Q&A: Noam Chomsky
Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life, November 12, 2010
David Samuels: You grew up in a home that was heavily influenced by Ahad Ha'am, the father of cultural Zionism.
Noam Chomsky: My father was a great sympathizer of Ahad Ha'am. Every Friday night we would read Hebrew together, and often the reading was Ahad Ha'am's essays. He was the founding figure of what came to be called cultural Zionism, meaning that there should be a Zionist revival in Israel, in Palestine, and it should be a cultural center for the Jewish people. He wrote in Hebrew, which was novel, because Hebrew was then the language of prayer and the Bible. He saw Jews as primarily a Diaspora community that needed a cultural center that had a physical presence, but he was very sympathetic to the Palestinians. In fact he wrote some very sharp essays, after a visit to Palestine, criticizing the way the new settlers were treating the indigenous population. He said, "You can't treat people like that." Also, on practical grounds, he didn't want to create enemies. A Jewish cultural center in Palestine was his ideal.
Now I won't swear to the precise accuracy of this, because these are childhood memories, but I remember reading together with my father an essay that Ahad Ha'am wrote about Moses. The basic idea was there are two Moseses -- the first is the historical Moses, if there was such a person, and the other is the image of Moses that was constructed and came down through the ages and occupies an important place in the national mythology.
Ahad Ha'am was an early advocate of the idea that later became famous with [the Marxist political scientist] Ben Anderson, when he wrote his books about how nations are imagined communities. He said there's an imagined -- I don't think he used the term -- but there's an imagined Jewish community, in which Moses plays a central role, and it really doesn't matter if there was a historical Moses or not. That's part of the national myth, which is a sophisticated version of what [author] Shlomo Sand was trying to get at. Sand debunks the historical Moses, but from Ha'am's point of view, it makes no difference.
DS: Did you read Nivi'im, the prophets, with your father in Hebrew?
NC: The word "prophet" is a very bad translation of an obscure Hebrew word, navi. Nobody knows what it means. But today they'd be called dissident intellectuals. They were giving geopolitical analysis, arguing that the acts of the rulers were going to destroy society. And they condemned the acts of evil kings. They called for justice and mercy to orphans and widows and so on.
I don't want to say it was all beautiful. Dissident intellectuals aren't all beautiful. You read Sakharov, who is sometimes appalling. Or Solzhenitsyn. And the nivi'im were treated the way dissident intellectuals always are. They weren't praised. They weren't honored. They were imprisoned like Jeremiah. They were driven into the desert. They were hated. Now at the time, there were intellectuals, "prophets," who were very well treated. They were the flatterers of the court. Centuries later, they were called "false prophets."
People who criticize power in the Jewish community are regarded the way Ahab treated Elijah: You're a traitor. You've got to serve power. You can't argue that the policies that Israel is following are going to lead to its destruction, which I thought then and still do.
DS: Did you imagine yourself as a navi, a prophet, when you were a child reading those texts alone in your room or on Friday night with your father?
NC: Sure. In fact, my favorite prophet, then and still, is Amos. I particularly admired his comments that he's not an intellectual. I forget the Hebrew, but lo navi ela anochi lo ben navi -- I'm not a prophet, I'm not the son of a prophet, I'm a simple shepherd. So he translated "prophet" correctly. He's saying, "I'm not an intellectual." He was a simple farmer and he wanted just to tell the truth. I admire that.
DS: Did religion play a role in the life of your home? Did your mother light Shabbat candles?
We did those things, but they were -- I don't know how you grew up, but my parents were part of the Enlightenment tradition, the haskalah. So you keep the symbols, but it doesn't involve religious faith.
DS: At the age of 10 I came to the conclusion that the God I learned about in school didn't exist.
NC: I remember how I did that. I remember it very well. My father's family was super Orthodox. They came from a little shtetl somewhere in Russia. My father told me that they had regressed even beyond a medieval level. You couldn't study Hebrew, you couldn't study Russian. Mathematics was out of the question. We went to see them for the holidays. My grandfather had a long beard, I don't think he knew he was in the United States. He spoke Yiddish and lived in a couple of blocks of his friends. We were there on Pesach, and I noticed that he was smoking.
So I asked my father, how could he smoke? There's a line in the Talmud that says, ayn bein shabbat v'yom tov ela b'inyan achilah. I said, "How come he's smoking?" He said, "Well, he decided that smoking is eating." And a sudden flash came to me: Religion is based on the idea that God is an imbecile. He can't figure these things out. If that's what it is, I don't want anything to do with it.
