Master mind

By Shira Hadad


Cheshvan 9, 5766

BOSTON - Three weeks ago, Prof. Noam Chomsky was voted the most important public intellectual in the world today. About 20,000 people took part in the poll, which was conducted jointly by a British monthly called Prospect and the Washington-based Foreign Policy. The 77-year-old linguist received 4,827 votes, nearly twice as many as the runner-up, the Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco (2,464). (For the full list, see Given Chomsky's criticism of intellectuals, it is not clear whether the outcome of the vote is a compliment to him, or an insult.

"It's not the first time this happened," says Chomsky. "But you have to really ask questions in depth to know what they mean. So back in the early `70s, there was some kind of poll ... among American intellectuals, about who was the most influential American intellectual, just in politics, and I think that I appeared first or close to the top in that. But there was another poll where they asked further questions which made sense. They said, `Who would you pay attention to?' Or something like that - I was way down at the bottom."

Who would you say is the most important living intellectual?

"That's really hard to say. The people I find impressive are mostly not intellectuals. For example, Father Javier Giraldo, the Jesuit priest who runs the [Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace] in Colombia, which is the major human rights center there. Colombia has by far the worst human rights record in the hemisphere and of course is the leading recipient of U.S. military aid. Those two things correlate very closely. You know, especially the military and the paramilitaries have been carrying out hideous massacres and so on. Father Giraldo is exposed to a lot of them and has in some cases forced people to accept international investigation. And he provides protection to people, he's in great danger. He's under constant death threats ...

"Last time [I saw him], he brought to see me a leader of a town, San Jose, that had a strong peace community, that was the first of the peace communities that declared themselves zones of peace. They don't want to be bothered by the military ... He brought the leader of the group to see me in Bogota, which was dangerous; the town was at that time under military siege and had been for several months. [The leader] was describing to me how they were starving, children were starving; every once in a while the military or paramilitary would come into town and just shoot people just to show them they were still there. And he was pleading for help, he said do something about it, help us. Anyway, just a few months ago, the military went in and he was murdered, along with several others. But Father Giraldo is still there. He's not the only one. But there are people like that all over the world."

In contrast to the high regard in which Chomsky holds Father Giraldo and activists like him, he has a very negative opinion of his colleagues in Western universities, especially American ones. He has branded Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the prestigious institution in which he teaches, a "hothouse for weapons development," because of the high level of government support for the university.

"They have that paranoid image of me being the most influential person," he says with no little satisfaction, "but they hated me. I mean, if you want to know what American intellectuals, especially liberal intellectuals, think - take a look at the house journal of liberal American intellectuals, Cambridge intellectuals; it's called the American Prospect, and it's for people around here. It's really left-liberal. Now they had a very comical front cover ... [earlier] this year, depicting the embattled American liberals, and there are two snarling figures right at their throats. One is Dick Cheney. The other is me. They're caught between these two immense forces."

Still, who are the intellectuals that impress you?

"I was in Turkey a couple of times. The intellectuals there are rather different than in the West. It's the only country I know of where intellectuals - writers and artists and journalists and some others - are constantly protesting the harsh, draconian laws against the Kurds, which is rare enough. But they're not just protesting, they're constantly doing something about it. They're exposing themselves to severe danger ... They're constantly doing things like that. They've been to jail; being in a Turkish jail is not much fun. These are extremely rare activities for intellectuals. But [there it] is rather mainstream."

Academics are well represented - almost always in a negative light - in Chomsky's political critiques. He describes them as lofty people who impose their ideas on others, in the service of the powers-that-be. In his opinion, they should tell the truth. Indeed, Chomsky - who has his own Web site ( - often talks about false prophets and about the steep price paid by true prophets.

"Everyone in Israel has read the Old Testament," he explains. "There were people there who we would call intellectuals, and they're called nevi'im, which is a more obscure Hebrew word than people understand. It's translated as prophet, but connected to prophecy. They worked as intellectuals. They were giving geopolitical analyses, [offering a] critique of power, warning of the madness of the kings. They were calling for help for widows and orphans, decent pay. Dissident intellectuals, we'd call them. How were they treated? Were they treated nicely? They were imprisoned, and driven into the desert. There were intellectuals who were treated very well. Centuries later, they were called false nevi'im."

Fans and detractors

By now, Noam Chomsky should be used to the unusual status he holds in American academia, although the impression one gets is that he has lost none of his passion - or obsessiveness, as his detractors, of whom there are many, would say. The title of most important public intellectual in the world is only the latest in a series of unofficial accolades bestowed on him. Time magazine chose him as "one of the great minds of the [20th] century," and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index declared him to be the most quoted living researcher and the eighth-most cited of all time, following such luminaries as Marx, Shakespeare and Freud.

