Q&A: Noam Chomsky
The world’s most important leftist intellectual talks about his Zionist childhood and his time with Hezbollah
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.
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?
Notice that you don’t know what I did in Lebanon. You know what the propaganda system said I did.
That’s why I was asking. Why were you there?
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—
He’s a great talker.
You’ve met him?
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.
Hezbollah is not the majority party in Lebanon.
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.
Hezbollah is a highly militarized organization that runs South Lebanon in a way that is hardly reflective of secular democratic ideals.
It’s interesting that secular Lebanese would not take that attitude.
Most of them see Hezbollah as an extension of Iran.
No, they don’t.
They believe that the Iranians are trying to rip up their state.
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.
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.
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?
Freedom of speech is one thing. Denial—
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.
You were simply concerned about the attempt of the French state to censor Faurisson, and you didn’t care what he wrote?
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.”
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.
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.
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?
It’s very simple. Did you ever study international relations?
To my misfortune.
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.
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.
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.
Another comment that you had about Walt and Mearsheimer’s argument was: Well, who says this hasn’t worked?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Those additional things—namely, your parents, your childhood memories, your sense of emotional connection—
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.