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From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel, by Robert Wistrich (REVIEW)

avatar by Edward Alexander

Noam Chomsky. Photo: Duncan Rawlinson.

“We Shall Build Ramallah in England’s Green and Pleasant Land”

From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel, by Robert Wistrich (Lincoln, Nebraska and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 625 pages.

Robert Wistrich, professor of Modern European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University and Head of its Vidal Sassoon Center for the study of Antisemitism, is the Leviathan of antisemitism scholarship. Antisemitism is the subject of most of his previous twenty-five books, which means that, in addition to more cerebral gifts, he has a very strong constitution. Most people, if forced to choose between studying the ravings of Karl Marx (“Polish Jews are the filthiest of all races”), Bruno Kreisky (“political grocers like Begin, a little Polish lawyer, or whatever he was”), Noam Chomsky (“antisemitism is raised as an issue because [Jews] want to make sure they have total control, not just 98% control”), and undergoing exploratory surgery, would choose the surgery. Wistrich’s previous book was entitled A Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad. From Ambivalence to Betrayal begins in the nineteenth century and narrows the focus to Jew-hatred’s (currently dominant) leftist strain, which has reformulated the older antisemitic question—”Do Jews have the right to live?”—to “Does Israel have the right to exist?” The question changes, but Jewish dread of denial of that right remains the same.

The book is divided into three sections : The Antisemitic Question; Nationalism and Internationalism; Anti-Zionist Mythologies. They include short intellectual biographies (of Marx, Bernstein, Mehring, Lazare, Kautsky, and Trotsky, among others); histories of movements and ideas (social democracy, nationalism , internationalism) and deconstruction of grotesque “ideologies” such as Marxist- Islamism and Jewish anti-Zionism. “Ideology,” said Lionel Trilling, “is not the product of thought: it is the habit or the ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding.”

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Wistrich’s declared aims in From Ambivalence to Betrayal are to analyze “the complex interaction between Socialism and the Jews, the Jewish involvement in radical movements, and …antisemitism as well as anti-Zionism on the Left.” His analysis is strongly influenced by three facts: 1. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the retreat of Marxism into English departments, anti-Zionism has become the required ticket of admission to acceptance in “progressive” and left-wing circles. 2. “Jews themselves…have played a central role in the framing of anti-Zionist thought ever since the time of Theodor Herzl.” 3. In the last two centuries far more Jews have been lost to socialism than to Christian missionaries. Wistrich’s remark about Bolshevik leaders–“Like Lev Kamenev, Grigorii Zinoviev, Karl Radek, Steklov, Sverdlov, and Uritsky, [Trotsky] had severed all his ties with Judaism, with the Russian Jewish community, the Jewish masses, and Jewish history”—applies to nearly all the Jewish leftists he surveys.

Wistrich does allow for exceptions, cases where ambivalence does not end in betrayal. There is Pavel Axelrod in Russia, wondering (pathetically) whether Jews have the “right” to respond hostilely or even indifferently to a “truly popular movement” when it takes the form of a pogrom, and finally deciding that they do. The most notable exception he treats is the pro-Dreyfusard Bernard Lazare, who had the courage and integrity to break with “the tenacity of left-wing antisemitism” and its dominant assimilationist ideology. Lazare’s excoriation of assimilated French Jews, to be sure, extended well beyond leftist betrayers of Jewish solidarity: “As in all countries where the Jews have been emancipated, they have voluntarily shattered the solidarity which existed among them…so that even if some three dozen of them were to be found to defend one of their martyred brothers, thousands would have been found to mount watch around Devil’s Island, along with the most devoted champions of the fatherland.”

Perhaps it should also be noted that no Jewish ex-socialist turned more violently against assimilation than I. L. Peretz, who goes unmentioned in the book, but had this to say after the pogroms that accompanied the Russian revolution of 1905: “In the hands of the Jew, the reddest of all flags has been placed forcibly and he has been told: ‘Go, go on and on, with all liberators, with all fighters for a better tomorrow, with all destroyers of Sodom. But never may you rest with them. The earth will burn under your feet. Pay everywhere the bloodiest costs of the process of liberation, but be unnamed in all emancipation proclamations…You are the weakest and the least of all the nations and you will be the last for redemption.'”

The “ambivalence” in Wistrich’s title alludes to the difficulty socialists have often had in keeping their hatred of capitalism free from infection (or outright conquest) by calumny against Jews. Jews always presented an easy target because of their tiny numbers and enormous image (inheritor of Judas, Christ-killer, agent of Satan, bloated capitalist, corrupter of the young, Zionist imperialist and occupier). “Socialist thought,” he argues, “was tainted from its very origins with the heavy baggage of anti-Jewish stereotypes…” The book’s fifth chapter, “Anti-Capitalism or Antisemitism,” takes up socialist ambivalence in its purest form– in a Gentile unencumbered by Jewish descent and the “self-hatred” that often accompanied it in Germany and Austria. Franz Mehring, a German historian and revolutionary socialist, first encountered “the Jewish question” in Berlin in the 1870s, at the very dawn of antisemitism in its modern, political form. At first he was disturbed by it, and even criticized rabble-rousers like Adolf Stocker for unleashing “the three most potent sources of hatred known in history: a religious, a racial, and a class conflict.” He also seemed a distinct improvement over such Jacobin revolutionaries as J. G. Fichte, who saw no way to protect Germans from Jews except “to conquer for them their promised land and pack them off there.” But soon Mehring wavered, and conjectured that the Jews were themselves responsible for the violence unleashed against them. Jewish Berliners did, after all, have “alien, unpleasant, or at least unaccustomed features … Jewish vulgarities and ill-manners.” He “looked into the antisemitic riots in Pomerania” and decided that the real terrorists were the liberals who wished “to suppress free speech when it came to the ‘Jewish Question.’ ” Soon he was unable to attack capitalism at all without taking up the Judenfrage. If antisemitism was objectionable, it surely was preferable to what he labelled “philosemitism,” the defense of rich Jewish capitalists, a far greater threat than the sloganeering of semi—literate Jew- baiters. (Readers unfamiliar with this material should remember that antisemitism and philosemitism are both terms invented by German Jew-haters. The latter was used to disparage people they deemed unduly sympathetic to Jews; and for socialist Mehring, this meant primarily liberals.)

