Master Mind

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Shira Hadad

Haaretz, November 10, 2005

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 www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/intellectuals/results.) 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 (www.chomsky.info) – 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 …”

Tune in to the BBC

“For a democratic society,” Chomsky continues, “there can’t be anything more important than knowing what public opinion is. You don’t report it, then everybody thinks, ‘I’m crazy, I’m the only person in the world who thinks this.’ And there’s no possibility to get together and do anything … If you read the Israeli press, they’re very good on Israel, but you’re not going to learn much about the rest of the world. That’s true in most countries. I mean, I travel a lot. If you want to learn anything about the world, you have to tune in to the BBC. I mean, the local newspapers, no matter where they are, are going to be concentrating on what’s happening within reach, and a little foreign news, but not much. And Israel’s the same. There are local problems. And there are some terrific reporters in Israel, I mean, some of the best in the world. Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Lily Galili. I mean there are.”

Asked if he were an Israeli, would he vote in the upcoming elections, Chomsky said he wasn’t sure. “How do you vote for one party? Frankly, I think the party system is going to break up. My guess is there’ll be some kind of a block including Sharon and Peres and others who call themselves moderates – I don’t know what they’ll call themselves … But it’s a little bit like here [in America]. I mean, there’s only one party in the United States. It’s the business party, it has two factions. And the two factions are different: The Bush faction is much more extreme and much more dangerous. I mean, they’re a real danger – to the country and the world. The Democrats are not that different. The same polls that I mentioned … [showed] that in just about every major issue that you could think of, the two parties are far to the right of the general population. And that’s across the board.”

So how did George Bush get elected?

“Because elections are carefully contrived so that they are like selling toothpaste. In fact, they’re run by the same people who sell toothpaste. I mean when you turn on an ad on television, you don’t expect to get any information. You expect deception. That’s the point. Only economists talk about markets. Business can’t tolerate markets. They don’t want markets in which informed consumers make rational choices. What they want is deluded consumers who will make irrational choices. That’s what hundreds of billions of dollars in advertising are spent on. You don’t get any information about the product.

“But what happens when the same industry sells candidates? Exactly the same thing. I mean, about 10 percent of the crop of voters knew what the stand of the candidates was on issues. What they knew is the delusionary imagery that was created. So Bush is created to be an ordinary guy with his sleeves rolled up and you could have a drink with him in a bar. My guess is he’s taught to make those mispronunciations and grammatical errors; I doubt that he talked like that at Yale. He’s probably taught that way so that ‘them liberal intellectuals’ would make fun of him and then they can say, oh yeah, he’s an ordinary guy just like you, going off to his ranch. That makes him about as realistic as the next ad you could see on television for a lifestyle report. [John] Kerry was goose-hunting, riding his motorcycle – anything but talking about issues, and you can see why. On issues people just disagree with both parties but the media aren’t particularly concerned. And they’re marginalized.”

‘Universal grammar’

Although it is his political activism that gets the most public attention, Chomsky’s main claim to academic fame lies in the field of linguistics. He likes to point out that he entered the field almost by chance, not because of any special interest in language and grammar, but because of his desire to understand people. After submitting his doctoral thesis to the University of Pennsylvania (the first language he studied, by the way, was modern Hebrew), he joined MIT in 1955, where he has taught ever since. Two years later he published his renowned study “Syntactic Structures,” a further development of his Ph.D. thesis. His major innovation was his argument concerning an innate capability in human beings to acquire language. According to Chomsky, the infant, at birth, even before being exposed to Hebrew, French, Chinese or whatever language, already has knowledge about the manner in which human language operates: basic syntactical structures shared by every language on earth. He called this common denominator “universal grammar.”

Children, he says, do not enter the world as “tabula rasa” (a blank slate) and then learn a language by acquiring and studying the rules. Acquisition of language is an interaction between the innate knowledge of the language’s “depth structure” and a relatively small number of examples that children receive from their surroundings. Chomsky’s linguistic theory explains, for example, the tremendous speed with which young children acquire new languages. It also explains the creative aspect of language use: With the help of a limited number of grammatical rules and of terms, people are capable of creating numberless sentences which no one has ever created before.

