Chomsky and others look at the crisis

Science for Peace co-sponsored a conference “Palestine and Iraq: Any Signs of Hope?” on 10 November. The other sponsors were the Bloor Street United Church Social Justice Committee, the Near East Cultural & Educational Foundation, and Jewish Youth Against the Occupation. Thanks too to the Toronto Women’s Bookstore for their support, especially in selling tickets.

The afternoon panel discussion drew over 200 to OISE Auditorium. We heard from Atif Kubursi, Elia Zureik, Carolyn Parrish, and Henry Lowi. The talks were challenging and diverse, the audience questions were (to say the least) challenging and diverse. This session was chaired by Toronto film-maker B.H. Yael.

Kubursi, a Professor of Economics at McMaster, gave the background to present conflicts in the expansion of US domination of the region over many years. Zureik, a Professor of Political Science at Queen’s, drew on long experience as a student and a spokesman of émigré Palestinians to analyze their place in the political picture. (To a questioner who demanded where he had recognized Israel’s right to exist, he retorted, “I told you I had been a negotiator, with Israel on the other side of the table! I hope this can happen again.”) Carolyn Parrish, a Liberal MP, was one of nine Canadian MPs on a fact-finding mission to Palestine last May. Her talk was a brisk, cogent account of the disruption of life in the occupied territories. (The parliamentarians’ report is most impressive, and can be found at www.missiontopalestine.com.) Henry Lowi is now a Toronto lawyer, but was an Israeli citizen for many years (and is a veteran of the 1973 war); he gave a sober, tough analysis of possible just resolution and the changes needed to make it possible. To the theme question “Any signs of hope?” he answered yes, on the basis of “coexistence between Arabs and Jews under a democratic constitution that upholds human rights.”

It seemed everyone learned something, including the speakers.

The evening event was a lecture “Prospects for Peace” by Prof. Noam Chomsky of MIT, which filled the Bloor Street United Church: the main Sanctuary holds 1100, but over 100 more followed the lecture on monitors downstairs. The chair was Meir Amor, an Israeli who now teaches sociology at Concordia University.

The theme of Chomsky’s talk was the threat to Middle Eastern stability from the collaboration between US, Israeli, and Turkish governments to maintain control of oil resources and undermine Arab nationalist movements. He drew parallels between the scare tactics of the US administration now and in the past. As now it tells the public to set aside every other need, even its own liberties, before the menace of Al-Qaeda and Iraq, so in 1958 it raised foreign spectres to ram through military projects. The spectres then were Indonesia, Iran, and Libya —again, all Muslim countries (but secular ones at the time, he emphasized) and all oil exporters. More recently, the Reagan administration raised cries of alarm at Senate hearings that Sandinistas would invade. Fear wins elections in the US, said Chomsky, and especially, a fear-driven call to arms silences critics. He didn’t tell us not to be alarmed: we must be alarmed; but like Kubursi in the afternoon, Chomsky argued that the aggressive party, the party to fear, is American power.

An audience question was, “Has the world situation got better or worse over the years?” Chomsky invited us to compare today with the world of 40 years ago. Anyone can see that the position of women has improved, and that racism has retreated: for these gains we thank the civil rights struggles —which were “mostly the work of the young people,” he added. Think too of international tension. In 1962, President Kennedy was entering on the great military venture in Vietnam. US planes were flying missions over Southeast Asia as they are over Iraq today, and threatening larger wars there. But the public was silent. If we deplore the relative lack of vocal opposition to the Bush war, we should remember: at least something is happening before full-scale war even starts; that was not so in 1962.

A collection was taken, raising over $2000 to support two activist groups: Ta’ayush, a coalition of Israeli Jews and Arabs which conducts non-violent resistance to sieges of occupied West Bank villages; and Christian Peacemakers, which has a delegation of Canadians in Baghdad now to bear witness for peace, and intends to maintain a presence there throughout the crisis.

The evening session was broadcast live on CIUT, and an edited tape was shown on City-TV the next night. You can listen to the audio from both the afternoon and evening events on the website of Science for Peace.