In February, Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, received a letter informing him that a faculty-student committee at the Cornell University Medical College in New York had unanimously chosen him to be the principal speaker at the school's commencement exercises in May. The school would be honored if he would accept. Chomsky did.
In April Chomsky heard from Richard H. Dyckman, president of the Class of 1985 at Cornell Medical College. Dyckman said that the invitation to Chomsky had caused "considerable dismay" among the graduating class, which "has expressed the concern that your positions, particularly those regarding Zionism, deeply offend a large proportion of students. . . . your presence would make a political statement which would disturb what otherwise would have been a very happy occasion."
Accordingly, the graduating class (in a petition signed by 80 of the 110 graduates) asked Chomsky to stay home. "We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause," said the president of the class. "It is an unfortunate situation, and we await your reply."
Chomsky, mindful that the parents of the future doctors would not appreciate a chill being placed on the long- awaited day, withdrew as commencement speaker. In his letter to the president of the class, Chomsky added: "I presume that you will have no objection if I also send copies of your letter to friends in Israel. As you may know, Israeli doves have bitterly deplored the chauvinist fanaticism among sectors of the American Jewish community that they consider -- rightly in my view -- to be driving their country to disaster, and it would only be proper to allow them to be aware of the various manifestations of this mood . . ."
Chomsky, by the way, had no intention of speaking abut the Middle East at the Cornell commencement. He was going to talk mostly about the arms race and also, he told me, about how "things are often deceptive when you're trying to deal with such issues as the arms race."
It would not have mattered, however, if the 80 protesting students had known the subject of Chomsky's talk. He has become a pariah among some -- by no means all -- supporters of Israel. Chomsky, like a good many doves in that country, advocates a two-state solution, with the Palestinians having their own nation on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Eventually, Chomsky believes -- going beyond many doves -- that bi-nationalism won't work, and there ought to be one state for all.
Chomsky has also been critical -- as has Amnesty International, among others -- of Israel's human rights record. He hardly focuses on Israel alone in these matters. Chomsky has been one of the few persistent American critics of the brutal violations of human rights i East Timor. And not long ago, he was among 25 Americans signing a statement, read in Gdansk, charging that the recent trial of three Solidarity activists "makes a mockery of last year's amnesty."
Yet, at home, this Institute Professor at MIT (one of only 10 thus honored at the university) is sometimes treated as if he ought to be permanently placed in Coventry. Earlier this year in Cleveland, Chomsky had been scheduled to speak about the Middle East to the City Club. "I was suddenly disinvited," he says. "I was told the room had been scheduled for somebody else. There was no other room in Cleveland?"
Last October Chomsky was invited to speak at the University of Michigan under the sponsorship of the Center for Near Eastern and North African studies. He was soon disowned by the Center and had to appear under a hastily assembled umbrella of campus groups involved in ethics and religion, as well as American culture. The initial sponsors changed their minds, they said, because Chomsky is not a specialist on the Middle East. Others at the University of Michigan, however, say the Center backed off because the disconcerting visitor from MIT was too "controversial."
When I was very young, my father and my uncle used to take me to Zionist meetings on Sunday mornings. I understood very little of what was going on, but I was impressed by the passionate divisions among the dreamers of a Jewish state. "We all want to get to the same place," my uncle said. "And we all think we know the only way to get there. But without the arguing we could be lost forever."
The acceptable commencement speaker at the Cornell Medical College this year turned out to be the president of the university, Frank H. T. Rhodes. That happy day was free of controversy as the graduates, 80 of them anyway, celebrated having been rescued from the possibly infectious presence of a heretic.