Noam Chomsky, My Palestinian Student, and a Gift

A few years ago, at Brooklyn College, I taught a class on the formal theory of computation. We covered the usual topics: finite state automata, context-free grammars, Turing machines, computational complexity. As we worked through the theory of context-free grammars, I introduced my students to the concept of their Chomsky normal forms.  As a quick preliminary, I noted that this form was due to Noam Chomsky, “the MIT linguist well-known for his seminal work on the formal theory of linguistics.” I paused, and then went on, “Interestingly enough, Professor Chomsky is equally well-known for his radical political views and activism, especially regarding American foreign policy, Israel etc.” These quick remarks made, I went on to the business of production rules, non-terminal symbols etc.

Once class ended, I walked back to my office, and began the my usual post-class activities: checking email, drinking left-over coffee etc. As I did so, there was a knock on the door. A student from my class stood there. I had seen him before in class, but he had never spoken up yet. Now, he did so. He introduced himself with an Arab name. (I’m embarrassed to say I do not remember his name.) Then, he spoke again, “Professor, I just wanted to thank you. You brought up Chomsky in class, but you didn’t just say he was a linguist. You talked about his politics too.” Surprised, I said, “Well, I didn’t say that much. Just a quick note really.” My student, though, would have none of it, “Well, professor, too many other professors would simply not mention that aspect of him, as if it was an embarrassment. As a Palestinian, it made me really happy to hear you bring him up.” I didn’t quite know what to make of this, so I thanked him for his kind words. We then chatted for a bit about his background, his family, and that was that. (I remember asking him what passport he carried, a question that always fascinates me when it comes to the modern world’s stateless.)

As the semester went by, my student and I only spoke a few more times. He was unfailingly polite and courteous, and diligent with his work. We might have talked once more about Israel and Palestine, perhaps when some Middle East crisis du année had occurred. Finally, the semester wound down; I assigned the students their final exams, graded them, handed in their grades. Shortly thereafter, one day as I worked in my office, there was a knock on the door again. Once again, it was my student. In his hand, he held what looked like a gift-wrapped item. He thanked me for the class and then handed over the package, saying “This is for you, just a thank-you.” I was a little nonplussed and tried to decline, but again, he was persistent, pressing it into my hands, saying it was just a trifle. Finally, I thanked him and opened my gift. It was a copy of Avi Shlaim’s  The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab WorldHe went on, “I think you might find this interesting.” I agreed.

I lost contact with my student shortly thereafter; I often wonder where he is now. I often wondered too, what he must have felt like, unable, all too often, because of the settings he found himself in, unable to say what was on his mind; I wondered how much he had heard that he couldn’t respond to; I wondered how limited he must have felt his various avenues of expression to be if the mere mention of Chomsky’s activism by a professor in a classroom had felt like an affirmation of a kind.


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