Chomsky interview - God is an imbecile - Jewish Life, November 12, 2010
Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Samuels
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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