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May 27, 2013 8:19 am

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

avatar by Edward Alexander

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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.”

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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  • Tony Bellchambers

    This reviewer is deluded. He grossly misrepresents Arendt, Rose, Judt and other highly respected Jewish commentators in order to make a hysterical attack on modern Jewish intellectual argument. As usual, here is a good example of bigoted thought masquerading as scholarship.

    • Funny your last name is ‘Bellchambers’, because what I’m hearing following your mini-exhalation are, in fact,echoes.

      Reviewing the hysterics, hyperbole and hatreds of myriad overlapping and ever-persistently pathological groupings is not ‘bigoted thought.’ (I forgot ‘hackneyed’) You’ve got it backwards – like others lost in the intellectual alluvium – and should right the equation in order to reflect where, and with whom, the problem of Antisemitism truly resides.

      And please correct the ‘gross misrepresentations’ of the intellectuals you mentioned, at least as a courtesy, since you’re calling the reviewer delusional and a bigot. Finally, why not provide an alternate recommendation for readers on the subject to peruse in the meantime?
      Aggressive, fist-pumping identity-politicos, with PhD’s, remain at the front of BDS, and perfectly edify the sickly devolution of the American academy, into a hostile arena for victimhood culture to incubate, and climates of hatred to unfurl under the fraud of ‘academic discourse.’

      Left unchecked, this virus will bleed into the mainstream, as it already has. Palestinians, polar bears, and ‘popular people’s movements’ define contemporary campus environment. This insipid process is quickly followed by Balkanization, based on sufferings (real, or manufactured), organized finger-pointing, and yes, more uber chic Palestinianism.

      How bloody awful it’s become.

      Britain’s been lost to her Muslims. The sun has indeed set, and the colonialist’s chickens have come home, with sword and Koran in-hand, to roost. They’ll continue to appease, in true British form, but never forget to keep a stiff upper lip about it.

      Where are we America?

      Are we on the same wretched trajectory as the UK, with their publicly self-transcendent fetishes? The envy of Jews will never end, and the underlying ‘Jewish Question’,within this context, (that cancer of Jewish ‘anti-Zionism’ to Antisemitism)will ultimately be resolved by lancing these growths, on an otherwise ineffably exquisite collective.

      Look at the Hebrew Calendar.

      Any doubts?

      • tom

        Greg mate, I bet you were an apartheid supporter as well. Justice will prevail even with people like you and your negativity around.

  • Every one of my (many ) secu-liberal Jewish friends need to read this great book, why there is yet time. I dare say they have no idea of the anti-Semitic monster they are in bed with or what Jewish blood may be on their misguided hands.


    • wendy joseph

      You’re wrong, Wolff Bachner. I am not Jewish by religious faith, but being of Lebanese ancestory via my father, I am as Semitic as any Jew. Certainly Semitic enough for the death camps. I find your language to be inflammatory and insulting, to tell you the truth. You need to study ALL the facts, or were you simply being reactionary?

      • Antisemite does not mean hate of semites, but, particularly, hate of Jews. The Arab Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Al Husseini, was welcomed in Berlin by Hitler.

  • jzsnake

    Sad but necessary to read an article like this first thing in the morning.

  • Lynne T

    J. P. Satre put it well when he said that if there were no Jews, the antisemites would invent them.

  • jansuzanne

    Can anti-Semitism exist without Jews? Who will the rest of the world blame if Jews and Israel are annihilated? The answers to these 2 questions tells the story of human fear, the need to control others…and the depths people will go to in order not to take personal responsibility for their lives.

    • tom

      Actually buddy seems like Muslims are the ones getting blamed at the moment. Just read the newspapers pal. Don’t worry white people will never be blamed for anything.

  • Marta Mikey Frid

    Brilliant review of a brilliant book I could not put Wistrich’s book from the moment I got it. I think I have underlied every sentence. It has become my best reference book.

  • Otto Schiff

    There is no doubt in my mind that the anisemites
    rather than the Jews are the problem.
    Every Jew hater has some obvious problem, otherwise
    he or they could find better things to do.
    I am an anti antisemite because those bastards could find something more useful to do.

  • Nice review. Will check out Wistrich’s new book. And yours as well, Edward. Good on you both.

  • Michael Garfinkel

    For years I have been perplexed by the virulence of Jewish self-hatred – the legions of Jewish enemies of their own people.

    I have read many books about this, but have yet to come across a reason or a cause that is persuasive, let alone dispositive.

    Clearly this terrible problem persists unabated.

    • A visceral desire to assimilate tends to cause some Jews to want to be more Gentile than the Gentile. And what better way than to eviscerate one’s own kind in the belief you will be loved for it.

