The Lefts Favorite Dirty Word: Zionism Tablet Magazine

Posted By on April 3, 2019

Zionism was not always a dirty word for leftists. Communists and socialists alike supported the creation of Israel in 1948, denouncing the neofeudal Arab regimes that tried to destroy the new Jewish state. At the same time, some leftist thinkers, many of them Jews, were ambivalent about Zionism, even in the wake of the Holocaust.

In her new book,The Lions Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, Susie Linfield provides a stunningly cogent account of how Jewish nationalism has troubled leftist thought from the foundation of Israel until today. Like The Cruel Radiance, Linfields earlier book on photography and politics, The Lions Den is compulsively readable and nearly always persuasive. She says correctly, there is no other issue, either foreign or domestic, that is debated in such rancid tones as the sinfulness of Zionism and Israel.

Yet Linfield, a leftist Zionist, insists that she is not an oxymoron or an archaism. In Israel, one can find plenty of people like her, who believe that Palestinians should have a state yet are stubbornly unwilling to commit national suicide in order to ensure that goal. Only in the case of Israel is the eradication of an extant nation considered a progressive demand, she writes. The universes of alternate facts and bizarro-world perspectives that Linfield so adeptly portrays can only be explained by larger, governing fantasies about what Jews are and what they ought to be.

Linfield argues that Israel is the Rorschach test of the left: You see what you want to see. Her test cases, along with Arendt and Chomsky, include Arthur Koestler, I.F. Stone, Maxime Rodinson, Isaac Deutscher, Albert Memmi, and (the only non-Jew in the bunch) Fred Halliday. Her thinkers have much in common. Koestlers, Deutschers, and Rodinsons families were murdered in Auschwitz. Albert Memmi suffered from anti-Semitism growing up in Tunisia, as did Arendt in Germany. All had a sense of the threats facing the Jewish people. Yet many of them retreated from the facts of Israels conflict with the Arab world, even blaming Israel for that conflict, in ways that ranged from flagrantly self-contradictory to apocalyptic.

Arendt argued for a Jewish right to Palestine and insisted that Zionism was neither imperialist nor colonialist. She wrote that whatever riches [Palestine] possesses are exclusively the product of Jewish labor. In May 1948 she called Zionism the great hope and the great pride of Jews all over the world. Yet, she also bizarrely predicted that establishing the State of Israel would mean death for the Jewish homeland; in fact, it meant life.

Arendt desperately didnt want Israel to be a sovereign state. The Israel she favored would be a protectorate under a British or European commonwealth. In constructing this fantasy, Arendt ignored the fact that the Jews, the Arabs, and the British all vehemently rejected such an arrangement (as Linfield notes, this might have been the only thing they agreed on). Moreover, the idea had been tried, with dismal results: Even with 100,000 troops the British Mandate had failed to stop Arabs and Jews from murdering each other.

Arendt often complained that Jews were (as she saw it) apolitical and fatalistic, suffering from history rather than making it. But as Linfield notes, Arendts arrogant purism was itself a version of the Jewish worldlessness she liked to condemn. Her nonsovereign nation of Israel would have meant the death of countless actual Jews. As Linfield writes, Arendts failure to realize this is incomprehensible, since in the 1930s and 40s she had tirelessly argued that Jews needed to take up arms in their own defense. When it came to the actual, post-1948 State of Israel, Arendt, the great supporter of the reality principle, Linfield concludes, retreated into political sentimentality and magical constructs.

In her Eichmann book Arendt took revenge on Israel for failing to subscribe to her political fantasy. She depicted Zionism as the Nazis helpmate, and the Nazis as pro-Zionist (her term). Arendt put Israel on trial along with Eichmann.

Arendts contempt for Israels supposedly barbarous Mizrahi Jews had zero to do with Eichmanns guilt. Her moralizing about the Judenrte was also notably irrelevant, and in places quite ugly.

Arendts problem wasnt, pace Gershom Scholem, her lack of love for the Jewish people. Rather, what emerges from her reactions and prejudices on the page is a profound incapacity to feel sympathy for the Shoahs actual victims, whom she wished to somehow indict for their unheroic impurity. The idea that suffering sometimes renders its victims impure is a piece of human psychology so basic that Arendts desperate wish to ward it off bodes ill for the rest of her political theorizing. Israel, like the dead of the Holocaust, was a reality, one that Arendt could never fully accept because it didnt meet the needs of her contrahistorical fantasy, which was connected to her inner life, but failed the reality test.

If Arendts personal history and pathologies often warped her accounts of Israel and the Jews, Arthur Koestler wrote even more wildly, with greater virulence. An enthusiastic Zionist prior to 1948, Koestler lived in Palestine and was Jabotinskys secretary in Vienna. In the 40s he followed Begins Irgun and compared Haganahism to Nazism and Stalinism. But Koestler turned away from the new Jewish nation.In 1948, on his last visit to Israel, he feared that the Jews accumulated psychic pus is threatening to flood the new state. (Koestler, one must add, lived in a glass house, psychic pus-wise.) Linfield notes that the fervently anti-Communist Koestler echoed a long line of Marxist thinkers who regarded the Jewish people as a reactionary, though occasionally heart-warming, anachronism that ought to disappear. Koestler thought he had produced the requisite abracadabra with his crackpot book The Thirteenth Tribe, in which Jews were revealed to be Khazars (take that, anti-Semites!) and therefore not real. Nevertheless, Jews have persisted to this day, living, working, and running a successful modern state, despite Arthur Koestlers claim that they are merely fictive.

