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Debate between Jared Israel and Noam Chomsky on Yugoslavia

I. Introduction: The current misperception of Chomsky as a defender of the Serbians

II. The email debate

[25 July 2006]

For Emperor's Clothes articles on the break-up of Yugoslavia, go to


I. Introduction
by Jared Israel
25 July 2006

Recently I have read on Internet discussion lists that Noam Chomsky is being attacked as, of all things, an apologist for Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbians. 

In fact, throughout the Yugoslav conflict, starting with the fighting in Bosnia and continuing through the 1999 bombing of Serbia, Chomsky provided a kind of Left cover for the demonization of the Serbians.

During the 1999 bombing, he repeated the standard anti-Serbian description of events with a few changes, creating the impression that he was criticizing NATO.  Thus Chomsky had the following exchange on 5 April 1999 (i.e., two weeks into the NATO bombing of Serbia) on Pacifica Radio with Democracy Now reporter Amy Goodman:

[My transcript of the part of Chomsky's April 5, 1999 radio interview that deals with NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia starts below.  The text is transcribed as heard. ]

Interviewer Amy Goodman: Overall, first, what is your reaction to these bombings?

Chomsky: Well my reaction to the bombings is essentially that of the UN, uhh, the NATO/US commander, Wesley Clark. A day or two after the bombings began, he stated that it was entirely predictable that the bombings would lead to a sharp escalation of atrocities in an effort to drive out ethnic Albanians. The phrase 'entirely predictable' is too strong but the general point is correct. And that's pretty much what happened. And it was predictable.

And last year about 2000 people were killed. The main fighting started after the Kosovars switched from support for a long, nonviolent resistance program which received, elicited no support from the West; in fact they were simply dsmissed. Turned to violence, which led to counter-violence of a much greater kind; as I said, about 2000 people killed.

As the threats of NATO bombing increased, the violence increased. As the monitors were withdrawn, the violence increased. When the bombing actually began it very sharply escalated for essentially the reasons that General Clark stated, the reaction to the threat. And then, actually, the bombing had the effect - predictable if not entirely predictable - of offering both a motive and an opportunity of a [sic!] heightened atrocities and expulsion of population, which is now reaching very severe crisis.

[My transcript of excerpt from Chomsky's April 5, 1999 radio interview ends here. Full broadcast can be downloaded at ]

Chomsky was, as always, convoluted, so let me translate.

1) Chomsky claims that Albanian secessionists conducted a "nonviolent resistance."  By using the word "resistance" Chomsky tells his liberal and left-wing listeners that the media-created popular impression that Albanians were an oppressed population in pre-bombing Kosovo is true -- otherwise, what would there have been for them to 'resist'?

Adding the adjective "nonviolent" calls to mind Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  So Chomsky is giving the secessionists high marks -- all the more because, according to him, the Albanian secessionists' supposed nonviolence made them uninteresting to NATO, which (he suggests) only supports the violent. 

This is remarkable because, in reality:

a) the secessionist Albanians have been conducting a reign of terror against Serbians for decades (regarding which, see "Phony Kosovo ĎIndependenceí " at ;

b) NATO countries (and mass media) have supported the secessionists since at least as far back as the mid-1980s.

2) According to Chomsky's fairy tale, the Albanians finally despaired and turned to violence, which was answered by far greater violence on the Yugoslav government side, in response to which, the West bombed, knowing full well that this would cause the Serbians to launch a reign of terror, murdering and expelling the Albanian population, which is (says Chomsky) what happened.

In fact, NATO's excuse for starting the bombing was that the Yugoslav government had rejected Western terms during negotiations at Rambouillet, France, terms which would in fact have given NATO direct, old-fashioned, colonial-type control over all of Yugoslavia. 

Initially, the bombing did not have public support; for example, polls taken in the U.S. shortly after the start of the bombing showed that people opposed the NATO attack 2 to 1.  It was in order to change Western public opinion that the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which NATO controlled, coerced Kosovo Albanian clan leaders to lead their clan members out of Kosovo, all the while loudly complaining that the Serbians were forcing them to leave: political theater on a giant scale, staged for the Western media, which lapped it up. 

