The Vexed History of Zionism and the Left

The Vexed History of Zionism and the Left

A Tense Relationship

The vexed history of Zionism and the left.


That Zionism and the left were once on better terms is by now a familiar story. In the years after the Holocaust, leftists in Europe and the United States supported Israel’s founding. The Soviet Union was an early backer and enabled the provision of crucial military aid during the 1948 war (though the Soviets soon switched to backing Israel’s Arab adversaries). Labor Zionism, the ideology of the kibbutzim, spoke of building a model socialist society, and many radicals in the West saw Israel as proof that a socialism gentler than the Soviet variety was possible. Under David Ben-Gurion and his successors, the country’s hegemonic political culture—that of its political and military elite—was expressly secularist and socialist, though more völkisch than Marxist. As late as 1972, Prime Minister Golda Meir was feted by her comrade leaders in Vienna at the 12th Congress of the Socialist International.

Such good feelings were not to last. Things changed—and quickly. Starting in the late 1950s and early ’60s, radicals in the West began to redirect their attention and allegiance to the anti-​colonial movements taking wing in Algeria, Cuba, and Vietnam. Israel, which had partnered with the old European powers in the 1956 Suez Crisis and then with the United States in the 1960s, fell on the wrong side of these revolutionary struggles. The war of 1967 and its outcome only hardened this view. Now Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and East Jerusalem. The dispossession and colonization of the Palestinians began much earlier, of course, but for many on the left, 1967 cast Israel-Palestine in a new light. Israel was now the oppressor, the Palestinians now the oppressed. “In a generation,” Edward Said observed, “the Israelis had been transformed from underdogs into overlords.”

But it was not simply that radicals in the West gave up on Israel; Israel also moved to the right. Victory in the Six-Day War, as Amos Oz later recalled, unleashed “a mood of nationalistic intoxication, of infatuation with the tools of statehood, with the rituals of militarism.” Rather than subsiding, this mood became part of the general attitude of a country engaged in perpetual occupation and war. In 1977, the election of former Irgun commander and right-wing revanchist Menachem Begin ended nearly three decades of uninterrupted Labor Zionist rule. Since Begin’s election, Israeli politics have swung further rightward. Labor Party leaders have led the country for less than eight years total since 1977—Shimon Peres for roughly three, Yitzhak Rabin (assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing extremist) for slightly longer, and Ehud Barak for less than two.

Israel transitioned from a semicorporatist social democracy to a neoliberal economy, as well. Labor, like many social democratic parties at the time, moved away from its socialist roots, embracing austerity and economic liberalization. Peres and Rabin oversaw the privatization of state-owned industries and limitations on the power of the country’s trade union federation. The kibbutzim were privatized and converted into Jews-only gated communities. The country’s leaders began to speak less about building a hevrat mofet, a model just society, and more about a so-called start-up nation specializing in high-tech exports and cyberwarfare. Decades of military rule in the West Bank, combined with the failure of the Oslo Accords and the violence of the second intifada, seemed to remove peace from the national political vocabulary. Perhaps no figure exemplifies these changes better than Benjamin Netanyahu, a commando turned management consultant turned prime minister—and Israel’s longest-​serving premier.

How Zionism and the left came to be so at odds is the subject of Susie Linfield’s most recent book, The Lions’ Den—a work, she explains, aimed at reckoning with her “double grief.” “First,” she writes, “I am grieved by the contemporary Left’s blanket hatred of Israel…. Second, I am grieved by the trajectory of contemporary Israel.” For her, however, the first grief is far more the subject of the book than the second. A collection of profiles of intellectuals who debated “the Zionist Question” in the second half of the 20th century—Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Maxime Rodinson, Isaac Deutscher, Albert Memmi, Fred Halliday, I.F. Stone, and Noam Chomsky—The Lions’ Den devotes only cursory attention to Israeli history and politics. Instead, it’s an extended critique of what Linfield considers the shortcomings in many of these intellectuals’ views on Israel, in particular, their reluctance to criticize Palestinians as stridently as they do Israelis. She is also critical of how their ambivalence (and occasional hostility) toward Zionism and Israel have become central to the politics of the contemporary left.

