Seeking Israel From the Left

Review: 'The Lions' Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky' by Susie Linfield

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Israel has always been a Rorschach test for the left, Susie Linfield argues in her new book about intellectuals' writings on the first decades of the Jewish home state. And she's right, if not quite in the way she may have intended the metaphor.

Yes, Israel is like a Rorschach test, in the sense that many people over the 70 years of the country's existence have seen in its abstract representation some strange specificity wrought by their own fervid imagination. But Israel is like a Rorschach test in another and more important way. Something disturbing is revealed when the symmetrical inkblots of a Rorschach test provoke descriptions of violence and hatred. And something just as disturbing is revealed when the image of Israel provokes ferocious anger and unrelenting hostility.

Which it does, for a large percentage of the left these days. In her introduction and conclusion, Linfield points out that Israel was created by people who were often socialists, and it enjoyed considerable support among leftists in the West into the 1960s. But somehow, these days, Israel faces a violent antipathy from the left. An important task for historians lies in exploring how that reversal came about.

Linfield, a journalism professor at NYU, is a self-proclaimed leftist worried about the ways in which anti-Zionism has led to a surge of anti-Semitism. And yet, despite her interest in the question of why the left has rejected Israel, she attempts something different in The Lions' Den. In essence, she attacks the premise. Examining the work of prior generations of prominent intellectuals and journalists, The Lions' Den suggests that Israel has always provoked strange notions in intellectuals.

The figures Linfield takes up are a gallery of prominent Jewish left-leaning thinkers from the 1940s on—especially in her chapters on Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Isaac Deutscher, Maxime Rodinson, I.F. Stone, and Noam Chomsky. She focuses as well on two further figures: Fred Halliday (the only gentile writer she takes up) and Albert Memmi (the Tunisian writer and only non-Westerner in the book). All of them were sometime Zionists, and all of them indulged anti-Zionism. By describing their intellectual journeys—and their intellectual peculiarities—Linfield hopes to illuminate the left's odd relation to Israel.

Thus, for example, The Lions' Den follows Hannah Arendt's twisting reaction to Zionism through the decades, from her early support to the disdain she unleashed in Eichmann in Jerusalem. In perhaps the key line of the book, Linfield insists that "Arendt's writings are a model of the pitfalls into which so many commentators on Israel fall: arrogance, ignorance, remoteness, abstractness, and the tendency to see the country and its conflicts as a replication of previous histories rather than as uniquely themselves."

As a young man, Arthur Koestler was briefly employed as a secretary to the Zionist Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and initially he saw no conflict between his Marxism and his Zionism. A visit to Israel in 1948, however, prompted him to write that the "accumulated psychic pus" of Jews would destroy the state. And even as he became well known for his turn against communism, his relation to Judaism remained strange—and worse than strange, Linfield notes, as what had been "relatively decent and humane" in his early ambivalence turned into the nutball notions of a full-blown crank.

The French writer Maxime Rodinson opined loudly on Israel, as he did on so many topics. And Linfield finds in his work a description of one cause, perhaps the primary cause, of the left's turn against the Jewish state. Israel, Rodinson insisted, needs to be understood as essentially colonial: the final creation of Western imperialism. And just as, say, Franz Fanon would argue that the oppressed feelings of the colonized were more morally profound than the lives of the colonizers, so in Israel the fact that the Jews finally had a homeland must pale beside the fact of Palestinian colonization, for what matters, Rodinson claimed, is "only the insult to Arab pride."

Meanwhile, I.F. Stone traveled from being a strong Zionist to approving the terrorism of the PLO. The Trotskyite Isaac Deutscher would begin as a denouncer of Zionism as a movement away from communist internationalism, then admit he should have supported Zionism during the rise of the Nazis, before he finally turned against Israel for, again, its violation of the principles of Marxist history.

And then there's Noam Chomsky, whose incoherence Linfield treats with a disdain that is almost beyond what the man deserves. Chomsky opposes the Palestinian right of return, for example, while simultaneously accusing Israel of every crime imaginable. The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he suggests, is not two states but no states—since nations are immoral entities to be eliminated in the progressive world order.

No fully satisfying explanation for contemporary leftist anti-Zionism emerges from The Lions' Den, except perhaps in the book's demonstration that the left never supported Israel. Not really, not down in its bones. Even for left-leaning Jewish thinkers in 1948, there was something overly particular about Israel—something contrary to the internationalist and universalizing trends they demanded from history. As details about the Holocaust emerged through the 1950s, support for Israel generally swelled. But the 1967 Six-Day War seemed sufficient excuse for some on the left—notably I.F. Stone and Isaac Deutscher—to swing back to opposition. Maxime Rodinson's seminal essay "Israel, fait colonial" appeared that same year in the Parisian journal that Jean-Paul Sartre edited.

Susie Linfield looks to her favorites, Fred Halliday and Albert Memmi, for ways to remain a leftist while being generally pro-Israel—and, presumably, a leftist while not falling into the anti-Semitism that follows all too often from criticism of Israel. It's a dream and a delusion, a false light leading only deeper into the swamp, readers will conclude as they reach the end of The Lion's Den. There’s nothing in contemporary Zionism that demands one be a conservative to support Israel. But there's plenty in contemporary leftism that pushes one to be an anti-Zionist and, too often, an anti-Semite.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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