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A problem called Israel

The heart of The Lions' Den is a series of individual portraits of iconic, midcentury left-wing thinkers who wrote extensively on the idea and reality of Jewish statehood

J J Goldberg | NYT 

The Lions’ Den

Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky

Yale University Press; $32.50; 389 pages

As discouraging as these times may be for fans of liberal democracy, the mood among liberal friends of — including most American — is more like severe heartbreak. Long gone are the days when was new and appealed to idealists around the world, when Golda Meir was a celebrated deputy chairwoman of the Socialist International and Pete Seeger and the Weavers were singing the Israeli folk tune “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” on the “Hit Parade.”

How has it come to this? That is the central question poses in her new book, The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left From Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky.

How, she asks, did the state of Israel, which “came out of, and was nurtured by, the left,” become anathema to that same left? How did “Zionist,” the name for participants in and sympathisers with the Jewish state-building effort, “become the dirtiest word to the international left — akin, say, to ‘racist,’ ‘pedophile’ or ‘rapist’?”

On the flip side, how did “come to deny the national rights of a neighbouring people and to violently suppress them — not for a year or two, but for over a half century?”

The heart of The Lions’ Den is a series of individual portraits of iconic, midcentury left-wing thinkers who wrote extensively on the idea and reality of Six of the eight share overlapping biographies and experiences, which makes their very different intellectual journeys through the same historical thicket both instructive to today’s searchers and relevant to today’s crises.

The other two, Noam Chomsky and the British journalist Fred Halliday, seem quite out of place here. Both entered the arena in a later era, making their stories irrelevant to the book’s drama, and neither of them — the very Jewish Chomsky or the non-Jewish Halliday — participates visibly in the others’ intensely personal struggles with Jewish identity.

The six overlapping profiles, on the other hand, tell such an intriguing story. Here they are: the German-born political philosopher Hannah Arendt; the mercurial, Hungarian-born novelist and adventurer Arthur Koestler; the great biographer and Trotsky admirer Isaac Deutscher; the combative American journalist I F Stone; the French Arabist journalist Maxime Rodinson; and the Tunisian-French anticolonialist philosopher Albert Memmi.

All six lived through, wrote about and were shaped by the cataclysmic events of the mid-20th century: the rise of fascism, the Moscow show trials, World War II and the Holocaust, Israel’s independence and, significantly, the 1967 Six-Day War. All considered themselves socialists, some episodically, most as a lifelong identifier.

All six were Jewish. All wrote urgently and at length about the Jewish history that was unfolding before their eyes. All wrote about the place of the Jew in the modern world, some dismissively, most with sympathy, all beneath the shadow of the Nazi genocide that was engulfing Europe and their own families.

The six were all independent, unconventional thinkers who often found themselves alone and at odds with their own peers and allies. All produced ideas and phrases that have entered our moral vocabulary, most notably Arendt’s “banality of evil.” And, of course, all six dealt repeatedly and at great length with the question of Jewish statehood, or Zionism. Only two retained their views over time, the lifelong anti-Zionist Rodinson and the lifelong pro-Zionist Memmi. The other four changed positions as history changed, some from pro-Zionist to anti-, others the reverse and some repeatedly back and forth. Koestler, the champion change artist of the group, became a communist in his teens, then joined Vladimir Jabotinsky’s right-wing Zionist Revisionist movement, forerunner of today’s Likud, then returned to communism, then emerged as one of the world’s most influential anticommunists and returned to Revisionism.

THE LIONS' DEN  Zionism and the Left From Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky

Arendt, the most famous and influential of the six, was converted to Zionism by Hitler’s takeover in 1933. Fleeing across Europe, twice escaping Nazi detention, she landed in New York in 1941 and began her long writing career. Initially a militant Zionist, she became less attached after Israeli independence in 1948, suspicious of nation-states and their abuses of power. All of her contradictions came together in 1961 when she covered the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, describing it as a “show trial” rather than a judicial exercise. Her version remains controversial to this day.

Other profiles are no less dramatic. Deutscher, a Talmud prodigy during his childhood in a Polish shtetl, went on to become a translator of Hebrew and Yiddish poetry, then a communist, then a follower of Leon Trotsky’s heterodox communism and finally a globe-trotting British journalist. He abandoned his doctrinaire anti-Zionism following the Holocaust, was charmed during a 1954 visit by Israel’s revived Hebrew culture and kibbutz socialism, then turned bitterly hostile following Israel’s six-day victory in June 1967, even somehow forgetting his Hebrew and Yiddish. He died that August, unreconciled. Ms Linfield claims uncertainty about how large a role the 1967 war and occupation play in leftists’ antagonism toward Israel. But these individual stories suggest that the legacy of 1967 cannot be overstated.

If the book has one problem it’s Ms Linfield’s inability to recognise the significance of the document that she herself has produced. She tries to present it, particularly in her tacked-on introduction and conclusion, as foreshadowing and illuminating the tragic deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. To be blunt, it doesn’t work.

In fact, its success is in foreshadowing and illuminating a different conflict that has been simmering under the surface for a decade and has exploded into the headlines just in the early months of this year. Ms Linfield could not have foreseen, even a year ago as she was writing, the current predicament of Democrats caught between support of Israel and sympathy for the Palestinians, or — dare we say it? — between the affections of America’s well-established Jewish community and fast-rising Muslim community. Unexpectedly, her book appears just as its stories and lessons become urgent.

©2019 The New York TimesNews Service

First Published: Mon, April 15 2019. 00:45 IST