Bono, from the U2 band, called him "the Elvis of academia," and members of the REM rock group invited him to join them on a tour and deliver a lecture before each show. Chomsky turned down the offer. The message needs to be promulgated, but a cult of personality is not exactly consistent with the professor emeritus, who sits in his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, dressed unostentatiously and speaking in such soft tones that he is almost inaudible.

Avram Noam Chomsky was born in 1928 in Philadelphia to Jewish parents who were engaged in teaching and studying the Hebrew language. His first published article, on the fall of Barcelona, Austria and Czechoslovakia and the rise of fascism, appeared in the school magazine he edited at the age of 10. It was a progressive experimental school, which did not believe in giving grades and encouraged its students to do individual work on subjects that interested them.

Chomsky's political consciousness evolved apace and as a young man he was involved in anarchist movements and in the radical left. In the 1960s he joined actively in the protests against the Vietnam War. His political criticism has traditionally been aimed primarily at the United States and its foreign policy. In his opinion, "the greatest exporter of state terror," as he terms the United States, has carried out and provided patronage and support for appalling war crimes throughout the world - in Korea, Angola, Cuba, East Timor, Guatemala, Nicaragua and elsewhere.

According to Chomsky, an unrestrained lust for power, lying mainly in the economic interests of narrow elites, has driven the United States to play the role of world policeman, based on the use of violent means of coercion - economic and military alike. The declared goals of this foreign policy - such as "defending democracy," "concern for world peace" and, more recently, a "war against terrorism" - are savaged by Chomsky as ridiculous, even ironical. In his view, terror is above all the weapon of the strong, but when wielded by them it is called by other names, more palatable to the ear.

All such crimes, he explains, can be perpetrated almost without opposition, thanks to a well-oiled system that ensures that the public receives almost no information about the truly important issues. The tiny fraction of facts that does reach the public undergoes distortion via filtering by the powers-that-be. Those who are responsible for maintaining the fraud and camouflage are the media and the intellectuals, the greatest collaborators with the powerful and the economic elites.

Chomsky's detractors accuse him of manipulating the facts and of presenting a simplistic description of reality, based on half-truths and purported facts which are groundless. Another widely heard claim is that Chomsky will never admit he has made a mistake. His critics include those who see him as dangerous and inflammatory, while others, adopting a different tactic of disparagement, portray him as a half-baked weirdo, who has lost touch with reality.

A short book entitled "9-11" (Seven Stories Press, 2001), consisting of a series of interviews that Chomsky gave in the first month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In the book he likens the attacks of September 11, 2001 to the U.S. bombing of a chemical plant in Sudan in 1998, at the order of President Bill Clinton, who claimed it manufactured chemical weapons. One guard was killed in the attack on the site, which turned out to be the main source of medicine in Sudan, but indirectly, Chomsky maintained, tens of thousands of Sudanese died because they could not get the medicine they needed. He outraged even his supporters when he asserted that morally, the bombing of the plant was worse than Bin Laden's terrorist attack.

Israeli connection

One of the most common descriptions of Chomsky is that he is "anti-Israeli" and "anti-Semitic." The origins of that image lie mainly in a public storm that raged in the late 1970s, when Chomsky defended the right to freedom of expression of a French professor of literature, Robert Faurisson, who claimed that there had been no gas chambers at Auschwitz and was sentenced to a fine and prison. Chomsky signed a petition calling for Faurisson to be allowed to exercise his right to freedom of expression and also wrote an article on the subject, which Faurisson afterward (without Chomsky's permission) used as the introduction to a book he wrote in an effort to clear his name.

Chomsky, who came under withering attack for his part in the episode, did not apologize, but insisted that in his opinion, it is not the place of the state to determine historical truths or to punish those who disagree with them. Asked in the 1992 film "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media" whether he himself denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz, Chomsky replied: "Of course not, but I'm saying that if you believe in freedom of speech, then you believe in freedom of speech for views you don't like. I mean Goebbels was in favor of freedom of speech for views he liked, right, so was Stalin."

Chomsky's biography actually shows a close connection with Israel. At the age of 16, when he began his university studies, he was a member of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth movement. At a certain stage, he even dreamed of abandoning his studies, which had disappointed him, and settling in Palestine, to realize the dream of a binational socialist state. Nowadays, he says, that type of Zionism is described as anti-Zionist, but it used to be mainstream.

He came to Israel in 1953 with his wife and went to Kibbutz Hazorea, but left after a month. In a conversation with him, Chomsky turns out to harbor no hatred for Israel in his heart and certainly not to be anti-Semitic. Indeed, he has a warm spot, suffused with regret and criticism, for opportunities for a better future that Israel consistently missed.

