Book Review | The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky

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The Lions Den book coverHow to Annoy People and Save Israeli Democracy at the Same Time

The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky

Susie Linfield

Yale University Press

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when Zionism was as much a project of the Jewish left as it was of its right-wing partners, perhaps even more so.

David Ben-Gurion and many of the founders of the state were committed socialists, and the parties of the left, like Labor and its predecessor, Mapai, held the office of the prime minister from 1948 to 1977, to say nothing of their dominance in the Knesset. Support for Israeli self-determination was never popular with the anti-nationalist left abroad, but among the left more broadly speaking, Zionism was a serious intellectual project to consider for many thinkers, one you could even support. Golda Meir was once deputy chairwoman of the Socialist International organization, for God’s sake.

Today, it is obviously a much different story. It’d be difficult to imagine a future in which Zionism was considered by the left as anything but the ideological justification for the occupation of the West Bank at best, or a pretext for apartheid at worst. How did this happen? Who and what is to blame?

Susie Linfield, a professor of cultural journalism at New York University and a Zionist, tries and mostly succeeds in her quest to answer this question in The Lion’s Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, released in March. Linfield wants to know: “How did Zionist … become the dirtiest word to the international left?” But on the other side, how did Israel “come to deny the national rights of a neighboring people and to violently suppress them?”

Linfield provides eight capsule biographies of prominent left-wing thinkers of the 20th century, seven Jews and one Irishman: Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Maxime Rodinson, Isaac Deutscher, Albert Memmi, Noam Chomsky, I.F. Stone and Fred Halliday. Each grappled intensely with the question of Zionism, and each evolved significantly over time. It is through their grappling that Linfield seeks to understand what happened.

Those who come out looking good are those who are able to maintain an internal consistency, even if they don’t necessarily support Zionism for the entirety of their intellectual lives.

Interestingly enough, it’s Halliday, the lone non-Jew, who walked into the titular lion’s den by holding the position guaranteed to infuriate the most people: that blind support for Palestinian nationalist violence in the name of anti-colonialism is short-sighted, delusional and plainly at odds with leftist thought, and that the actions of the Israeli government toward the Palestinian people are plainly racist, brutal and constitute the “suicidal obstinacy of the Zionist movement.”

That is an extremely difficult line to walk (it’s also more or less the position of left Zionists who actually live in Israel — call it Michael Sfard Zionism). But it is the one that Linfield clearly finds to be the most ideologically consistent and defensible.

On the flip side, there are those whom Linfield deems to have contorted themselves into impossible positions to castigate Israel. In Chomsky, she writes, “the flight from reality reaches its apotheosis.” He is emblematic, she says, of the delusions needed to excoriate Israeli nationalism, nominally on the basis of opposition to the latter, while giving uncritical support to fundamentally reactionary nationalist movements in most other cases, which would seem to make the case that the opposition was in fact to the former.

Linfield more or less blames a culture of virtue signaling and fear of appearing unwoke for this sort of lazy criticism of Israel, which leaves a little to be desired in an academic text.

Ultimately, Linfield’s ideas for action aren’t too different from those advanced by Peter Beinart, who in 2012 advocated a boycott of settlement products while rejecting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement at large. Americans (American Jews, especially) who aren’t willing to simply wash their hands of the conflict, and instead want to manifest a vision of a productive leftist Zionism, Linfield says, have an obligation to support the dwindling Israeli left — organizations like B’Tselem, Peace Now, Breaking the Silence, etc.

“Why should we allow Jared Kushner and Sheldon Adelson to define the term ‘pro- Israel’?” she writes. Rather than boycotts, “thrillingly theatrical” as they may be, Linfield writes, the only true path to a lasting solution for the preservation of Israeli democracy is through engagement.

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