Susie Linfield’s, The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky,”(Yale University Press) and Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation, (Olive Branch Press), edited by Carolyn L. Karcher, published around the same time in 2019, are very different books.
Linfield’s deeply researched volume surveys with nuance and detail the views over decades on Israel and Zionism of eight prominent thinkers. Included are Hanna Arendt (perhaps best known for her “Eichmann in Jerusalem”), Isaac Deutscher (the respected biographer of Leon Trotsky), I. F. Stone (publisher of the eponymously named Weekly, which critiqued the foreign and domestic policies of the United States), and Fred Halliday (a Middle East scholar with a background in the anti-Vietnam War movement). All but Halliday, whose father was a Methodist and his mother Catholic, are Jewish. Halliday’s work centered largely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran and the consequences for the region of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Linfield is a journalism professor at New York University. The evaluation of her subjects’ views on Zionism and Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict seem to be influenced by the degree that she considers them sympathetic to the dilemmas faced by Jews, Israel and Zionism.
She describes how Arendt began working with Zionist organizations in Berlin after the torching of the Reichstag in 1933 and describes her Zionism as defensive — the Zionism of catastrophe, spurred by anti-Semitism, failed assimilation and worldlessness — rather than a positive one centered on the flourishing of Hebrew culture and of Jewish independence as valuable in themselves. Arendt, Linfield tells us, recognized “the inability of Palestinian Arabs and Jews to see each other’s reality,” and correctly concluded that, “Without an accommodation between Jews and Arabs, Israel would always be imperiled.”
However, Linfield continues, it was inconceivable to Arendt, “that Jews could fight and win…that they could sustain an independent political presence, on terms of equality, within the league of nations.” For Linfield, how Arendt “obtained the information on which her views were …is unclear.” Moreover, in Linfield’s view, Arendt “distanced herself from the tangled political realities and limited political choices in Palestine.” Thus, she concludes, while Arendt “can’t be faulted for failing to see the future…she can be faulted for failing to see the present.”
Linfield tells the reader that I. F. Stone, “was right about the unequivocal need to end the Occupation, but wrong to assume that this would necessarily lead to peace. He was right about the need for two states, but wrong to think that its only opponent was the Israeli Right.”
She argues that, “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,” and she chastises him for refraining “from calling out the revolutionary suicide of Yasser Arafat, who was leading millions of followers to disaster.”
Linfield is even more critical of Chomsky. She gives him credit for warning that the post-June 1967 Occupation, Israeli repression of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinian terrorism might combine to destroy Israeli democracy and destroy what was of lasting human value in the Zionist ideal.
The quandary, as Chomsky described it in the late sixties and early seventies, was that “Israel wanted peace and national survival, but it refused to acknowledge the just national aspirations of the Palestinians; yet the Occupation of the Palestinian territories would not end until Israel’s national legitimacy was accepted, its security guaranteed, and the irredentism of the PLO abandoned.” However, beginning in the early 1980s, Linfield tells us, Chomsky began to argue that in the second half of the 1970s the PLO and the Arab nations accepted Israel and sought a peaceful, political, two-state solution. Linfield does not see things that way. She argues that from this point Chomsky’s analysis was not based on the actual on-the-ground, highly complex history of the conflict and the region.
She writes that, “Chomsky has little understanding of the role of violence in the Palestinian movement” and that, “even after if officially renounced terrorism in 1988, the PLO continued to practice it.” She charges that, “Chomsky’s work on the Arab-Israeli conflict is not political analysis or research-based history in any recognized sense of those terms but, rather, an expression of wishful thinking about might-have-beens. Instead, he has created, “a fictitious Palestinian movement,” and, “Whatever one’s politics, it is simply impossible to understand the conflict from his work.”
Koestler comes in for the harshest criticism. Linfield titles the chapter on him, “The Zionist as anti-Semite,” and writes that, “As he aged, Koestler’s views on the Jewish Question became increasingly extreme and peculiar. ”She writes, “those views along with his strenuous attempts to divorce himself from the Jewish people and his belief that Jews themselves were the cause of anti-Semitism – raise important issues about the role of Jewish-self-criticism within the Zionist movement.” This, Linfield argues, is because “many of Koestler’s views endure within the Diaspora today, especially among Jews on the left who are most critical of Zionism.”
