Why and how the left has shifted on Israel

Submitted by AWL on 17 July, 2019 - 8:31 Author: Susie Linfield
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Susie Linfield, author of The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left, talked with Martin Thomas from Solidarity.

Many of the eight writers you analyse had their thinking on Israel shaped by Stalinism. But you don’t mention Stalinism.

That was most true of Maxime Rodinson. He was a Stalinist, and even after he left the Communist Party, he remained a Stalinist. Then in some ways he substituted what he called the Arab Revolution for the Soviet Union.

He was acutely aware of the regression, autocracy, dictatorship of the Arab states. But at many times he tried to overlook that.

Isaac Deutscher was different. He was basically a Trotskyist, but he believed a “democratic Communism” would emerge in the Soviet Union. He was also very critical of Maoism. He wrote to the effect that it was too bad that socialist revolutions had happened in the underdeveloped world rather than the more developed countries, but that was how history had unfolded, and we had to live with it.

Alberto Memmi never, I think, looked to the Soviet Union. Arthur Koestler joined the German Communist Party and then became crazily anti-Communist.

Noam Chomsky has always been clear that Stalinism, Maoism, Trotskyism are all antithetical to his thinking.

Stalinism had defined alignment with the supposed “Arab Revolution” as a “left” stance as early as the late 1920s. Stalin’s support for the Jewish community in Palestine in 1947-8, driven by hopes of disrupting the British Empire, was a temporary wobble on that path.

Rodinson was living in Damascus and in Lebanon during World War Two. Describing his circle of associates there, he writes to the effect that “we viewed the UN Partition vote in 1947 in the same way that people viewed the Hitler-Stalin pact”. He went along with it, but he was surrounded by people who thought it was a travesty.

Rodinson also knew a lot about what was going on in the Arab regimes. He knew that Iraq under Saddam, or Syria under Assad, had nothing to do with socialism, and he sometimes criticised them; but I think he still looked to the Arab states, or at least to what he called the Arab masses, as representing a transformative project, or at least a potential one.

Unlike some other intellectuals, Michel Foucault for example, he immediately saw that the Iranian revolution was a regressive disaster.

Fred Halliday came of age politically in 1968 in Britain, when much of the left was not lookingto the Soviet Union. He is the figure in the book who became most disenchanted with theidea of “anti-imperialist revolution” as equalling a transformative socialist project.

Halliday, when young, was a disciple of Deutscher.

He was also very much influenced by Rodinson’s writings on the Arab world and on Islam.

And Chomsky came into politics as an activist against the Vietnam war, in a politicalenvironment shaped not just by opposition to what the USA was doing in Vietnam but also by the idea that Ho Chi Minh and his associates represented some sort of progressive,liberating revolution.

Yes. I remember that. I was only in high school then, but there was a tremendous belief inthe North Vietnamese revolution.

How did you make the choice of whom to discuss in the book? Why, for example, notinclude Edward Said? Or Hal Draper? Or Moishe Postone?

Thinking about it now, I wish I had included Said. Actually, the choice was a bit of a game of telephone, where one writer led to another.

For example, I was reading a book by Michael Walzer, and he mentioned Memmi. I hadn’tread Memmi, but once I started, I was fascinated.

I knew that I wanted to begin with Arendt, though it took me a long time to wade through allher writings and figure out what I thought.

From a certain point I knew that I would end with Chomsky, because of how influential he ishere in the left.

I had long been a big admirer of Deutscher’s biographies, and I was interested to see whathe had to say. I knew that I would include I F Stone. First off, I admire him as a journalist andfor his anti-McCarthy stance. My parents read him when I was a kid, and I think that in termsof views on Israel he was very influential in the USA not just among leftists but also amongliberals.

Hal Draper? I’ve heard of him a little bit. Maybe if I do a second edition I could include him.But he’s not very influential in the USA.

Moishe Postone? I’m an admirer of his work, but I fear he has little influence here, exceptamong a small group of academics.

As you said, you remember the left of the early 70s, which was mostly saturated with the idea that the revolution was happening in Vietnam. How did your thinking about politics develop in the decades after that?

Like many left-wing Jews, I was very critical of Israel, but back then I wasn’t particularly interested in the Middle East. My formative influences were the civil rights movement and the movement against the Vietnam war.

Then for many years I was much more interested in feminist politics. I was very influenced by Silvia Federici and Selma James and Wages for Housework.

In the 1990s, with the end of the Soviet Union, the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia made me think anew. Like a lot of people formed by the Vietnam movement, I began to reassess the question of military intervention.

I started thinking a lot more about the Middle East pretty late. What jolted me was 9/11. I started reading a lot more about what was going on in the Middle East. I had always subscribed to MERIP Reports, but now I came to think that something systemic was wrong in the Arab world.

Some people may think that is a very “Orientalist” thing to say, but I think many Arab intellectuals would agree that it is true.

