The works of William Shakespeare and Karl Marx, as well as the Bible, rank amongst the 10 most quoted texts in history. On Saturday, 900 people stared at the stage at Oakland Technical High School, waiting to listen to an 89-year-old man whose writing also ranks in the top 10. Seats, ranging from $20 to $100, had been sold out for over a month.
“He is more quoted than the Bible—please welcome Noam Chomsky!” said Barbara Lubin of the Middle East Children’s Alliance, the organizer of the event, energetically presenting him. An uproar and a standing ovation followed him as he reached, slowly, the podium. (In fact, Chomsky isn’t more quoted than the Bible, but according to the report the presenter mentioned, between 1980 and 1989 he was the most cited living person.)
Chomsky waited until the clapping faded off, seemingly alien to this rock star welcome. He did not say hello. Straightforwardly, he began to address the possibility of a nuclear war threat between Iran and Hezbollah. For the next hour, the audience remained silent while he dissected the intersection of US foreign policy and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The Middle East Children’s Alliance organized the event with Chomsky to celebrate the group’s 30th anniversary. The funds raised at the event are destined to support their projects in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. Nancy Eppolito, a staffer for the organization, said that they are working on “projects that provide clean water in schools in Gaza, or ‘play and heal’ programs where teachers work with children traumatized by war.” They expected to raise $5,000. To that end, Palestinian crafts and Chomsky’s books were on sale in the hall.
Some people in the audience have been reading Chomsky for the last 40 years. Stephens Zunes, from Santa Cruz, said he values that Chomsky “was one of the first leading progressive intellectuals to take the Israel-Palestine issue head-on, when a lot of people were confused or intimidated to do it.” Zunes, who is the coordinator of the Middle East Studies program at the University of San Francisco, said that Chomsky’s stance against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is “challenging imperialism and militarism.”
Other had read Chomsky for the first time three months ago. Graham Denevan, an Oakland resident, said his first Chomksy book was Who Rules the World, which was published in 2016. “US imperialism should be an area of concern for everyone in the US, because we see the product of its violence in our culture,” Denevan said. He said he sees the “increased militarization of the Oakland Police Department” as an outcome of the violence engendered by imperialism. “We need to be paying more attention to what the US is doing in the Middle East, particularly right now in Yemen, not even in our self-interest, but for the sake of human rights in general,” he said.
That was precisely the purpose of the evening. Chomsky warned that he had divided his talk between “horrible horrific news, awful news, and—finally—good news.”
Chomsky’s “horrible horrific news” focused on the situation in the Gaza Strip. Chomsky denounced the decision of Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, to “cut more than half of the meagre US aid to UNRWA,” the United Nations Agency for Palestine Refugees. Referring to Haley, Chomsky said: “She is one of the uglier, more disgraceful figures of the administration.”
The “awful news” referred to life under occupation in the West Bank, described by Chomsky as the “practice of quietly taking over what is valuable, little by little, so outsiders can pretend not to see what is happening.” He characterized the decision of President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as “another illustration of US departure from the world.”
“Israeli leaders are well aware that Israel’s crimes and its internal sharp shift to the right are alienating much of the world,” he continued. Even if pressure on Israel from Washington is “undetectable,” Chomsky said, “Israel’s image is visibly deteriorating along quite important sectors of the US population.” He said that a vast majority of liberal US Democrats now sympathize more with Palestinians. “It is a very dramatic change. For the first time, it may become an issue in Democratic party politics,” he said.
Someone in the audience asked if he believes the Democrats will take a more critical position on Israel. “The Democratic party is now split between activists—the popular base—and political managers. It depends on what will be done by activists to change the party,” Chomsky answered.
In the international arena, Chomsky said, “popular support for Israel is drifting towards the right, towards ultranationalist, anti-migrant, white supremacists and people who fear Muslims.” He emphasized that if this continues, Israel won’t be able to gather international support, as it has done so far. “The good news is that this is the one factor that is under our control,” he added.
Many people in the audience were interested in knowing his position on the “boycott, disinvestments and sanctions” (BDS) campaign, launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society organizations calling for boycotts against Israel as a form of pressure to enforce compliance with international law.
Chomsky said that activists need to pay attention to the effects of the tactics they use. “When boycott and divestment tactics are aimed at the occupation, they are very successful,” he said, citing the example of the call for a boycott from the Presbyterian Church or the decision of the European Union to label products from illegal Israeli settlements. But he argued that calls for academic or cultural boycotts divert attention away from political discussion, because they instead lead to a debate about academic freedom. “When you call for boycotting Tel Aviv University, what happens? There is an immediate backlash. The question arises: Why aren’t you boycotting Harvard or Cambridge University?” he said.
“You are an amazing man! What do you eat? What kind of music do you listen? Tell us your best joke! What food do you eat?” asked a member of the organization, who was on stage reading audience questions. The audience burst into laughter and clapped, expecting to get a glimpse at the human side of someone who is also a political symbol. Chomsky waited and said, “One of the things I do is stay away of personal questions.” The audience interrupted him to laugh. “There is nothing amazing at all about doing these simple and obvious things that I think we all understand are the right things to do,” he said. That was the final quote of the evening for one of history’s most-quoted men.
Pete Gonzalez, a gardener from San Francisco, took his newly-acquired Chomsky book, Requiem for the American Dream, and headed towards the exit. He had come to the event to know more about people who have suffered during war. Gonzalez said his parents had fled conflict in El Salvador, and that he had bought a book about war for his daughters to help them understand it. “They were surprised. Kids in our country don’t fully address that idea. They don’t know much about what is going on [in the world],” he said. Gonzalez said he wants his daughters to question what they are told. In addition to the book, he bought a poster of Chomsky with the quote: “I was never aware of any other option but to question everything.”