Regarding Maxime Rodinson, a French Communist and then an independent Marxist, Linfield reports that, like Koestler, Rodinson believed that Jews were in large part responsible for the hatred of them and that the “sense of Israel as a personal affront runs throughout his work.” Still, she says, Rodinson, “repeatedly departed from the presumed implications of his colonialist analysis to defend Israel’s right to continued existence as a majority-Jewish state.”
Linfield goes relatively easy on Deutscher, who was never a Zionist. She notes that it “is impossible to understand Deutscher’s views on Zionism, or any political issue, without grasping Trotsky’s influence on his thought,” and concludes that, “he was a deeply conflicted Jew.”
Linfield views sympathetically Albert Memmi, an Arab (or Mizrahi) Jew and left-wing Zionist, who left Tunisia after it became an independent state and then settled in France.
He was critical of Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens, its prejudice against Sephardic Jewish immigrants, the influence of the rabbis, and, after 1967, the Occupation. However, he also “sharply reproached the Left’s recurring failure to understand the nature of Jewish oppression and the Zionist movement.” He saw Israel as “our only real card, and our last historical chance,” and “envisioned Israel as the center of Jewish identity around which the Diaspora would reorient itself.”
In his view,” the destruction of Israel would be a greater tragedy than the Shoah precisely because Israel represented the will to survive and a conscious act of regeneration.”
But it is with Fred Halliday, born in 1946, that Linfield feels most intellectually comfortable, a kindred spirit. Linfield describes the left in which Halliday came of age as a movement within which the Palestinian struggle reigned supreme. “Especially after 1967, anti-Zionism would become a foundational – perhaps the foundational – principle for the new Left,” and violence, especially Palestinian terrorism, would replace of “the slow hard work of organizing ordinary people to effect political change.”
In 1971, Halliday, in his twenties and an editor at the Marxist New Left Review, “disparaged criticism of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s airplane hijackings as a ‘bourgeois’ hang-up.” Later, however, while he continued to condemn the Israeli Occupation and rightist Israeli politicians, “he became sharply critical of the Left for ignoring, excusing, or supporting the terrorist crimes, religious fanaticism, and exultant militarism of groups like the PLO, Hamas, and Hezbollah,” and judged “the Second Intifada and its suicidal bombings to be a political and moral disaster for the Palestinian people rather than an inspiring example of armed resistance.”
In the seventies and eighties, Halliday, “came to question the methods and accomplishments of the self-described anti-imperialist movements,” and in 1983 he broke with the New Left Review. Looking back at the 1967 Six-Day War, “he observed ‘a triumphalist intransigent nationalism [pitted] against an often chauvinistic nationalism and blind rejectionism dominant among Arabs,” and he became pessimistic about a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
While he continued to support Palestinian statehood, in a 1981 article entitled “Revolutionary Realism and the Struggle for Palestine,” largely addressed to the Palestinian movement and his colleagues in the Western and Arab Lefts, he “demolished Left positions on partition, Israeli sovereignty, a Palestinian military victory, and binationalism.” He called for “a mature internationalism” and argued that “realism, as opposed to escapist utopianism,” was “manifestly absent” from discussions of Israel.
At the same time, Halliday also sharply criticized Israel for its own irredentism, denial of Palestinian statehood, and self-destructive racist intransigence toward the Palestinians. He argued that a socialist position on Palestine must include the acceptance of an Israeli, as well as a Palestinian right to self-determination.” A two-state solution was the only viable one.
The article was published in MERIP Reports, “a highly informed, widely respected journal of Middle Eastern politics that was (and is) consistently supportive of the Palestinian cause and hostile to Israel.” Thus, “Halliday was walking into the lions’ den.”
