On Israel-Palestine and BDS: Chomsky Replies

On Israel-Palestine and BDS: Chomsky Replies

On Israel-Palestine and BDS: Chomsky Replies

Noam Chomsky responds to Yousef Munayyer, MJ Rosenberg, Nadia Ben-Youssef, Ran Greenstein and the Organizing Collective of the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel.


Editor’s Note: Noam Chomsky recently questioned the tactics of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in a piece for The Nation titled “On Israel-Palestine and BDS.” Because BDS has been a frequent topic of debate in the Nation community, the editors solicited a number of responses to Chomsky’s piece. Below, Chomsky replies to each of the respondents in turn.

In response to Yousef Munayyer’s “How BDS Is Educating the Public About Israel’s Brutal Policies

According to Yousef Munayer, my article “warns against the one strategy that offers the most hope: the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.” That is a puzzling reaction. In fact, the article strongly advocates that strategy. That is explicit from the first mention of it: “One way to punish Israel for its egregious crimes was initiated by the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom in 1997: a boycott of settlement products. Such initiatives have been considerably expanded since then.” The article goes on to list many successful examples. That is why I have advocated and participated in these actions for years, since well before the BDS movement was formed.

I do not understand what led Munayer to think that I criticized BDS for not changing the power dynamic, let alone that that was my main criticism. I can’t find a hint of such an idea in the article.

There are indeed “warnings” in the article: namely, that we should be careful in crafting tactics so that they help rather than harm the victims—doubly harm them, as discussed. That is surely second nature to activists.

Munayer alleges that I charged BDS with “shifting attention away” from the Palestinian plight. Not at all. Rather, I pointed out—correctly—that poorly crafted tactics have in fact done that on occasion, and that those tactical errors should be avoided. But properly executed tactics have “shifted attention” towards the Palestinian plight, and have had a very positive impact, including those I listed, a very small sample.

According to Munayer, the article “dismisses the apartheid designation.” Not quite. Rather, the article points out that in the Occupied Territories (OT) Israel’s policies are far worse than apartheid. That’s an odd form of “dismissal.” However, within Israel itself, while there is severe discrimination, it does not compare with South African apartheid.

Munayer writes that the article dismisses “the right of return” while “downplaying the demand for equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel.” On the latter, there is not a word suggesting anything of the sort. On the contrary, the article points out that “there are ‘prohibitions against discrimination’ in international law,” and that BDS initiatives focusing on severe discrimination within Israel can be successful with educational efforts “laying much more groundwork in the public understanding for them, as was done in the case of South Africa.”

That aside, it is a rather strange comment. Though this article doesn’t happen to deal with the matter, I have been harshly condemning fundamental attacks on the rights of Palestinians all my life, and extensively in print for fifty years. That is why I was invited to write the introduction for the first serious book on Palestinians citizens of Israel, Sabri Jiryis’s Arabs in Israel. At the same time, I was writing detailed analyses of the worst of Israel’s measures, the land laws, reprinted in my book Towards a New Cold War (1982), while also reviewing and condemning other repressive measures targeting Palestinian citizens of Israel. And I have been continuing since, extensively, until the present. There is nothing in the article suggesting any departure from the stand I have always taken, outspokenly. Munayer adds that “Chomsky advises Palestinians, and those concerned for them, to accept the prevailing power structure and fight for only a fraction of their rights.” That is completely false, and there is not a word in the article suggesting this radical departure from my long-standing and easily documented practice.

On the right of return, the article pointed out, correctly, that UNGA 194, which is what is brought up in the BDS call I was discussing, is conditional and without legal force, unlike the UNSC resolutions that Israel regularly violates. Munayer’s alternatives are even weaker reeds. Furthermore, these discussions are largely beside the point as far as the victims are concerned. For them, recognition of the “right” is of little significance. What would be meaningful is its implementation. As I pointed out, tactics that demand implementation of the right are likely to fail, with the double harm to Palestinians that I discussed, though there are possibilities for its implementation, namely those I mentioned—to my knowledge, the only concrete suggestions, even if remote.