If the book has a grand claim or central argument, it is that the left “moved from defining itself as anti-fascist to defining itself as anti-​imperialist.” As a result, Western leftists, including many of the intellectuals Linfield profiles, abandoned Israel and aligned themselves as “a subsidiary ally” of what she calls “the anti-​colonialist struggle.” She recognizes that anti-imperialist politics on the left are not particularly new; everyone from Marx and Engels to Luxemburg and Lenin criticized Western empire, and anti-​imperialism and anti-fascism have often gone hand in hand. But her main concern is how these intellectuals’ embrace of anti-colonialism and their growing criticisms of Israel reflect a significant divergence, in her view, from the left’s long-standing commitments and ideals.

Linfield offers detailed, often probing readings of how her subjects adjusted their analyses and ideologies to the complex and ever-shifting political terrain of Israel-Palestine. Yet the cumulative effect is to call into question her overarching claim. Rather than elucidate the reasons the left and Zionism suddenly parted ways, her profiles reveal the tensions that have long existed between Zionism’s exclusionary nationalism and the left’s egalitarianism and internationalism. It is not that the left suddenly abandoned Israel and Zionism but rather that left-leaning intellectuals (though not all of Linfield’s subjects are “of the left”) have struggled to reconcile themselves to the injustices that the founding of Israel entailed.

Linfield charges that these intellectuals, unlike the liberal Zionists with whom she identifies, have refused or failed to understand Israel-Palestine without ideological distortions—which for her means that they did not find the Palestinians just as deserving of their opprobrium. For Linfield, this is not because of a sensitivity to relations of power, a commitment to principles of anti-​oppression, or even her mostly Jewish subjects’ anger about the nature of a state that claimed to speak on their behalf. Instead, she argues, it is because of their blind adherence to “dogmatism, fantasy, and manipulation” and their failure to abide by what she calls, somewhat condescendingly, “the reality principle.”

Cloaking false equivalences and ideology in the language of realism has long been a hallmark of liberal Zionist argument. Liberal Zionists often insist that one cannot condemn Israeli militarism and occupation without an equivalent condemnation of Palestinian rejectionism and irredentism, and they generally maintain that the two-state solution is the only realistic and desirable outcome for Israel-​Palestine. They have held to this line even as the two-state solution has become ever more unlikely, and they have done so by eliding the differences in power between occupier and occupied.

Linfield wants to position herself among those brave realists who are willing to criticize both sides in equal measure and are equally committed to a two-state solution. Yet in doing so, she demonstrates precisely what she finds objectionable in her subjects: a “readiness to substitute ideology [and]wishful thinking…for reality.” The Lions’ Den, it turns out, is less about how the left fell out of love with Zionism than about how liberal Zionists, wedded to their own illusions, fell out of love with the left.

Linfield begins The Lions’ Den with a lengthy chapter on Hannah Arendt. The German-Jewish thinker, as Linfield notes, “came to politics through Zionism and to Zionism through Hitler.” Arendt, notably, never identified with the left, but Linfield nonetheless uses her story to narrate how a major postwar thinker fell out with Zionist politics. In the 1930s, Arendt worked for a group called Youth Aliyah, which took young Jewish refugees to Mandatory Palestine, before fleeing to the United States in 1941. Her early Zionism was born of a frustration with what she perceived as the Jewish people’s collective refusal to act as agents in history and to defend themselves as Jews. (The willed powerlessness of Jews would remain a preoccupation of hers throughout her life.) But if in the run-up to World War II, Arendt embraced a Zionism of necessity, her commitments shifted during and after the war. Facing Europe’s destruction, she concluded (wrongly) that the era of the nation-state had ended and that a sovereign Jewish nation-state in the Middle East was a belated, utopian ideal that could not guarantee Jewish safety. For Arendt, a binational commonwealth or federation in Mandatory Palestine was the only way to avoid a new cycle of protracted bloodletting. She saw in political Zionism not only acquiescence to the idea of anti-​Semitism as an eternal, immutable force in the world but also an ideology that had internalized, even to an extent accepted, some of the Nazis’ depictions of European Jews.