Parenthetically, it should be noted that Wistrich’s laborious tracing of the twists and turns of this “ambivalent” second-rate mind would be tedious if not for the fact that virtually every one of Mehring’s anti-Jewish canards astounds us by its immediacy today. Dignifying calls for “shooting Jews dead” or for “wiping Israel off the map” with the euphemism “criticism of Israel” and vilifying Jewish objections to those rallying cries as “attempts to stifle free speech” are now standard practice for George Soros or J Street or Walt and Mearsheimer. The polemical strategy of holding Jews responsible for the violence committed against them probably reached its zenith in Hannah Arendt’s accusation [in Eichmann in Jerusalem ] that European Jews had cooperated significantly in their own destruction, but it continues to do very well today.

Betrayal of the Jews by non-Jewish leftists like Mehring and Karl Kautsky, inheritors of centuries of religious Jew-hatred, seems, at first, less a cause for surprise than that of Jews themselves. Having myself spilled some ink on this subject of Israel’s Jewish enemies, I can report that there are always readers who express astonishment that there are Jews who question the Jewish right to live, or hate Israel and are ashamed to have a state. Surely they are as rare as singing mice and card-playing pigs? “On the contrary,” I always reply, “they are so numerous that an encyclopedia would be required to treat them adequately.” By this I do not refer merely to the size of the task but to its intellectual complexity. One would need an encyclopedia, ordered not (like the Britannica) by the alphabet but by what Francis Bacon called “circle learning” or the vast circle of knowledge around a particular subject. This is what the prodigiously learned Wistrich attempts.

In the last section of his book, “Anti-Zionist Mythologies,” “betrayal” tends to blot out “ambivalence.” This is especially the case for Great Britain, where Wistrich was raised, educated, and also—it is worth noting—”radicalized” prior to making aliyah to Israel, where he became editor of the leftist journal New Outlook. Although Britain has not (yet) reached the level and intensity of Muslim violence against Jews that exists in France, it has experienced enough to require armed guards at Jewish schools and to warrant parliamentary investigation. British academics with “progressive” credentials originated and still lead the boycott of Israeli universities; British trade unions promote the boycott of Israeli goods; British playwrights perpetuate the Blood Libel, quite as if they were living in the Middle Ages. A socialist millionaire named Ted Honderich constantly asserts that “The Palestinians have a moral right to their terrorism…no less to be reverenced than the fact of Jewish lives now rooted in Israel.” This “ethical” defense of violence and mass murder did not prevent Honderich from holding the Professorship of Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College, London, or from being named chairman of Britain’s Royal Institute of Philosophy. Another progressive London University academic named Jacqueline Rose illustrates William Buckley’s allegation that in England antisemitism is not just a prejudice but a way of life. She too is in love with Palestinian suicide bombers, whose “culture” she constantly celebrates. A member in good standing of that large group of British leftists known as “the Jews of shame,” she is embarrassed by Israeli actions, and (like the late Tony Judt, an English export to America) would very much like the country to “abolish itself,” i.e., to cure her shame by destroying its cause. Her relentless attacks on Zionism consistently illustrate what William Hazlitt called “the ignorance of the learned.” For example, her obsession with the Jewish-Nazi equation (common currency in British official circles in the Middle East since 1941, and now beloved of all leftist Israel-haters) is such that she once claimed Hitler and Herzl received the inspiration for their most famous books (Mein Kampf and Der Judenstaat) by attending the same performance of Wagner in Paris. She is a star attraction in England’s ferociously anti-Israel literary fortnightly, the London Review of Books. Wistrich points out that more than half of LRB articles painting Israel black as Gehenna and the pit of hell are written by Jews; and a third of those Jews are Israelis whose motto is “the other country, right or wrong.”

But even Judt and Rose were too squeamish to spell out the name of their desire, or just what “abolishing” the Jewish state might actually mean. This distinction was left to the unrepentant Jewish communist, the late Eric Hobsbawm. David Pryce-Jones recalls witnessing the following exchange : “At a dinner to which we were both invited , Hobsbawm first glorified Castro’s Cuba to another guest, the British ambassador there at the time, and then went on to say that a nuclear bomb ought to be dropped on Israel, because it was better to kill 5 million Jews now than 200 million innocent people in a world war later.” (National Review, October 29, 2012). Beautiful and touching words—from the Honorary Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, also Fellow of the British Academy, also Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; also member of the Order of the Companions of Honour.

People expecting moral probity from England’s “progressive” Jewish academics should also try warming themselves by the light of the moon.

All in all, it is a sad picture that Wistrich paints. But let us not despair prematurely: rumor has it that English schoolchildren, especially in the Midlands, are still singing William Blake’s hymn in the mornings, with only a slight change in wording: “We shall build Ramallah in England’s green and pleasant land.”

From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel (Lincoln, Nebraska and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 625 pages.

Edward Alexander’s latest book is THE STATE OF THE JEWS: A Critical Appraisal (New Brunswick, NJ and London: Transaction Books , 2012) .

This article was originally published by The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs Volume 7 No. 2.

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