The rest raises a variety of issues, but I do not see any relation to what I wrote, so will not pursue them.

In response to M.J. Rosenberg’s “Why BDS Will Not End Israel’s Occupation

M.J. Rosenberg’s judgments I think are much too harsh. It is true that the original BDS call demanded that Israel end “its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands,” but that was revised to the wording I gave. See http://www.bdsmovement.net/bdsintro. That was a wise move, in my opinion. The initial wording was both seriously inaccurate about international law, and a virtual guarantee of failure. The revised wording, however, makes perfect sense, as I discussed, and should I think be strongly supported, as is increasingly happening. And with proper tactical decisions, the measures advocated are appropriate means, in my opinion, to punish Israel for its egregious crimes and help to bring them to an end—though it is quite true, as Rosenberg says, that they are not sufficient, just as they were not in the case of South Africa. But “not sufficient” does not entail “unimportant.”

Rosenberg interprets my position on longer-term outcomes correctly. A two-state settlement could lead to closer integration, as indeed has begun to happen when the cycle of violence has reduced in the past, a development that I think both parties would find beneficial. It might even lead to secular (binational) democracy in the former Palestine, and is the only feasible suggestion I know of as to how to approach this condition. He is also correct in observing that I see no reason to worship the imperial-imposed borders, here or elsewhere, and that I think their erosion could also be of considerable benefit to the people of the region.

In response to Nadia Ben-Youssef’s “How Chomsky Obscures Israel’s True Nature

Nadia Ben-Youssef writes that Adalah is committed to “defend the right of the Palestinian community and its allies to freely protest against Israel’s discriminatory laws and policies, its brutal forty-seven-year military occupation and its continued disregard for international law.” Naturally, I have been very pleased that since its formation in 1996, Adalah has vigorously and successfully pursued these commitments, as I had been doing for many years, as mentioned above.

It is, however, not true that distinguishing the situation in the OT (much worse than apartheid) from the situation within Israel (very serious, but not South African–style apartheid) “reinforces a false paradigm that deflects from the problematic nature of the single Israeli regime.” The paradigm is correct, not false, and it does not in the least deflect from the struggle for elementary rights within Israel. Rather, it sharpens the framework within which to pursue the struggle successfully.

Ben-Youssef’s description of the situation within Israel is accurate, and again, I naturally approve of it, having been making the same points for many years, frequently in print and in innumerable talks. But we should not, I think, accept the final conclusion that “rather than evaluate the tactics used or how ready the world is to deal with their implications, justice will be better and more swiftly secured by squarely facing the conditions of inequality and oppression.” These are not alternatives. We should continue to squarely face the conditions of inequality and oppression and also evaluate the tactics that are used and their consequences, at least if we care about the fate of the victims—again, second nature to activists.

In response to Ran Greenstein’s “The Key Lesson South Africa Offers to Israel-Palestine: Follow the Locals

Ran Greenstein is quite correct that South Africans (and Angolans, and Namibians and others) played a crucial role in their liberation, and that without their struggles “no global campaign against apartheid would have been possible.” But there is no “glaring omission.” Neither I, nor the BDS movement, downplay these crucial facts in the slightest. Nor do we believe that “external solidarity” preceded the actions of local forces, as Greenstein asserts. That would make no sense, and there is not a hint of such a belief in anything I’ve written or, I am sure, in the BDS movement.

I think he is mistaken about apartheid, for the reasons already mentioned. In particular, it is crucial to emphasize that in the OT Israel’s policies are much worse than apartheid.

Greenstein is quite right to urge that we should continue to offer whatever support we can to the efforts of local activists on the scene. But I do not agree that international relations are “far removed from [the] everyday concerns” of Palestinians—or in earlier days, from South Africans struggling against apartheid. The positions and actions of international actors, primarily the US and secondarily the EU, are of very direct concern to Palestinians, as they were in the South African case as well, along with the crucial role of Cuba, almost always ignored. And the same has always been true of the struggles of Central Americans, Vietnamese, Timorese, Kurds and others.

