Exile and the Prophetic: Chomsky’s absent ‘Jewish’

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

If you thought my idea about Noam Chomsky’s possible Skype appearance form Gaza in the Presidential debate was too far out, let me trot out a more likely possibility: former President Jimmy Carter. While Chomsky was in Gaza during the debate, Carter was in Jerusalem. Picture Carter debating, Jerusalem as his scenic backdrop. That and his ideas would have enlivened the debate.

Surprise, surprise, a former President would have sounded a bit like an anarchist radical, though Carter’s down home Southern accent would have made similar ideas more acceptable to the American public. The New York Times reports Carter as “grieved, disgusted and angry” at the declining hopes for a two-state solution. Carter made the obvious but politically unacceptable comment: “It looks to me like a decision has been made to go to the one-state solution but to conceal it from the world.”

As one of the few Presidents who accurately claim to be a Washington outsider, Carter rarely pulls punches. Having met and sat with him and his wife for meals several times, I can vouch that Carter is the real thing. Like George McGovern, Carter is a thoroughly decent man. Yes, Carter, like McGovern – like Chomsky – is an American exceptionalist. Nonetheless, like McGovern, Carter combines a great intelligence and a simplicity that is beguiling.

Carter’s simplicity about Israel? “I’ve known every prime minister since Golda Meir,” Carter remarked. “All the previous prime ministers have been so courageous in their own way. In the past all committed to the two states.” Thus, Carter’s public sense is that Netanyahu is different than the previous prime ministers.

Does Carter actually believe his own words? In 1988, as the first Palestinian uprising was in full flush, I chatted with Carter about Menachem Begin over lunch. Carter’s private take was that Begin was more or less a snake in the grass. With regard to Palestinians, Begin never intended to carry out anything he promised. Carter was bitter about this. Carter spoke about Begin as if he had personally betrayed him.

Whether true or feigned, just when you think McGovern and Carter are going to cross over into Chomsky territory, they stop short. Their appeal is to an American destiny, colored by a profound innocence about American history and its projection of power. It isn’t that they don’t know anything about that side of American history or haven’t experienced aspects of it themselves.

McGovern and Carter succeeded in and were blindsided by the American political system. Both were lauded. Both were disgraced. As well, both survived, with their innocence intact. Or was the innocence they espoused after their fall, a put-on, both realizing that the only way to communicate to the American public is to presume American exceptionalism?

What is the fundamental difference between McGovern and Carter on the one hand and Chomsky on the other? McGovern and Carter are politicians, Chomsky an intellectual. True enough. Now factor in Chomsky’s Jewishness.

Over the last few days I have been thinking about Noam Chomsky as a Jewish prophetic presence. Did I leave out Chomsky’s upbringing when I wrote that he can’t be understood outside of his Jewishness?

As representative of the Jewish prophetic, it is important to understand the Jewish culture Chomsky was raised within. The Jewish culture, Chomsky was grew up in was specific to its time and place. Nonetheless, Chomsky speaks to us today. The specific and broader range of Chomsky’s voice raises the question of what shape and texture the Jewish prophetic will emerge from today.

Just to set the background, let’s begin by looking at Chomsky’s father, Dr. William “Zev” Chomsky (1896–1977). Doing so helps us imagine the Jewish atmosphere Chomsky was raised in. Chomsky’s father was born in Ukraine, then a part of the Russian Empire. Like many Jews, he fled to the United States to avoid military conscription. After working in sweatshops in Baltimore, Chomsky’s father taught at the city’s Hebrew elementary schools.

When Dr. Chomsky moved to Philadelphia, he – with his wife – taught at the Mikveh Israel religious school, eventually becoming the school’s principal. In 1924, he was appointed to the faculty at the country’s oldest teacher training institution, Gratz College. In 1955, he also began teaching courses at Dropsie College (originally known as the Dropsie College of Hebrew and Cognate Learning). Complimenting his teaching, Dr. Chomsky was involved in researching Medieval Hebrew. Over the years, he authored a series of books on the Hebrew language: How to Teach Hebrew in the Elementary Grades (1946), Hebrew, the Story of a Living Language (1947), Hebrew, the Eternal Language (1957) and Teaching and Learning (1959), as well as an edited version of David Kimhi’s Hebrew Grammar (1952).

Noam Chomsky’s parents were Roosevelt Democrats. However, Chomsky was exposed to far left politics through members of the family who were socialists involved in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union trade union. He was also influenced by his uncle who owned a newspaper stand in New York City where Chomsky listened in on Jewish leftists debating the issues of the day. During this time, Chomsky frequented left-wing and anarchist bookstores and became a voracious reader of political literature. It is here that he discovered anarchism, which he characterized as a “lucky accident,” though it was more than lucky: anarchism was another part of an involved and engaged immigrant Jewish culture.

Regarding his early involvement in the politics of the Middle East, Chomsky lived on a kibbutz in Israel in 1953. Before and after this experience, he believed in a bi-national state. However, believing that the realities of the situation changed, Chomsky has advocated a two-state solution for decades. He advocated it again during his time in Gaza.

