In 1948, the then-aborning state of Israel enjoyed political support from almost the entire global left—including, crucially, the Kremlin. Even when, soon thereafter, Moscow reverted to its traditional anti-Zionist position, bringing along with it those in its Communist orbit, the rest of the non- and anti-Communist left continued to see the Jewish state in a friendly light.
Over the decades, however, that warmth faded as well. A series of landmark events—Israel’s overwhelming victory in the 1967 Six-Day War; the emergence in its aftermath of the “revolutionary” PLO; the rightward shift of Israeli politics with the ascension of the Likud in the late 1970s; Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon; the first and second Palestinian intifadas; recurrent clashes between Israel and Hamas once Israel ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005—each seemed to peel away another layer of sympathy for Israel on the left and to accrete another layer of hostility.
Today, the transition is almost complete. Most of the left, including the liberal left, joins in shrill criticism of Israel or even outright opposition to its existence.
Now comes Susie Linfield, a professor in the journalism department at New York University and a writer deeply embedded in the left, with her book The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky. A beautifully written and penetrating exploration of the evolution I’ve just sketched, replete with devastating aperçus, it begins with this anecdote:
I am at a dinner party with my partner and his friends, who are mostly left-wing intellectuals . . . . [T]he name of a well-known journalist . . . comes up. “Oh, he’s a Zionist!” one person says disparagingly, and the others dutifully shake their heads in condescension and dismay. . . . I debate the pros and cons of disturbing this amicable gathering, and then I say, with a slight gulp, “Well, so am I.” A frozen, stunned silence ensues . . . . ; no one addresses or looks at me, though they shoot pitying glances at my partner.
In her book, Linfield attempts no chronological account of the turn away from Israel. Rather, she offers portraits of eight influential intellectuals—Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Maxime Rodinson, Isaac Deutscher, Albert Memmi, Fred Halliday, I.F. Stone, and Noam Chomsky—together with close readings of their writings about Zionism, the Jews, and the Jewish state.
Her choices are idiosyncratic. Seven of the eight are themselves Jewish. Only Stone and Chomsky are Americans, although Arendt settled here upon fleeing the Nazis. Koestler had been a Communist, but his major literary reputation rests on work done after he turned passionately against Communism. In the cases of all eight, their principal works were produced decades ago. Chomsky and Memmi, the only two who are still alive, are in their nineties.
Nonetheless, the arguments penned by these eight figures anticipate or shape the arguments that still fill the air today. In that sense, the slice of left-wing opinion contained in Linfield’s arbitrary congeries may fairly be taken to stand for the whole.
While Linfield’s prose throughout is measured, her descriptions are unsparing. The epithet “Zio” she says, has “become the dirtiest word to the international left—akin, say, to racist, pedophile, or rapist.” As her dinner-party experience exemplifies, “anti-Zionism has become the almost nonnegotiable ticket of entry into left discourse.”
Why? In part because, she theorizes, in the latter part of the 20th century the left shifted to “an identification of the formerly colonized peoples of the Third World as the main agents of social justice.” Thus, as displayed in the views of the French Marxist historian Maxime Rodinson (1915-2004), as Linfield captures them, “the Palestinian movement and the ‘Arab masses’ would assume the . . . vanguard position, which the USSR formerly occupied.” For others, she continues, “opposing Israel’s very existence, and boycotting it, are . . . . a way to show that you are woke.”
She also hints at a darker impulse: leftist opposition to Israel’s existence is often driven, she writes, by “detestation of Zionism per se, not [by] defense of the Palestinians. . . . Leftists, and especially New Leftists, were enthralled by Cuban, Vietnamese, Mozambican, Chinese, Algerian, and Palestinian nationalism. But they loathed Zionism as a thing apart.” She adds: “only in the case of Israel is the eradication of an extant nation . . . considered a progressive demand.”
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About all of this, Linfield concludes, “There is something . . . that does not compute.” Presumably the thing that does not compute is, in a word, anti-Semitism—but, while alluding to it here and there, Linfield does not delve into that subject. That may be because the Middle East expert Fred Halliday (1946-2010), the only non-Jew in her octet, is also one of the only two who come off well. Despite starting out within the hard left, he remained open to new information and new understandings, as a result of which he developed a more empathetic attitude toward Israel.