DS: And what did your father say?
NC: I was just thinking about that. He just quoted the line to me and then explained, "He thinks he is eating."
DS: Your father, Zev, was one of the significant Hebrew grammarians of the past century, and you did your early academic work on medieval Hebrew. Did something interest you about the structure of the language, or was it just available to you as the language in your home?
NC: It wasn't the language in the home. We spoke English. My parents would never utter a word of Yiddish, which was their native language. You have to remember there was real kulturkampf going on at this time, in the 1930s, between the Yiddish and the Hebrew tendencies. So we never heard a word -- my wife either -- of Yiddish. Hebrew was the language we studied. And then when I got to be a teenager I was immersed in novels.
DS: You returned to Hebrew for your college thesis.
NC: When I got to college, I had to do an undergraduate thesis. I was in linguistics then, so I figured, "OK, I'll write about Hebrew. It's kind of interesting." I started the way I was taught to: You get an informant, and you do field work and take a corpus. So I started working with an informant, and I realized after a couple of weeks, this is totally idiotic. I know the answers to all the questions. And the only thing I don't know is the phonetics, but I don't care about that. So I just dropped the informant and started doing it myself.
My work was more or less influenced by the style of medieval Hebrew and Arabic grammar. It was historical analysis. But you can translate the basic ideas into a kind of a synchronic interpretation, a description of the system as it actually exists, and out of that came the early stages of generative grammar, which nobody looked at.
DS: So your theory of generative grammar in its early stages came out of your study of medieval Hebrew and Arabic?
NC: Yes. When I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, I was actually reading the proofs of my father's doctoral dissertation, which was on David Kimhi's Hebrew grammar, and then I read articles on the history of the language and Semitic philology. When I got to college I started studying Arabic. I wanted to learn Arabic, and I got pretty far.
It's the same basic structure, but Hebrew is based on a root vowel pattern distinction, so there's a root, which is neither a noun nor anything else, and it's not plural or past tense or anything. It's a root, typically a tri-consonant root, with a couple of exceptions, and it fits into any large array of different vowel patterns, which determine what its function is in a sentence. Is it a verb? Is it a noun? If it's a verb, is it third-person plural, does it agree with some other nouns? The whole language builds up from that. And that's how I treated it in my early work, which is kind of the way it was done in traditional grammar. Now people do it differently, rightly or wrongly.
Of course the modern Hebrew language is quite different. I have trouble reading modern Hebrew. In the 1950s I could read anything. I don't know how much experience you've had with contemporary Hebrew. It's quite difficult.
DS: When you were refused entry to the West Bank recently by the Israeli Interior Ministry, did you talk Hebrew to the people who sent you back to Jordan?
NC: I could've, but I didn't. I've done it before, at security. Back in the 1980s I attended a conference in Jerusalem, and on the way out of the country you have to go through security. There were two of us, and the other guy was a friend who I don't think is Jewish, and they opened everything in his suitcase, took out his dirty socks. There were things in my suitcase I didn't want them to see. It was during the First Intifada and I had managed to break curfew a couple of times and get into places under curfew until we were picked up by soldiers. I had found a container for a grenade that had stamped on it the name of some place in Pennsylvania, and I wanted to bring that home.
I also had a lot of illegal pamphlets. Israeli security could never find out how they were circulating these pamphlets. In fact it was young kids jumping over rooftops. So I had a collection of these pamphlets that I wanted to bring home, and I was hoping I wouldn't get inspected. When I got to the inspection, the woman security officer took my passport, and said, "Oh, you have a weird name." I said, "Yeah." She said, "Do you speak Hebrew?" So I said, "Yeah." Then we went on to have a discussion in Hebrew. "Did you visit your relatives, did you have a good time." And she never bothered to look in my suitcase.
DS: Were there any gentiles in your parents' world?
NC: Practically not. In fact there weren't even Yiddish-speaking Jews. They lived in if not a physical ghetto then in a cultural ghetto. Their friends were all people deeply involved in the revival of the Hebrew language and cultural Zionism. I happened to have some non-Jewish friends, but that's just from school.
DS: Describe Mikveh Israel, the synagogue that you grew up in and where your father first taught.