For Linfield, Arendt’s criticism of Zionism and post-1948 Israel offers “a warning—though not against Zionism or the nation-state, as she thought and as her contemporary admirers believe.” Instead, it exemplifies the perils of “imposing abstract political theories, even brilliant ones, on a distinct political problem.” Linfield argues that Arendt’s analysis is marred not only by her “extreme contradictions” but also by her having “retreated into political sentimentality and magical constructs”: her hope for a post-nation-state arrangement and her belief that the competing territorial claims of Arabs and Jews could be reconciled in a federal or binational state. To criticize a thinker like Arendt for being an insufficiently hard-boiled state strategist perhaps misunderstands the function of Arendt’s kind of writing, for she was concerned with the ethical consequences of Zionism. But for Linfield, it is ultimately indicative of what she finds troubling with the left’s approach to Israel and Zionism more generally, the desire to “impose” theories on the realities of Israel-Palestine.

From Arendt, Linfield moves to Arthur Koestler in what is arguably the book’s best chapter. Born in Budapest in 1905, Koestler was a journalist, novelist, and peripatetic revolutionist. He was also a man who, in the words of historian Timothy Snyder, “exposed his mind and body to the fearful spectrum of twentieth-century ideology like a healthy man volunteering for a life of radiation therapy.” As a student in Vienna in the 1920s, Koestler joined a right-wing Revisionist Zionist fraternity that wore military uniforms and challenged proto-fascist Austrian nationalist clubs to duels. He became a fervent follower of Revisionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky and, after graduation, Jabotinsky’s personal secretary. Koestler moved to Mandatory Palestine to live on a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley and hated it. He returned to Europe, arriving in Berlin in 1930, where he joined the Communist Party. By 1940, he had left the party and written Darkness at Noon, his classic novel set during the Stalinist show trials and written from the perspective of a condemned Old Bolshevik. He then became a fervent anti-communist and returned to Zionism.

Linfield charts Koestler’s “Damascene-​like reversals” with sensitivity and skill. Chronicling his journey from Revisionist Zionism to communism, anti-communism, and then a late obsession with speculative histories about the origins of the Ashkenazi Jews, she situates Koestler’s relationship to Zionism within a far wider history, one that includes many of its ideological rivals and that restores a degree of historical specificity to a set of ideas that contemporary debates too often lack.

Unlike Arendt, whose relation to Zionism was mainly that of an engaged critic, Koestler was, for a time, a true acolyte, and so it is through him that Linfield most directly deals with canonical Zionist ideas, thinkers, and texts. Considering H.N. Bialik’s poem “In the City of Slaughter,” which he wrote after the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, she observes how the idea of shlilat ha’golah—the Zionist notion that Jewish emancipation would come only through the negation of diaspora Jewry—​ran throughout Zionist writings at the turn of the century. She does not shy away from detailing the enormous condescension, even disdain, with which figures on both the right and left flanks of Zionism viewed their fellow Jews. She also gestures toward why, for many European intellectuals, Zionism proved so difficult to disentangle from or fully embrace. As Europe’s skies darkened, Zionism proposed that Jewish settlement in Palestine could end two millennia of Jewish dispossession and subjugation, that a Jewish state could provide the answer to the Jewish question. The emergence of a Jewish state, however, marked the failure of the early Zionists’ very proposition; instead of solving the Jewish question once and for all, Israel’s founding ensconced it in the realm of geopolitics.

The chapter on I.F. Stone, the intrepid American journalist, is another of Linfield’s strongest profiles and picks up on the paradoxes of Zionism and the challenges they posed to those who remained on the left in the postwar years. Like Koestler, Stone was born in the early years of the 20th century, and his biography maps onto the American Jewish experience in ways that parallel Koestler’s European one. Like many Jews of his generation, he shifted from a Yiddish-inflected Popular Front leftism that saw Jewish liberation as part of the broader international struggle for working-class liberation to an urgent Zionism of necessity at the end of World War II. In his 1947 Underground to Palestine, he joined Holocaust survivors in their harrowing boat trip from displaced persons camps in Europe to British-​controlled Haifa and came to see Israel’s creation as integral to Jewish security. In the postwar years, however, his narrative diverged from Koestler’s. Stone never renounced his socialism, but he became increasingly critical of what Zionism came to look like in practice. Writing shortly after the 1967 war, Stone lamented the rising militarism and “Lilliputian nationalism” of Israeli culture, which he believed were at odds with his universalist Jewish leftism.