Did you believe that the disengagement (from Gaza) would happen?

"Sure. Any rational hawk in Israel knew that it was totally insane for Israel to leave 8,000 settlers in the middle of over a million Palestinians ... What's the point of that? So if you're a rational hawk, after having turned the Gaza Strip into a complete disaster area, the best thing to do is to leave it, let the people rot, and lock them up in what I think B'Tselem or someone called the world's largest prison, and take over the West Bank."

So you don't believe that the process will happen in the West Bank?

"It's happening."

No, I mean the disengagement.

"It's happening. What is called `the disengagement plan' was an expansion plan. And it was not hidden. An expansion plan. It was perfectly overt. I can't say it was deluding anyone. And I think the day that [Ariel] Sharon announced the plan to leave Gaza, I think it was that very same day that [Benjamin] Netanyahu announced the number of tens of millions of dollars that they were spending in the West Bank. And a couple of days later, Sharon met with [Shaul] Mofaz to discuss plans for further expansion. He announced new developments in this E-1 area, they extended the settlement, the separation wall, which was of course intended to be some kind of border. The building has continued, the road system is expanding, in fact by now it's public, they don't even conceal it anymore, to make an entire separation of the populations, with a Jewish road system of nice highways and a Palestinian road system.

"I don't have much time to spend in the West Bank, but if you have, you know what it's like. You take the road from Ramallah to Bethlehem, and you're lucky if you make it alive. And so there'll be little Palestinian roads, and maybe some dirt roads and, you know, all the highways that bring all the Jewish parts together, and we know what the plan is. It's an old one and it's now being formalized. The separation wall is probably a pretty good picture of what they intend to do. It's going well to the east of Ma'aleh Adumim, meaning almost to Jericho, which splits the West Bank in half. Now the salient that includes Ariel and others is another virtual separation. It's not quite as bad as some of the earlier plans, but it essentially leaves the West Bank and the Palestinians in three virtually separated cantons."

`Peace by force'

Asked if he thinks there will be a wider-scale disengagement in the future, Chomsky answers: "Some of the isolated outposts, which again any rational hawk wants to get rid of - they'll be eliminated, probably; it doesn't make any sense to keep them. But the parts of the West Bank, the important parts which Israel wants, it's incorporating, just as it has already. And the Palestinians in the so-called seam, they don't have a future. Is anybody going to live in Qalqilyah in 20 years, or in the other villages that are being cut in half right near Jerusalem? They'll either rot or they'll leave. And whatever Palestinians remain will be scattered in the unviable cantons. The plan is perfectly overt, there's nothing secretive about it, and it's expanded along with the leaving of Gaza, which was totally pointless."

So that has nothing to do with peace?

"Oh yeah, it has something to do with peace, the position of peace by force. I mean, there are all kinds of peaces now; it's such a wonderful thing. I mean, Russia was maintaining peace in Eastern Europe after World War II. It should be applauded. It was quite a peaceful time - on occasion there was an outbreak [of unrest], but mostly it was peaceful. Other countries were run by their security forces and their own governments. You know, there were Russian troops in the background, but it was very peaceful. Actually occupied Europe under the Germans would have been peaceful if it weren't for the fact that Germany was at war. Countries were again run by collaborators, by the Germans, by the security forces, and so on. In fact the United States is having a lot more trouble in Iraq than Germany ever had in occupied Europe, or than Russia had in Eastern Europe, which is kind of remarkable. But usually peace isn't forced by violence. Peace is nice, but it's not the highest way. And yes, that's the kind of peace that Israel wants. Again, it's not a secret."

What do you think of the public in Israel?

"It's split. As far as I can see, it's very split. I think a majority would accept peacefully the international consensus - some settlement exit, or like the Geneva Accords, or like Taba. The polls seem to indicate that this would probably get a fair majority, 70 percent. Let's [compare] this to the American public. The American public we know very well, except they don't print it here. The press refuses to publish public opinion studies that give you the wrong answers. It's systematic.

"On Israel you'd be amazed what the results are. And these are by the best polling institutions in the world. About two-thirds of the [American] public is in favor of the Saudi plan - that's full normalization with full withdrawal. That's beyond Taba. About the same majority thinks the United States ought to cut off funding entirely to either Israel or the Palestinians, [if they are] not negotiating in good faith for a settlement. What that would mean in practice is cutting off funding to Israel. When people were asked, suppose both sides were negotiating in good faith, the same majority said the United States should equalize funding to Israel and the Palestinians. I mean this is so remote from policy that they can't even dream about it, so of course there's not a single newspaper in the world or the country that will publish it ..."