The revolution wrought by Chomsky’s research (he himself claims it was not a genuine revolution, but a development in a revolution that occurred some 300 years earlier) fomented a radical change in linguistics and also had an effect on psychology. Chomsky’s approach assailed the behaviorist doctrine, which dominated psychology in the first half of the 20th century. According to the behaviorists, human beings are born with no innate knowledge and it is only in time, as a result of conditioning, that they acquire various behaviors, one of which is use of language.

Chomsky is often asked about the connection between his political opinions and his linguistic research. He always objects vehemently to the attempt to make such connections, maintaining that any that may exist are very minor. One of them may be the idea that one of the innate abilities we “inherit” genetically is the ability to create and develop a moral system. Like “language capability,” “moral capability” does not dictate a specific morality which is imprinted in us. The idea is that there is a mental capacity that makes it possible to create a human, moral system of some kind.

You don’t find your experience in the world to be of constant disappointment from human beings? Aren’t they supposed to have better moral abilities?

“They do.”

So how come they don’t exercise them?

“They do. Just in my lifetime, and also yours, the world has improved quite a lot … In 1962, when John F. Kennedy launched an attack against South Vietnam, he sent the U.S. Air Force to bomb peasants in South Vietnam and endorsed Napalm and started chemical warfare that destroyed food growers and started driving people into concentration camps; it was a war. And it destroyed the country. And there was no protest. I mean, I was trying to give talks, but it was in somebody’s living room with three neighbors, or in a church with four people, and nobody cared. If you wanted to destroy another country, that was fine. It was years before a protest movement. By the time protests developed, seriously, four or five years later, South Vietnam, which was always the main target, had literally been practically wiped out …

“Now let’s move forward to the Iraq War. The Iraq War was the first war in history – and I’m talking about hundreds of years of history of European and Western imperialism, and the United States – [where] there was a massive protest against a war before it was launched. Not seven years later. That’s not marvelous, but there’s a huge difference. And if I give talks now, it’s not to four people, it’s to overflowing audiences of thousands of people and it’s true everywhere in the country: Florida, Idaho, wherever.”

Manufacturing consumers

It is difficult to locate even a small crack in Chomsky’s ardent belief in “human nature” and in his positive conception of human beings. That is perhaps a bit odd, given the horrendous human behavior he reports about and warns against so intensively.

But what about the economic aspect? Isn’t that becoming worse?

“Yes, in many ways, but there are reasons for that. The activist movement of the 1960s really democratized the country in a lot of ways, not just the anti-war movement. The women’s [movement] began and had an enormous effect on the country, the environmental movements were just beginning and there were just a lot of beginnings of political protestation. And that frightened the elite terribly, including liberal elites …

“There’s an important book called ‘The Crisis of Democracy’ … [that] came out in 1974 and was about a crisis that had arisen all through the industrial democracies, namely they were becoming too democratic – literally. It said people who were usually passive and apathetic are beginning to enter the political arena. Of course, they’re demanding interests, and so on, that can’t be tolerated. That’s what they call an excess of democracy … Right at that time you find a sharp increase in lobbying in Washington – lobbies for corporations, to try to ensure that they could control the legislative agenda more than before … That’s the period in which the neoliberal principles were instituted …

“In fact just about every part of the neoliberal package is anti-democratic. The big pressure of the last 10 years or so is about privatization of services. What are services? Well, services are anything that human beings could be interested in. Education, health, water, whatever. Well, if you privatize services, that is, put them in the hands of totalitarian institutions that are unaccountable to the public, then you can have a democracy and it won’t have any decisions to make. Because they’ve all been taken out of [its] hands …

“The neoliberal world programs have been an economic disaster wherever they have been followed. Now this is well-established. This is muddled by the World Bank and others because they mix together growth and keeping to the neoliberal rules. China has grown very fast, but by violating the rules. So if you show those numbers together, you can produce some fake statistics about how the world’s poverty is decreasing … In the [countries] that are following the rules, growth has declined, other macroeconomic indices have declined, social benefits have declined, and so on, and inequality has grown. And the ones that haven’t followed the rules, like in East Asia – they did fine.”

