Q: Does Chomsky feel Jewish responsibility for Israel’s crimes?

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Here is a great interview of the great Chomsky by David Samuels at Tablet, thoroughly exploring the roots of Chomsky’s ethnic/religious identification, which I think is largely unconscious for him. Samuels is uniquely positioned to do this, he comes out of an institutional-religious background; and so does Chomsky. I excerpt some of the religious-roots exchange below.

I am going to leave out the Walt and Mearsheimer question, you can find it at the link. It angries up my blood (as Satchel Paige said of fried food); in essence you have two ethnocentric Jews saying that Jews lack agency in American government, and had nothing to do with the decision to destroy Iraq, no that was Lockheed Martin and Intel and Goldman, Sachs, see, that’s how power works. As readers here know, I ascribe a huge part of the blame to neoconservative Jewish thinkers; and the neoconservatism is all over the liberal Jewish community because of Israel; and we can’t begin to undo the damage till we look at the role of Zionism in Jewish life.

To his credit, Samuels understands the issue of Jewish responsibility when it comes to Israel; and I am going to first quote his last questions, well-feathered arrows that expose Chomsky’s lack of reflective capacity here. Samuels:

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?

I love Chomsky; he is Mount Rainier. But notice how Chomsky doesn’t really address the question. It doesn’t seem like he even can. Wow. And then Samuels persists and still Chomsky doesn’t touch it:

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.

[Samuels again] 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.

So Chomsky distinguishes between his “personal background,” which he admits is part of his gestalt, and the real moral factors in human history, i.e., the United States. Are Jews the bad guy of the occupation? Samuels has asked. No, the United States is, is the answer. I believe that Roger Cohen and Tom Friedman have done better here just by saying, Israel’s conduct makes me ashamed as a Jew. Chomsky seems unable to ascribe power to Jews as Jews, or even really to talk about such attachment. And in that “personal” dismissal, every “personal” element of Jewish energy on behalf of Zionism goes out the window, from Eddie Jacobson getting into his friend Truman’s office to lobby him, Chuck Schumer screaming that the People of Israel live, Weizmann pressing Balfour after giving the English the invention of acetone to fight World War I, Louis Brandeis converting to Zionism before he got on the Supreme Court, Herzl going to the Ottoman court and dangling debt relief and PR work on your Armenia problem in the European press in exchange for Palestine. None of it matters. It’s Lockheed Martin. 

Now here’s the wonderful Jewish stuff (and thanks to commenter Jim Holstun for correcting me, below)

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….

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….

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..



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