Expecting More from an MIT Professor

How Prof. Chomsky’s Talk Failed the Community

We write today to voice our concern about Professor Noam Chomsky’s reckless behavior at a talk held last week (January 13th) as part of the MIT CIS Starr Forum. We wish to address some points in Professor Chomsky’s talk to explain our position, which we hope will encourage members of the MIT community to refrain from making cynical use of their position and support by the institution.

Professor Chomsky is quoted in The Tech as saying that “It’s not that Israel doesn’t want peace. Of course, it wants peace. Everyone wants peace. Even Hitler wanted peace.” It is alarming, the ease with which people make use of Hitler’s name these days, but even more disturbing is the fact that a distinguished MIT professor considers this behavior part of a legitimate argumentation strategy.

Gila and I are both descendents of Holocaust survivors. Gila’s grandfather lost all his family in Auschwitz and Yaniv’s grandparents were enslaved in a Nazi work camp. The name Hitler is not just another buzz-word for “Evil,” it shouldn’t be tossed around carelessly and it shouldn’t be used as a tool for provocation whenever we feel like it. Professor Chomsky has been extra careful not to directly compare Israel to Nazi Germany, instead he laced his talk with innuendos, tiptoeing around the idea, only letting the name Hitler slip out that one time.

This should not be an acceptable form of rhetoric in an academic institution. It exposes the cynical use Professor Chomsky makes of his position as Institute Professor at MIT, camouflaging his radicalism with a smoke bomb of academic legitimacy.

Professor Chomsky employs the lowest form of demagogy in his talk. He shrouds his arguments in historical “facts,” reinforcing each argument with the words “It’s a fact” in his calm and confident voice. Professor Chomsky intentionally blurs the boundaries between his opinions and historical “facts,” relying on his audience’s inability to refute those facts in real-time as validating his argument, proof that his is the right way.

This reckless behavior is dangerous when a speaker is no longer held accountable for the truthfulness (or even objectivity) of his own words. Professor Chomsky hints at the importance of unbiased journalism and congratulates those reporters who are brave enough to bring the true story of Gaza. However, Professor Chomsky chooses not to adhere to those standards by presenting his interpretation of historical events as facts rather than personal opinion.

Unless Professor Chomsky has been physically present at Gaza, Southern Israel and Lebanon at the time of the events he recalls, his only source of information about what actually transpired there, are the same newspapers and TV stations you and I are exposed to. In his talk Professor Chomsky made no attempt to seriously address reports and news that contradicted his argument, instead he brushed them off by saying they are false.

We would expect a scholar in Professor Chomsky’s position to display as much diligence in disproving contradicting arguments as he does in reinforcing those that support his argument. For example, when asked what he thought about Hamas hiding weapons in schools, mosques and private homes, Professor Chomsky confidently replied that those weapons were planted there by the Israeli Army. Professor Chomsky did not offer any proof to support his claim but what is even more disturbing is the fact that he was not willing to seriously address a question that conflicted with his own beliefs.

Perhaps more than anything, it is Professor Chomsky’s one-sided approach which shows contempt for the Israeli-Palestinian situation. From our personal experience, professors at MIT make a tremendous effort in classrooms all over campus to nurture an open discussion, emphasize the importance of listening and welcome the challenge of proving their ideas wrong. Professor Chomsky’s approach during his talk was quite the opposite.

The Center for International Studies sponsored Professor Chomsky’s talk to discuss, amongst other things, the issues of human rights and justice in light of the Gaza War. Professor Chomsky, a great humanitarian and intellectual, missed this opportunity to expose his audience to the inner workings of a great mind and instead retorted with his usual Israeli-American political bashing.

For example, Professor Chomsky did not make the distinction between the citizens of Gaza and Hamas, a distinction which makes all the difference between Israel’s military action as an act of self defense and that of “Terrorism.” Professor Chomsky did not pose the question of where Hamas was getting its weapons from and whether is it humanitarian to put guns in “helpless” Palestinian hands and send them to fight?

Professor Chomsky did not address the humanitarian question of hiding weapons in mosques, booby trapping schools or firing from within a dense civilian population. Professor Chomsky did not ask justice for the children of Gaza who die (and continue dying) from mines and bombs that Hamas set all around downtown Gaza for Israeli soldiers. Professor Chomsky does a great injustice to all sides of this conflict by advocating his one sided view of things.

Professor Chomsky’s talk was not an intelligent contribution to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian situation as would be expected in an academic institution such as MIT. Instead Professor Chomsky perpetuated the conflict by tagging the U.S. and Israel as oppressors and Palestinians as helpless (Chomsky quoted in The Tech: December 27, 2008 was the first day of the “U.S.-Israel attack on helpless Palestinians …”).

It is important to make it absolutely clear that we do not wish to silence Professor Chomsky’s voice. Quite the opposite, we welcome his views and criticism of Israeli-American policy as we believe it contributes to a well balanced and democratic society. We came to MIT to learn and as any international student would tell you it involves much more than purely academic material.

There’s a cultural difference, conflicting opinions and way of life and many more issues that challenge our ability to learn on a daily basis and ultimately help us grow as human beings. We see Professor Chomsky as a vehicle to learn about the other side, to think about things we weren’t asked to think about before. Unfortunately, the way in which he presents his argument (as described above) does him (and MIT) a great disservice.

Professor Chomsky is not interested in educating us as Israelis (or anyone else for that matter) about his view of the world, he is much more interested in pointing a blaming finger, force feeding us his ideas with no respect to the ideas we already hold. We consider ourselves intelligent and open-minded people who are not afraid to discuss the difficult questions. We spent most of our lives in Israel and have come to realize that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is a complex one which requires sensitivity, patience and balance.

We find it absurd that no matter what treaties get signed, negotiations take place, and resolutions are agreed upon, Professor Chomsky’s approach is always the same. It feels like we almost know by heart what his next talk is going to be about. As Israeli citizens we’ve witness the internal discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian situation change so many times, as we are sure it has on the Palestinian side. Surely every conflict, including the Israeli-Palestinian one, is dynamic in one way or another. How come Professor Chomsky’s tune remains absolutely the same!?

We question the effectiveness of Professor Chomsky’s talk in helping people understand the Israeli-Palestinian situation. We feel that Professor Chomsky, the Starr Forum and the MIT community should take responsibility for the role they choose to play in this discussion so as to become part of the solution and not the problem.

Yaniv Junno Ophir is a graduate student in the Department of Architecture. Gila Fakterman is a Computer Specialist at the McGovern Institute.