How the Israeli Left Lost It
Review of The Crack-Up of the Israeli Left by Mordechai Nisan, Canada: Mantua Books.
“When It comes to defaming Jews, the Palestinians are pisherkes [pipsqueaks] next to Ha’aretz.” — Philip Roth, Operation Shylock
When the German Parliament, in spring of this year, declared, by a large majority, that the BDS movement is an antisemitic campaign in direct line of descent from the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses and products, the most fierce and intemperate attack on the Germans (for pointing out the obvious) came from prominent figures in Israeli journalism and academia. Ha’aretz, long ago labelled by Steve Plaut (Israel’s Jonathan Swift) “the Arab paper written in Hebrew,” led the charge against the German parliamentarians for coming to the support of their country. They were joined by more than 60 deep thinkers who argued, in an online petition, that the “amalgamation” of calls for boycotts with antisemitism “is wrong, unacceptable and a threat to Germany’s democratic foundation.”
While some of the signatories — who included well-known professors from universities in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Beersheba — may dislike BDS a bit, “we all reject the fallacious claim that the BDS movement as such is anti-Semitic [sic], and we defend every person and every organization’s right to support it.”
Israelis of this sort are the primary subject of Mordechai Nisan’s new book, The Crack-Up of the Israeli Left, although he also excoriates numerous “foreign Jewish Leftists” and their non-Jewish allies. He pays particular attention to the dogmatism and dictatorialness of the anti-Zionist leftists in academia, cousins of the Philistines whose despicable antics today roil the campuses of Yale and NYU and Oberlin and scores of other deeply troubled places.
The domination of Israeli campuses by leftist faculty is coextensive with the history of the Zionist enterprise. Nisan suggests, for example, that the Revisionist sympathies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s father Benzion Netanyahu probably explain why the foremost historian of medieval Spain spent his academic career in Ithaca, NY (Cornell) rather than Jerusalem (Hebrew University). A less well-known example might explain the strenuous though unsuccessful opposition, during Brandeis University’s early years, to granting tenure to Marie Syrkin, a major figure in the Zionist movement as well as a distinguished poet and essayist. Among her colleagues were the non-Zionist Irving Howe and the anti-Zionist Herbert Marcuse.
Nisan knows that intellectuals in countries other than Israel have often tended to adopt the motto “the other country, right or wrong.” But they do not generally arise within 50 years of a country’s founding, and in no case have they cultivated their “alienation” in a country whose “right to exist” is considered an acceptable subject of discussion among otherwise respectable people and nations. Midge Decter put the matter shrewdly in May 1996: “A country only half a century old is not supposed to have a full fledged accomplished literary intelligentsia. … This is an extravagance only an old and stable country should be allowed to indulge in.” On May Day, 1936 the Labor Zionist leader Berl Katznelson angrily asked, “Is there another people on earth whose sons are so emotionally and mentally twisted that they consider everything their nation does despicable and hateful, while every murder, rape and robbery committed by their enemies fills their hearts with admiration and awe?” Nisan locates this perversion on the Israeli Left, and especially its professoriat.
The heart sinks, the mind reels to learn that the odious doctrines of “diversity” and multiculturalism (a euphemism for cultural deprivation) have spread from American universities to Israel, where the institution whose very name means “out of many, one” pursues its opposite: race-thinking. Nisan cites a notorious recent example, much beloved of feminist Israel-haters: “One of the most weird and morally staggering innovations at the Hebrew University, was a student’s sociological research on Israeli soldiers who, despite the alleged wicked occupation of the territories, refrain from raping Palestinian women. The researcher concluded that Jewish soldiers were racist and exclusivist in refusing the opportunity to exploit Arab women as sex plunder.” To this does race-thinking come.
The Crack-Up is an openly partisan book. Nisan dons no masks, and immediately reveals his sympathies in the book’s dedication. “Dedicated to the memory of all the Israeli victims of savage Palestinian terrorism, who were callously betrayed by treasonous and defeatist policies, and to all the many hundreds of Israelis slaughtered and maimed with the launching of the delusional Oslo peace process in 1993.”
Nisan describes, plausibly yet perhaps imprudently, his “own unpleasant encounters with a few Hebrew University professors, who were my ostensible colleagues … and demonstrated adversarial demeanors.” A friend of mine who taught at Mount Scopus’ Truman Institute for Peace once told me he was “the only Jew there”; and he later fled to Oxford, that much older home of “lost causes, forsaken beliefs, impossible loyalties.”
Nisan lays primary blame for the oppositional attitude of Jewish intellectuals upon what the great novelist Aharon Appelfeld called “antisemitism directed at oneself.” But Nisan lists baser motives as well: “It is good business to be a leftist. You get funded from foreign antisemites, you get to travel around the world, speak on distinguished panels, enjoy extensive media coverage, and receive praise from a variety of prominent people and noteworthy organizations. Fame, though short-lived, is an attractive commodity, though tarnished by infamy forever.”
Edward Alexander is the author of numerous books, among them Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew and Jews Against Themselves.