Chomsky cites the United States in the 1980s, which had “the highest wages and the longest working hours in the industrial world. Now there is the highest [number of] working hours and the lowest wages. Well, that means that a family with a couple working 50 hours a week to put food on the table – they don’t have much time to think about anything else. Meanwhile they’re being dazed with massive propaganda to get them to consume more and more and more. So they go deeply into debt.”

Is it only power groups? Isn’t it also the human propensity to accumulate fortune?

“There’s no human propensity. That’s mythology. In fact huge efforts are going into what’s called the fabrication of consumers. It’s the first time that industry must fabricate consumers. Now we have huge industries. The public relations industry is a huge industry. Actually about a sixth of the gross domestic product goes into marketing. Its purpose is to fabricate consumers. To create ‘wants,’ as they put it, and to direct people’s attention to these superficial things of life, like fashionable consumption, and it has an effect on people – buy, buy, buy. Teenage girls, like my granddaughter, her age, if they have a Saturday afternoon with nothing to do, then they go walk around shopping malls. It’s sick.”

Do you think the capitalistic propaganda affects you to some extent?

“It’s not capitalistic propaganda because we do not live in capitalist societies. It’s not true in Israel, it’s not true in the United States, or others. I mean, we live in societies, Israel and the United States are striking examples, where the dynamic economic core of the society is the state sector. In most of the economy, the innovation, the initiative, is mostly coming out of the state sector. You use the computer, you use the Internet, you flew here in an airplane, where do they all come from? Most of them came from public spending under the cover of the military.

“MIT is a good example. When I got here 50 years ago, a computer was something about the size of this array of offices. Under the guise of an air-defense system, which nobody believed, they were able to get computers down to the size of a couple of those cabinets over there, and at that point, the head of the military project pulled out and formed the first mainframe producer. And meanwhile IBM was in here, using public funds, of course, to learn how to move from punch-card machines to personal computers. And by the early ’60s they were able to manufacture them themselves, but they couldn’t sell them to anybody because they were too expensive. So the government purchased them … It wasn’t until about 1980 that you could start marketing these things. And they had been in the public sector for 30 years by then …

“In fact if you look over, you take drugs, who pays for them? I mean most of the research and development is done in state laboratories or biology departments, which are state-run … Meanwhile the basic research and development is taking place which, if it works, the drug company will pick up and market it and make money from it … It’s not remotely a capitalist system. Israel is exactly the same. By now Israel is [like] some offshoot of the U.S. economy, like a duplicate of it. That’s why the social benefits are declining. It used to be kind of a Scandinavian-style welfare state. Now it’s like the United States.”

The coming catastrophes

Would you like to live anywhere else other than the United States?

“I came pretty close to living in Israel. I did live there for a while, in fact. If I went somewhere else, which I don’t expect to do, it’s possible [it could be Israel].”

You had an experience on a kibbutz, didn’t you?

“Briefly. We were intending to go back, my wife went back for a longer period – Kibbutz Hazorea, back in the ’50s. It’s quite different now from what it was then. Back then it was quite a different place.”

But it was a disappointment, wasn’t it?

“No, I loved it. I mean I couldn’t stand the ideological atmosphere, but for different reasons than today. I mean at that time, it was super Stalinized. I was there right at the time of the trials, the last of Stalin’s trials, which were a whole anti-Semitic thing. They were all defending him. I mean, there’s a kibbutz shaliach [envoy] here – he was one of the leading figures in the trial, and you know the kibbutz movement is sort of a family, they all knew each other and they all knew the charges were completely fabricated. But they were defending the trial! Anyway, it’s a very different place now.”

What is your worst nightmare?

“I think there are two major catastrophes that are pretty close. The one is nuclear war … but the public doesn’t know. I mean the general public is unaware. Professional literature is very clear that the threat is high and growing, not only because of the Bush administration, which is increasing the threat of nuclear war. And the other is environmental catastrophe, which will come. We don’t know when, but you can already see the signs.”

Assuming you have 50 more years of work, what would you like …

“[That’s] not likely – 120 is the most you get.”

I don’t know. It’s one of the things people say, you know. Why, what would you like to do in the next 50 years if you work?

“More of what I’m doing now. I’m happy to go on like that as long as I can.”