That could hardly be more clear today as the people of Gaza are again being crushed by US high-tech weaponry in yet another savage and criminal Israeli assault, while the United States again blocks even limited reaction to these renewed crimes. To deprive Palestinians of what has been of immense value to others struggling for their rights would be a serious error. In fact, the proper advice, particularly to Americans, should be to dedicate much greater effort to changing US government policy, a prerequisite for any improvement in this horrendous situation, even more obviously than in other cases where it was also of prime significance.

As I wrote, it is not wise to focus on dubious analogies with South Africa while ignoring the clear and salient analogy that is of decisive importance.

Chomsky also replied to “How BDS Has Galvanized the Struggle for Justice in Palestine,” by the Organizing Collective of the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel. You can find the text by the Organizing Collective in italics below. Chomsky’s reply to each section follows.

Few public intellectuals on the left in the US academy have the track record Noam Chomsky has of energetic, committed activism and writing on a wide range of political concerns. This has rightly earned him the admiration and appreciation of millions of people worldwide. We count ourselves among them. So it was with great interest that we read his July 2 (July 21/28 print) piece in The Nation, “On Israel-Palestine and BDS.” We disagree, however, with his critique of the tactics and some of the goals of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which is summarized by his basic principle that “if we’re concerned about the fate of the victims, BD and other tactics have to be carefully thought through and evaluated in terms of their likely consequences.”

Before we get into a more detailed response to Chomsky’s article it is essential to note that BDS was not, as he describes it, simply a call that came from “Palestinian intellectuals.”

According to the BDS movement, “The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) [of which the Organizing Collective is an offshoot]…was launched in Ramallah in April 2004 by a group of Palestinian academics and intellectuals to join the growing international boycott movement.” See http://www.bdsmovement.net/activecamps/academic-boycott. A year later came the call to which the Organizing Collective’s comment refers.

It was a call for solidarity issued not only by intellectuals but also by a collective of some 170 civil society groups, including labor unions, teachers unions, healthcare providers and many others. This distinction matters, because otherwise it is easy to imagine that endorsing BDS is done without regard to the likely consequences for the “victims” of Israeli policy, when it is in fact members of Palestinian social movements who themselves decided on the tactics they wish us to employ and have called upon the world to do so.

True, but not relevant to the fact that when we adopt tactics, we should evaluate the likely consequences, at least if we are concerned with the fate of the victims.

Having made that distinction, let’s move to the specifics. Chomsky basically believes that we should be aware of the likely efficacy of our tactics, and he argues that some of the arguments for BDS have little political support in the current international scene, thereby increasing the chances BDS will fail. The Palestinian campaign for BDS has often been compared to, and is in fact inspired by, the international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions that targeted another apartheid state—South Africa. The recognition of Israel as an apartheid state has been a centerpiece of BDS campaigns. Chomsky dismisses this argument by differentiating Israeli practices from South African practices. However, as Hazem Jamjoum wrote, apartheid is “not an analogy.” Apartheid is a crime, defined in international law. In the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, apartheid is so defined: “Inhumane acts…committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

To repeat, Israel actions in the OT are far worse than South African apartheid. To deny or even underplay that crucial fact is rather like accusing the US of a “strategic blunder” in invading Iraq (Obama). In both cases, it is a great gift to the criminal states because the crime is far worse. And the term “apartheid” simply loses its meaning when applied to the severe Israeli repression within Israel itself that I (and of course others) have been writing about in detail for fifty years. That is why the record of BDS actions directed to Israeli apartheid is rather dismal, to put it mildly, though as I wrote, there are ways to overcome these defects. And we should always recall that every failure doubly harms Palestinians.

Apartheid is not measured in similarities or differences to South Africa, but through the definition. It should be noted here that the African National Congress, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and other South African organizations integral to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa have lent their support and their voices to the campaign against Israeli apartheid and for the Palestinian BDS call.

True, but that is no justification for giving Israel the great gift of describing its actions in the OT as comparable to South African apartheid, when they are in fact much worse.

