The Lion’s Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky
(Susie Linfield: Yale University Press, 2019)
Reviewed by Peter Eisenstadt
Zionism and the Left. What a depressing subject! You know that a book with that as its subject will not have a happy ending, and that you are in store for tales of broken romances, failed friendships, and angry divorces. And yet, for those of us who still endeavor to stretch and contort ourselves to somehow remain faithful to both “Zionism” and “the Left,” it is an essential subject. We were intrigued to learn that a 2012 trip to Hebron on a Partners for Progressive Israel Symposium was one of the inspirations for the book. In any case, The Lion’s Den – it is not clear if the Zionists or the Left get to play the lions – is a particularly gripping, personal, and sometimes idiosyncratic tour of the terrain.
The title is a little misleading. Those looking for a chronological history of the entwined fates of Zionism and the left from the 1940s to the present, from, say, the Weavers’ 1950 hit recording of “Tzena, Tzena” to recent left discussions of Israeli apartheid and articles on the “Black-Palestinian racial imaginary,” will have to go elsewhere. Instead, Linfield provides a deep examination of eight authors who have written prolifically on the question of Zionism and Israel: Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Maxime Rodinson, Isaac Deutscher, Albert Memmi, Fred Halliday, I.F. Stone, and Noam Chomsky. Of course, for any book of this sort, one can quibble about the choices. Arendt and the post-Darkness at Noon Koestler were not really persons of the “left,” and one might think for a book of this sort, an Israeli or two would have been appropriate, such as the late Uri Avnery or Amos Oz. Or perhaps a figure such as Edward Said, who probably has shaped left attitudes toward Zionism more than anyone else over the past generation. That said, Linfield’s choices were shrewd. I particularly liked reacquainting myself with Albert Memmi, whose writings on colonialism and the French misadventures in North Africa are at least as trenchant as those of Frantz Fanon.
However, it is clear that Linfield’s main focus in this book is not the left in general, but the Jewish left. Only one of her eight portraits concerns a non-Jew (Fred Halliday, probably her favorite of the eight). She writes of how they wrestled with the particularity of their Jewishness and the universality of their left commitments, and how almost all of them came to wash their hands of Zionism. Linfield wonders why, and seeks to rehabilitate left Zionism.
Linfield is an exhilarating writer, often witty and wise, directly engaging and arguing with her subjects; sometimes admiring, often eviscerating. A few portraits stood out for me. One would think there would be little left to say that is novel on the saturated subject of Hannah Arendt and the Jews, but Linfield accomplishes the task. Arendt’s comments in 1948 on the negative political and psychological impact of a newly independent Israel perpetually surrounded by hostile Arab nations have often been praised for their prescience. For Linfield, however, Arendt’s writings on the Israeli-Palestinian question are weak and confused, an example of how “one shaft of insight can morph into sightlessness.” She finds Arendt’s refusal in 1947 and 1948 to embrace the need for Jewish sovereignty maddening, with Arendt sticking to her failed preconceptions of what a Jewish homeland could be in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
There can be no doubt that Arendt’s strengths and weaknesses often have a common source, starting from her tendency to observe the day to day stuff of politics from the peak of Mount Olympus, and her penchant for making absolute distinctions that are less clear-cut than they seem. These are certainly on display in her extensive writing on Jewish topics, culminating in what probably remains the most controversial book ever written about Israel, Eichmann in Jerusalem, whose fatuous aspects Linfield deftly skewers. But with regard to her warnings about the dangers of perpetual conflict between a Jewish state and hostile Arab populations, Linfield is too harsh, criticizing Arendt for the unrealistic nature of her ideas about how to solve the problem. Arendt was not the first, and certainly not the last writer on this topic whose diagnosis of the problem was more acute than her proposed solutions.
Most other writers profiled (except for Memmi and Halliday) fall short of Linfield’s standards, many of them singled out for their lack of insight after 1967 when they were insufficiently critical of the PLO. Linfield is an admirer of I.F. Stone’s early writings on Zionism such as his heroic reportage in his 1946 book Underground to Palestine. His passionate support of the right of the Jews to a state was only tempered by his worry that he was unable to find any Palestinian who agreed with him, but he supported Jewish statehood nonetheless. However, she finds his post Six Day War views less impressive, and accuses him of committing the “narcissistic fallacy” of thinking the fedayeen, terrorists, and revolutionaries that came to prominence in the war’s aftermath as amenable to rational discourse as himself. If not all of his statements hold up well a half century later, Linfield reminds us elsewhere that remaining completely consistent in one’s views on Israel and Palestine over many years is “a dubious virtue.” Rather than narcissism, I would argue that many of Linfield’s subjects were guilty of the “fallacy of hopefulness, ” believing that, in the words of Bob Dylan, “there must be some way out of here” when there probably wasn’t. She excoriates Chomsky for his mid-1970s turn to PLO boosterism, and what she calls his “anti-imperialist attention deficit disorder,” and her analysis of Chomsky’s shortcomings in marshalling his facts is fairly devastating.
