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 what was, even then, a flourishing Jewish society. And they condemned the acts of evil kings, which Israel was plagued with for so long before and after King David. 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 real religious faith.
At the age of ten I came to the conclusion that the Hebrew 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: strict Judaism 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 propaganda. That’s utter 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.”
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 what Israel does. Their policies… 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.
From Noam Chomsky, in a recent interview on ZNet.