‘The Lions’ Den’: A Crucial Examination of Zionism and the Left That Falls Short
The first thing to say about Susie Linfield’s The Lions’ Den is that it’s an excellent book on a burning topic. Anyone with even a passing interest in how the academic and political Left, broadly defined, has dealt with the issue of Zionism should start here.
Linfield doesn’t hide her point of view; she openly identifies both with the Left and with Zionism. She has no illusions about Israel’s imperfections, but no illusions either about the dire situation facing mid-century Jews and the cruel fate that awaited the Israelis had they lost wars in 1948 or 1967. Her book doesn’t seek to answer questions about the conflict, but rather to pose some difficult questions for its outsized and cartoonish presence in leftist intellectual discourse. It pulls no punches with its targets. You won’t be able to look at Hannah Arendt the same way again.
The book is organized as a biographical, intellectual history. One chapter each for eight prominent late-twentieth-century left-wing intellectuals who had Israel and the entire project of Jewish self-determination on the mind. The eight are split into three groups: Hannah Arendt and Arthur Koestler are “Europeans”; Maxime Rodinson, Isaac Deutscher, Albert Memmi, and Fred Halliday are “Socialists”; I.F. Stone and Noam Chomsky are “Americans.”
It’s not a very intuitive division of the subjects. It might have made more sense to divide the subjects by their attitudes to Israel, with the bitterly hostile (as at least five, or arguably even six, were) in one section, and the ultimately sympathetic (as two were) getting another. Another interesting division might have been Jewish thinkers in one section and non-Jewish thinkers in another, but only one out of the eight subjects isn’t Jewish. An even more interesting division would have been between the thinkers Linfield is able to take seriously even in cases of obvious disagreement, and the ones she considers to be little more than provocative frauds.
Linfield occasionally goes out of her way to demonstrate her bona fides as part of the community of the good with sweeping denunciations of present Israeli policies, sometimes in overly generalized terms that leave out, for example, the fact that three times in the past 20 years (2000-2001, 2007-2008, and 2013-2014), genuine Israeli compromises on two-state plans (from three very different kinds of Israeli governments) were met with solid Palestinian refusals.
I can see the importance of such markers of membership, and have probably been guilty of similar efforts in my own writing. Yet I was left a bit cold by them, particularly in the book’s conclusion. Not because I don’t agree with her criticisms of Israel’s policies and actions in the occupied territories. But because they are barely relevant to the phenomenon she seeks to understand in this book, and making these sacrificial offerings comes off as a partial buy-in on the very mindset she is holding up to critical scrutiny. The ravings of her various subjects have, for the most part, little to do with Israel as a real country and more to do with Israel as an imagined entity standing in for some global good (in a few of her subjects’ early intellectual engagements) and for a great deal of evil too. Even tying it to Zionism is giving too much credit.
Arendt and Koestler, to be sure, deal with Zionism on its own as an ideology (or ideological cluster) worth examining, accepting, and then recoiling from. But most of her subjects are dealing not so much with Zionism as with anti-Zionism as its own ideological project. Not an opposition to something real, but an oppositional stance as a core ideological commitment — a fully formed belief about what is right and wrong with the world that needs a schreckbild version of Jewish self-determination as an organizing principle. This is certainly true for the two anti-Zionists in Linfield’s section on “socialists,” Maxime Rodinson and Isaac Deutscher, and equally true for the two anti-Zionists in her section on “Americans,” I.F. Stone and Noam Chomsky.
Notably, it is true as well for one of the two dissidents of the book (if it is at all appropriate to use the word “dissident” here). Irish-born Fred Halliday seems at first glance to be the odd man out. He is the only non-Jewish subject, which is doubly odd. If the book’s goal is a survey of Jewish leftist encounters with Zionism, then he doesn’t belong; if the book’s goal is a survey of leftist encounters without an explicit focus on Jews, then Halliday shouldn’t have been alone. He’s exceptional in one even more important way. Though he remains completely faithful to core leftist principles on global politics, he is never able to adopt for himself the obsessive hatred of Israel that gradually becomes a social requirement. As with most of the other subjects, however, his engagement is less with Zionism than with anti-Zionism. But unlike with the other subjects of Lions’ Den, Halliday finds the whole thing rather ridiculous and is unafraid to puncture the hypocritical pieties of his ideological partners.
The book’s true hero, however, is Albert Memmi, still alive in Paris and turning 99 years old this week. The French-Tunisian-Jewish Memmi isn’t just a critic of vulgar Israel-hatred. He is, rather, fully engaged in the cause of liberation of people throughout the Middle East, including in Israel. This is all the more remarkable when one considers how little pull Zionism had on Memmi’s own life and interests. His dissent from the stifling consensus of his peers isn’t just a recoiling at their evident hypocrisy (though it is that too). It is a mature reading of global developments in all their complexity and nuance, with none of the consequence-free self-indulgence of his trendier colleagues.
Linfield’s account of Memmi leaves the reader wanting to know him better and on more topics. The same cannot be said of other subjects in the book. Koestler is outrageous, but it’s not clear that he wants to be taken seriously. Arendt does, but doesn’t deserve it. Rodinson is particularly scandalous.
