When I first started working in Hebron with Christian Peacemaker Teams, from the beginning, we networked with Israeli human rights and peace advocates. These Israelis took for granted that the reports of abuses we witnessed Israeli soldiers and settlers inflicting on the Palestinian residents in the Hebron area were accurate. They had witnessed similar abuses themselves. When I had returned from my first stint working with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Haiti, most people assumed I was telling the truth about the abuses I saw paramilitary thugs committing in 1993-94 (after the first time the Haitian military overthrew Jean-Bertrand Aristide.)
I wasn’t prepared, then, for the accusations from Jewish and non-Jewish partisans of Israel in the U.S. telling me I could not possibly have witnessed what I had witnessed in Hebron. That was the crucial point at which Noam Chomsky came into my life.* I was talking to a Jewish friend in Hebron about these partisans making feel as though I were crazy for simply reporting what I was witnessing and he told me I needed to read what Chomsky wrote about Israel and Palestine. I did, and I was hooked. If you take a look at my annotated history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (to which I stopped adding in 2002 because of an eye condition that makes reading normal-size fonts too painful) you’ll see he’s heavily represented.
So that’s the primary gratitude Chomsky compels from me: he confirmed I wasn’t crazy. He made me feel like I could trust my eyes and ears, and that I was witnessing virulent racism on the streets of Hebron, even though, back in Rochester, New York and other places around the U.S. where I spoke, people told me I was mistaken, or that I needed to provide “balance.” (Once, when I was speaking at Chautauqua, during the Q&A, a person told me that if he had come from outer space and heard my presentation, he would have a very unbalanced idea of what was happening in Israel and Palestine. I said that if I knew I was going to be addressing space aliens, my presentation would have been very different, but I assumed people at Chautauqua were already familiar with what got reported in the New York Times, etc. Learning experience? Clever retorts are never a good idea during Q&A.)
I am also impressed by his graciousness. Every time I have written to him, he has always responded to my letters. When I have gotten back from trips to conflict zones I know he monitors and had illuminating conversations with people there, I have sent him letters about these experiences, because I know from reading interviews with him he values eyewitness accounts of situations that are not being reported in the news. I always add the tagline, “I know you always respond to your letters, but as a sign of my gratitude for all you have done for me, I would prefer that you not respond to this one.” He always writes back anyway. And Chomsky, in general, makes time in his extremely busy schedule for small organizations who are working for justice. Recently he did an interview with our CPT interim assistant director, Tim Nafziger and even though he is not religious, if he believes that religious organizations are putting out better information than the New York Times, as was happening in Central America in the 1970s and 80s he will cite the information from those organizations.
And then there was the time four of my colleagues were kidnapped in Iraq in 2005-06. Chomsky was among the first of a group of intellectuals to sign a petition calling for their release and during their captivity, he said that our work there—when we sent people with the Iraq Peace Teams to camp out at water treatment plants, hospitals, and other vital infrastructure so they wouldn’t be bombed during the invasion—gave him hope.
*Well, actually, we had met in Haiti. A friend had brought a copy of Deterring Democracy with him, and as all literature was in short supply, I was reading that, while my friend was reluctantly trudging through my Jane Austen. I had been involved with Latin American solidarity movements in college, so it wasn’t news to me that the United States was supporting fascist regimes in Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. However, I was impressed at how coherently he laid it all out, with all the footnotes (oh, he made me a sucker for the footnotes), and I thought, “You know, if someone were just going to read one book, to see HOW the U.S. has prevented democratic regimes from gaining a foothold, this would be the one.”