Despite her clear respect for Stone, Linfield is unsparing on this last turn in his political trajectory. She diagnoses him as a victim of “a narcissistic fallacy: the belief that everyone shares your essential aims and worldview” and chastises him for being unable to see “that many Palestinians, and their allies in the Arab world, did not want peace—though he accused Israeli leaders of precisely that.” Stone, Linfield charges, “failed to engage, or even notice, the irredentist strain of the Palestinian movement and the larger Arab world.” Though she may have other left-wing writers of the period in mind, these denunciations of Stone don’t quite hold up to scrutiny. Stone, after all, criticized the refusal among some circles of Arab activists to engage with Israel, and in his 1967 review of Claude Lanzmann’s special Israel-​Palestine issue of Les Temps Modernes—which Linfield harshly criticizes—Stone shows a clear understanding of the popular attitudes toward Israel and Jews in many Arab countries at the time, expressed, as he puts it, in “the bloodcurdling broadcasts in which the Arab radios indulge.”

Maxime Rodinson and Isaac Deutscher are treated to similar criticism. Rodinson, born in Paris to Jewish communist parents who were murdered in Auschwitz, was a Marxist scholar of the Middle East and, in particular, Islam. He wrote about Israel-​Palestine and Jewish politics and contributed an influential essay to Lanzmann’s Les Temps Modernes issue—titled “Israel, a Colonial Fact?”—that helped popularize the anti-colonial analysis of Israel-Palestine in Europe and the United States.

Deutscher, born in southern Poland, was an independent Marxist intellectual and former Talmud prodigy whose family, like Rodinson’s, was destroyed by the Nazis. Best known for his three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky, Deutscher also wrote several important essays, including reportage, about Israel-Palestine. A committed internationalist, he was never a Zionist, yet nor was he an anti-Zionist. Even in his harshest critiques of Zionism—for example, in a June 1967 interview with the New Left Review—he offered insights into Jewish history and suffering with a deep sense of intimacy.

Yet for Linfield, Rodinson and Deutscher are guilty, too, of downplaying Arab opposition and of focusing disproportionately instead on Israeli aggression and the excesses of Israeli nationalism. She writes that “when it came to the Arab world’s reaction to the founding of Israel, Rodinson’s reasoning went askew”; he blamed the Arab countries’ “eliminationist fury” specifically on Israel. Yet this is hardly the impression one gets from Rodinson’s work. In Israel and the Arabs, for instance, he writes with great awareness of the structural reasons for the reactionary and all too frequently anti-Semitic tendencies in Arab societies at the time. Seeing himself as a friend of Arab liberation, Rodinson sought to aid the Palestinian movement by countering Arab misconceptions and myths about Jews (for example, in his article “Arab Views of the Israeli-Arab Conflict”). Contrary to Linfield’s description, Rodinson was not an unreasoning anti-Zionist but rather a committed socialist, internationalist, and atheist who rejected the nationalist chauvinism of Zionism and hoped that it would eventually pass from the scene.

More familiar than any of the book’s other subjects with the most conservative, restrictive, and chauvinist forms of Jewish politico-theological expression, Deutscher, when he visited Israel, recoiled from Zionism’s “nationalist mysticism…a mysticism which is not free of the old Chosen-​People-​racialism.” He saw in the need for a Jewish state and in its successful creation a terrible tragedy, a reminder that the European working class, in which he had once so deeply believed, not only failed to defeat fascism but also joined in the fascist destruction of Europe and, with it, European Jewry. Israel would remain for him, as he wrote in 1954, a “melancholy anachronism.”

