Barry Finger reviews Susie Linfield’s book The Lions’ Den, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2019
“How has it come to this?” asks Susie Linfield. “How has ‘Zionist,’ sometimes shortened to the disparaging ‘Zio,’ become the dirtiest word to the international Left—akin, say to racist, pedophile or rapist?… “How is it that signs proclaiming ‘We Are All Hezbollah’ are brandished at supposedly left-wing demonstrations in London and New York? This is not the lunatic fringe. On the contrary: a highly respected American academic has praised Hezbollah and Hamas as ‘progressive’ social movements that are part of the ‘global left’…
“An acclaimed British psychoanalyst diagnoses Zionism as a ‘form of collective insanity’ that is dogmatic, ruthless and irrational. A leading womens’-rights activist in the United States proclaims that feminism and Zionism are irreconcilable…”
The Lions’ Den does not address this latest phase in the degeneracy of the left, a left still bruised and gangrenous even after having sloughed off its most overtly Stalinist-infected appendages. To answer her questions would require a deep dive elsewhere. This particular toxic stew has long brewed in the confluence of Third Worldism, post-modernism, and Orientalism-in-reverse that has captured the Left. But we would have to rummage even further back to understand its disastrous political antecedents: to the revanchist accommodation of the 19th Century French revolutionary left to Boulangist chauvinism after the loss of Alsace, where sections of that left buried their ideals and immersed themselves in a movement that sought to stop the clock of world history until that region was reconquered and returned to its “rightful” owner.
What Linfield seeks to do, and does exceedingly well, is to illuminate a “fraught, sometimes buried intellectual history” from a curated selection of Marxist (Isaac Deutscher and Fred Halliday), Mizrahi-leftist (Albert Memmi), Orientalist (Maxime Rodinson), radical democratic (Hannah Arendt, I. F. Stone and Noam Chomsky) and air-borne intellectuals (Arthur Koestler) who grappled with the “Zionist Question”. The problem is this. They were addressing themselves to a different order of humanity, one rooted in the intellectual shadow of pre- and post-Holocaust immediacy, where no one on the left denied the elemental legitimacy of the Israeli state.
That alone defies the core sensibilities of today’s bien pensant revolutionaries. Even the most implacable enemies of Zionism (arising from a section of the Israeli left with whom Halliday, a hero of Linfield’s narrative, was most proximate, Matzpen) argued that were Israel “to be defeated militarily and cease to exist as a state, the Hebrew nation will still exist.” For that reason, the “Israeli masses will not be liberated from the influence of Zionism and will not struggle against it unless the progressive forces in the Arab world present them with a prospect of coexistence without national oppression.”
Opposition to Zionism did not mean opposition to the Jewish presence in Palestine, nor to the Hebrew claim to be a legitimate constituent sovereignty in Palestine. It was about opposition to the Hebrew nation claiming for itself sole sovereignty in Israel and building a state apparatus that embodies that claim. It was about raising a revolutionary alternative to expand democratic rights in Israel beyond that of individual equality between Jew and Arab, given formal recognition in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, to equal collective rights in Israel and all of Palestine.
To recognize Israel’s legitimacy, or that of any other state for that matter, is not the same as accepting its self-declared borders, its internal governmental principles and arrangements or its international power alignments. That a revolutionary bi-nationalist orientation never had traction among the Jewish or Arab peoples is indisputable. Winning a traumatized Jewish population of refugees to this perspective after being immediately set upon by the entire Arab world may have been unrealistic in 1947-48, but it is no less necessary then than now if the hope of national reconciliation rooted in equality is to be kept alive.
But it is this revolutionary perspective that the Boycott, Diversity and Sanctions movement, despite its nonviolent façade, most adamantly and centrally withholds. Omar Barghouti has explained his eliminationist perspective in every venue of which he has availed himself: “I am completely and categorically against binationalism because it assumes that there are two nations with equal moral claims to the land and therefore, we have to accommodate both national rights.”
This is antithetical to Matzpen’s initial revolutionary two-fold indictment of Zionism, which in its own way encapsulated the lessons of Hal Draper’s third camp socialist perspective. Both rejected a unitary state that privileged one nation (its majority Hebrew segment) over another (its Arab minority), as does a Zionist Israel, for the democratic limitations that such a state necessarily imposes on a binational reality. As they further argued, such a Jewish chauvinist state would be, for that reason, an impediment to Middle East integration, rendering it reliant on imperialist powers for its survival.
