Blog | Did he say it? Misquoting Noam Chomsky on Gaza
Ceasefire Bites, Editor's Desk, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Sunday, November 18, 2012 10:24 - 29 Comments
In the flurry of memes and quotations being passed around social media since Israel began its latest attack on Gaza a few days ago, one in particular caught our eye. It’s often titled “Noam Chomsky statement on Gaza” and it goes like this:
The incursion and bombardment of Gaza is not about destroying Hamas. It is not about stopping rocket fire into Israel, it is not about achieving peace. The Israeli decision to rain death and destruction on Gaza, to use lethal weapons of the modern battlefield on a largely defenseless civilian population, is the final phase in a decades-long campaign to ethnically-cleanse Palestinians.Israel uses sophisticated attack jets and naval vessels to bomb densely-crowded refugee camps, schools, apartment blocks, mosques, and slums to attack a population that has no air force, no air defense, no navy, no heavy weapons, no artillery units, no mechanized armor, no command in control, no army… and calls it a war. It is not a war, it is murder. When Israelis in the occupied territories now claim that they have to defend themselves, they are defending themselves in the sense that any military occupier has to defend itself against the population they are crushing. You can’t defend yourself when you’re militarily occupying someone else’s land. That’s not defense. Call it what you like, it’s not defense.
Now, though we recognise some familiar elements here, a few turns of phrase didn’t sound right. And with some quick online searching, the following (undated) Chris Hedges essay turns up, which begins in the following way:
The incursion and bombardment of Gaza is not about destroying Hamas. It is not about stopping rocket fire into Israel. It is not about achieving peace. The Israeli decision to rain death and destruction on Gaza, to use lethal weapons of the modern battle field on a largely defenseless civilian population is the final phase in the decades long campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestinians.
Interestingly, the latter section of the original “Chomsky” quote is from Chomsky – but it is not a recent statement on Gaza. Rather, it’s been lifted from the (excellent) 2004 documentary Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land. A full transcript of the whole documentary can be found here, and features this key quote:
Prof. Noam Chomsky: When Israel, in the occupied territories now, claim that they have to defend themselves, they are defending themselves in the sense that any military occupier has to defend itself against the population that they’re crushing.
So the apparently “new” Chomsky statement on Gaza is an amalgam of two quite disparate texts, only one of them by him, and even that one is not a recent statement. The original source for this statement appears to have been “salem-news.com“, whose editor adopted a curiously belligerent (and, not to put too fine a point on it, unlettered) tone when its authenticity was questioned. Choice responses included: “I … do not bow or apologize to zionists or nazi’s. You are apartheid” (emphasis in original); and if the quotation was incorrect, “well the professor can address it with us if he chooses to.”
You might ask: does any of this matter? There’s little to argue with in the hybrid statement itself; the intentions of everyone – or at least almost everyone – involved might be assumed to be good. We think there are three key reasons why it does matter.
First, there is a worrying tendency in well-intentioned activism to forget about authenticity when you essentially agree with the sentiment expressed. But authenticity does matter, it always matters, and what might seem like a quibble over phrasing could have a major impact in the long run. It’s worth remembering – especially on the Israel-Palestine issue – how much obfuscation is caused by people (often paid journalists working in newsrooms) selectively picking information and not bothering to assess the evidence in a balanced, historically accurate way. For those determined to scant Israel’s ethnic cleansing such quotations-fudging has reached stratospheric proportions. Misquotation and inaccuracy are weapons of the propagandist, not the peace activist.
Second, reams of historical apocrypha have been created by the passing on of quotations which seem accurate. Though this may sometimes be amusing – and create work for future historians – it also muddies the historical waters, causing confusion – especially when a statement is repeated so much it becomes impossible to tell whether the person really said it. (Recall, to take just one example Ahmedinejad’s quotation of Khomeini, which was – probably deliberately – mistranslated into a line about “wiping Israel off the map” and is now a staple of doctrine, despite being utterly inaccurate.) We should guard against this as a matter of principle, whoever is being quoted, whatever argument we are advancing.
Third, the mistake seems especially crude in this case because – of all people – the person misquoted is a) something of a stickler for accuracy in quotation, b) someone who has written extensively, diligently and at enormous length on this very topic for decades. How much effort does it take, with a back catalogue like Chomsky’s, to find something to quote accurately?
In a constructive spirit, we end this article with a Chomsky quotation that, we suggest, would be an apt replacement to the above truncated-inaccurate one. It’s sourced from Chomsky’s official website, from his article ‘Exterminate all the Brutes’, about Israel’s 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza. The article was written on January 19, 2009 and revised on June 6, 2009:
The US-Israeli assault on Gaza escalated in January 2006, a few months after the formal withdrawal, when Palestinians committed a truly heinous crime: they voted “the wrong way” in a free election. Like others, Palestinians learned that one does not disobey with impunity the commands of the master, who never cease to orate about his “yearning for democracy” without eliciting ridicule from the educated classes, another impressive achievement.
Since the terms “aggression” and “terrorism” are inadequate, some new term is needed for the sadistic and cowardly torture of people caged with no possibility of escape, while they are being pounded to dust by the most sophisticated products of US military technology – used in violation of international and even US law, but for self-declared outlaw states that is just another minor technicality.