Linfield’s frustration with the left’s criticism of Israel and opposition to Zionism increases as she turns to the post-1967 period. Her chapter on Noam Chomsky—who perhaps more than any other American left-wing intellectual has come to represent the New Left’s legacy of anti-imperialism—is the most unduly vicious one in the book. For Linfield, the moral “astigmatism” she ascribes to Arendt, Stone, Rodinson, and Deutscher is even more acute in Chomsky’s writing about Israeli militarism, the Palestinian national movement, and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Linfield opens her chapter by briefly charting Chomsky’s political evolution, from his cultural Zionist upbringing—his father was a Hebrew grammarian—to his teenage identification with Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-Zionist youth movement, to his belief in binationalism until roughly 1975 to his current view that two states remain more realistic than one. And yet this chapter reads less like a survey of Chomsky’s views than a frontal assault on them.

At times, Linfield is merciless in her tabulations of what she takes to be Chomsky’s damning mistakes, from opposing NATO intervention in the Balkan wars to his various factual missteps over the years. She mocks his pedantic tendencies, the self-​referentiality in his books, and most of all what she terms a “crippling ideological rigidity that prevents him from, time and again, apprehending what is happening in the world around him.” Chomsky, Linfield charges, is so detached from reality, so buried beneath the reams of his writings that he lives trapped in his own private world—what Linfield calls “Chomskyland.” And so pernicious are the intellectual exports of Chomskyland, she continues, that their producer has become a “nightmare” of the American left, guilty of misleading “generations of young people.”

The accusation of detachment from reality is one she levies against many of her other subjects: Arendt for her dogged opposition to a Jewish state, Rodinson for his rigid Marxist internationalism, Stone for his humanist wishful thinking. According to Linfield, no one except Albert Memmi, a Tunisian-born French intellectual, and Fred Halliday, an Irish ex–New Leftist, have read reality correctly. But it is in her chapter on Chomsky that the deficiencies of Linfield’s overarching project come into clearest view.

To be sure, Chomsky’s style and tone can be frustrating. He can be prone to overstatement and oversimplification. On the politics of Israel-Palestine, he is, after all, a popular writer. And as is to be expected of someone who has written for more than half a century, he has made mistakes, political as well as factual, some of them serious. Yet he has also been one of the most consistent opponents of US empire, military interventions, and unjust wars, at times when the cost of doing so was high. Chomsky is perhaps one of the best examples to refute Linfield’s repeated claim that the postwar left sacrificed its commitment to equality, anti-capitalism, and anti-fascism in favor of anti-imperialism. If anything, he has embodied the unwavering link between a socialist egalitarianism and an anti-​imperialist internationalism when few self-described left intellectuals dared to fly the flag of either. Like Deutscher and Stone, he has consistently emphasized the connection between inequalities of wealth at home and abroad, and he has focused as much energy on exposing the United States’ repressive measures against its own citizens as on the US military’s violations of human rights and international law overseas.

In the light of history, Chomsky’s record—against the Vietnam War, Israel’s occupation, neoliberalism, and the surveillance state—outshines those of many of his New Left contemporaries, some of whom, by the 1990s and early 2000s, had embraced so-called humanitarian intervention and championed US war-making in the Middle East. Far from a nightmare, Chomsky has been among the American left’s most consistent moral beacons.

For Linfield, the cases of Arendt, Stone, Rodinson, Deutscher, and Chomsky are all meant to prove that an insufficient realism has led the left to disregard history and even to justify terrorism and illiberalism. In her view, this is what separates Memmi and Halliday—her two heroes in the book—from the rest of her subjects: They “allowed history to matter” and “based their political positions on history rather than vice versa.” But as one reaches the end of The Lions’ Den, this assertion becomes not only a platitude but also the mark of an unsteady ideological framework in its own right. All of Linfield’s subjects were responding to history, even if their responses do not align with her political preferences and even if, at times, they got their historical moments wrong. While the conviction, shared by Arendt and Deutscher, that the age of nation-states ended in Auschwitz proved to be incorrect, it was based on their histories of exile and dispossession. The same is true for Rodinson’s rejection of the idea that Jewish suffering in the Shoah justified the subjugation of the Palestinians; he did not want the memory of his dead parents enlisted in such a cause. Stone and Chomsky, too, are thoroughly historical thinkers who adapted their positions to the Middle East’s complex reality.