Zionist Israel, in early Matzpen’s and Draper’s view, returned the Hebrew nation to the very defining vulnerability from which Zionism sought to rescue the Jewish people: as a buffer and diversionary scapegoat between (foreign) exploiters and the (Arab) masses. A Zionist state undermined the animating premise of Zionism, to afford Jews a safe haven free from persecution. Third camp socialists fought to secure that aim instead with an agenda of consistent internationalist democracy. They raised the call for a wide-ranging programme to secure equal national rights of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs within a broader regional transformation, thereby offering a revolutionary socialist alternative to secure Zionism’s promissory note.
In practical terms, that means fighting for a two state solution in Palestine and a de-Zionised Israel: but also for the elimination of “Arab” and “Islamic” chauvinist states and their replacement by symmetrical democratic multinational, secular republics with recognised rights for all — for a Jewish majority binational state in Israel and for Arab majority multinational states, with full equality including the right to secession for national minorities, throughout a socialist Middle East.
But that was then. For it is sadly true that today many if not most ageing Matzpen-ists and students of Draper have completely lost or consciously jettisoned and inverted this thread. In their bitterness at a brutal and seemingly endless occupation, they have abandoned the fight for a consistent democratic future, folded their camp and enlisted in the international left brigades that reviles Israeli Jews and their sympathisers abroad and seeks Israel’s penitent “reintegration” into the Arab fold. In practice, this means stripping Israeli Jews of their right to national self-expression and of permanently suppressing those who would resist this oppressive prescription.
The left’s “solution” to a Jewish chauvinist state is an Arab chauvinist state, which is to say – no solution, and certainly no revolutionary socialist solution, at all. And Israeli Jews who are dissatisfied with the prospective loss of any and all claim to constituent sovereignty and their subordination to an Arab majority nation…well they, presumably, would be free to depart to any part of the world where the absence of sovereignty might sting less.
None of the figures Linfield discusses deteriorated to this level, critical as many were of Zionism and Israel’s ruling circles. Arendt, a liberal bi-national Zionist until the critical moment of Israel’s birth, simply fled from reality in her advocacy of a permanent international protectorate over Palestine as the desired means to preserve the Jewish stake in its homeland.
Until the Eichmann trial, she had very little further to say about Israel or Zionism. Maxime Rodinson seemingly laid the modern framework of anti-Israel eliminationism by castigating the desperate return of Palestine’s once indigenous people as a colonial-settler state project, “an outrage committed against the Arabs as a people”… for which there is “no (!) revolutionary solution.” But this “outrage” took the coloration for him of an ineluctable tragedy, as it did for Deutscher.
After all, Rodinson asked of the Holocaust refugees, “where else could they go?” In the end, he opined that the bitter-pill return of Jews to Palestine would ultimately have to be swallowed as a fait accompli, similar to the Orange presence in Ireland. Halliday, a student of Rodinson, expanded his mentor’s begrudging realism by pointing to the normality of colonial-settlerism in shaping the modern world. He held no brief for the argument that “the Israelis are not a nation because they are a recently formed colonising community.” He advanced the argument one step further, “There did not exist a distinct Palestinian nation one hundred years ago, or a distinct Iraqi or Libyan one, yet only the most blind would deny that such nations have been or are being formed today. The fact of immigration is also not a serious counter-argument: most of the nations in the new world were formed through migration.”
Even so, Rodinson’s framework fundamentally misrepresents reality. Did Jews, as Rodinson states, “leave their country to populate another”? Even Halliday, despite his admirably principled socialist position, drove himself into a logical pretzel over this. “The Jews of the world are not a nation,” he insisted, “but Israelis are not just Jews. Israelis are those born in Israel, or citizens of that country; they have a culture, language and history distinct from that of Jews in gentile countries.
“The Afrikaaners are not Dutch, the Australians are not English, the Argentinians are not Spaniards or Italians, because they retain common characteristics and links with people elsewhere…”
Quite true, but there are no other states that bear intimate parental and cultural ties with Israel. If the Afrikaaners are not Dutch, and the Argentinians are not Spaniards or Italians, what then is the parallel for Israel? Israelis are not… what? There were no “Jewish” countries in Europe and the Middle East from which a separate Hebrew nation was spawned. The Jews who “colonized” and “settled” Palestine were an isolated, unwanted, persecuted, outcast people, narrowly escaping utter annihilation. They did not introduce a European language to their “colonies” or rename their settlements as sentimental odes to the “cherished” homelands from which they supposedly sprang. There are no “New” Amsterdams, Yorks, Londons, Pinsks, or Baghdads in Israel, and for good reason: their “homelands” abroad were abattoirs.
