I cringed when reading the headline earlier this week. It was the same uncomfortable reaction one might have when a parent drinks to excess, yet again, and behaves badly at a family function. Or when a dining partner argues loudly with the service staff at a restaurant.
There was no good to be derived from a story with that headline. The expert linguist, who reportedly speaks Hebrew, may have spent a few months in Israel half a decade ago, but his vociferous condemnations of the Jewish state’s “expansionist policies” have been widely covered. As I plunged into the details of the MIT professor’s “adventure” at Allenby Bridge, the murk led to more murk.
From the sheepish “it was a misunderstanding and we’ll probably take it back” statement issued by Israel’s Interior Ministry, to the follow-up explanation from the prime minister’s office that a border guard had overstepped his bounds, to details of the octogenarian being questioned for hours, the ordeal was fuel to Chomsky’s already blazing anti-Israel fire.
“I find it hard to think of a similar case, in which entry to a person is denied because he is not lecturing in Tel Aviv. Perhaps only in Stalinist regimes,” Chomsky told an Haaretz reporter in a telephone conversation from Amman, where he sought refuge after the ordeal.
Chomsky had been en route to deliver lectures at the West Bank’s Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, visit Bil’in and Hebron, and meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad when he was detained at the border crossing and questioned for hours. He was then denied entrance to the West Bank and Israel because, as he told the press, he was lecturing at a Palestinian university but not an Israeli one.
“The official asked me why I was lecturing only at Bir Zeit and not an Israeli university,” Chomsky told Haaretz. “I told him that I have lectured a great deal in Israel. The official read the following statement: ‘Israel does not like what you say.’” Chomsky replied: “Find one government in the world which does.”
“In barring a renowned academic from Israel and the West Bank, the government’s outrageous treatment of its critics has reached new heights,” a Haaretz op-ed leads.
“Israel is encouraging academic boycott by denying entry to Chomsky,” a blog headline read.
The timing on this one is impossible to overlook. Less than two weeks ago, Israel officials created a stir by turning back Spain’s most popular clown, Ivan Prado, at the airport for his ties to Palestinian organizations. Since returning to Madrid, Prado has launched a campaign decrying Israel and comparing the situation of West Bank Palestinians with Jews in Poland.
Last Wednesday, Elvis Costello announced he is canceling his June performances. He has decided to join the Israel boycott.
And fresh in our memories is the Joseph Biden-East Jerusalem housing embarrassment.
Not a stranger to PR and the power it wields, Chomsky — who says Israel’s behavior reminds him of South African policy in the 1960s — is declining the government’s offer to re-cross the border, opting to address West Bank academics via video from Amman instead.
At a time when anti-Israel sentiment is on the rise, what’s with all the seemingly wrong-headed government moves?
“Israel has improved substantially when it comes to image in the media throughout the decades. But Chomsky is totally different from Biden is totally different from Elvis Costello,” says Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. “Biden was a serious case because he’s a close ally whereas Chomsky isn’t. The clown could have been handled better and Elvis Costello … well … this happens every summer with performers for the same reason.
“I’m all for free speech for citizens but an outsider who wants to spit in the house? Other countries block people from coming in for this sort of thing all the time. Chomsky is a minor black eye for Israel. It was a smart and wildly popular domestic move for Netanyahu. He has his own flock to tend to,” Lehman-Wilzig concluded.