Book Review | Why the Left Left Israel
The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky
by Susie Linfield
Yale University Press
2019, 389 pp, $32.50
The eight well-known philosophers, historians and journalists who make up Susie Linfield’s portrait gallery are all figures of note on the Left, who, for much of their intellectual lives, were marked by intensely divided feelings about the State of Israel: Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Isaac Deutscher, Fred Halliday, Albert Memmi, Maxime Rodinson, I. F. Stone and Noam Chomsky. At one time or another, many of them would have qualified as Zionists—that is, people who actively supported the idea of a homeland in Palestine for the Jewish people. But after the Six-Day War and the onset of the Occupation, almost all became embittered critics of the Jewish state and, very nearly, unreserved supporters of the Palestinian cause.
For Linfield, a critic and editor who teaches cultural journalism at New York University, a single great change in the political atmosphere at large accounts for this dramatic turnabout: the Western Left’s movement away from its devotion to fighting fascism toward an even greater determination to fighting imperialism. As Israel occupies a sizable amount of Palestinian lands, for the Left it qualifies as an imperialist nation. This development, posits Linfield, “signaled a fundamental shift in analysis, orientation and ethics that haunts debates over Israel to this day.” In Linfield’s eyes, that shift included the abandonment of reasoned criticism and the development of a deeply held animus against Israel, which is now seen by the Left as exclusively a colonizer.
What is most interesting about Linfield’s choice of subjects is that all but one—the outlier is the British New Leftist Fred Halliday—are members of the Old Left, and from the day Israel was declared a state, all were anguishing over its legitimacy. As far back as the 1930s, Arthur Koestler was already writing that while the Jews were not traditional colonialists, they were nonetheless taking over the country. With his customary irony, he declared them “the relatively decent and humane executors of the amoral workings of history.” As the years wore on, the “relatively decent and humane” part of Koestler’s assessment evaporated in the minds of all of Linfield’s subjects, and we can easily see how the critique these theorists made of Israel in the 1960s and 1970s morphed into what Linfield sees as the dangerously prejudiced one practiced by today’s Left: the one that uniformly supports the Palestinians and just as uniformly condemns the Israelis. For Linfield, this development is anathema. On occasion, she observes that both the Arabs and the Israelis are guilty of failing to grasp the simple fact that there is no hope whatsoever of a military victory solving their problem. But only on occasion.
Since 1948 there have been wars, military actions and uprisings without a stop between the Jews and the Arabs. As far as the Israelis are concerned, all their actions are defensive. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, they are fighting a guerrilla war to reclaim what was once theirs. It’s the guerrilla war that most interests Linfield. When you fight a guerrilla war, she notes, terrorism—both casual and concentrated—becomes a way of life. The unforgivable sin with which she charges the Western Left is that, in its zeal to support the underdog, it utterly ignores the barbarism of terrorism as a way of life. And it is in the crosshairs of this misbegotten position on the part of the Left that Israel is caught—caught and crucified. In other words: Once upon a time, criticism of the Jewish state was measured and informed; now it is mean and ignorant, and its blind hatred of Israel-the-colonizer has itself become a crime against humanity.
The Lions’ Den is an exhilarating read, its narrating voice so fresh, so light, so lucid you want to agree with every one of the many judgments and opinions that fill the pages of the book. Linfield also seems to know the history of every position on Israel and Zionism that every one of her subjects has taken at any given moment and to have read everything relevant to that position, and then some. She is the kind of immersion journalist you never want to argue with because you (rightly) suspect that whatever you know, she knows ten times more, and inevitably you will emerge from the disagreement chastised and corrected.
The subjects of this book were themselves formidably self-assured in delivering their impassioned opinions on the Jewish-Arab conflict. In any given instance, over the course of the past 70 years, every one of them has, without hesitation, weighed in on the wrong and the right of the situation at hand. Now Linfield weighs in on them:
“Arendt wrestled with Zionism, and then with Israel, for over three decades with force and passion, respect and scorn…[Her] 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.”
“Koestler’s politics never exactly developed; instead they were subject to Damascene-like reversals. Rupture rather than synthesis was his style…he insisted on either/or dichotomies and deceptively simplified choices: ‘You’re either with us or against us.’ In his analysis of Zionism, this mode of thinking became grossly exacerbated.”
The French intellectual Maxime Rodinson is also guilty of faulty thinking, Linfield writes. He “laid out his indictment of Israel as a colonial state” in an essay many found brilliant but Linfield finds irritating. On the one hand, she says, he makes the case for the justification of the Jewish settlement in Palestine (where else were they to go?); on the other, he reverses himself, seeming to argue that “only the insult to Arab pride matters.”
The only two thinkers in the book Linfield clearly respects are the Tunisian socialist and novelist Albert Memmi and the sole gentile in the bunch, Fred Halliday, both of whom draw back—way back—from outright condemnation of Israel. Indeed, by the time we get to the last two portraits, this reader, at least, begins to feel a bit on overload. In these chapters, the famously independent-minded journalist I. F. Stone and the equally famous linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky are nailed to the wall because of the steady drumbeat of critical opinion both have leveled at Israel for lo these many decades. For Chomsky, especially, Linfield’s scorn knows no bounds: One would think he’d never had a true or honest thought in his life.
Nonetheless, the reader—any reader—will put this book down feeling grateful to have been in the company of a satisfying piece of prose applied to an immensely stimulating subject. The Lions’ Den is clearly and unapologetically a polemic, of the kind that reminds us how rich and lively such writing can be.
Vivian Gornick is an essayist and critic. Her most recent book is the memoir The Odd Woman and the City.