The Left’s Favorite Dirty Word

In her new book, ‘The Lion’s Den,’ Susie Linfield examines the historical antecedents to the left’s Jewish problem

By David Mikics|March 29, 2019 12:00 AM


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 [1], 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, Linfield’s earlier book [2] 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. Koestler’s, Deutscher’s, and Rodinson’s 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 Israel’s 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 didn’t 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, Arendt’s “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, “Arendt’s 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.

Arendt’s contempt for Israel’s supposedly barbarous Mizrahi Jews had zero to do with Eichmann’s guilt. Her moralizing about the Judenräte was also notably irrelevant, and in places quite ugly.

Arendt’s problem wasn’t, 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 Shoah’s 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 Arendt’s 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 didn’t meet the needs of her contrahistorical fantasy, which was connected to her inner life, but failed the reality test.

If Arendt’s 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 Jabotinsky’s secretary in Vienna. In the ’40s he followed Begin’s 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 Koestler’s 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 Israel’s original sin” of existing, and therefore that “every reaction to that sin is rational.” Rodinson’s 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 Jewish—and even that unhappy essence would be better off withering away to nothing. Rodinson described assimilation as a “gratifying process of liquidation”—an interesting choice of words—that 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 Linfield’s cases, he was complicated.

Isaac Deutscher chose Trotsky over Rodinson’s Stalin, but he, too, opposed Jewish nationalism. Deutscher’s 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 Hitler’s 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. Deutscher’s currently voguish idea of the “non-Jewish Jew” required that one had to declare oneself anti-Zionist in order to certify one’s belonging among the true Jews, who weren’t Jewish: Israel, like religion, gave Jewishness too much substance, and the wrong kind of substance to boot.

Curiously, perhaps, Linfield’s chapters on Memmi and Halliday are less interesting than the more fraught cases, since these two got things right, in Linfield’s view. Halliday, in particular, was an acute critic of the Israeli occupation who still rebelled against the left’s 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 couldn’t imagine that Arafat’s PLO didn’t 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 world’s 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 PA’s 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 hasn’t worked out very well for the citizens of Syria, for example. Linfield supplies a long litany of Chomsky’s 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 Deutscher’s adoring portrait of Trotsky is hardly less distorted than his feelings about Jewishness. The same is true for Chomsky on Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The same is true of Arendt’s 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 left’s 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 left’s Jewish problem looks depressingly inevitable, and intractable.

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