Linfield’s style is breezy, fun, learned, and razor-sharp. She leavens most of the chapters with humor and occasionally even sarcasm. This was fine for a sympathetic reader like me, but I wonder if it will work on more hostile readers — and more hostile readers need to be reading this book.
All of the book’s greatest strengths and weaknesses come to the fore in the final chapter on Noam Chomsky. The Chomsky story is no bildungsroman. Chomsky’s scholarship evinces none of the falling-in-and-then-out-of-love-with-Israel narrative of, say, Isaac Deutscher.
In fact, it evinces very little evidence of genuine scholarship at all. Linfield makes a forensic analysis of Chomsky’s writings on Israel (and a few other topics in global politics) that leaves little doubt about the merits of his work. Patiently, methodically, and ultimately persuasively, she exposes Chomsky as a charlatan. He is not “controversial” or “partisan”; he is simply dishonest, unserious, and entirely unqualified to be darkening blank pages with his renderings of Israel’s history or politics.
But there’s the nub. While Arendt or Deutscher were arguably interesting subjects even when wrong, Chomsky is not. And that’s where the book’s focus on Jewish intellectuals and on the idea of Zionism, rather than anti-Zionism, comes up short.
Chomsky is not the world’s only intellectual charlatan, but he sells. The Chomsky phenomenon merits analysis not so much on its supply side, as on its demand side. In other words, the interesting question here isn’t, “Why does this Jewish linguist from MIT have such an obsessive dislike of Israel that finds expression in such shoddy research?” The question needs to be, “Why do so many people (overwhelmingly non-Jewish) find his work on the topic so compelling?”
But the demand side of left-wing Israel hatred is largely absent in this volume. The only exception occurs in the introduction, where Linfield suggests that a series of coincidental events in the late 1960’s — a loss of faith in Soviet Marxism (especially after the Prague Spring), frustration with US foreign policy (especially in Vietnam), and Israel’s stunning military victory in the Six-Day War — created a “perfect storm” for pathological obsessive hatred of Israel to assume such a central role in left-wing political and intellectual life. It’s a cogent line of thought and worthwhile hypothesis, which is never really pursued.
Focusing on opposition to Zionism, rather than anti-Zionism as a free-standing phenomenon in its own right, leaves Linfield’s “perfect storm” hypothesis orphaned in the introduction.
Focusing on Jewish intellectuals, rather than the more numerous gentile ones, also means that antisemitism has almost no role to play in Linfield’s analysis. Not that it is entirely absent. The chapters on Arendt, Koestler, and Rodinson all reproduce cringe-worthy quotes from each. They make their subjects much less likable, to be sure, but ultimately play no analytical role in the larger phenomenon Linfield seeks to dissect.
But traditional Christian antisemitism has a genealogical presence in left-wing anti-Zionism at least as large as, say, Marxist anti-imperialism. (Much larger, I would argue.) There are many forms of anti-Zionism out there, including a traditional Jewish theological anti-Zionism, as well as the rejectionist and occasionally eliminationist anti-Zionism that has informed so much of Arab and Muslim politics since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. There are right-wing nationalist forms of anti-Zionism and cosmopolitan forms, too.
The left-wing form of anti-Zionism — the rejection of Israel’s existence, not the criticism of a particular government policy or a social or cultural phenomenon — hews very closely to a traditional Christian conception of Jews and Judaism. It always involved an inherited collective guilt for some great sin in the past that cannot be cleansed. It always sees itself as struggling under the pressures of a large, well-organized international network that is not just evil, but knows it’s evil. It always assumes a bloodlust and, in particular, a desire to murder children. And it is always very defensive about its obvious debt to traditional Christian antisemitism, but in ways that are more revealing than exculpatory.
I have elsewhere referred to this as the dialogue of the deaf on antisemitic anti-Zionism. It usually goes something like this:
A: Israel is massacring babies, and its powerful lobbies have hypnotized the world to hide its evil ways.
B: I’m concerned that some of your remarks on Israel sound a bit antisemitic. Especially the bits about (1) bloodlust and (2) global conspiracies.
A: No you’re not. You are voicing this concern in bad faith. You’re not actually concerned about antisemitism at all, you’re just part of (2) a coordinated effort to divert attention from (1) this bloodthirstiness.
It’s worth emphasizing here that the antisemitism, like the Marxism, is purely genealogical, not evaluative. It’s not the presence or absence of antisemitic motifs that makes this or any other form of anti-Zionism good or bad. Anti-Zionism stands or falls on its own, and needs to be evaluated on its own. And no form of anti-Zionism needs this kind of critical evaluation more than the various left-wing varieties, be they “anti-racist,” anti-imperialist, or any other.
Susie Linfield’s book is a crucial first step in this evaluation. But it’s not enough. As long as we are only interested in the meager supply of cranky Jewish intellectuals churning out low-grade scholarship on Israel’s sins and not interested in the unquenchable demand of a large, politically engaged intellectual community for that supply, we will keep missing the point.
Shany Mor is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Herzl Institute at the University of Haifa and an associate fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.