Linfield’s main point in The Lion’s Den is that all too many voices, on the left and, a fortiori, on the right, have “had the greatest difficulty in seeing Israel, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in their particularity rather than stand-ins for other struggles and histories”, and that the authors discussed in the book, for the most part, “have refused the harsh, complicated realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict, preferring to project their a priori theories, hopes, wishes, and antipathies onto it. This has hobbled them as analysts and activists.” She believes that, again and again, Jewish thinkers on the left have judged the sometimes ugly nature of Jewish particularism more harshly than similar behavior in other ethnic or religious groups, whether out of embarrassment or confusion.
There is something to this, though it is hard to get around the feeling that it has been less Jewish particularity as such than the evil of the occupation that has soured much of the left and the Jewish left on Zionism. Her hope is that after peeling away layer after layer of preconception and misconception, we can get to a basic level of truth that is beyond the exaggerations and willful misconstruing of any side. For Linfield, this truth is that Israel, with all of its flaws, cannot be wished away by the heavy application of left anti-Zionist rhetoric. The aspirations of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples for national self-determination are the irreducible fact of the conflict, and ugliness in seeking to realize them does not void the legitimacy of those aspirations.
I am certainly in agreement with this, but when it comes to contested historical truths, getting to the “thing-in-itself” is always a challenge. To give only one example, I am very sympathetic to Linfield’s argument that reducing Israel simply to a “settler-colonial state” is a great distortion of a far more complex history. Zionism was not created by the Great Powers, and the perpetual oppression of the Palestinians was the farthest thing from the minds of the early Zionists. On the other hand it is hard to separate the Balfour Declaration from Britain’s ambitions for the post- Ottoman Middle East. The 1947 Partition Plan, whatever its virtues, was forced on an Arab and Muslim world by a United Nations dominated by the western powers. Needless to say, the main reason Israeli settler-colonialism has become such a dominant left-wing trope, the occupation, has less to do with the history of the conflict than its current morass. To call Israel a settler-colonial state is to make one sort of simplification of a more complex reality; to deny that Israel has its roots in settler-colonialism is to make another. And as for a more complex historical view? Sure, but for most people, discussion about the Israel-Palestine conflict is a zero-sum game where any nuance is seen as naiveté at best and treason at worst, and truth is less important than rendering a verdict of guilty or innocent. And how we get beyond this, I do not know.
Linfield’s animus, throughout, is directed at left-Zionist proponents of binational or a single state, from the Yishuv to the present, seeing such views as wishful fantasy masquerading as policy analysis, a way for Jews to atone for the sin of Jewish nationalism. For Linfield, the two peoples are too different, their aspirations too incommensurate, their shared history too bitter, for them ever to be peacefully contained in a single political entity. The book closes with a dissection of contemporary ideas about a single state. Her critique is very much on target. A single state, she demonstrates, is not at all “realistic.” But are the hopes for two states any more realistic? We can start from the obvious fact that the current governments of Israel and the United States have no interest in pursuing any two- state option, and it is difficult to imagine a two-state model that could satisfy the security needs and demands of Israel and the aspirations of Palestinians for a state that would be genuinely sovereign. And one can further ask Linfield if, given the current political situation, there is anything at all realistic about a left-wing, “third way” Zionism, given the repeated and decisive rejection of this perspective by the Israeli electorate.
The indisputable fact regarding the Israel-Palestine problem right now is that for all potential positive alternatives, it is far easier to make the case for their probable failure than to reasonably predict their possible success. And when realism leads one to conclude that the most likely outcome of the current situation is something akin to apartheid in the West Bank and God know what in Gaza, realism needs to be supplemented by what one ancient observer of the Middle East called “the evidence of things not seen.”
In the end, Linfield’s syllabus of errors makes for bracing, essential, and riveting reading for anyone concerned with the intersection of left politics and Zionism. Whether one calls oneself a left-Zionist, a non-Zionist, or even an anti- Zionist does little to change the need to reckon with the aspirations of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. The starting point, as she rightly insists, for any way forward is to try for an unblinkered clarity of vision about what is actually happening. And if Linfield, in my opinion, sometimes relies too much on arguments that fall short of this, she is just like everyone else who has tried to make this most intractable of conflicts a bit more amenable to a possible solution. If the Zionist left can do nothing else in this time of woe, it can at least study where it has been, learn from past mistakes, and better prepare for the bitter battles certain to come.
Peter Eisenstadt is an independent historian who lives in Clemson, South Carolina. He is completing a biography of the African- American religious thinker Howard Thurman, to be published by the University of Virginia Press