Q&A: Noam Chomsky
The world’s most important leftist intellectual talks about his Zionist childhood and his time with Hezbollah
It seems safe to say that no living intellectual has enraged more people with more predictable regularity than Noam Chomsky. A biting and voluble critic of American power, Chomsky has been denounced as a traitor, a well-poisoner, the author of over 200 largely unreadable books, a pompous would-be prophet drunk on his own claims to moral authority, and a naïve apologist for Hezbollah and the Khmer Rouge. His political writings, speeches, and interviews over the past five decades have made him a hero of the global left and the world’s most quoted living thinker.
Sitting in his office at the Department of Philosophy and Linguistics at MIT, Chomsky appears as an avuncular, white-haired presence in baggy blue jeans and a navy crewneck sweater who visibly struggles to retain physical and emotional details against the force of a powerful structuralist imagination. He is a lively conversational presence who enjoys intellectual thrust and parry, and who moves quickly to the attack when challenged. When the tone changes, or a new idea catches his fancy, he steps back and quickly resets. He is less interested in people than he is in ideas, and he is more interested in general rules than in the highly textured specifics that might interest a cell biologist or an historian.
There is a noticeable gap between the incredible quickness of Chomsky’s mind and the unadorned banality of his political rhetoric. While his political tracts decorate the shelves of his outer office, his inner sanctum is lined with flourishing plants and souvenirs from his travels around the world. His bookshelves hold a very Chomskian mix of tattered academic books about linguistics and nicely bound literary volumes about other countries and cultures, displaying a mind that finds equal pleasure in Into Tibet and a Festschrift for Roman Jakobson. Staring out from the wall near the door is a large, saintly looking portrait of Bertrand Russell accompanied by a motto: “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life; the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” On his desk is a framed photograph of a memorial stone for his wife, the linguist Carol Schatz, who died in December 2008 of cancer.
Chomsky’s political writing can seem like a deliberate casting-off of the habits of mind that made him perhaps the last great thinker of the Enlightenment, so that he could take his place on the intellectual cafeteria line, serving up politically useful slop. The sheer volume of his output, which can seem equally thrilling and nauseating even to people who write for a living, seems at times like a loopy attempted proof for the linguist’s terse and methodical academic work of the 1950s and 1960s, which posited the existence of a fixed set of inborn rules that allow humans to form sentences.
Yet there is also something awe-inspiring about the consistency and breadth of Chomsky’s political writing over the decades that defies even the most dogged attempts to label him a hack. The theory of generative grammar that Chomsky laid out in a series of papers that began with his master’s thesis at the University of Pennsylvania and culminated in his landmark 1957 paper “Syntactic Structures” has to be regarded as one of the most powerful and influential ideas of the 20th century, reshaping crucial debates in the fields of linguistics, behavioral psychology, and cognitive science. It is hard to identify another thinker who has combined Chomsky’s breadth of interest with the depth and productivity of his best ideas, aside from Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein.
I talked with Chomsky about his upbringing in a Jewish home in Philadelphia by Cultural Zionist parents who devoted their lives to the revival of Hebrew language and culture, and about some of the strange bedfellows that he has acquired in five decades of impassioned crusading. I left his office with a sense of a specifically Jewish Chomsky that in three decades of engagement with his political writing, his academic work, and a few dozen of his radio appearances had never really struck me before, and now seems obvious and unavoidable.
You grew up in a home that was heavily influenced by Ahad Ha’am, the father of cultural Zionism.
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.
Did you read Nivi’im, the prophets, with your father in Hebrew?
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.
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?
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.
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.
At the age of 10 I came to the conclusion that the God I learned about in school didn’t exist.
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.
And what did your father say?
I was just thinking about that. He just quoted the line to me and then explained, “He thinks he is eating.”
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?
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.
You returned to Hebrew for your college thesis.
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.
So your theory of generative grammar in its early stages came out of your study of medieval Hebrew and Arabic?
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.
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?
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.
Were there any gentiles in your parents’ world?
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.
Describe Mikveh Israel, the synagogue that you grew up in and where your father first taught.
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.
Did your mother also come from a religious family?
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?
Was that what motivated you to live in Israel?
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.
Was it the idea of the kibbutz, or was it the fact of speaking Hebrew, or what was it?
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.
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?
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.
My father grew up in Hashomer.
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.