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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In the 19th century, European radicals often employed anti-Jewish vocabulary and concepts; however, as Marxian social democrats developed a sophisticated analysis of capitalism and as they confronted right-wing movements in the final third of the century, they began to take the problem of anti-Semitism seriously, albeit within faulty parameters that hampered understanding of Jews and their predicaments. At the same time, Yiddish-speaking Jews in Eastern Europe and North America built popular socialist movements that advanced various forms of Jewish nationalism, Zionism among them.

The rise of autonomous Jewish parties initially sparked conflicts with general socialist parties such as the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, whose leaders failed to grasp the rationale for organizations such as the Bund. Nonetheless, in certain important instances — for example, the Bund’s relationship with the Mensheviks — tensions eventually eased and led to cooperation. The Bolsheviks never stopped condemning Jewish parties as nationalistic, but they nonetheless granted nationality rights to Jews after 1917. The Soviet government also outlawed anti-Semitism, and the Red Army quashed the mass slaughter of Jews by counter-revolutionary forces during the Civil War. In 1948, the USSR and Soviet bloc countries lent crucial diplomatic and military aid to Israel, which they soon replaced with crude anti-Semitic campaigns. Yet despite drastic shifts in Soviet policies, some Communists in the West retained sympathies for Israel and decried anti-Zionism. (A powerful statement by Austrian Communist Bruno Frei appears in Wistrich’s 1979 anthology, “The Left Against Zion.”) Meanwhile, postwar European social democrats gave consistently strong support to social democratic Israel. In the proposed narrative sketched here, blemishes would remain, but not for the purpose of an overall indictment.

The post-1967 hostility toward Israel still requires explanation. What went wrong, as Wistrich asks at the book’s outset? The rise of Arab nationalism and, later, Islamic fundamentalism, the rightward drift in Israeli politics and the ongoing occupation of the West Bank all have to be taken into account. Exceptions and counter-trends also require recognition. For even today, intellectuals, journals and organizations of the left continue to warn against anti-Semitism, oppose boycotts and insist on Israel’s right to exist. Within the anti-Israel movement itself, fissures and rifts have surfaced, as witnessed by Chomsky.

A less selective, more complex and judicious history of the left, Jews and Israel remains to be written. In the meantime, “From Ambivalence to Betrayal” gives readers much to consider.

Tony Michels is the George L. Mosse Associate Professor of American Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is author of “A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Harvard University Press, 2005) and editor of the recent “Jewish Radicals: A Documentary History” (NYU Press).

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