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Susie Linfield’s Defense of Left-Zionism

By Ralph Seliger

Susie Linfield (as she is known professionally as well as personally) is a professor of journalism at New York University and a leftwinger who’s on the board of Dissent magazine.  Her past writings on this subject include being the affirmative voice in a 2015 debate published in Dissent entitled “Is a Left Zionism Possible?” and a 2012 review essay, “Zionism and Its Discontents.” 

Her latest book is The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky (Yale University Press, 2019).  She analyzes the different ways that eight leftwing intellectuals have viewed Zionism, Israel and the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Alan Johnson, the editor of the British online journal Fathom, has an illuminating discussion with Linfield about her new book.  Their shared insights reminded me of my own experiences with hardcore anti-Zionist leftists who repeatedly deny reality in favor of wishful thinking or longstanding prejudices. 

For example, a founding leader of the neo-Stalinist Progressive Labor Party, Fred Jerome, published the third of his trilogy on Einstein’s leftist politics in 2009 (Einstein on Israel and Zionism, St. Martin’s Press) totally denying that Einstein was “really” a Zionist — even as he documented speeches Einstein gave that proved exactly that (see my review in In These Times).  At the Q & A for his book launch party, I pointed out that Palestinian Arabs attempted to destroy the Yishuv in ’47-’48; he simply denied that this was historically true.  

Linfield presents positive portraits of the French Tunisian-Jewish emigre writer Albert Memmi (the author among other works of The Colonizer and the Colonized) and of Fred Halliday, the late Irish-British academic expert on the Middle East.   She is astonished at Noam Chomsky who she believes turned vitriolic toward Israel after misreading an Arab-sponsored UN resolution, submitted in 1976 but never passed; he insists that it proposed a two-state solution which was promptly rejected by Israel.  (Although over the top in his hostility toward Israel, Chomsky still supports a two-state solution; I’m not sure if Linfield is aware of this, or if she realizes that Israel would likely have spurned a two-state deal with the PLO even if offered at the time.)   

She is also disappointed by Hannah Arendt, whom she sees as having stuck to an unrealistic belief in binationalism in the face of reality.  I’m not sure that I fully agree; Arendt’s notion of a binational confederation of sorts had significant support among Zionists in the 1940s, and may at least have been arguable until ultimately rejected by the Arab side.  But I totally agree with Linfield’s point that Arendt has been idolized by the left today, often exaggerating the extent to which she had broken with Zionism.  I recall this tendency in the 2013 Margarethe von Trotte biopic, a film I enjoyed even while lamenting its flaws.   

Prof. Linfield ends her Fathom interview in a beautiful way that is both realistic and idealistic:

I hope to make people rethink the meaning of being ‘pro-Israel’, taking it away from people like Sheldon Adelson and Jared Kushner. To be pro-Israel is to support the democratic forces that are struggling to maintain themselves in Israel and to support the end of the occupation and a just settlement with the Palestinians – all the while being aware of the horrible rightward trends in Israel, the disastrous state of the Palestinian National Movement in the West Bank and Gaza, and the implosion of much of the Arab world.

I wanted to bring the conflict down to earth. When I read the debates on Israel and Palestine, there is so much grandiosity on all sides, from the Israeli right to the boycotters and one-staters to Hamas [and] its supporters.

In this context I was thinking, perhaps oddly, of John Reed’s chronicle of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World. There’s something beautiful but also something disastrous about it, and the beauty and the disaster have roots in the same idea: to build a new man and a new woman and a new world where there is no oppression and no injustice. The Left has always been enamoured with that idea and though I understand the beauty of it, I think we also have to see what a catastrophe it is. With Israelis and Palestinians, there has been so much suffering and violence, bloodshed and injustice, that to cling to utopian visions of everyone joining hands in unity only sounds idealistic. In practice it is anti-idealistic because it negates history and reality and therefore almost certainly dooms both peoples to more bloodshed. We don’t need to, and in fact can’t, create a brave and heroic new world. We only need to create one that is moderately liveable, moderately just. That’s hard enough.

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