jews Are Familiar With That’

The renowned progressive tells Haaretz his less than great expectations for a Biden presidency and what Trump’s 70 million votes means for America

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Noam Chomsky attending an event in Geneva, Switzerland, July 26, 2013.
Noam Chomsky attending an event in Geneva, Switzerland, July 26, 2013. Credit: AP
Jotam Confino
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Noam Chomsky said multiple times before the U.S. election that he intended to vote for Joe Biden, and that U.S. progressives should do likewise. In an interview before November 3, the legendary linguist and intellectual told Salon: “My position is to vote against [President Donald] Trump. In our two-party system, there is a technical fact that if you want to vote against Trump, you have to push the lever for the Democrats.”

With the election over and Biden now president-elect, Chomsky told Haaretz last week that the work of American progressives is just beginning. In an interview conducted via Zoom, Chomsky, 92 next month, sounds skeptical that the Democrats will bring the change millions of Americans are hoping for.

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“What is Biden going to do? The Senate is in the hands of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who knows only two things: block anything that Democrats try to do, and the other thing is to give the rich everything they want,” he says.

Chomsky continues: “Biden’s an empty vessel. I don’t think he has any firm principles. He’s up against the DNC [Democratic National Committee], which runs the party and is basically the Wall Street wing. And if he tries anything progressive, the Supreme Court is there to block it. Trump and McConnell are responsible for staffing the entire judiciary, bottom to top, with far-right justices who can block almost anything progressive that comes along,” he charges. 

Biden won both the popular and electoral vote, but over 70 million Americans voted for Trump (who has refused to concede and is falsely claiming the election was “stolen”). That concerns Chomsky. “Despite Biden’s win, Trump won a huge victory,” he says. “It’s amazing that someone who has just killed hundreds of thousands of Americans can even run for office. Just the fact that the election was even contested is a huge Republican victory. Trump is a skilled politician who understands the American mentality,” Chomsky notes.  

Joe Biden speaking during a drive-in campaign event at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, October 30, 2020.
Joe Biden speaking during a drive-in campaign event at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, October 30, 2020. Credit: JIM WATSON / AFP

“Trump has managed to tap into poisonous currents that are right below the surface in American life, culture and history – to simply extract and magnify the poison. And that’s what he has been running on. White supremacy is a deep principle in American society and culture. And Jews are familiar with that. I’m old enough to remember overt antisemitism in the streets. But the anti-Black racism is much more extreme,” he opines.

Biden’s victory saw New Yorkers and many others in large cities across the country break out in spontaneous dance on the streets, while pundits and journalists hailed the return to decency and respect for the Constitution. Biden is promising to heal and unite the nation. Does Chomsky think this can actually happen?

“We’re going in both directions,” he responds. “There’s much more sensitivity to racial oppression today than there was in the past. Take the response to the George Floyd murder [last May]. There have been murders of Blacks by the police forever, but this was unique. Within days you had mass protests as well as Black and white solidarity all over the country, and enormous popular support – something Martin Luther King Jr. never reached. This is a sign of change,” he says. 

But Chomsky also believes there’s a fierce backlash among other Americans that must not be ignored. “You have the Republican Party and their voters, [who] are largely white, Christian and traditional from rural America. And what’s their main concern? That their traditional way of life is under attack. And what’s their traditional way of life? Keeping their jackboot on the necks of Blacks,” he states.  

“If you look at the birth rate in the U.S. right now, the majority are non-white,” he adds. “You don’t have to know the statistics to know what that means. They will lose the white supremacy. The concept of being white is not a race concept, but rather sociological. If you go back, not very far, Jews were not considered white. Neither were the Irish. In late-19th century Boston, you could find signs at restaurants saying “No dogs or Irish.” They gradually became white as they assimilated into the culture, especially when they gained wealth and political power. And that’s now happening with the Hispanic population,” Chomsky believes.

Every four years, the merits of the Electoral College system are vigorously debated. Chomsky is one of many who believe the system is flawed and outdated. “We’re facing a constitutional crisis. You can see it in this election. Biden is winning by more than 3 million votes [currently over 5 million], but nobody even looks at that. We’re still living with a system that was created by wealthy white slave owners,” he says.

Supporters of President-elect Joe Biden celebrating on Black Lives Matter Plaza across from the White House in Washington, November 7, 2020.
Supporters of President-elect Joe Biden celebrating on Black Lives Matter Plaza across from the White House in Washington, November 7, 2020.Credit: OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP

Biden’s Middle East policy

On foreign policy, Chomsky is also far from convinced that Biden will bring sweeping change of the kind progressives are seeking. He does think Biden will rejoin the Iran nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew in May 2018. But he has no expectations of Biden promoting a nuclear arms-free Middle East – something that would require a confrontation with Israel.

“It’s very simple: just join the rest of the world. If you do that, you reconstitute the deal,” Chomsky says regarding Iran. “Even if the U.S. isn’t a trustworthy partner, Iran would probably still be well advised to join the deal. But notice, there’s another point that’s so untouchable, nobody is willing to discuss it. There’s a very simple solution to the problem of Iranian nuclear weapons: Impose a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East with intensive inspections.”

President Donald Trump arriving to speak at a campaign rally at Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, September 8, 2020.
President Donald Trump arriving to speak at a campaign rally at Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, September 8, 2020.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

Chomsky says such inspections work “contrary to Israeli propaganda. The Arab states and Iran have been calling for a nuclear weapons-free zone for a long time. In fact, the majority of the countries in the world support it. So why isn’t it instituted? Because the U.S. vetoes it. The most recent veto was by Obama, simply because Washington doesn’t want Israeli nuclear weapons to be inspected.

“The U.S. doesn’t recognize that Israel has nuclear weapons, even though everyone knows they do. And there’s a reason for that too – it’s called American law, which bans any military or economic aid to states that have developed nuclear weapons outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty,” Chomsky says.

Israel’s policy of ambiguity about its alleged nuclear weapons is considered a key component of its national security doctrine.

Netanyahu, for his part, is also concerned that after benefiting politically over the past four years from his close relationship with Trump, he could now pay a political price at home for any tensions with the incoming Biden administration. Chomsky, once again, is skeptical that any large-scale change will take place in America’s Middle East policy.

Supporters of President Donald Trump listening to a speaker during a pro-Trump march in Washington, November 14, 2020.
Supporters of President Donald Trump listening to a speaker during a pro-Trump march in Washington, November 14, 2020.Credit: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

“Let’s assume Biden goes back to Obama’s policies. Contrary to what many Israelis think, Obama was the most pro-Israel president prior to Trump. He never imposed any demands on Israel. Israel’s settlement freeze in 2010 under Obama was a complete farce. And everyone knows it. The Israeli press reported correctly that it had no effect. Instead of building new settlements, they called it expansion,” Chomsky argues. 

The Palestinians, on the other hand, are looking forward to ending four years of hostility between Ramallah and Washington. 

“There is hope for the Palestinians, but it doesn’t lie with Biden,” Chomsky says. “It lies with the public opinion in the U.S., which can’t be suppressed forever. If you go back 20 years, the support for Israel would be among liberal democrats. Now it’s shifting to evangelicals and ultranationalists. And support for Palestinians is growing among liberals – especially the young ones. Sooner or later that might influence policy.”

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