Left's Love-Hate Relationship With Zionism

Robert Wistrich's Details Long and Strange Path

Forward!: Radicals of the 1930s and 40s mostly agreed that the U.N. should grant Jews a state alongside an Arab one. Things are very different today.
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Forward!: Radicals of the 1930s and 40s mostly agreed that the U.N. should grant Jews a state alongside an Arab one. Things are very different today.

By Tony Michels

Published November 07, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
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“From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel”
By Robert S. Wistrich
University of Nebraska Press, 648 pages, $55

Imagine this: It’s the summer of 1947 and you’re a Communist or a fellow traveler or a Socialist or another kind of anti-Stalinist. Despite myriad differences with political rivals, you share the same basic position on the question of Palestine. You insist that the United Nations grant Jews a state alongside an Arab one. When the United States balks at this proposal, you attend a rally or sign a petition or fume at the State Department. In November you celebrate the United Nations’ vote in favor of partition, and six months later you curse the Arab invasion of the newborn State of Israel.

And when Israel emerges victorious, you hail the political resurrection of the Jewish nation in the form of a vital socialist or proto-socialist democracy. You might criticize some of Israel’s policies, but you do so as a sympathizer — not as a Zionist necessarily, but as someone impressed by Zionism’s achievements. If you are one of the few who oppose Israel resolutely, then you probably belong to a fringe sect. Such was reality, more or less, at the time of Israel’s creation.

A different situation prevailed four decades beforehand. Prior to World War I, nearly all socialists in Europe and the United States viewed Zionism, to the extent they thought about it, as reactionary and futile. But then again, they paid little attention to it. Early 20th-century Zionism did not seem especially significant, certainly not a pernicious force in the international arena. A shift occurred in 1917, following the Balfour Declaration and the Bolshevik Revolution:

Soviet leaders and Communists everywhere began to denounce Zionism as a tool of British imperialism. But that was communism. Democratic Socialists began to muster sympathy toward Zionism during the 1920s, enough to welcome David Ben-Gurion’s party, Poale Zion, into the Socialist International. When it came to Zionism, the interwar left was divided, which should come as no surprise, because the left was, well, divided.


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