The other subject who withstands Linfield’s scrutiny is Albert Memmi (1920- ), a North Africa-born, Paris-based writer on, among other subjects, colonialism. Having grown up a Jew in Tunisia, Memmi does not, unlike others of Linfield’s subjects, romanticize the Arabs. “No member of any minority lived in peace and dignity in a predominantly Arab country,” he has written, and Jews in particular were “dominated, humiliated, threatened, and periodically massacred.” Linfield describes Memmi as “an unwavering left Zionist” whose attachment to the cause is tribal, not religious. Since, for him, the only persuasive expression of Judaism was socialism, he “expected Zionism to negate Judaism” as a faith.
Setting Halliday and Memmi apart, Linfield subjects the remaining six to withering critique. She begins with the political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), focusing not only on the unvarnished hostility to the Jewish state that suffuses her famous 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, but even more on her earlier views and actions at the time of Israel’s birth in the late 1940s. Linfield writes:
Wars, more than any other political event, force the question: which side are you on? In the 1948 war Arendt did not choose the Arabs and she did not choose the Jews. She chose her fantasies.
Those fantasies centered for Arendt on the image of a binational state. In that imagined utopia, as Linfield writes acerbically, “a bitterly opposed marriage between two hostile, wounded peoples would result in justice, peace, and national development.” In fact, Arendt went so far as to lobby the Truman administration against recognition of Israel. Notes Linfield dryly, “there was nothing binational about [Arendt’s] binationalism. It was an exclusively Jewish initiative.”
Unlike Arendt but like most of the others, Isaac Deutscher (1907-1967), the biographer of Leon Trotsky and Josef Stalin, supported Israel in 1948 but changed in 1967. One might suppose that, like other leftists, he was put off by the settlement movement in the West Bank—but that came later; in 1967, observes Linfield, “there was no settlement movement.” Therefore, “[i]t was Israel’s victory, not its policies, that obviously enraged Deutscher.”
Previously, Deutscher’s best-known commentary on things Jewish had been an essay lauding the figure of the “non-Jewish Jew,” a concept that, as Linfield notes, is still celebrated among Jewish-born anti-Zionists like himself. Her comment: “While a non-Jewish Jew is praised as a universalist, a non-Negro Negro is scorned as an Uncle Tom.”
Another non-Jewish Jew (and fallen-away Communist) was the historian Rodinson, who welcomed the disappearance not only of the Jewish religion but also of the Jewish people. Writing in the 1960s about trends in the late-19th and early-20th century, he observed with satisfaction that “the notion of a ‘Jewish people’ had now become outdated. . . . Thus assimilation triumphed to a great or lesser degree.” Citing this, Linfield adds a chilling gloss: “That Rodinson’s parents were deported to Auschwitz—by their French compatriots, no less—suggests that this ‘triumph’ was not quite complete.”
No one in Linfield’s lineup was more ill at ease in his Jewish skin than Arthur Koestler (1905-1983). From a 1949 book about Israel’s founding, she quotes his image of the Jew: “Each time you burn him alive, stick a knife into his stomach or pump gas into his lungs, he pops up again like a jack-in-the-box, with a more horribly ingratiating smile, and offers you a second-hand suit or a share of real estate.” Later, Koestler produced The Thirteenth Tribe, purporting to show that Ashkenazi Jews were descended not from the biblical Israelites but rather from the Khazars, a central Asian tribe of the Middle Ages. This meant that Jews were not Semites—which for Koestler meant in turn that not only were Jews themselves deluded about their peoplehood but so were the anti-Semites, whose anti-Semitism was therefore just a big misunderstanding. Quips Linfield: “If only Hitler had known.”
As for the influential American journalist I.F. Stone (1907-1989), Linfield positively adulates him on all matters—except for his attitude to Israel. In 1947-48, Stone had been an energetic advocate for the Jewish cause, but (like Deutscher) he turned against Israel by the time of the 1967 war. She faults his “refusal to acknowledge, much less explain, th[is] dramatic shift.” Commenting on his praise for Palestinian terrorists as “the best of Arab youth,” she writes: “It was inconceivable to him that many Palestinians, and their allies in the Arab world, did not want peace—though he accused Israeli leaders of precisely that.”
Of the eight, the thinker whom Linfield finds to be the “most severely handicapped by ideology” is the linguist and political commentator/activist Noam Chomsky (1928- ). Even “many leading left historians and journalists who concentrate on the [Arab/Israel] conflict and are knowledgeable about it,” she writes, acidly, “give virtually no credence to Chomsky’s work.”