How the KLA was able to get large numbers of Albanians to leave Kosovo was first explained by
Čedomir Prlinčević, the late President of the Jewish Community in Pristina (Kosovo) and until June 1999 the chief archivist of Kosovo, in an interview he gave to Emperor's Clothes back in 2000.  You can read the interview, "Why Albanians Fled Kosovo During NATO Bombing," at

So NATO used the KLA to put on a play for the world, entitled, 'In-response-to-the-bombing-the-brutal-Serbs-are-murdering-Albanians-and-forcing-them-to-flee," and, "predictably," it turned the tide in public opinion, doubling support for the war.  And it was precisely the line of this play -- this lie -- that Chomsky put forward, packaging it in anti-NATO wrapping paper, the better to sell it to the Left.

Consider the cleverness of Chomsky's deceit.  His description of events was (as he himself stated) the same as that of NATO commander Wesley Clark, yet Chomsky struck a pose of criticizing Western leaders for (supposedly) giving the Albanian secessionists insufficient support when they were (supposedly) nonviolent and (supposedly) inciting the (supposedly) brutal Serbians through bombing.

Democracy Now, which interviewed Chomsky, is listened to by many thousands of people who might have opposed the NATO bombing had Chomsky, the supposed anti-imperialist, not told them, 'NATO is wrong to be bombing those Serbian monsters.'  Who is going to get up early in the morning to defend monsters? And even as Chomsky was using the public's perception that he is a super-duper-anti-imperialist to promote NATO's justification for its murderous bombing, he was exchanging emails with young people in Serbia expressing sorrow for the bombings. 

You know, they say that during the Spanish Inquisition, the inquisitors comforted their victims as they died.  Have things really changed?

I had two email exchanges with Chomsky concerning Milosevic and the Serbians.

The first was during the 1999 NATO bombing. I wrote asking Chomsky to speak at one of the weekly anti-war rallies I was helping organize in Boston.

I knew of Chomsky from the late 1960s. Back then, I was a leader of Students for a Democratic Society, the student antiwar group, at Harvard. I was friends with one of Chomsky's teaching assistants at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We considered Chomsky a political oddball; in any case he was a minor figure in the antiwar movement, although already powerful in linguistics. Now, some 30 years later, he was well-known as a political writer; hence my invitation. Chomsky replied that he was booked-up for the indeterminate future.

When I wrote Chomsky, I sent him transcripts of German Court and Foreign Ministry documents challenging the charge that Yugoslav forces targeted ethnic Albanian civilians during the 1998 fighting with the Kosovo Liberation Army.  I also sent him Slobodan Milosevic's speech from 1989. I made the point that this speech showed that the media was lying outright about what Milosevic had said; clearly they were trying to demonize him. Chomsky agreed.

I wrote an open letter to Chomsky in September 2000 because I had read on the internet that, in response to someone who supported the NATO line on Yugoslavia, Chomsky had written, "The Milosevic regime has committed many crimes, but one cannot attribute the terrible conditions [in Yugoslavia] completely to its crimes." My open letter generated arguments on various email discussion lists, following which Chomsky replied to me by email, leading to the exchange posted below, which is unedited.

- Jared Israel
Emperor's Clothes


II. Email Debate between Noam Chomsky and Jared Israel


Open letter from Jared Israel to Noam Chomsky
4 September 2000


Dear Noam,

Your continuing demonization of "the Serbs" is appalling. I thought you were too-little-too-late, conceding US guilt and Yugoslav innocence one step behind media-admitted facts - but now, it appears, you trail further, falling behind even the ICTY [i.e., The Hague Tribunal -- J. I.].

Your "lack of time" to speak at the Boston antiwar demonstrations to which I invited you 16 months ago takes on a different significance in light of the statements you have issued during and since the bombing.

The tragedy is that with your influence on young people you could have encouraged the creation of a protest movement, instead of throwing cold water on the antiwar impulse by parroting NATO in the guise of criticizing NATO with your "NATO is even worse than the Serbs" nonsense.



Noam Chomsky's reply to Jared Israel

5 September 2000


Dear Jared,

I think you are aware of the fact that in the past 10 years the Milosevic regime has committed many crimes.

The statement you quote is from a forum, where I rejected the charges made by a questioner against the Milosevic regime. In that context there is no need whatsoever to add an essay documenting every factual statement that is made.


Jared Israel To Noam Chomsky

5 September 2000


Dear Noam,

In a message dated 09/05/2000 3:22:12 PM Eastern Daylight Time, you wrote:

<< I think you are aware of the fact that in the past 10 years the Milosevic regime has committed many crimes. >>

"The fact that"? Who said it was a fact? You construct a sentence that asserts as given the truth of the very thing which in my note I said was a lie. Clever.