What is Noam Chomsky’s ‘Jewish’? In essence, Chomsky’s ‘Jewish’ is a combination of turn of the twentieth century European Jewish immigrant culture, Jewish learning and Jewish and non-Jewish radical political and philosophical thought. All three have their particular sensibilities. Moreover, each was formed at a particular time in Jewish history.

Chomsky was already personally and intellectually formed before either the Holocaust or Israel became central to Jewish history. Two dates in his biography point to this fact. Chomsky entered college in 1945, the year World War II ended, and decades before Holocaust consciousness came to the fore. He lived in Israel in 1953, during the days when the state’s trajectory was still undecided and more than decade before Israel assumed its centrality in Jewish life. As important, Chomsky’s time in Israel was indented to his involvement in pre-Holocaust radical political thought and pre-Israel socialist anarchistic practice.

Chomsky has rarely, if ever, been involved in discussions of the importance of the Holocaust in Jewish life. In Chomsky’s writing there are few, if any, positive assessments of what a Jewish state might become in Jewish life. Again, Chomsky was formed before either the Holocaust or Israel became dominant in Jewish life. Unlike many in his generation, he never took on the Holocaust or Israel as central matters in Jewish or global history.

Chomsky comes from the Jewish past. His prophetic vocation is enhanced by his stubbornness. In short, Chomsky refuses to “evolve.” He is now criticized by some circles on the Left for this very reason. Nonetheless, Chomsky isn’t going anywhere just to be relevant somewhere.

On boycotts, divestment and sanctions, Chomsky is an agnostic. On the possibility of a one-state solution, Chomsky is a non-believer. Looking for Chomsky to define himself specifically as an anti-Zionist is a losing proposition. I believe Chomsky continues to be a closet, if bi-nationalist, Zionist. If that isn’t out of step with the present climate on the Left, what is?

Chomsky cut his public teeth on the Vietnam War. Looking at his background, this shouldn’t surprise us. The Jewish Left was then much more universal in its approach. Or more accurately, the Jewish Left had a universal approach that carried a disguised Jewish particularity. The only competition for Jewishness that the Jewish Left had then was Orthodox Jewry. Though displayed differently, their ‘Jewish’ devotion was similar in its intensity.

Chomsky ranges widely across the global hotspots of injustice and finds America everywhere. Even in relation to Israel, Chomsky emphasizes America. Broadly speaking, Chomsky sees Israel as an American creation and America’s puppet. Not much happens in Israel that isn’t green-lighted by America’s self-interest.

Chomsky consistently diminishes Israel as a state. Why does he do this? In Chomsky’s world view, Israel has no special place in the world. Nor does Jewish history. Like others, Jews should be for justice but, again, in Chomsky’s view, Jews don’t have any special claims in the justice arena. The idea of the people Israel having a special destiny or forming a specific arena of prophetic thought is foreign to Chomsky.

Though Chomsky has a word to say on almost every issue in the world, on Jewish particularity, his own included, he is caught up short. There are few, if any, words on these issues in his writings. In interviews where he is asked specifically about his Jewishness and how this has affected his thinking, Chomsky becomes uncharacteristically inarticulate.

Chomsky isn’t inarticulate about any issue of significance. Why, then, this difficulty with his consistently unannounced Jewishness?

My conclusion: Chomsky’s Jewishness is revealed by its rhetorical absence. It’s buried so deeply inside of him that he isn’t playing at its absence. Being so buried, Chomsky can’t announce what is obvious.

When even Chomsky becomes inarticulate you know something is afoot.

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This is perceptive about Chomsky’s Zionism I believe Chomsky continues to be a closet, if bi-nationalist, Zionist. but that perception contradicts the later claim that In Chomsky’s world view, Israel has no special place in the world. Nor does Jewish history. Like others, Jews should be for justice but, again,… Read more »

Thanks, Mr. Ellis. You made it clear to see how Chomsky became so interested in linguistics, Hebrew and the revival of Hebrew as a national language in the 20th century.

Ellis seems to see Chomsky as “prophetic” — someone willing to risk it all as an outsider — whereas Carter has “stopped short” of being such an outsider. He characterizes Carter’s positions on Israel as “simplistic,” and yet I can not help but see Ellis’ own views as overly simplistic.… Read more »

The only competition for Jewishness that the Jewish Left had then [the time during the Vietnam War] was Orthodox Jewry. Though displayed differently, their ‘Jewish’ devotion was similar in its intensity. Having lived through that age, this seems to be an overreaching generalization. “The only competition for Jewishness” was between… Read more »

What about say, “entrepreneurial Jewishness.”? Those petit bourgeois Jews that graduated to the bourgeoisie or were already there, owners of capital through go-go real estate development, Wall Street partnerships, chain store retail expansion, media ownership and Hollywood production. There may have been less of these, but they certainly had an… Read more »