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Only a Jew

By: Benjamin Balint
May 29, 2019

hat animates the antipathy to Israel so widespread on the Left? In her new book, The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, Susie Linfield begins with this bewilderment. Linfield, who teaches cultural journalism at New York University, suggests the emotionally charged phenomenon cannot be explained by reasoned opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank alone. “For many on the Left are repelled not only by Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians; they are repelled by the existence of Israel itself…. Furthermore, for the past half century of so, those who define themselves as progressive shown a startling ability to support regimes far more repressive and violent, and far less egalitarian and politically open, than Israel.”

Why, then, after the 1967 Six-Day War—when Leftists “were enthralled by Cuban, Vietnamese, Mozambican, Chinese, Algerian, and Palestinian nationalism,” when they indulged or romanticized guerrilla movements in the Third World—was Israel “almost instantly transformed into the colonialist-racist-imperialist-fascist oppressor”?

Through a series of portraits of twentieth-century leftist intellectuals, some more self-deceived than others, Linfield brilliantly shows how Israel became “the prism through which changes in Left values can be most clearly seen.” The Left’s increasing animus toward Israel, she proposes, has principally to do with “the transformation of the Left itself.”

Because Israel does not (or cannot) mask what a state is, it discomfits those who are discomfited by the exercise of state power. Linfield’s book aptly opens with Hannah Arendt. In her views of Israel, Linfield writes, the German-born philosopher and émigré to New York suffered from an unresolved tension “between her fear of the state and her fear of statelessness.” In the 1930s and early ‘40s, Arendt embraced Zionism as “the only political answer Jews have ever found to anti-Semitism.” By the mid-‘40s, she predicted the end of the nation-state, opposed Jewish statehood, and, in 1948, urged President Harry S. Truman to withhold American recognition of Israel. This prompted her old friend Gershom Scholem to attack “the cynicism with which you used lofty and progressive arguments against something that is for the Jewish people of life-or-death importance.” Finally, Arendt used her reporting on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem (less than half of which she attended) to give vent to what Linfield calls “contempt: for Zionism, Israel, [Prime Minister] Ben-Gurion, [Israeli prosecutor Gideon] Hausner, the Jewish leadership, the Israeli audience, the relatives of the dead, the survivors of hell.”

Arthur Koestler, a journalist of genius who lost most of his family to the crematoria of that hell, suffered a similarly erratic and tormented relation to Zionism. A self-described “Casanova of Causes” who renounced ideologies as passionately as he embraced them, Koestler wrote Thieves of the Night (1946), a novel set in Palestine; Promise and Fulfillment (1949), which tells the story of Palestine and Labor Zionism from 1917-1949; and The Thirteenth Tribe (1976), in which he speculates that the Jews are descended not from the people of ancient Judea, but from the Khazars of the Caucasus, alleged to have converted to Judaism in the eighth century. “Only a Jew,” Leon Wieseltier replied, “would have taken so much trouble to come up with an alibi for his own self-effacement.”  

Koestler was an early acolyte of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the militaristic Revisionist Zionist leader who accused the British of “moral perfidy” in refusing to allow Jewish refugees to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine. “Koestler loved Zionism, when he did love Zionism,” Linfield comments, “precisely because he thought it was un-Jewish in its militancy and self-reliance.” (In 1958, Isaiah Berlin wrote that Israel is the only country in which the Jews are “not addicted to…central European neuroses of a Koestlerish kind.”)

Like Koestler, Maxime Rodinson—scholar of Islam and perhaps the most famous Jewish anti-Zionist in France—grieved for family murdered in Auschwitz. Though his parents were killed for no other reason than that they were Jews, Rodinson maintained there is no such thing as a Jewish people, preferring the term ensemble juif. He also maintained that Israel is “a colonial settler state.” “I am anti-Zionist on principle,” he said. “It was the position of my family, of the circles they lived in, which consisted of Jewish immigrants to France, communists, fellow-travelers or left-wingers.” Linfield takes Rodinson as representative of the Leftist tendency to ignore what she calls “the Arab states’ shameful treatment of the Palestinian refugees” and to turn a blind eye toward the Palestinian aim of wiping Israel from the map. (“Peace for us means Israel’s destruction,” chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization Yasser Arafat declared in 1972, “and nothing else.”)

