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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Today, in the early 21st century, the picture again looks substantially different. Most leftists — progressives, radicals, socialists, anarchists — loathe Israel. Some do not. A scattering of leftists (and most liberals) still sympathizes with the Jewish state, but they feel beleaguered, defensive, even intimidated. To stand squarely and comfortably on the left today is to believe that Israel is a racist, imperialist country (“apartheid on steroids,” as a colleague put it to me). Such anti-Israelism is not altogether new; it surged within the New Left in the late-1960s and kept surging ever since, but, for many years, anti-Israelism was met with vigorous counterarguments from within the left. Noam Chomsky used to complain that pro-Israel bias pervaded the left, which was a gross exaggeration but had some basis in reality. That was then. Now, leftists accuse Chomsky of betrayal. They indict him for placing tribal loyalties above professed political principles. Why? Because Chomsky opposes boycotts of Israel and supports a two-state solution that would permit Israel’s continued existence. Noam Chomsky: Zionism’s fifth columnist.

The left’s relationship to Zionism and Israel defies simple generalization. It has, over the past century, evolved in various directions, just as Zionism, Israel and the left itself have changed. Few scholars are as qualified as The Hebrew University’s Robert Wistrich to write a comprehensive history of this vexed relationship. Wistrich has published extensively on European Socialists and their writings on Jews. Indeed, “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel” draws from a number of Wistrich’s previous studies. Although not entirely new, Wistrich’s impressive tome assembles a career’s worth of important research. Anyone interested in the history of socialism and the Jews must read this book.

Contemporary left-wing anti-Zionism in Europe provides the point of departure. At its obsessive, paranoid, bigoted worst, today’s anti-Zionism contains only a tenuous connection to classical Marxism and its Enlightenment values. It has become “the place where ‘Islamo-fascism’ merges with ‘Islamo-Marxism’ in an empty ‘progressivism’ without progress, driven by a convulsive hatred of Western modernity, of Jews, of bourgeois liberalism.” Chants of “Death to Israel,” “End the Holocaust in Gaza” or “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the Gas” reflect a profound ideological rupture. Why, Wistrich asks, has the left betrayed its own intellectual and political heritage? What went wrong?

Wistrich opens with those questions, yet drops them immediately. Rather than probe the discontinuities of left-wing anti-Zionism, Wistrich excavates its roots in European socialism. Continuity becomes his main theme. Over a series of case studies spanning 509 pages (not until the final 100 pages does he turn to the recent past), Wistrich examines the attitudes and ideas of socialist thinkers and leaders regarding Jews, anti-Semitism and Zionism. He presents disturbing evidence. Karl Marx, in his youth, equated Jews with economic exploitation.


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