When I recently caught up on my pile of unread copies of the Times Literary Supplement, I came across a piece of ill-natured polemic in the ostensibly technical field of linguistics. Professor Kenneth Wexler of MIT, writing in the Letters columns of TLS (10/19/2012), opined that a distinguished scholar with whom he disagrees “lives in an alternative universe to the truth.” The truth, according to Wexler, is the one established by Noam Chomsky, viz. that there is a Universal Grammar underlying all human language.
Concerning the scientific standing or otherwise of Chomskyan linguistics, see the recent work by Christina Behme, here and here. Unlike Behme, I have not studied these issues in depth and can hardly claim to have an informed opinion. But, as any Google search will readily confirm, I have a long-term interest in Chomsky’s hostility to Israel (and, I would say, to the Jewish people), and, when I once caught him in an outrageous lie, I even had the honor of being labelled a “pathological liar” by him.
So it occurred to me that Wexler may be bound to Chomsky by more than theoretical linguistics. Could it be that he also shares the animus toward Israel ? We cannot know what is in a man’s heart, but, in these days of Google, we can know what he has chosen to put into the public record about his political commitments. And, indeed, Professor Wexler is on record as an adversary of the State of Israel. (See below).
Wexler’s dual ties to Chomskyanism, in and of itself, would not be greatly interesting. But, as it happens, a check of the best-known linguistic supporters of Chomsky yields at least seven others, for a total of eight, with such dual ties. Here is the list:
John Collins, U. of East Anglia, 1/15/09
Norbert Hornstein, U. of Md. 2/24/09
Richard Kayne, NYU, 11/14/11
David Pesetsky, MIT, 5/7/02
Luigi Rizzi, Siena, 11/14/11
Tom Roeper, U. of Mass., 11/14/11
Neil Smith, Univ. Coll., London, 1/15/09
Kenneth Wexler, MIT, 5/7/02
In each case, the date represent links to where the anti-Israel statements can be found. Not all the statements are equally vitriolic or hostile, but the one of 1/15/09 gives an idea of the tenor of most of them:
Israel must lose. It is not enough to call for another ceasefire, or more humanitarian assistance. It is not enough to urge the renewal of dialogue and to acknowledge the concerns and suffering of both sides. If we believe in the principle of democratic self-determination, if we affirm the right to resist military aggression and colonial occupation, then we are obliged to take sides… against Israel, and with the people of Gaza and the West Bank.
There are at least some linguists associated with the Chomsky school who are not on record against Israel, and, of course, there are many non-linguist academics who are. On the other hand, not everyone who feels rancor and resentment against Israel will go on public record. So my list is an indication of the very minimum of those so aligned. Moreover, I have not found a single case of a Chomsky-aligned linguist who is on record as supportive of Israel. (My internet search was not exhaustive.)
All in all, these materials give persuasive anecdotal grounds for believing that the Chomsky cult, in both linguistics and politics, is at least in part based on grounds that are neither rational nor scientific. Neither reason nor science can account for the striking circumstance that so many who are committed to Universal Grammar also happen to be committed to opposition to Israel.
Addendum, Aug. 13, 2016
Here are two more Chomsky-supporting linguists who are also on record as opposed to Israel: