The Lions’ Den: Zion­ism and the Left from Han­nah Arendt to Noam Chomsky

  • Review
By – October 30, 2019

Susie Linfield’s provoca­tive book begins with a per­son­al anec­dote. At a din­ner par­ty with friends, who she describes as fel­low pro­gres­sives, she is shocked and pained to hear them dis­miss a mutu­al acquain­tance as a Zion­ist” — an epi­thet spo­ken with dis­dain. She meek­ly admits to the group that she too is a Zion­ist, a response met with stunned silence and an embar­rassed clear­ing of throats. How, she asks, did Zion­ism, once the dar­ling of pro­gres­sives, become the con­sum­mate inter­na­tion­al vil­lain, and Israel the pari­ah nation in left­ist cir­cles? How did the Left become sup­port­ers of ter­ror­ists and Islamists who seek the destruc­tion of Israel? Her explo­ration takes the read­er back to the writ­ings of eight major his­tor­i­cal fig­ures of the left: Han­nah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Maxime Rodin­son, Isaac Deutsch­er, Albert Mem­mi, Fred Hal­l­i­day, I. F. Stone, and Noam Chom­sky. Their ideas, if they have not direct­ly shaped the think­ing of con­tem­po­rary left­ists, pro­vide a fore­shad­ow­ing (in the case of six of the eight, with Mem­mi and Hal­l­i­day as the excep­tions) of much con­tem­po­rary anti-Zion­ist and anti-Israel rhetoric.

A pro­fes­sor of cul­tur­al jour­nal­ism at New York Uni­ver­si­ty and author of a pre­vi­ous book on left­ist pho­tog­ra­phers and the depic­tion of polit­i­cal vio­lence, Lin­field approach­es her task with a per­son­al stake in the debate over Israel; nonethe­less she treats each of her major fig­ures with crit­i­cal dis­pas­sion. She faults them for their laps­es in log­ic and their blink­ered think­ing, but gives them cred­it for ideas she finds pre­scient. Even Noam Chom­sky, of whom she is most crit­i­cal, gets points for his stance against BDS and his rejec­tion of the one-state” solu­tion (although his two-state” solu­tion is idio­syn­crat­ic, she says). She high­lights the per­son­al tra­jec­to­ries of each of her sub­jects and places them in the con­text of their times and milieux. Her con­clud­ing chap­ter draws some lines from her analy­ses to more con­tem­po­rary fig­ures in the anti-Israel campaign.

The pic­ture that emerges from the book is not an easy one to sum­ma­rize. Most of Linfield’s sub­jects tacked and veered in their ideas about Zion­ism, often mov­ing from being staunch sup­port­ers of the Zion­ist move­ment to harsh crit­ics. Arendt, for exam­ple, joined the Zion­ist move­ment in Ger­many after Hitler came to pow­er, but became an oppo­nent of Israel even before it became a state. Koestler sup­port­ed the mil­i­tant wing of Zion­ism led by Ze’ev Jabotin­sky but hat­ed the Jews of the new state as much as he despised those of the Europe in which he grew up, and ulti­mate­ly hoped that Jew­ish iden­ti­ty would van­ish. I. F. Stone, the avatar of inde­pen­dent crit­i­cal jour­nal­ism in the 1950s and 1960s, was an ardent Zion­ist in in the 1940s and 50s, but became a fierce crit­ic of Israel fol­low­ing the 1967 Six-Day War. Chom­sky fol­lowed a sim­i­lar tra­jec­to­ry to emerge as one of Israel’s staunchest (Jew­ish) crit­ics, a role he still plays even in his ear­ly 90s.

Many of Linfield’s sub­jects opposed Zion­ism on ide­o­log­i­cal grounds; social­ists and Marx­ists opposed any form of nation­al­ism, seek­ing a transna­tion­al future in which the sol­i­dar­i­ty of the work­ing class would replace nation­al iden­ti­ties and, in the case of the Jews, elim­i­nate the scourge of anti­semitism. Oth­ers opposed Zion­ism as an expres­sion of their dis­com­fort with being Jews. Isaac Deutsch­er, the Pol­ish-born biog­ra­ph­er of Com­mu­nist leader Leon Trot­sky, coined the phrase non-Jew­ish Jews” to define this trait. Oth­ers found the evo­lu­tion of Zion­ism (or more pre­cise­ly the evo­lu­tion of Israeli pol­i­cy fol­low­ing the Six-Day War) trou­bling and cast Israel as the aggres­sor, a stalk­ing horse for a neo-impe­ri­al­ism of the West against the legit­i­mate rights of the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple. Stone and Chom­sky are in this cat­e­go­ry as are a good num­ber of their younger acolytes on the left. Hal­l­i­day emerges as a con­trast­ing fig­ure. An Irish-born left-wing jour­nal­ist-turned-aca­d­e­m­ic, he began his career as an out­spo­ken defend­er of Pales­tin­ian nation­hood but came to rec­og­nize that the two-state solu­tion was the only real­is­tic out­come to the intractable con­flict, a stance that led to his being shunned by many on the left. Only Albert Mem­mi, born in Tunisia and a pas­sion­ate advo­cate for the anti-colo­nial move­ment that swept over North Africa in the post-World War II decade, emerges in Linfield’s account as a left­ist who man­aged to main­tain his Zion­ist identity.

Linfield’s well-doc­u­ment­ed study is required read­ing for any­one con­cerned with argu­ments over the future of Israel and Pales­tine, so much in the news recent­ly as the issue has become high­ly charged in US pol­i­tics. Although one might wish that Lin­field had engaged with more con­tem­po­rary fig­ures on the left, she pro­vides a nec­es­sary his­tor­i­cal ground­ing for eval­u­at­ing con­tem­po­rary debates. While her divi­sion of sub­jects into Euro­peans,” Social­ists,” and Amer­i­cans” is not par­tic­u­lar­ly con­sis­tent or help­ful (most of the Social­ists” are Euro­peans”; the coun­tries of ori­gin seem to have lit­tle bear­ing on their stance toward Zion­ism), and while her choice of sub­jects can be sec­ond-guessed (was Arthur Koestler’s think­ing about Zion­ism large­ly influ­en­tial?) she is spot on in cri­tiquing the con­tra­dic­tions in the views of Zion­ist the­o­ry and prac­tice by many on the left and in high­light­ing how much of the debate is found­ed on false his­tor­i­cal claims and asser­tions” and in cau­tion­ing against the dan­gers of fan­ta­sy, sym­bol, metaphor, and the­o­ry” that can over­take real­i­ty and his­to­ry.” It is per­haps, alas, symp­to­matic of the intractabil­i­ty of the Israel-Pales­tine ques­tion that this is as true on the pro-Zion­ist and well as the anti-Zion­ist side.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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