Noam, I have been reading your stuff for a long time and I am not a dope. I am "aware of the fact" that you have repeatedly charged Milosevic AND "The Serbs" with criminal actions, e.g., atrocities against civilians. Your sentences are routinely constructed so as to assert the truth of your charges, despite no proof. Your writing has "in fact" had a negative effect on the left, such as it is, cooling antiwar passions and hindering the creation of a serious antiwar movement.

The burden of proof cannot be escaped by tricky wording or sloppiness.

I repeat, what crimes has Milosevic committed in Kosovo, Bosnia, Croatia? Date or dates, place or places. Details. Prove the credibility of your sources. I think you just parrot what's written in the mass media.



Noam Chomsky to Jared Israel
6 September 2000


Dear Jared,

Apologies. I didn't realize you thought that Milosevic's regime was alone in the world in not having committed many crimes.

If you think I'm going to take time to discuss this topic with you, think again. There are serious things to do.



Jared Israel to Noam Chomsky
7 September 2000


Dear Noam,

Yesterday you wrote me:

<< Apologies. I didn't realize you thought that Milosevic's regime was alone in the world in not having committed many crimes. >>

What's the point of the sarcasm, Noam? You cannot avoid the serious questions I and others have raised about your writing on Yugoslavia by resorting to mockery.

Your writing is full of explicit accusations such as: ""By summer [1998], the KLA had taken over about 40 per cent of the province, eliciting a vicious reaction by Serb security forces and paramilitaries, targeting the civilian population." (Al-Ahram, June 2000, my emphasis)

Obviously you are not talking about every government in the world. You are claiming that the Yugoslav government made certain choices. That is, faced with an isolated terrorist group (which the KLA was until after the onset of NATO bombing convinced key Albanian clan leaders that the KLA had the full support of NATO) - given that the Yugoslavs were faced with an isolated terrorist gang the Yugoslavs could a) do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties or b) take it out on civilians, thus guaranteeing support for the KLA.

The Yugoslav Army has an unusual history. Its doctrine is based on the expectation of conducting a mass-based resistance to a new attack from the West, an attack which they anticipated for 50 years. This army studied the tactics of conducting a war of resistance.

Now whether one likes or dislikes armies per se, this particular army grasps the key role played by popular support (and antagonism!) in warfare. Why would they make such a stupid mistake as to target the civilian population when they were fighting a (then) isolated gang of dope smuggling fascists?

Moreover, as you have known for a year, the antiwar movement possesses a number of documents from the German Courts and Foreign Ministry, documents produced in response to the requests by Kosovo Albanians to receive the status of political refugees. The German courts studied the situation in Kosovo and ruled in every case that there was no evidence - none - that the Yugoslav Army targeted civilians. The Humanitarian Crisis was manufactured by Western officials and the mass media to justify Western demands that the Yugoslav special troops leave Kosovo - Yugoslav territory.

All this was known to you a year ago. Every website that opposed the bombing of Yugoslavia featured those documents. I believe that even the Z website, stronghold of Serb bashing within the antiwar movement, posted those documents. Why then, a year after the end of the war, after Carla Del Ponte admitted in mid November that they had found a grand total of 2108 bodies whose identities were unknown - that is, that these bodies, which they allegedly found, could be anyone - why did you write in June, 2000 that the Yugoslav Army targeted Albanian civilians? This is not a trivial matter, Noam.

And this is only one of the times you made statements which uncritically parroted what we have been told by the Western media. This particular statement was written in an Arab publication - particularly harmful since the Western media tries to convince Arabs of the lie that "the Serbs" are anti-Muslim bigots.

You say: <<If you think I'm going to take time to discuss this topic with you, think again. There are serious things to do.>>.

What could be more serious than whether Yugoslavia has committed serious crimes of war? What could be more serious then whether you have, in fact, publicly lied with the effect of discouraging action by antiwar activists?

A year ago you sent me the following email post:

Date: 5/12/99 10:40:46 PM Eastern Daylight Time From: chomsky@MIT.EDU To: JaredI@AOL.COM CC: chomsky@MIT.EDU Dear Jared, I guess I feel I've known you for many years, even if we haven't actually met (so you tell me; I would have guessed otherwise).