Indeed, the brittleness of Linfield’s Zionist realism is fully evident in the book’s final pages, where she is most direct about her criticisms of the left. Realism, in her framework, does not mean fidelity to what has happened on the ground. Rather, it is a set of fixed commitments, far more limited in scope than those the left has traditionally held. In lieu of an egalitarian internationalism premised on solidarity with all those fighting against oppression, Linfield suggests that realistic Western leftists should withhold their solidarity from those whose means of struggle they decry. Instead of recognizing differentials of power as part of any judgment about the legitimate use of force, she proposes that the violence of the oppressor and the oppressed should be opposed “in equal measure.” As a result, Linfield’s political preferences lead her to see equivalences where none exist and to flatten complicated and evolving relations of power.

The insensitivity of this approach is clearest in her treatment of the Palestinian Nakba, the expulsion of roughly 700,000 Palestinians from their homes by Jewish forces during the 1948 war and thereafter. At various points throughout the book—for example, when she characterizes the Arab world’s rejection of partition as “a world-historic mistake of unforgivable proportions”—Linfield writes as if the Nakba were something the Arab states brought on the Palestinians. “It is necessary,” she notes, “to document, and condemn, Zionist atrocities during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War,” and yet she adds that “there is no use in evading the fact that the war was instigated by five Arab states, which invaded Israel.” This is realism as a rhetoric of cruelty: the implication that the invasion of the Arab armies somehow justified the displacement of entire Palestinian cities, like Lydda, or the massacres, like the one at Deir Yassin, that frightened many others into fleeing.

Likewise, when Linfield discusses the situation in Israel-Palestine today, she recognizes that the chances of a two-state solution are slim to none yet then concludes that, regardless of what is realistic, those who advocate a binational one-state solution are living in “cloud-cuckoo-land,” a term she borrows from Koestler. She warns her readers in the chapter on Halliday that realism must be “the assertion, not the surrender, of humane and even revolutionary values. Realism is what enables those values to move beyond theory into lived actuality; it is the enactment rather than the betrayal of principle.” And yet Linfield’s own “reality principle” has led her here to suspend the very humanist principles she professes.

Linfield is not wrong that realism raises questions of both principle and necessity when it comes to Israel-Palestine. Today there are two one-state outcomes that appear as likely to prevail as a two-state solution, if not more so. The first is apartheid, the status quo made permanent, a regime that enforces separate legal systems and hierarchies on the basis of ethnoreligious identity and that systematically denies basic rights to roughly half the people living under its control. The second is a single democratic binational state that guarantees equal rights to all people living within its borders. Those who still hold out hope for a two-state solution must at least recognize that it has long ceased to be the most likely outcome, given the facts on the ground—and that if a two-state solution and a democratic binational state both require considerable upheaval, a massive rebalancing of political forces, and sweeping shifts in culture, then neither position can really be called more realistic than the other.

And yet liberal Zionists continue to insist that the only possible outcome is a two-state solution, premised on exclusionary and inegalitarian understandings of citizenship and nationality. This intransigence forces them into ideological contortions: They want to be liberal democrats, and yet they enlist themselves in defense of a country that is currently neither liberal nor a democracy—a country that has codified discrimination against roughly 20 percent of its citizens and that for more than half a century has imposed a brutal military regime on millions of people. They want to be realists, yet what they propose is as much an idealistic fantasy as the binationalism they reject. Linfield defines Zionism as the belief in “a democratic state for the Jewish people,” without acknowledging that a Zionist state cannot be both democratic and Jewish if it guarantees differential rights and privileges on the basis of ethnoreligious identity, denies basic rights to millions of people, and carries out policies according to the racist logic of a “demographic threat.”

It is a testament to the quality of Linfield’s research and prose that The Lions’ Den is ultimately a valuable book despite itself. Whether inadvertently or not, she has provided an accessible and compelling introduction to the work of an eclectic group of thinkers who grappled, often courageously, with the enduring tensions between their leftist commitments and Zionist sympathies across the tumult of the 20th century. Many of these intellectuals should be better known to English-speaking audiences than they are today. And while there are many voices left out—remarkably, the book doesn’t profile a single Palestinian thinker—Linfield has created an anthology of sorts for a new generation of Jews looking to understand how those who came before them criticized Israel, the occupation, and Zionism. They will find much to argue with in The Lions’ Den. But they will also, if they read carefully, learn a lot from it.

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