Book review: Consistent inconsistency

Susan Linfield takes a look at eight intellectuals who have addressed the question of Zionism and the Left.

June 5, 2019 22:45
4 minute read.
NOAM CHOMSKY is accused by the author of numerous inaccuracies

NOAM CHOMSKY is accused by the author of numerous inaccuracies and the projection of ‘a crippling ideological rigidity.’ . (photo credit: MAJED JABER/REUTERS)


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Many who write about the international Left tend to focus on antisemitism rather than anti-Zionism. US academic and journalist Susan Linfield remedies this imbalance in The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, and looks at eight intellectuals who have addressed the question of Zionism and the international Left – Jews and non-Jews, Zionists and anti-Zionists. In this well-written, absorbing book, Linfield demonstrates that a consistent feature is inconsistency and a reticence to face a changing situation. She also finds it incredulous that multitudes of decent people who wish to repair the world unthinkingly accept chapter and verse handed down to them from on intellectual high.

Linfield is thus excoriating about the views of Noam Chomsky, who framed an imagery of dictators in the Arab world seeking peace while Amos Oz was deemed to have opposed it. An opponent of the Oslo Accords, Chomsky is charged by Linfield with the character assassination of his opponents, numerous inaccuracies and the projection of “a crippling ideological rigidity.”

As she points out, Chomsky is hardly quoted by academics in Middle East Studies, ignored in Israel, little known in the Arab world, but embraced in messianic tribute by many in Europe and North America.

Linfield credits Maxime Rodinson, a foremost academic writer on Islam – the son of Russian Jewish communists in France – for forging today’s anti-imperialist arguments after 1967 and thereby influencing the post-war generation of the European Left. Rodinson believed that Saddam, Assad, Qaddafi were “progressives” – yet he spoke Arabic and could easily access opinion in the Arab press.
Interestingly, Rodinson argued that leftist Islam did not exist as a coherent ideology and even described the Iranian revolution as “fascisme archaique.”

Rodinson was blind to Stalin’s crimes and implied that Jewish communists such as Karl Radek and Rudolf Slansky, executed after show trials, were less than innocent. Linfield’s comprehensive dissection of Rodinson, however, omits the shocking fact that he willingly went along with the notion that the Jewish doctors, interrogated, tortured and tried in the Doctors’ Plot in January 1953 were deservedly guilty.

Rodinson’s parents were deported from France and perished in Auschwitz. Yet he continued to articulate the anti-Zionism and fervent Stalinism of his upbringing despite leaving the Communist Party. Linfield suggests that this was “a frozen fidelity” – a means of keeping faith with the beliefs of his murdered parents.

Another major figure featured by Linfield is Isaac Deutscher, the biographer of Trotsky, who – like Rodinson – escaped the fate of his parents by fortuitously being abroad, sent by his pro-Zionist paper, Nasz Przeglad, to London in 1939. A child prodigy in Talmudic learning, Deutscher suffered a lifelong tug-of-war between his ideological beliefs and the lessons of Jewish history. A visitor to Israel as his sister lived on a kibbutz, he argued that Israel came into existence not as “a sublime fulfillment of history’s cycle, but as an act of Jewish despair” – the offspring of Western civilization’s auto-suicide.

Deutscher’s famous essay, “The Non-Jewish Jew,” depicted Jewish revolutionaries as living beyond the borders of the community and instead occupying the interstices between nations – a universalist version of Judaism where “God ceased to be Jewish.” Linfield concludes that Deutscher was not actually a non-Jewish Jew, but instead “a deeply conflicted one.”

Although she writes about notables such as Hannah Arendt and Albert Memmi, it is the non-Jewish British thinker Fred Halliday, who emerges as a political hero in her eyes.

Halliday was a “68-er” – a veteran of the student revolts of 1968. He was highly involved in the protests against the Vietnam War in London and a member of the Black Dwarf periodical collective. Yet unlike many of his contemporaries, he recognized that many of the idols of the anti-imperialist Left were in fact authoritarian reactionaries who cared little for democratic norms and human rights. The New Left of the 1960s focused on anti-colonial movements abroad that often practiced violence against civilians rather than the demands of its own proletariats – a distinct change from the Left of the previous generation.

A fluent speaker of Farsi, Halliday was astounded to hear tens of thousands chant “Death to liberalism!” in the streets of Tehran during the Iranian revolution. His colleagues at New Left Review lauded this spectacle and were happy later to defend Ahmadinejad. Halliday had a different vision for the Left – one where radicalism was synthesized with liberal democratic principles, where Hamas and Hezbollah were disparaged as clerical throwbacks and where Edward Said’s belief in “orientalism” was deposited on the rubbish dump of history. In doing so, he lost many friends on his journey, but remaining a socialist, he never took the easy route to the Right like so many others.

This intelligent polemical book enlightens, engages and educates the reader. It should be required reading for those who desire a deeper understanding of this subject beyond the usual clichés and slogans.

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