She deftly offers a key illustration of why this is so: Chomsky’s writing on the subject revolves around a 1976 UN resolution in which, according to him, the Arab states and the PLO announced their acceptance of Israel and their desire for peace. Linfield elaborates:
In book after book, Chomsky characterizes this [UN] resolution as “quite clearly” establishing the PLO’s acceptance of Israel’s sovereignty and claims that, from 1976 on, “The Arab states and the PLO continued to press for a two-state solution.” And he habitually describes the resolution as having been “proposed by the PLO and the Arab states.”
But this, as Linfield painstakingly demonstrates, is made up out of whole cloth. The resolution in question was introduced by six states, none of them Arab. It does not propose a two-state solution; it does call for the right of return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, effectively meaning the end of Israel. The representatives of the Arab states took the floor of the General Assembly only to excoriate Israel, not to speak of peace, and the spokesman for the PLO proclaimed that “armed struggle [to] victory is assured.”
Nor is that all, says Linfield. “Chomsky’s use, or misuse, of the 1976 resolution is part of an unfortunate pattern that characterizes his work.” Reading it, she says, made her feel as though “trapped in a self-referential world that I began to think of as Chomskyland.”
Linfield has produced a powerful book. Its impact may be strengthened by her leftist credentials—she has, inter alia, contributed to the Nation and worked as an editor for the Village Voice—as well as her leftist protestations, which are scattered about the pages like salt around a sumo-wrestling ring. Yet, for that very reason, one can’t help wondering how a writer able to evoke so tellingly the blindness and folly of her subjects fails to go deeper in examining the ideological predicates that she shares with them.
The majority of her subjects had their roots in Communist movements that, supported by the ranks of Communism’s “fellow travelers,” occupied broad and sometimes commanding ground in the intellectual life of Western countries. Some who broke with these movements became their bitter adversaries. A prime example is Koestler—for whose intense anti-Communism, however, on display most powerfully in his 1941 novel Darkness at Noon, Linfield registers not approbation but disdain. Others left the party but remained in its penumbra, often thinking of the movement as having been misguided but basically on the right side, or as having embodied a noble impulse.
Linfield, it seems, grew up in such a milieu. She relates that her father regarded the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a force of volunteers organized by the Communist party to fight in the Spanish civil war, “as the noblest endeavor of the century.” Recalling the allure of Stalin’s Russia, she laments that “today, it is fashionable to ridicule this faith,” and asserts that “socialists, and especially Communists, were in the forefront of the fight against fascism.”
In truth—and it is hard to believe Linfield does not know this—the Communists were the least consistently anti-fascist of any left-of-center group. From 1928 until Hitler assumed office in 1933, they abetted his ascent by treating rival leftists, not Hitlerites, as their greatest enemies. Their tune changed when the Nazi regime, once in power, began fiercely to persecute them, but this lasted only until the Stalin-Hitler pact, at which point they once again turned their energies and polemics against the West—until Hitler double-crossed them and invaded the USSR.
As for her mainly worshipful treatment of I.F. Stone, who “remains a beacon for me [and who] has so much to teach: about how to be a journalist, an American, a Jew, a defender of freedom, a person of courage,” what is one to say? All this, about the author of a mendacious book purporting to prove that South Korea and the U.S., not North Korea, started the Korean war. If Noam Chomsky is the textbook case of one imprisoned by ideology, what was I.F. Stone? Neither one was a party member, but both believed that the Communist world was to be preferred over the capitalist. Indeed, the KGB archives reveal that Stone accepted recruitment as a Soviet agent for at least several years. Linfield makes no mention of this.
Then, too, even as she takes down various of Israel’s detractors, her own treatment of Israel is harsh. Firm in her commitment to its right to exist, clear about the defects of its enemies, she nevertheless finds Israel guilty of “horrific human-rights abuses.” What finely calibrated adjective, then, might we use to characterize the abuses of, say, a Bashar Assad, or perhaps of a Stalin? Reasonably assessing that a peace agreement is not readily within Israel’s grasp, she advocates instead a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the territories seized in the 1967 war. One can imagine how a less blinkered analyst, endowed with Linfield’s powers of scrutiny, might assess that proposal.
In brief, one wishes Linfield could see her way clear to examining more rigorously the implications of her clarion embrace of Zionism and her partial apostasy on those grounds from the doctrinaire left. Still, for what it does do so well, her book stands as a stellar contribution to discourse about Israel and those who wish it ill—and also to our knowledge of the world of the left intelligentsia. In writing it, Linfield has surely deprived herself of many more invitations to dinners like the one she recounts in its opening pages.