NC: Well, Mikveh Israel was actually Sephardic, so I grew up in the Sephardic tradition. It was kind of the elite synagogue in Philadelphia, like the Portuguese synagogue in New York. It was Sephardic because the original settlers were Sephardic Jews from Holland. So we had a Dutch, actually originally Portuguese, rabbi, and the hazan was from Morocco. We learned all the Sephardic rituals, and pronunciation and everything, even though everyone in the community was from eastern Europe. It was kind of the Jewish elite, but it was also the center of a Hebrew renaissance-oriented small society. The people were either teachers, rabbis, there were businessmen and others, but they all shared a passionate interest in Hebrew cultural revival. My father was the head of the school. My mother was running the Hadassah meetings.
DS: Did your mother also come from a religious family?
NC: She came to America with her family when she was 1 year old. They were so religious that she told me that when she was a teenager, talking with her girlfriends on the street, if she saw her father coming toward them, she would get them to cross the street so that she didn't have to suffer the embarrassment of having her father walk past her and not acknowledge her because she was a girl. It was a very Orthodox family. Of course, they grew up here, and the kids lost it quickly. My father came here in 1917. He and my mother shared many interests and experiences in common.
They were so dedicated. I remember friends of my father and mother, a couple of women, who when they called a department store downtown, they would insist on talking Hebrew, in the hopes of convincing them to hire a Hebrew-language operator. I mean they all spoke English. It was real dedication. It had to be. How do you revive a dead language?
DS: Was that what motivated you to live in Israel?
NC: My wife and I were there in '53. We lived in a kibbutz for a while and planned to stay, actually. I came back and had to finish my Ph.D. We thought we'd go back.
DS: Was it the idea of the kibbutz, or was it the fact of speaking Hebrew, or what was it?
NC: It was political. I was interested in Hebrew, but that wasn't the driving force. I liked the kibbutz life and the kibbutz ideals. It has pretty much disappeared now, I should say. But that time was incredible in spirit. For one thing it was a poor country. The kibbutz I went to, and I picked it for this reason, was actually originally Buberite. It came from German refugees in the 1930s and had a kind of Buberite style. It was the center for Arab outreach activities in Mapam. There was plenty of racism, I should say. I lived with it. But mostly against Mizrahim.
Q:When you think of the motivations of people like your parents or the people who founded those Mapam kibbutzim, you don't think of those motivations as being inherently linked to some desire to oppress others?
NC: By then I was old enough to separate from my parents. I'd been on my own intellectually since I was a teenager. I gravitated toward Zionist groups that were not in their milieu, like Hashomer Ha'tzair.
DS: My father grew up in Hashomer.
NC: I could never join Hashomer because in those days they were split between Stalinist and Trotskyite, and I was anti-Leninist. But I was in the neighborhood. It was a Hashomer kibbutz that we went to, Kibbutz Hazore'a. It's changed a lot. We would never have lasted. It was sort of a mixed story. They were binationalists. So up until 1948 they were anti-state. There were those who gravitated toward or who were involved in efforts of Arab-Jewish working-class cooperation and who were for socialist binationalist Palestine. Those ideas sound exotic today, but they didn't at the time. It's because the world has changed.
But there was an element of oppression I couldn't get around. If you know the history, you know that most idealistic anti-nationalist settlers insisted on a closed Hebrew society, you can't hire outside labor, that sort of thing. You could see the motivation. They didn't want to become what the first settlers were: landowners who had cheap Arab labor. They wanted to work the land. Nevertheless, there's an exclusionary character to it. Which then led into the policy of the state and became quite ugly later. So it was kind of an internal conflict that was never resolved.
DS: You believe that the job of the intellectual is to dissent, to speak truth to power, and to wrestle with power. But there is a troubling way in which your single-minded emphasis on opposing power can lead to your having some very strange bedfellows. It's still startling to me to see you at a Hezbollah rally in Lebanon. Hezbollah is not an outfit dedicated to the secular model of human freedom that you support. What were you doing there?
NC: Notice that you don't know what I did in Lebanon. You know what the propaganda system said I did.
DS: That's why I was asking. Why were you there?
NC: I was invited to Lebanon by the secular left. Those were my associations and my meetings. This last trip but also my previous trip, I spent much more time with [Druze leader] Walid Jumblatt then with --
DS: He's a great talker.
NC: You've met him?
NC: Within the Lebanese spectrum he's maybe the most open. But the only thing that gets mentioned is that I was involved with Hezbollah. Either you don't go to southern Lebanon at all, or you go in connection with Hezbollah, because they run it. Furthermore, Hezbollah is regarded, even by people like Jumblatt, as a national liberation movement. The last trip I had -- happened to be -- I gave a talk on May 25 at the UNESCO building, a talk run by the secular left. May 25 is a national holiday. It's liberation day. That's the day when Israel is thrust out of Lebanon by Hezbollah.
