From Ambiva­lence to Betray­al: The Left, the Jews, and Israel

  • Review
By – May 6, 2013

This is a colos­sal under­tak­ing, both in scope and intel­lec­tu­al weight. No schol­ar is like­ly to sift through the pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary mate­ri­als that bear upon the rela­tion­ship between left­ist ide­ol­o­gy and the Jew­ish peo­ple with the thor­ough­ness, patience, and bold­ness that Pro­fes­sor Wistrich has dis­played. Though I’m not sure that he makes the strongest case for ambiva­lence about the Jews at the dawn of Euro­pean social­ist thought, he cer­tain­ly demol­ish­es any lin­ger­ing notion that social­ism and social­ist democ­ra­cies have been espe­cial­ly hos­pitable polit­i­cal envi­ron­ments for Euro­pean, Pales­tin­ian, and world Jewry .

Engag­ing with vir­tu­al­ly every impor­tant left­ist thinker from the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry on (Engels, Hess, Lazare, Lenin, Trot­sky and many more), Pro­fes­sor Wistrich exam­ines in detail the inter­play of Jew­ish par­tic­u­lar­i­ty and assim­i­la­tion, the revolv­ing ques­tion of which is the cause and which is the con­se­quence of anti­semitism [Wistrich’s pre­ferred spelling]. Like­wise, he reminds us that for many social­ist thinkers, anti­semitism was a time-bound phe­nom­e­non grow­ing out of the con­nec­tion, for bet­ter and for worse, between cap­i­tal­ism and Jew­ish identity.

The remark­able suc­cess of Jews dur­ing the cap­i­tal for­ma­tion process­es of the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion led to the antipa­thy of major­i­ty pop­u­la­tions. The demise of cap­i­tal­ism – mean­ing the ascen­den­cy of social­ism and Com­mu­nism – would alter the sit­u­a­tion of Jews for the bet­ter and bring the fad­ing of antisemitism.

Such was one line of thought. Of course, this change did not come to pass, and Pro­fes­sor Wistrich explains why with great clar­i­ty, author­i­ty, and intel­lec­tu­al rig­or. Jews as com­mit­ted social­ists in social­ist nations were still dirty Jews.

The dis­cus­sion leads, inevitably, to the ques­tion of Jew­ish nation­hood, the Zion­ist enter­prise, and the seman­tic play­ground upon which the dis­tinc­tion (or lack of one) between anti­semitism and anti-Zion­ism is con­test­ed. As with every oth­er issue in his purview, the author is dis­ci­plined and persuasive.

Essen­tial­ly, Robert S. Wistrich takes on the myths and leg­ends of anti­semitism and anti-Zion­ism and expos­es their hol­low, degen­er­ate core. This is not a book for casu­al read­ing, with its over­whelm­ing abun­dance of evi­dence and argu­men­ta­tion. And yet it is a book that must be read. Archival sources, chap­ter notes, index, select­ed bibliography.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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