Thanks for the text of the speech [I had sent you Milosevic's speech, made in 1989 at Kosovo Field], which I'd never seen. Interesting. On the "demonization," it's actually been conceded. An article in the Times a few weeks ago, which I'm sure I kept, observed that "demonization" of Milosevic was necessary in order to maintain public support for the bombing. Noam

[End of last year's email from Noam to Jared]

Now Noam, if you knew way back then that demonizing Milosevic is critical in order to maintain public support for the attack on Yugoslavia, why have you persistently demonized him and the Serbian people and Yugoslav army?

For example, during the bombing you wrote:

"The bombing was then undertaken under the rational expectation that KILLING and refugee generation would ESCALATE as a result, as indeed happened, even if the scale may have come as a surprise to some, though apparently not the commanding general. " (This is from a piece you wrote and posted in May, 1999 on the Z website, my emphasis)

I have done text analysis of several of your articles about Yugoslavia and the above excerpt demonstrates a technique you employ over and over. In brief, you attack the Yugoslavs in the guise of either defending them or attacking NATO.

Thus, here you say that the NATO commanding general obviously knew how terribly the Serbs would react. Posing your point in this form seems to be a criticism of NATO; this lends it credibility on the left. But what you are really doing is taking the "commanding general's" statement - that the bombing DID precipitate escalated Serbian atrocities - as axiomatic: true without requirement of proof. Indeed, you assert the truth of NATO's charge in passing, using it as the basis of your false criticism of NATO.

Now, your claim to fame is media criticism. You opposed the Vietnam War. Why does an antiwar activist, who studies the media, and who knows - who has told me he knows - that demonization "is critical in order to maintain public support for" the attack on Yugoslavia - why does such a person fail to even question - even question! - the anti-Yugoslav news reports? Why? Why, during the bombing and since, have your statements even at times lagged behind what we are reading in some of the mass publication newspapers? (This is the case with the Al-Ahram article which was contradicted by the German Court and Foreign Ministry documents over a year ago!)

If these are trivial questions then what is serious?



At that point Chomsky wrote me, in an email that I have unfortunately misplaced, that he had learned that I had posted our correspondence on a discussion forum, and he refused to continue an exchange with someone who had no respect for privacy. Aside from the question of whether etiquette should prevail over informing the public in a debate of this significance -- Chomsky had after all played a major role in preventing opposition to Western policy in Yugoslavia -- the fact is, by answering my open letter, Chomsky was replying to a public document.  Chomsky never asked me to view his reply or our subsequent exchanges as private, so why was I obliged to do so?

Chomsky then wrote a letter to one Andrej Grubacic, my opponent on the discussion list -- I think it was called the Crash List -- attacking me;  Grubacic posted Chomsky's response on the list. Apparently making Chomsky's emails public was OK for him, just not for me.

This all took place in September 2000.  In October, Milosevic was driven from office by a violent coup d'ťtat.  Chomsky and Andrej Grubabic enthusiastically supported this coup, claiming it represented a revolutionary advance for the Serbian working class, following which, the living standard of said class, already low enough, plummeted, with the coup government turning Serbia into a colony, selling state property including entire industries for pennies on the dollar, laying off many thousands of workers, flooding Serbia with poor quality foreign agricultural products, although Serbia had superb agriculture, and crummy manufacturered goods, and in general serving the workers. 

'Serve the People': a cookbook.

Anyway, here is what Chomsky wrote as his parting shot, courtesy of Grubacic (who I believe is now a professor in the U.S., where he is lauded as a paragon of social justice.)


Noam Chomsky to Andrej Grubacic
8 September 2000


Dear Andrej,

If you'd like my advice, you're wasting your time writing to [Jared] Israel. I suppose I can't criticize you for being too polite (though it's true) because I am too. These people are worse than "not helpful." That goes back a long time. And completely beyond any rational discussion.



My comment: There is a lesson in this, my friends, which is: you can't please everyone.  For myself, I am glad that Chomsky (and his friend Grubacic, who is a real Serb-baiter) do not find me helpful.  I would be ashamed if they did.

- Jared Israel
Emperor's Clothes


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For Emperor's Clothes articles on the break-up of Yugoslavia, go to

Please forward this text or send the link to a friend. 

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Emperorís Clothes 

Email debate between Jared Israel and Noam Chomsky on Yugoslavia