Rescuing Memory: the Humanist Interview with Noam Chomsky

Jorge Majfud 
by Tlaxcala, 14 July 2016. JUST BEFORE TWELVE THIRTY on a recent spring afternoon, I found myself on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the building that houses both the linguistics and philosophy departments. A group of Japanese students, full of youthful excitement, were waiting outside Noam Chomsky’s eighth-floor office. They approached the door and read the name card on it. They took pictures—lots of pictures—with happy and surprised expressions, but then quickly turned serious. They paused for a brief moment of silence, which almost felt mystical, and then headed out.
At the age of eighty-seven, the renowned linguist, philosopher, historian, cognitive scientist, and critic Noam Chomsky maintains the same clarity found in any of his books, lectures, or television appearances dating back to the 1970s. While in a face-to-face conversation he might adopt an informal and humorous tone towards relevant topics, he is very much that same serious and detailed thinker we all recognize from the conferences and different interviews—one of those individuals history will remember for centuries.
Years after having met Chomsky at Princeton University and collaborating with him on the Spanish translation of a book (Ilusionistas, 2012), I was now interested in finding out the roots of his social and political thinking during our meeting. I started by remembering the many letters we’d exchanged for the better part of a decade. In one of the letters I had commented about how my son was adjusting to a society that was his but only by birth, noting that he spoke English with a slight Spanish accent. When Chomsky had a chance, he wrote me this:

When I was a boy, we were the only Jewish family in a terribly anti-Semitic neighborhood. Those streets weren’t any fun for us but our parents never found that out. In a way, you avoid telling your parents what happened to you during those days.

I reminded him of this in order to start a dialogue about that world and its universal implications. What follows is a conversation that went beyond what was initially planned.

Jorge Majfud: Before World War II, anti-Semitism and Nazism were much more common in the United States than Americans are willing to accept today. Henry Ford (awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle by the Nazi Government), General Motors, Alcoa, and Texaco are just a few examples of supportive U.S. business interests. And after the war, Jews faced serious and absurd obstacles in migrating as refugees while many Nazis were granted visas (through Mexico) to help develop NASA programs. What memories do you have of those times when you were a Jewish teenager?

Noam Chomsky: When I was growing up in the 1930s and ’40s anti-Semitism was rampant. It wasn’t like Nazi Germany but it was pretty serious—it was part of life. So, for example, when my father was able to buy a secondhand car in the late 1930s, and he took us to the countryside for a weekend, if we looked for a motel to stay in we had to see if it said “restricted” on it. “Restricted” meant no Jews. You didn’t have to say “no blacks,” which was something people took for granted. There was also a national policy, which as a child I didn’t know anything about. In 1924 the first major immigration law was passed. Before that, there was an Oriental Exclusion Act, but other than that, European immigrants like my parents were generally admitted in the early years of the twentieth century. But that ended in 1924 with an immigration law that was largely directed against Jews and Italians.

JM: Was it connected to the Red Scare?

Chomsky: Well, sort of—in the background. It was right after Woodrow Wilson’s first serious post-World War I repression, which deported thousands of people, effectively destroyed unions and independent press, and so on. Right after that, the anti-immigration law was passed that remained in place until the 1960s. And that was the reason why very few people fleeing the rise of fascism in Europe, especially in Germany, could get to the United States. And there were famous incidents like with the MS Saint Louis, which brought a lot of immigrants, mostly Jewish, from Europe. It reached Cuba, with people expecting to be admitted to the United States from there. But the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt wouldn’t allow them in and they had to go back to Europe where many of them died in concentration camps.

JM: There were cases involving different countries as well.

Chomsky: It’s a lesser-known story, but the Japanese government (after the Russian-Nazi pact, which split Poland) did allow Polish Jews to come to Japan, with the expectation that they would then be sent to the United States. But they weren’t accepted, so they stayed in Japan. There’s an interesting book called The Fugu Plan, written by Marvin Tokayer and Mary Swartz, which describes the circumstances when European Jews came to Japan, a semi-feudal society.
After World War II there were many Jews who remained in refugee camps…President Harry F. Truman called for the Harrison Commission to investigate the situation in the camps and it was a pretty gloomy report. There were very few Jews admitted into the United States.

JM: These policies had many other lasting consequences.

Chomsky: Of course. The Zionist movement based in Palestine pretty much took over the camps and instituted the policy that every man and woman between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five should be directed to Palestine—not allowed to go to the West. A 1998 study was done in Hebrew by an Israeli scholar, Yosef Grodzinsky, and the English translation of the title is Good Human Material. That’s what they wanted sent to Palestine for colonization and for the eventual conflict that took place some years later. These policies were somewhat complementary to the U.S. policy of pressuring England to allow Jews to go to Palestine, but not allowing them here. The British politician Ernest Bevin was quite bitter about it, asking, “if you want to save the Jews, why send them to Palestine when you don’t admit them?” I suspect most likely that more Nazis came to America. I was a student at Harvard during the early 1950s. There was practically no Jewish faculty there.

JM: According to some articles, Franklin Roosevelt, when he was a member of the board at Harvard, felt there were too many Jews in the college.

Chomsky: There’s an interesting book about that called The Third Reich and the Ivory Tower, written by Stephen H. Norwood. It has a long discussion about Harvard, and indeed the school’s president, James Conant, did block Jewish faculty. He was the one who prevented European Jews from being admitted to the chemistry department—his field—and also had pretty good relations with the Nazis. When Nazi emissaries came to the United States, they were welcomed at Harvard.

JM: It’s something that was very common at the time, however today nobody seems willing to accept it.

Chomsky: In general, the attitude towards Nazi Germany was not that hostile, especially if you look at the U.S. State Department reports. In 1937 the State Department was describing Adolf Hitler as a “moderate” who was holding off the forces of the right and the left. In the Munich agreement in late 1938, Roosevelt sent his chief adviser Sumner Welles, who came back with a very supportive statement saying that Hitler was someone we could really do business with and so on. George Kennan is another extreme case. He was the American consul in Berlin until the war between Germany and the United States broke out in December 1941. And until then he was writing pretty supportive statements back stressing that we shouldn’t be so hard on the Nazis if they were doing something we didn’t agree with—basically repeating the idea that they were people we could do business with. The British had an even stronger business interest in Nazi Germany. And Benito Mussolini was greatly admired.
On racism of every color

JM: In addition to anti-Semitism and racism toward African Americans, there were other groups that suffered. For example, during the 1930s around half a million Mexican Americans were blamed for the Great Depression and deported in various ways. And most of them were U.S. citizens.

Chomsky: Well, there’s a strong nativist tradition—saying, “we have to protect ourselves”—that comes from the founding of the country. If you read Benjamin Franklin, who was one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment in the United States and the most distinguished representative of the movement here, he actually advised that the newly founded republic should block Germans and Swedes because they were too “swarthy”—dark.

JM: Why is that pattern of fear historically repeated?
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