How the Great Leftist Thinkers of the 20th Century Contended …

Posted By on April 13, 2019

Arendt, the most famous and influential of the six, was converted to Zionism by Hitlers takeover in 1933. Fleeing across Europe, twice escaping Nazi detention, she landed in New York in 1941 and began her long writing career. Initially a militant Zionist, she became less attached after Israeli independence in 1948, suspicious of nation-states and their abuses of power. Her book The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951 established her worldwide reputation as a political philosopher. All of her contradictions came together in 1961 when she covered the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, describing it as a show trial rather than a judicial exercise. Her version remains controversial to this day.

Other profiles are no less dramatic. Deutscher, a Talmud prodigy during his childhood in a Polish shtetl, went on to become a translator of Hebrew and Yiddish poetry, then a communist, then a follower of Leon Trotskys heterodox communism and finally a globe-trotting British journalist. He abandoned his doctrinaire anti-Zionism following the Holocaust, was charmed during a 1954 visit by Israels revived Hebrew culture and kibbutz socialism, then turned bitterly hostile following Israels six-day victory in June 1967, even somehow forgetting his Hebrew and Yiddish. He died that August, unreconciled. I. F. Stone, the fabled Washington journalist, underwent a nearly identical reversal in 1967. Linfield claims uncertainty about how large a role the 1967 war and occupation play in leftists antagonism toward Israel. But these individual stories suggest that the legacy of 1967 cannot be overstated.

Linfield is an associate professor of journalism at New York University and her writing combines the storytelling of a journalist with a scholars analysis of ideas. She repeatedly jumps in and argues with her subjects, point by point, giving each chapter the feel at times of a Meet the Press-type interview occurring across time.

If the book has one problem its Linfields inability to recognize the significance of the document that she herself has produced. She tries to present it, particularly in her tacked-on introduction and conclusion, as foreshadowing and illuminating the tragic deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. To be blunt, it doesnt work.

In fact, its success is in foreshadowing and illuminating a different conflict that has been simmering under the surface for a decade and has exploded into the headlines just in the early months of this year. The Lions Den illustrates the individual struggles of Jewish leftists in the World War II generation to reconcile their conflicting impulses, the particularist pull of Zionism and the universalist pull of socialism. Their stories precisely anticipate the tension todays Jewish liberals experience trying to reconcile their own pro-Israel particularism and their social-justice universalism.

Linfield could not have foreseen, even a year ago as she was writing, the current predicament of Democrats caught between support of Israel and sympathy for the Palestinians, or dare we say it? between the affections of Americas well-established Jewish community and fast-rising Muslim community. Unexpectedly, her book appears just as its stories and lessons become urgent.

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How the Great Leftist Thinkers of the 20th Century Contended ...

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