I belong to a group called the New York Institution for the Humanities. I was put in charge of organising a series of talks about 9/11. We had all sorts of different speakers — Iraqis and Iranians and Palestinians and Israelis — and I was listening pretty carefully. Each of them challenged many of my preconceived notions — and my ignorance. I started reading a lot.

Also, when I wrote the chapter on Robert Capa in my photography book, I realised how passionately pro-Israel he was when he covered the 1948 war. And not just he, but a whole panoply of left-wing activists who saw the fight for Israeli independence as part of the anti- imperialist struggle: England was the imperialist, and those terrible feudal Arab monarchies. I started to think about how differently things are seen today.

Teaching at a university in New York, you can’t not be aware of just how reflexively anti-Israel — I don’t mean just anti-Occupation, but anti-Israel — the whole left is now. Most of the lefty professors at NYU [New York University] are pro-BDS.

I was aware of a sort of Pavlovian anti-Zionism. Of course vehement criticism of Israel is absolutely justified, but by “Pavlovian” I mean that the hostility to Israel is a reflex, often without any historic knowledge.

British political culture has been shaped over decades by a strong “Arabist” current in the ruling class — with the idea that Britain would do well in the Arab world were it not for the uppity Jews — and more recently by an “absolute anti-Zionist” activist left which is much more influential than its equivalent in the USA. But how does that reflex hostility to Israel arise in the USA?

In all honesty, most people on the left here know little and care less about the Arab world. The left here has for the most part been shockingly silent about the Syrian civil war.

But there is an obsession with Israel-Palestine, which is really an obsession with Israel — and frankly, I think, with the Jews.

My university has a campus in Abu Dhabi, which is completely financed by a sheikh. Talk about corruption! Abu Dhabi has an appalling human rights record. There was a meeting at NYU in New York about the campus in Abu Dhabi and the lack of academic freedom — but the discussion kept going back to Israel, as if people couldn’t focus on anything but Israel.

Whatever you think about the Israel-Palestine conflict, it has absolutely zero to do with the repression in the Gulf states.

To what extent has that culture been shaped by the writers you mention?

Especially among young people, to be anti-Zionist or to have a blanket hostility to Israel has become the way to be a leftist or a progressive. You don’t have to know anything or have any position on many other issues.#

I can see some reasons for that. The Occupation has been going on a long time, and the trajectory of internal Israeli politics is horrible.

But for a lot of people the hostility to Israel has a faux moral quality and moral clarity not attributed to other issues.

There is also a very long history — as in, 2,000 years — of identifying the Jew as the problem in Western culture, whether it is the Jew as Christ-killer, the Jew as communist and revolutionary, or the Jew as capitalist. In some ways, to be rabidly and ignorantly anti-Israel is a continuation of that trajectory.

The subtext is: “If only Israel did not exist, how much better the world would be”. But if Israel did not exist, all the other conflicts of the Middle East would continue.

I’m not saying that to be critical of Israel is necessarily to take part of two thousand years of antisemitism. I am saying that it’s hard to look at the obsessiveness of the vitriol that so many of the people direct at Israel without thinking about that much longer history — and thinking honestly about where your criticism fits into it.

For a lot of people on the left, Israel has come to represent everything they hate. It represents nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, religious fanaticism — everything which they see as against a multicultural cosmopolitanism. There is an irony there, since Israel is more multicultural and cosmopolitan than any other country in the Middle East.

My book is in part an attempt to figure out why Zionism is considered as so different from any other national liberation movement, and it’s hard to ignore the peculiar role which Jews have played in the history of the West, and now of the East, when considering that.

The left here isn’t intellectually sophisticated. I find that people have read a little of Arendt, they’ve read Chomsky, they’ve read Edward Said. They’ve read Judith Butler, who may be a brilliant gender theorist but who knows very little about the history of the Middle East or of the Zionist movement.

In an interview with Fathom, you expound your “two states” view on Israel-Palestine as part of a general anti-utopianism, saying that the problem with the left is that it is enamoured with building a whole new world. But the “left” views you’ve criticised sound to me not utopian at all, but reactive and a-utopian.

I guess you’re right. Leftists now do not have the dreams the Bolsheviks had. Maybe naivete would be a better word than utopianism.

But when I hear people saying a one-state solution for Palestine would be democratic, and everyone would be equal, I wonder what world they’re talking about. Do you honestly think that Jerusalem and Ramallah are Berkeley and Brooklyn? Here they are sitting in America, and they’re advocating taking two peoples who have been killing each others’ children for a hundred years, smushing them together like baking a cake — and suddenly they’ll have this
civic, democratic culture of equality. That seems to me to have nothing to do with what we know about history and what we know about human beings.

On all sides in Israel-Palestine there are many well-meaning people, but to create a viable and democratic state you need a lot more than that.

If Israel could get back to its democratic institutions, and the Palestinians could have a reasonably functioning state, that’s enough. Forget utopia.

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