Linfield sees Halliday’s journey through the New Left as, “both unique and emblematic. His ideas, especially about revolution, imperialism, democracy, and human rights changed dramatically in reaction to tumultuous world events over the course of four decades.” As a young activist and scholar, Halliday immersed himself with hope in the revolutionary movements of his time. However, the Iranian Revolution, “introduced him to new and disturbing complexities….Here was a revolution that was genuinely popular and genuinely reactionary.”
Halliday’s views on Israel and Palestine were an important part of his “political odyssey.” As with the Irish conflict within which he grew up, he “came to support a compromise solution that would recognize the legitimate national aspirations” of both sides. For this change, Halliday was excoriated by others on the left as a turncoat and pro-imperialist apologist. But, Linfield argues, “it was precisely Halliday’s intellectual flexibility – his ability to derive theory from experience – that was one of his greatest strengths.”
Linfield begins her book by telling us that in researching her book she was forced to examine and reevaluate her own views, and she voices substantial criticism of Israeli policies. She asks, “How did Israel, through the ruinous settlement project, come to recreate itself as a ghettoized minority amongst a hostile population?”
She agrees with Chomsky that Israel has been guilty of horrific war abuses in the Occupied Territories, as it was in Lebanon during the 1982 war. She is grieved by “the trajectory of contemporary Israel…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…the Occupation’s noxious offspring within Israel itself: chauvinism, religious fundamentalism, intolerance, attacks on democratic freedoms, and sheer racism.”
She describes the 2018 Jewish Nation-State Law as “a horrible leap backwards.” And she reveals that she makes her criticisms, ”precisely as a left-wing Zionist,” who hopes that Israel ends the Occupation and rejuvenates its humane principles.
Yet, while Lindfield acknowledges Israel’s numerous shortcomings, she also blames the victims. The Palestinians have been kept in a cruel political limbo and in impoverished refugee camps not only by the Israelis, Linfield tells us, but also by their “brothers” in the Arab world, and by their own leadership. They often have, she charges, refused political solutions in favor of insisting on an “ephemeral” right.
She also ignores significant changes in the Palestinian position and in that of the Arab states and mischaracterizes the positions of Iran and Hamas, for example, and of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for seeking to “delegitimize Israel.”
Linfield devotes substantial attention to PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004. But she does not mention Arafat’s successor, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who has long adhered to non-violent resistance and focused on diplomacy and Israel’s failure to abide by international law. Similarly, she does not mention the Arab Peace Initiative of March 2002 while criticizing the non-violent anti-Occupation Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which Abbas supports.
Linfield also claims, that “It is not true that Iran is part of the ‘international consensus on a two-state settlement.’” But Iran has said it would support any solution that the Palestinians agree to. Furthermore, at an extraordinary meeting in December 2017 of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Iran signed onto a summit communique and detailed summit resolutions supporting a two-state solution and an “independent and sovereign Palestinian State on the borders of 4 June 1967.” (Iran had abstained in 2005 when the OIC voted in favor of the Arab Peace Initiative.)
“Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism” is an anthology of essays from forty individuals. All are Jewish. Most of the contributions are quite short; the longest is about seventeen pages. Unlike the eight authors whose work Linfield analyzes (of whom only Chomsky, at 91, is alive), the authors of the first-person accounts in “Reclaiming Judaism,” are very much alive and remain committed activists. A number are quite young – some in their twenties and thirties. In general, they reflect the views of the cohort of younger American Jews who are more willing to criticize Israel and Zionism than their elders.
They come from many backgrounds. They are religious (including several rabbis) and secular. Some are Israelis in Israel and abroad. Others are American Jews who have visited or lived in Israel, some for years. A number are former settlers in the West Bank or Gaza. Nearly all previously identified as Zionists. For most of the contributors, a critical turning point in their attitude towards Israel and Zionism was Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and, more prominently, the invasions of Gaza beginning with Operation Cast Lead in 2009.
The narratives they provide also are quite different. However, all share a strong commitment to Judaism and Jewish values although they are often dismissed as self-hating Jews. They believe that by-and-large Israel is being treated and criticized for its policies like any other state and not out of anti-Semitic sentiment.