Linfield moves on to the French communist student of Islam Maxime Rodinson, who defended the Zionist decision to create a home in Palestine, but added that in Arab eyes (as Linfield puts it) nothing can erase Israels original sin of existing, and therefore that every reaction to that sin is rational. Rodinsons idea of solidarity with the Arabs led him to the same kind of spineless idolatry he had formerly practiced at the altar of the Soviet Union. Terrorism was a reasonable, even inevitable, response to the mere existence of Israel, no matter who the Israelis were or what they actually did.

For Rodinson, being unhappy about being a Jew was the essence of being Jewishand even that unhappy essence would be better off withering away to nothing. Rodinson described assimilation as a gratifying process of liquidationan interesting choice of wordsthat was unfortunately stopped by Nazism and Stalinism, which led to a revival of interest in the archaic vestiges of Jewishness. Like Koestler, Rodinson believed that Jews themselves were mostly responsible for people hating them.

But Rodinson went one step further. He argued that Israel was responsible for Arab backwardness, since hatred of the Jewish state diverts much of the energy and resources of the Arab world from more constructive tasks.

Think that one through for a moment: By the mere fact of existing, Israelis were responsible for the weight of Arab suffering and backwardness, which were the products of Arab hatred of Israel. See?

Rodinson seems sadly au courant these days. Like our campus radicals, Rodinson saw Jews as aliens and colonial settlers, and tacitly blamed them for Arab efforts to push them into the sea. In his effort to humanize terrorism, Rodinson also lied repeatedly, claiming that the PLO had never envisioned the elimination of all Jews from Palestine. Surprisingly, though, Rodinson argued against the one-state solution and the Palestinian demand for the return of refugees. Like all Linfields cases, he was complicated.

Isaac Deutscher chose Trotsky over Rodinsons Stalin, but he, too, opposed Jewish nationalism. Deutschers finest hour came in 1954, when he saw the error of his earlier ways: If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitlers gas chambers, he admitted. The Jewish state was, he said, a historic necessity and a living reality. But Deutscher felt compelled to add, Still, I am not a Zionist. From a Trotskyist perspective, Zionism had to remain a historical error, and so theory yet again won out over evidence. Deutschers currently voguish idea of the non-Jewish Jew required that one had to declare oneself anti-Zionist in order to certify ones belonging among the true Jews, who werent Jewish: Israel, like religion, gave Jewishness too much substance, and the wrong kind of substance to boot.

Curiously, perhaps, Linfields chapters on Memmi and Halliday are less interesting than the more fraught cases, since these two got things right, in Linfields view. Halliday, in particular, was an acute critic of the Israeli occupation who still rebelled against the lefts embrace of a right of Palestinian return to Israel. Why was this revanchist demand viewed as progressive, he asked? An expert on Iranian politics, Halliday knew the role that hatred of Israel played in the Middle East. He wondered why willingness to compromise was seen as reactionary in leftist circles, so that Arafat was applauded when he walked away from a peace deal, and Hamas was preferred to the Palestinian Authority.

Likewise, I.F. Stone, an avowed Zionist, resisted arguments that Israel should disappear. As a young man he campaigned fervently for the Jewish homeland. Yet late in his career Stone defended Palestinian terrorism, in part because he couldnt imagine that Arafats PLO didnt want peace. It was this failure of imagination that he shared in common with Noam Chomsky: Both men embraced an idea of human nature and motivation that led them to paint Muslim radicalism as peaceful, and in particular dedicated to happy coexistence with Jews, if only Israel would stop oppressing them.

The Lions Den is especially good on Chomsky, who is for young people in particular still one of the worlds most influential sources on international politics. Chomsky is a very peculiar case. Though he opposes Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), the Palestinian right of return, and the one-state solution, he regularly accuses Israel of moral depravity, opposes the Oslo Accords and calls the PAs security forces Vichy police. He advocates the breakdown of state authority in the Middle East, which he cheerfully calls the no-state solution, oblivious to the fact that such chaos hasnt worked out very well for the citizens of Syria, for example. Linfield supplies a long litany of Chomskys falsehoods about Israel and its enemies, among which the most laughable might be that Iran shares the international consensus on a two-state settlement.

Linfield seems unsure about the value of her famous thinkers, given their frequent traffic with facile, biased pseudohistory. And so she should be. The truth is that Deutschers adoring portrait of Trotsky is hardly less distorted than his feelings about Jewishness. The same is true for Chomsky on Pol Pots Cambodia. The same is true of Arendts writings on school desegregation (which she opposed).

One of the hardest lessons for leftists to learn is that their intellectual heroes can have feet of clay, just like the scorned propagandists of the right. Proclaiming men and women to be Great Thinkers is a dangerous game, especially when the Greats fail to observe basic rules of rational, fact-based argument. Abandoning the reality principle comes at a cost: Disenchantment with theories that bear no connection to observable reality can lead independent-minded thinkers toward the opposite political poles, where even bigger dangers may await them, and the rest of us.

Albert Memmi, who became a Zionist in response to Arab anti-Semitism in Tunisia, not to European prejudice, should probably have the last word. He realized that the lefts betrayals of the Jews were so extensive and recurrent that they were intrinsic to left politics rather than random aberrations. Just as when Memmi wrote, the lefts Jewish problem looks depressingly inevitable, and intractable.


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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Bellows People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.

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The Lefts Favorite Dirty Word: Zionism Tablet Magazine

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