Moreover, the distinctions Chomsky makes between Israeli and South African practices of apartheid do not entirely hold, even as they do take distinct forms. It is a known fact that South African apartheid entailed ethnic cleansing, a subcategory of apartheid in the UN definition. Antonia Caccia and Simon Louvish’s classic film End of the Dialogue offers an exemplary exposé and analysis of this.

I see no connection to what I wrote.

Likewise, as Chomsky himself knows, the Zionist movement and the Israeli state have always aimed to rid “greater Israel” of Palestinians, that is, to ethnically cleanse the region of non-Jews.

Exactly as I stressed, when pointing out that Israeli actions in the OT are far worse than South African apartheid.

He is wrong, however, to state that the Israeli system rejects Palestinian labor.

What I wrote is that “the white nationalists needed the black population: it was the country’s workforce, and as grotesque as the bantustans were, the nationalist government devoted resources to sustaining and seeking international recognition for them. In sharp contrast, Israel wants to rid itself of the Palestinian burden. The road ahead is not toward South Africa, as commonly alleged, but toward something much worse.”

That is entirely accurate, and important.

Years ago the Israel economy did rely heavily on cheap and easily exploitable Palestinian labor. That changed long ago. Gaza has been under severe closures for over twenty years, virtually barring its workforce from Israel. And as Oslo II was implemented in the mid-’90s, Israel radically reduced its reliance on labor from the West Bank. To quote myself from twenty years ago (World Orders Old and New), “With development banned under the occupation, Palestinians had two options: go elsewhere, or work in Israel. The latter option has been sharply reduced as Israel has turned to other sources of cheap labor: Romania, Africa, Thailand, the Philippines, Latin America, and other places where people live in misery. The Labor Ministry reported over 70,000 registered foreign workers by March 1995, while only 18,000 entry permits were granted to Palestinians from the territories, down from 70,000 a year earlier.” Further details are given there and the process has continued since.

When Chomsky claims that Israel and South Africa differ because the black South African population was the “country’s workforce,” whereas Israel “wants to rid itself of the Palestinian burden,” he ignores the oppression, exploitation and immiseration of Palestinian labor under occupation and the massive profits it has helped to generate for Israel and investor states like the United States.

Chomsky’s claim rehearses a falsehood that has been propagated ad infinitum and serves to divide the Palestinian (and solidarity) movement. Zionists/Israelis have always employed Palestinian labor, even though doing so appears to undermine Zionist ideology and certain Israeli laws and directives. Palestinians from the OT have and continue to be employed, whether irregularly or illegally, in Israel (even after Oslo and, moreover, since the second intifada) and by Israelis in the OT themselves (e.g., SodaStream and Jewish-only settlement construction).

The reference here is to a different matter, the use of Palestinian labor within the West Bank. It merits condemnation, but the description here is quite remote from reality. Israel and foreign investors could easily dispense with Palestinian labor in the OT, just as they dispensed with the far greater reliance on it within Israel itself.

In this regard, the difference between South African and Israeli apartheid may lie more in the expression of their respective ideologies, not in their albeit varying practices—although, again as Chomsky (and Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu) knows, Israel’s apartheid/ethnic cleansing strategy and tactics are nonetheless perceivably worse, as such comparisons go.

We therefore agree that Israel’s actions in the OT are far worse than South African apartheid, so that the apartheid designation is a gift to Israel. But this does not change the crucial facts that I described. Israel abandoned its reliance on Palestinian labor decades ago, and what still exists in the OT has nowhere near the significance described here, and does not change the fact that Israel would like to relieve itself of the Palestinian burden. As I wrote, that is a radical difference from South Africa, one of the many reasons why standard analogies are so misleading (while the one really accurate analogy is unfortunately ignored, as I wrote).

In turn, Chomsky’s statement that “within Israel” it is “not South African–style apartheid” is a misdirection to support his displeasure with the apartheid label. As noted, similarity to South Africa is generally irrelevant in determining whether a state is engaged in the crime of apartheid. However, this statement also acts to minimize the very real and extensive oppression and discrimination faced by Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship. These “1948 Palestinians” were subjected to martial law for nearly twenty years, and today more than fifty laws discriminate against Palestinians holding Israeli citizenship. Overt advocacy of racist policies targeting Palestinian citizens is an accepted part of the Israeli political scene.