The writers openly acknowledge that the creation of Israel resulted in an injustice against the Palestinians that persists to this day, and they stress that as Jews they must oppose a state that privileges Jews and discriminates against non-Jews. One asked himself, “How could Judaism, defined by social justice and community, have been corrupted in this cruel [Israeli] nationalism?” Another writes, “I identified with Palestinians because of the Holocaust, not in spite of it.”
Many feel betrayed by their one-sided pro-Zionist upbringing. One is angry that, “the Jewish community that I poured so much trust and energy into has shown me a fabricated truth.” Another had “a sense of shame, guilt and anger at the Jewish community that had brought me up while keeping critical information from me and from others.” Carolyn Karcher reports that, “Like all the other Jews I knew, no matter how liberal, I harbored prejudices against Arabs that I would never have entertained against any other national or ethnic group – prejudices that kept me from socializing with my husband’s Arab colleagues at the World Bank.” One is aggrieved that, in her Jewish community, “Palestinians did not exist at all, other than as sad victims of their own leaders.”
Apart from the moral and ethical concerns regarding Israel’s behavior that contributors to “Reclaiming Judaism” express, some also worry that Israel’s policies make Jews less secure worldwide.
Henri Picciotto, who grew up in Lebanon and came to the US in 1967, acknowledges that anti-Semitism exists in Lebanon and more generally in the Arab world. “Still,” he writes, “my own experience was that I had no problems growing up Jewish in an Arab country – until June 1967.” He adds that, at the time of Israel’s creation, his parents also experienced anti-Semitism. He concludes that, “if the Palestinian Israeli conflict is not resolved, things will continue to be rough for Jews in the Arab world and elsewhere. That is one of the terrible consequences of Zionism.”
Karcher cites the case of Dorothy Naor, who emigrated to Israel in 1958 and heads New Profile, which seeks to counter the militarism prevalent in Israeli society. She now believes that, ”Israel’s unending wars and displays of military might have made Jews ’less secure’ there than ‘anywhere else in the world’.”
For some, the change in their attitudes towards Israel/Zionism and their support for Palestinian rights was gradual and occurred over many years. One contributor, grew up with no attachment to Israel but came to live on a kibbutz when his sister emigrated to Israel. He subsequently joined a number of Jewish organizations including the conservative American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Jewish Federation, the Jewish National Fund, the New Israel Fund, J Street, and, most recently, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), founded in 1996. Many contributors to “Reclaiming Judaism” are JDS members.
JVP distinguishes itself from its predecessors in embracing, “people with a range of views on difficult topics like Zionism and the right of Return.” In 2015, after years of internal discussion and reflection, it endorsed “the full BDS call.” Rebecca Vilkommerson, JVP’s executive director until recently, writes that JVP, “knew that there was a significant proportion of Jewish people who wanted to support the BDS call, and that was not reflected by the actions of any Jewish institutions.” She adds that, “The BDS movement’s adherence to universal values [is] evident in the way that over and over again its members have spoken out against anti-Semitism.”
JVP remains small compared to the Jewish organizations that support Israel on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But it has grown rapidly in recent years and now has more than 250,000 supporters in over eighty countries. AIPAC, a kind of umbrella organization, remains the largest and most influential pro-Israel group in the US. But it appears somewhat diminished and is increasingly challenged by groups such as JVP, IfNotNow, Open Hillel, Peace Now, and J Street, which strongly opposes the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
AIPAC also seems increasingly aligned with the rightist Likud party in Israel and the Republican party in the US. Of the large field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, only Senator Cory Booker, who dropped out of the race in January, attended this year’s AIPAC conference. Former Vice president Biden said, after receiving criticism, that he planned to attend to criticize the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, a move supported by Israel. In the end, he provided a video message for the conference.
Linfield’s book has been reviewed in the New York Times, Commentary magazine, and the Nation. “Reclaiming Judaism” has not, as far as I know, been reviewed by any mainstream publication. Yet, this is an important book that deserves more attention. My sense is that it is the more balanced work. I encourage readers to go through both and make up their own mind.