Remember that Hezbollah happens to be the majority party.
DS: Hezbollah is not the majority party in Lebanon.
NC: It's part of a coalition. They won the last election with 53 percent of the vote. Because of the method of distributing seats, they don't get the majority of parliament. So we're talking about basically a majority coalition, which runs the south almost entirely. You can like it or not like it.
I had been there before the war in 2006. It was a period of a lot of excitement. I met a lot of people, visited the southern Lebanon cultural centers. I wanted to see what had happened since. You want to go back, so you go under the guidance of Hezbollah. There's no other way to visit.
DS: Hezbollah is a highly militarized organization that runs South Lebanon in a way that is hardly reflective of secular democratic ideals.
NC: It's interesting that secular Lebanese would not take that attitude.
DS: Most of them see Hezbollah as an extension of Iran.
AL No, they don't.
DS: They believe that the Iranians are trying to rip up their state.
NC: Ultra-right-wing Lebanese think that. But the person who organized my trip was Fawwaz Trabulsi, the leading figure in the secular left. And he insisted we go through Hezbollah, and he didn't look at it that way. If you read Rami Khouri, you can't look at it that way. If you get to the ultra-nationalist right, they do look at it that way. But that's not Lebanon.
DS: In your work, there are two separate things that you've written that touch on the political question of anti-Semitism and that I look at together and try to reconcile. The first was the introduction you wrote to a book by Robert Faurisson, who became notorious for writing two letters to Le Monde denying that the gas chambers existed and claiming that the suggestion that they did exist was part of a Jewish plot or hoax.
NC: No, I didn't, actually that's more propaganda. That's more propaganda. Are you asking why I would support Faurisson's right of freedom of speech?
DS: Freedom of speech is one thing. Denial --
NC: Freedom of speech is the whole issue for me. I happen to be an anti-Stalinist and an anti-Nazi, so I don't think that the state should be granted the right to determine historical truth and to punish people who deviate from it. That is the one and only issue. The so-called introduction was a statement I was asked to write. It's called "Some elementary remarks on freedom of expression." That's what it's about: Freedom of expression.
NC: You were simply concerned about the attempt of the French state to censor Faurisson, and you didn't care what he wrote?
NC: It's more than censoring. It's determining historical truth. The issue at that time, if you actually read the title of his memoir, it said, "Memoir in defense against those who accuse me of falsification of history."
DS: Alan Dershowitz's critique of your engagement with Faurisson centered around your use of the word "findings," which he said implied that you believed that Faurisson's claims had some historical grounding.
NC: But that is just childish! I can talk about Stalin and say he presented his findings -- or the Ku Klux Klan. I can say that John Birch Society presented their findings and they were all worthless. That means nothing. This is a desperate effort by extremist ultra-nationalists to undermine any critical analysis. "Findings" is a perfectly neutral word.
Furthermore it wasn't my word. It was a word that was in a petition, of which I was one of 500 signers. I mean Iranian radical clerics probably go after petitions that I signed, too. The word "findings" is absolutely neutral. I can use it about the stuff that Alan Dershowitz writes. As for the effort to try to turn a defense of freedom of speech into support for the idea that the gas chambers didn't exist, this is really desperation.
DS: The second thing I wanted to talk about was your critique on Znet of the Walt and Mearsheimer article published in The London Review of Books. I was grateful when I read your critique, because the thing that puzzled me the most about their paper was how such an unsophisticated understanding of American power could gain any traction among intellectuals. American imperial policy in the Middle East is shaped by the whims of a small coterie of Jews? Where does this stuff come from?
NC: It's very simple. Did you ever study international relations?
DS: To my misfortune.
NC: Walt and Mearsheimer are realists -- what are called realists. Realists have a doctrine that says that states are the actors in international affairs and follow something called the "national interest," which is some abstract ideal which is independent of the interests of the corporate sector. What they see from that point of view is that the United States is supposed to be pursuing its national interest, and they know what the national interest is. The fact that Intel and Lockheed Martin and Goldman Sachs don't agree with them is irrelevant.
From their point of view, then, somehow the United States is not pursuing what they see as its national interest in the Middle East. So there must be some extraneous factor that's driving it away from its path of innocence and perfection.
DS: You have that very interesting remark at the end of your response, where you describe the motivation behind their assertions as stemming from the desire to salvage the Wilsonian idea of American innocence.