As noted above, I’ve been writing and speaking about this in considerable detail for fifty years, showing that the oppression is far worse than what is described here. But to compare it to South African apartheid is simply to deprive the word “apartheid” of its significant meaning and to place Israel in the category of many other states, among them the United States.

Analogies can work against us again, Chomsky claims, because if one insists upon the second requirement of BDS, that Palestinian citizens of Israel should be endowed with full equality, one “opens the door to the standard ‘glass house’ reaction: for example, if we boycott Tel Aviv University because Israel violates human rights at home, then why not boycott Harvard because of far greater violations by the United States?”

Chomsky notes a counter-argument that has been made about boycotting US universities, but does that mean we have to accept it? Those of us involved in this movement and in USACBI also publicly challenge and mobilize against the collusion of the US academy with the military-industrial complex and state policy.

That’s fine, but not relevant to the point. The “glass house” phenomenon cannot be wished away. It exists, and has repeatedly undermined BDS initiatives that could have been successful if the problem had been dealt with along the lines suggested in the article. The fact that in other contexts the movement condemns US academic institutions does not bear on this matter at all.

Unwillingness to consider the consequences of one’s tactical choices is hardly wise, and it will, as in the past, lead to harm to Palestinians—indeed, the double harm that I mentioned. There are ways to confront the glass house reaction, as the article points out, but it’s important to undertake them, not to invoke unrelated actions. Organizers and activists surely understand that their own approval of an action is of no significance; what matters is whether the target audience will understand, approve and be encouraged to undertake further actions. These really are truisms, and it shouldn’t be necessary to discuss them.

I might add that it is rather odd to devote extensive attention to actions of the kind that have typically failed in the past because the proper preliminary measures were not taken, and would have had little impact were they to succeed, instead of devoting far greater effort to initiatives that have a real chance of success and could have enormous impact. Prime among them is arms embargo. US shipment of arms to Israel is in strict violation of US law (the Leahy law). Senator Leahy himself has brought this up in specific cases, and the major human rights organizations (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch) have done so as well. That is a basis on which to build, and such efforts could have very substantial import. In this connection, we may recall that as early as 1963 the US government supported a South African arms embargo, though the commitment was not honored, and by the 1980s, when protest in the US became a powerful force, Reagan was forced to veto and then evade congressional sanctions. In the present case, these are really significant opportunities, not least for the educational efforts on which successful organization and activism must rely.

Furthermore, the academic boycott has countered the censorship of the Palestine question that has plagued the US academy and mainstream discourse in this country, as it has supported the right to education of Palestinian academics and students working under conditions of occupation and repression in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.

Without a doubt, patience and educational groundwork are essential in creating a deeper and more accurate understanding of the realities in Palestine-Israel. We would argue that BDS has been more successful in both enabling and facilitating a broader educational effort toward solidarity with Palestine globally than any other initiative, and especially in breaking the taboo in speaking critically and honestly about the situation in Palestine. BDS is an initiative that has built into its own framework a sense of the long duration of struggle. No serious person imagines that equality for Palestinians or the implementation of the right to return is just around the corner. The intensification of conflict, the repeated failures of “normal diplomacy” to secure any form of justice for Palestinians and the widening sphere of Israeli violence demand that we work both patiently for longer-term goals and immediately and forcefully to bring about incremental change in public attitude. Again, we believe firmly that BDS has been successful in that regard.

I do too, which is why I have strongly advocated these initiatives (and participated in them) since they were proposed almost twenty years ago. At the same time, it should not be controversial that we must craft tactics so that they will be successful, and not lead to the double harm to Palestinians that I described, and that we have seen too many times.

Finally, for us, one of the most problematic aspects of Chomsky’s article is his dismissal of the third requirement of BDS, as found on its website, “Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.” Chomsky writes: “there is virtually no meaningful support for (3) beyond the BDS movement itself. Nor is (3) dictated by international law. The text of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 is conditional, and in any event it is a recommendation, without the legal force of the Security Council resolutions that Israel regularly violates. Insistence on (3) is a virtual guarantee of failure.”