So yes, Jews could only reintroduce themselves en masse to Palestine as settlers, but settlers unlike settlers anywhere else in that they had an indigenous tie to the land that gave birth to them as a nation. And these indigenous settlers, to coin an oxymoron, confronted an existing Arab population distributed from the Arabian Peninsula by centuries-old Islamic conquests, a durable and jealous imperialism of geographic accumulation. To put it plainly, Jewish migrants to Palestine confronted a well-established community of Arab settler colonialists.
That is why, in the end, Rodinson’s novel introduction of colonial-settlerism adds no additional social or political clarity to the problem of nationalities. Which community one judges to be “settler-colonialist” (if this criterion, contra Halliday, is judged to be a valid standard of national rights) is conditioned by which lens of the telescope one peers through.
That brings us to Arthur Koestler, who in his final act might be seen as the unwitting precursor to a different strand of Israeli eliminationism. Linfield provocatively titles Koestler’s chapter: The Zionist as Anti-Semite. That is meant in a two-fold sense — his disdain for non-assimilated Jews who refuse to emigrate to Israel, and his literal denial of the Semitic origins of the Jewish people. Neither his journalistic account of Palestine under the Mandate, Promise and Fulfilment, nor his novel about Palestine, Thieves in the Night, have reentered the modern debate. Rather, his project of de-judaisation that has contemporary resonance. That project reached its summit with The Thirteenth Tribe, where, he argued, if argued is a synonym of phantasised, that anti-Semitism was all just a big misunderstanding: “a misapprehension shared by both killers and their victims”.
For those who we now call Jews are in fact — a fact known best only to Koestler — a community descended from Khazars, a defunct Turkic tribe that converted to Judaism in the 8th Century, and not from a Semitic people of the Middle East. All this might have been justifiably consigned to Koestler’s cloud-cuckooland were it not for its usefulness to those who wish to deny a Jewish connection to Palestine. It is the reason why Shlomo Sand’s revivification of Koestler’s absurd thesis became an instant hit among Arab and Palestinian nationalists and their supporters on the left.
What claims do Khazars have to Palestine? And if those who we mischaracterise as “Jews” today are not descended from the Canaanite tribes of antiquity, who is? Koestler and Sand did not offer an answer. It did and does not concern them. But an answer was never short in coming: the Palestinian Arabs are really not Arabs at all, but the descendants of Jews who converted to Islam and Christianity. This is the subtext of the popular anti-Zionist tweet, or taunt, that Moses and Jesus were Palestinians. Or, as Henry Cattan, a Palestinian jurist, states: “The Palestinians are the original and continuous inhabitants of Palestine from time immemorial.”
Saed Erakat claims to be descended from the Canaanites of Jericho. Arafat asserted he was of Canaanite lineage from the tribe of Jebusites. Of course, that strand of anti-Zionism presents its own propagandistic difficulties. It is one thing to bleach away Jewish history. But what is to be gained if that denial comes at the cost of severing the abiding connection between Palestinians and Arabs? What stake, other than religious, would the Arab world have in whom the rightful non-Arab Canaanite heir to Palestine is?
The Hamas minister, Fathi Hammad, for one, pounced in horror at the prospect of Arabs washing their hands of the conflict on this account. “Who are the Palestinians? …We are Egyptians; we are Arabs. We are Muslims. We are part of you, Egyptians! Personally, half my family is Egyptian—and the other half is Saudi.”
In the end, Susie Linfield is dead right that all the anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli huffery is little more than an exercise in political futility.
“What distinguishes the Palestinians is not that their right to return has been denied. In fact, that is precisely what they share with others… “One would be hard-pressed to find a case in which millions of refugees and their descendants have returned to a country from which they were exiled in the midst of a war that they started, especially when many of those returnees reject the legitimacy of the extant nation and their population might overwhelm it...
“What does distinguish the Palestinians is that, for decades, they have been kept in cruel political limbo and, often, in impoverished refugee camps: by the Israelis, by their ‘brothers’ in the Arab world, and by their own leadership. What also distinguishes them is that they have often refused political solutions in favour of insisting on ephemeral ‘right’.”
The “unconditional support” of the rights of the oppressed has become the left’s guiding star — its shibboleth — even when it means upholding the dream of the oppressed to settle accounts with its oppressor by reversing the axis of domination. It is symptomatic of an infantile separation of the world’s nations into “good” and “bad,” “exploiter” and “oppressed” peoples. This is a parody of Marxism. And it is a fundamental departure from any revolutionary socialist programme predicated on fostering mutual respect and joint activity needed to overcome entrenched chauvinist attitudes.
We defend the right to self-determination, as does Linfield, by championing a Palestinian claim to international equality with Israel in a two state solution. We also need to raise the binational principle embodied in that two state solution beyond the point where borders end to the state level where nations overlap. We have our work cut out for us. But if our task were easy, it would have already happened.