NC: They're not trying consciously. American innocence is built into international relations theory. That's what American exceptionalism means. If you read the founders of the theory, like Hans Morgenthau, it's very straightforward. Hans Morgenthau was a smart guy, a very decent guy, incidentally. He has a book called The Purpose of America. He said the historical record doesn't conform with the purpose of America, but that doesn't mean we don't have the purpose. In fact he says, this is like atheists criticizing religion because people do bad things. The truths are still there, even if the record conflicts with them. That is the foundation of realist international relations theory.
DS: Another comment that you had about Walt and Mearsheimer's argument was: Well, who says this hasn't worked?
NC: It worked great. I think the same criticism holds of other critiques of American policy. Take, say, the blowback theories. I like Chalmers Johnson, he's a very good guy, but he argues that the U.S. policy of installing the shah didn't work, because look at the blowback. Didn't work? It worked perfectly for 25 years! That's a long time in international affairs. Nobody plans for 50 years from now.
DS: You understand the State of Israel as having some independent existence, coming from Jewish culture and history, aside from simply being an American imperial vessel.
NC: It didn't become an American imperial vessel, if that's the right term, until after '67. That was a choice. It's often misunderstood, but in 1971, Israel had a very important decision to make. Sadat had offered a full peace treaty. In return they were supposed to withdraw from the Sinai. There were other conditions, but they didn't matter. And they talked about it, and they decided not to accept it, because they preferred expansion into the Sinai. If they had settled with Egypt in '71, there'd be no security problem. Egypt was the only major Arab force. And at that point, once you decide to sacrifice security for expansion, you need a superpower patron. That's where the dependence on U.S. power comes.
At the time I was writing that I thought that people who call themselves supporters of Israel are actually supporters of its moral degeneration and ultimate destruction. And I think that was correct, unfortunately.
DS: It is possible for you to imagine a State of Israel that didn't act as an extension of American power. But is it too late?
NC: No. I don't think so. It gets harder as time goes on. As they get more -- as the occupation role becomes more powerful, that influences the national culture. It gets harder to disentangle from that. They have to face the fact -- they don't like to -- but they have to face the fact that they're becoming an international pariah. Not because of anti-Semitism, but because they're the only state that is occupying another country in violation -- gross violation -- of international law and U.N. Security Council orders.
DS: I'm no supporter of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land or of state-sanctioned murder. But I always find something funny when people criticize Israelis for their very real abuses at checkpoints, and then you pick up the paper and you read that 40 people were wrongly killed by U.S. soldiers at checkpoints in Afghanistan and no one was punished. We blow up wedding parties with missiles fired from drones over Pakistan and sometimes we pay money to the grieving families, but no American is ever held responsible. I've come to the idea that part of the outrage about Israeli abuses has an underlying unconscious purpose of obscuring even grosser abuses that America commits directly, as a matter of state policy.
NC: That they're killing Afghans is the least of it. How about invading Iraq and destroying it? Killing hundreds of thousands of people, driving millions into exile. Part of American national culture is that we don't look at ourselves. In fact if you look at what I write about Israel, it's overwhelmingly about the United States. It's about U.S. support for the Israelis, not what Israel does. What Israel does is not nice, but no state is nice.
But it's quite different for us. We don't support killings in the eastern Congo. Or Chinese repression of dissidents. But we're completely responsible for what Israel does. Israel isn't entirely an American satellite, but pretty close to it. They couldn't do what they're doing if it weren't for the decisive support of the United States.
DS: When you speak about Israeli crimes, do you feel that you have a special responsibility to speak out as someone who comes from a specific Jewish tradition, or do you simply speak as an American?
NC: There are many factors, as always. A sufficient factor is that the United States is responsible. But of course there's a lot more. Background. Childhood. Emotional connections. Friends. All sorts of things. But they're kind of irrelevant to the fundamental issue, those personal things. The fundamental issue is quite simple: Every U.S. taxpayer is responsible for Israeli crimes. They can't carry them out without the decisive military, economic, ideological, and diplomatic support of the United States.
The United States destroyed Iraq. Of course that should be harshly condemned. In fact I do it much more than I talk about Israel. In the case of the Vietnam war, we basically destroyed three countries. They'll never recover. Same with Nicaragua. Same with Cuba. Go on and on. Same with Chile. That's what we ought to be concentrating on. Israel happens to be a subcase of a larger problem. And yes, for me personally, it's additional things.
DS: Those additional things -- namely, your parents, your childhood memories, your sense of emotional connection --
NC: It's all there. You can't get out of your skin. But when we get down to the moral issue, it's independent of one's personal background.