It is a mistake to minimize the legal import of General Assembly Resolution 194; the General Assembly simply does not have enforcement powers, which is one of the reasons BDS is necessary if the right of return is to be achieved. The resolution and the multiple subsequent resolutions affirming it are grounded firmly in international law, including such basic texts as the United Nations Charter.

The actual text of the UN resolution in relevant part reads: “11. Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible…”

This statement has immense political and legal force, as well as moral rightness. As for the supposed “conditional” nature of the right, fundamental human rights cannot be denied simply because there are other concurrent obligations (not to mention the fact that Israel has failed to establish that the refugees cannot meet the purported condition). It should be noted that the right of return is at the core of Palestinian demands and the Palestinian movement for justice—and has been since its inception. It is not a new demand that emerged at the time of the BDS call in 2005, but has been the central principle of the Palestinian movement—even above the founding of a Palestinian state—since 1967, and indeed, since 1948.

We therefore agree completely about what I actually wrote about the right of return and UNGA 194. The resolution is unambiguously conditional. The requirement that returning refugees commit to “live at peace with their neighbors” is not only a condition, but a very severe one. If return of refugees ever becomes an option beyond symbolic levels, one can be sure that the condition would be severe indeed under interpretation by Israeli and international authorities—but like it or not, that is a remote contingency. And we agree that 194 does not have the force of the UNSC resolutions that Israel regularly violates.

It’s perhaps odd that while completely agreeing with what I actually wrote, this comment regards it as “one of the most problematic aspects” of the article.

We are uncertain what metrics Chomsky is using to reach his conclusion that there is no “meaningful support” for Palestinians’ right of return, especially in light of multiple UN resolutions to the contrary.

The metric is straightforward. How many successful examples are there of BDS actions directed to return of refugees? What is the ratio of such examples to actions focusing on the OT? The answer is very clear.

We can also ask how many states have called on Israel to withdraw to the internationally recognized borders and how many have called on Israel to permit all the refugees to return. The answer again is clear and sharp.

Solidarity movements have hard problems. There is no point magnifying them by denying basic facts about the international order.

Furthermore, it is necessary to distinguish recognition of the “right of return” from the call for implementation of that right. Israel could well recognize the “right” while rejecting implementation of it, beyond symbolic levels. In fact, in both formal and informal negotiations that has sometimes been raised. But what matters for the refugees is implementation, not abstract recognition, and for implementation there is, as I wrote, virtually no international support outside the BDS movement itself. Clear facts cannot be safely ignored.

We further reject the principle that what is deemed acceptable for the United States and Israel should define the borders of Palestinian or international politics and goals. The fact of US and Israeli opposition should be no deterrent to pursuing the right of return—not simply sentimentally, but energetically in a politically organized fashion.

Absolutely correct. That’s why I have always strongly opposed the principle, not only in this context but also numerous others. And I am hardly alone in that.

We find no reason whatsoever for abandoning BDS or lessening our commitment to it. “Education” aimed at bringing more of the public into an honest way of thinking about Palestine and Israel can and must go on side by side with political action.

Fully in agreement, as in the article to which the comment refers.

Indeed, BDS advocacy, far from eliding current issues, has been one of the most critical galvanizing tools internationally in the struggle for justice in Palestine. Israel is unleashing violence and damage on a massive scale, as evident in horrifying state and settler violence in the past week. BDS has been gathering strength worldwide. It is a critical tool and tactic in building substantial international public pressure against Israeli bombings, invasions and home demolitions, while official international voices remain silent and complicit. To reject it, or dilute its demands, at this moment in history is to vacate its gains and to grasp instead at a nonexistent alternative.

Correct again. Therefore, as I wrote, we should advocate the strategy and should not “dilute its demands” by proposing tactics that are very likely to fail, and would have limited impact even if they were to succeed, thus discrediting the movement and causing double harm to the victims.

All of this is second nature to activists and organizers, and should hardly merit discussion.

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