    • Cat K

      It has always been obvious to me that self hatred is a response to world wide genocidal hatred. The false choice, psychologically, becomes either being the target of hatred or the seemingly more powerful hater. Some have called this “identification with the aggressor.”
      I have observed that the state of being hated illogically by the world and throughout history is especially hard for some (Jewish) men. A lack of sincere faith and practice of religion in a community of coreligionists tends to exacerbate this difficulty. Once he identifies primarily with the larger (non-Jewish) culture, their knee-jerk hatred of the Jewish other becomes his, as well. Of course, many leftist women also fall prey to this.
      As a Jewish person, I feel the constant but usually unspoken pressure of hatred, but I cannot seem to hate myself. It may be some difference in psychological make-up, such as moral development, or life experiences or simply that I am interested in history and reasonably well-informed.

  • Your not going to obliterate anti semitism. It’s too popular a concept and way too convenient. In the end, it’s a strong Israel and a strong and committed diaspora. We need more Sheldon Adelsons, Mike Bloomberg take note

    • Steven Kalka

      We need more Mel Brook’s humor to reduce our enemies to dancing, singing buffoons. Here’s my sample:

      [Did you hear about the latest treatment from the Palestinian Center for Holistic Medicine?

      “Boycott Israel and call me in the morning.”]

  • Julian Tepper

    Superlatives are insufficient to extol this article.

    I hope that readers understand the writer’s use of “Ramallah” and will take the trouble to acquaint themselves with Blake’s poem, “Jerusalem,” the musical versions of which they heard in “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” and “Chariots of Fire,” the title of which comes from the poem and the song’s lyrics.

    Here, for convenience: Music by Sir Charles Hubert Parry and arranged by Sir Edward Elgar. Words, of course, by William Blake (who is probably most remember for “Fire, Fire, Burning Bright), with prior help from Milton. The piece is now regarded as England’s unofficial anthem. Please watch this until the very end:

    And here is another quite different version recorded seven years ago, in tribute to Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s version of forty years ago (the album cover for the latter appearing in the background, partially obstructed:

    And, of course, the poem, itself:

    • Julian Tepper

      I meant, of course, “Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright.



  • Jacqueline

    I disagree with the Author of this article on Hannah Arendt’s book Eichman in Jerusalem She blamed the Jews for marching to their death by not fighting back.

    • shoshana

      I do not klnow how old you are, but 1- the nazisere a powerful army when the juws where a minority of citizen, unarmed and generally facing the other populations hostility.
      and another fact that most countries tend to forget, or maybe they prefer not to mention is that many, I insist:MASNY jews in France, Belgium Hplland and other countries managed to join the resistance against the greman army in their counties (an this when they were not “transfered” to the germans by their neibours) I totally deagree with Hannah Arendt position, let us not forget that she lived with a german.

      and also in quite a few gethos in Poland there have been armed reactions from the Jews, the mos known is the heroic fight of the Warsha getho.
      Europe saw Hitler’s actions and kept quiet, as long as it did not touch them directly, and anyway, as long as they mistrated the Jews….it didnot matter to them!!!

      • shoshana

        sorry for the mistakes, I reacted fast

  • Shalom-Hillel

    It’s always the same. It’s not that they are antisemitic; it’s that the Jews are profoundly guilty. They can’t see beyond their old obsession. Every feverish new era of it brings a new justification.

    • Shalom-Hillel

      BTW, looking forward to this phenomenal Wistrich work. What a well-written review, too!

    • shoshana

      in French we call them :les Juifs honteux= the shamefull Jews. and yes, they should be ashamed that they refuse to keep there heads up, and I do not accept the fact that maybe because of the many years of hate, they began to think that maybe we are responsible. To consider this self hate as a desease is wrong in my eyes

  • E.S.Lombard

    It can hardly be ad nauseum when all its fascinating pathologies are there to dissect and discover all the amazing permutations of such complex and involuted self-hatred. How the heart and mind can be so warped by so many different routes.

  • Fredric M. London

    Very well thought out and written. A masterpiece.

  • Jews have almost ZERO understanding and awareness of how deeply they have been infiltrated by their Roman enemies. The Vatican/CIA sponsored Sabbateans and Jacob Frankists are not Jews. They are Vatican spawned anti-Jews, and they need to be exposed for who and what they are.

    • dcdoc

      Oh my, Mika is here to repeat the same paranoid schizophrenic fantasies he spills out in comments to The Augean Stable.

  • Jews have almost ZERO understanding and awareness of how deeply they have infiltrated by their Roman enemies. The Vatican/CIA sponsored Sabbateans and Jacob Frankists are not Jews. They are Vatican spawned anti-Jews, and they need to be exposed for who and what they are.

  • aall55

    There are times of anti-semitism , and in between those times, there are times of speaking , analysing, studying the why of anti-semitism .

    At the end, we have anti-semitism at nauseum.