A Walk in the Lions' Den: Zionism and the Left
I was on a speaking tour discussing "When Zionism Became a Dirty Word." My wife warned me that I will be walking into a lion's den.
Susie Linfield was at a pleasant, tony New York dinner party, until she realized she was in the lion's den as the only Zionist present willing to speak up. The experience inspired her book, The Lions' Den: Zionism from the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky (Yale University Press, 2019). The book is a brilliant, intellectual, sociological exploration of eight popular, prolific thinkers and writers. Her focus is on their ideologies regarding the modern Jewish people; our track-switch from religious faith to political and military creeds; and the great love of our life, the inamorata State of Israel.
Israel was conceived, founded, and remains in stewpots of controversy and derisiveness. At the dinner party, one guest disparagingly dismisses the work of a particular journalist because, "oh, he's a Zionist!" Condescension fills the air. Then Linfield retorts with, "'Well, so am I.' A frozen, stunned silence ensues ... [as] they shoot pitying glances at my partner."
Linfield's subjects are not all consumed by anti-Israel ideology. Maxime Rodinson, Albert Memmi, I.F. Stone, and Fred Halliday intellectually and ideologically struggle about Israel's right to exist and the behavior of the Jews and Arabs. "Rodinson was acutely aware of, and unsentimental about, the consequences of the Arab world's underdevelopment, which is part of the realist Marxist tradition." The book "is not a general survey" of the Left's relationship with Zionism or the relationship of Jews with the Left. It is a series of portraits uncovering a rich, fraught, sometimes buried intellectual history, tackling "the Zionist Question." The points of view of her subjects are meticulously researched. There are 34 pages of footnotes and an equally long bibliography.
I find Linfield's scathing assessment of Noam Chomsky's unwavering commitment to internationalism and his pattern of thought daring in her world at NYU. "His loyalty to principle has morphed into a crippling ideological rigidity that prevents him, time and again, from apprehending what is happening in the world around him. He views the reassessment of ingrained ideas as a betrayal of principle rather than as the wellspring of intelligence ... in a very real sense he has fallen asleep ... [like] the dreaded Rip Van Winkle." Chomsky and other anti-Zionists oversimplify their ideologies and arguments about the Palestinian-Israel conflict. Amos Oz was moved to say in an interview, "[T]o a certain degree I envy these people. Theirs is a simple world."
Stone is presented in a buttery fashion. Stone has become "a beacon for me. He has so much to teach: about how to be a journalist, an American, a Jew, a defender of freedom, a person of courage." Too many other leftists appear contradictory and calcified.
The Lion's Den is not a roadmap to peace. It's a sagacious exposé about "the crux of this conflict" and offers tremendous insight into many of today's other contentious issues: BDS, reactions to refugees, the occupation. The reader feels that the author is sensitive to the Left, but she has a supercilious response to their downplay of what Jews see as existential threats. The intellectual Left pays short shrift to the cumulative impact on the mind of the Jews from the expulsions, pogroms, the Holocaust, and how nations sealed their doors to prevent Jews from entering after escaping from Nazis. Some on the Left justify as acceptable strategies Arab wars launched against Israel, their intransigence against normalizing relations with the Jewish State, and terrorism that has morphed into pay-for-slay of Jews.
Linfield, however, is no sycophant. She upfront expresses her criticism of the State's policies and actions, including settlers in Hebron who do not represent "Zionist values," but "they have re-created the despised, endangered, and ghettoized position of the Jews that Zionism was designed to eradicate. Talk about the return of the repressed!"
She wears her sympathy for a two-state solution on her sleeve but asks the Left: what kind of state will the Palestinians create? A free, democratic state respectful of gays, women's rights, minority rights? Or will a Palestinian state be more in the fashion of repressive Hamas in Gaza, Hezb'allah in Lebanon, and the ayatollahs in Iran? She concludes with a warning to the Left, Jews, and Arabs: "The opposite of realism isn't principle; its pathology. To reject realism makes you — and your children — into slaves of the past and strangers to the future."
My warning to readers draws on the caveat of sociologist Andrew Chrucky: "not [to] confuse influence and popularity with importance." The intellectual leftists are popular but hardly important in defining the actions of adversaries. Israel will not just disappear. Palestinians are unlikely to become Democrats. The timely question in this age of conflict denouement is, how far will the new Jews with nuclear weapons go when facing utter calamity?
Dr. Harold Goldmeier is manager of an investment fund, a university teacher, business consultant, speaker, and writer for many sites and newspapers. He is a graduate of Harvard and was a research and teaching fellow. He can be reached at Harold.Goldmeier@gmail.com.