Isaac Deutscher’s parents, like Rodinson’s, were murdered in Auschwitz. Unlike his French counterpart, Deutscher—a Polish-born dissident Marxist, biographer of Leon Trotsky, and non-prescient prophet who authored the essay “The Non-Jewish Jew”—recalibrated his views after the war. “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.” Because Israel stood as “a monument to the grimmest phase of European history, a phase of madness and decay,” Deutscher wrote, the country uncomfortably reminds the world of its own capacities for barbarism.

Tunisia-born writer Albert Memmi, self-described “Arab Jew and a left-wing Zionist,” rejected the Marxist dogmas, as he put it, that “a Jew’s only duty was to disappear” and that loyalty to national identity was obsolete. (Decades later Tony Judt would draw on those dogmas in declaring Israel an anachronism in an age moving toward “supra-national” projects like the EU.) According to Linfield, Memmi instead insisted “that Zionism, as the national liberation movement of an oppressed people, demanded the Left’s support.” Still, Memmi said in 1996, “from the moment that Israel came into existence, if it does something stupid politically, I send a telegram to the president of Israel, whom I know, telling him why I don’t agree.”  

Like Memmi, radical American journalist I.F. Stone “viewed his Zionist commitments as the logical, indeed inevitable, extension of his other Left principles,” Linfield writes. Stone, who called himself “a pious Jewish atheist,” drew these commitments from first-hand experience. He accompanied a boat-load of Jewish refugees from Europe to British Mandate Palestine (“a floating Babel,” he called it) and covered Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, “which he celebrated as an anti-imperialist struggle against British oppression and as the long-awaited rejuvenation of the Jewish people.”

Yet, in 1967, Stone performed a dramatic about-face, and charged Israel with “moral myopia” and “Lilliputian nationalism.” In Linfield’s interpretation, Stone “seemed to yearn for the halcyon days when the stateless Jewish people could be moral symbols—brimming with ethical power but devoid of the practical kind.” On this subject Linfield allows herself a personal aside: “The very idea of Jewish political power makes many people I know, especially fellow Jews, squirm with discomfort.”

That same discomfort is palpable in the book’s final figure, Noam Chomsky, a son of cultural Zionists who immigrated to America. Linfield finds the linguist’s vitriolic and widely-quoted fusillades against Israel—including his claims that that a Jewish state cannot be democratic— “startlingly unmoored from actuality.” How unmoored? Chomsky advocates neither a “one-state” nor “two-state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, but a “no-state solution”: the collapse, as he puts it, of “the whole state system.” He does not say why Israel should be the first state to disappear, rather than the last. “Of all the writers discussed in this book,” Linfield concludes, “he is the one whose strict adherence to ideology has most severely handicapped him.”

What of Linfield’s own views? With admirable poise, she assesses political handicaps from a position she characterizes as a “double grief”:

First, I am grieved by the contemporary Left’s blanket hatred of Israel, which has done a tremendous amount to injure not just Israelis but Palestinians too; the glib, often uncritical “solidarity” offered to the latter has been a toxic gift. Second, I am grieved by the trajectory of contemporary Israel, by which I mean the decades-long Occupation; the denial of Palestinian rights to land, suffrage, the rule of law, and sovereignty; and the violence that the Occupation’s maintenance has inevitably dictated.

In her previous book, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence (2010), Linfield argued that photographs of violence teach us something about memory and recognition: we only remember what human rights are through their negation, only when we see “how those without such rights can look, and what the absence of such rights does to a person.” In the present book Linfield does not merely give us an instructive gallery of political pathology; she also persuasively contemplates the whys and wherefores of Israel’s transformation into the screen onto which the Left projects its own anxieties. Her examples disclose through negation how not to think about Israel at a time when unclear thinking is most relentlessly arrayed against it.