antisemitism,  Israel/Palestine,  The Left

Zionism and the Left: an interview with Susie Linfield

Susie Linfield is the author of The Lions’ Den. Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, published by Yale University Press. Fathom editor Alan Johnson spoke to Linfield on 17 May 2019.


Alan Johnson: The book is a study of the often-tortured engagement of eight intellectuals of the Left with Zionism and Israel. There are chapters on two Europeans, Hannah Arendt and Arthur Koestler who came of age with the rise of Nazism; four socialists, Maxime Rodinson, Isaac Deutscher, Albert Memmi, and Fred Halliday; and two Americans, I.F.Stone and Noam Chomsky. Please introduce yourself to our readers and tell us how you came to write about Zionism and the Left.

Susie Linfield: My political evolution is not that different from other people of my generation. I was born in 1955 and grew up in New York in a very political Left-wing family. I went through my own crazy political commitments. I had a big poster of Mao in my dorm room in my freshman year in college, but I was only seventeen, so forgive me for that. I was very enamoured with the Cultural Revolution whilst my father was a traditional Marxist. We would have big arguments.

I was not thinking that much about Israel and the Middle East at university, and in the nineties my focus was on Rwanda and Bosnia. In 2010 I published a book called The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, which focused on photographs of political violence, and was inspired in part by those events. There was a chapter in that book on Robert Capa, the greatest Left-wing documentary photographer of the twentieth century. It struck me that Capa – a Jewish refugee from Hungary – was very pro-Israel. In 1948, when the state was founded, he exulted in it, as did many of his colleagues, including Martha Gellhorn, Chim, and I.F. Stone. I realised that the Left that had come of age during the struggle against Fascism was deeply pro-Israel, both emotionally and intellectually: It was very excited about the state that Israel was creating and about the revival of the Jewish people, and it regarded Great Britain and the feudal Arab monarchies as the imperialists and the reactionaries of the Middle East. Yet today much of the Left considers Israel to be the great imperialist power of the Middle East. I began thinking about that sea change.

I knew that the 1967 War and the resulting occupation were part of that change, of course, but I also knew that that couldn’t be the whole story. For one thing, I knew that there had been a Marxist critique of Zionism well before 1967. Two, I knew that while the Left is rightfully critical of the egregious denial of human rights of the Palestinians, it has been very uncritical of countries with far worse human rights records, including Israel’s neighbours. And three, I knew that part of the Left’s critique of Zionism is that it’s a nationalist movement, and yet the Left, especially the New Left, had supported, indeed exalted, other nationalisms – Vietnamese, Chinese, Mozambican or Cuban etc.

I had become very dismayed by what I felt (and still feel) is the very strident and reductionist tone of debates about Israel. I suspected (and this turned out to be true) that the writers of these previous generations had had a far deeper and less reductionist analysis and engagement with Zionism and the conflict. So I went back to these writers to find out what the political conversation around Zionism and the Arab-Israeli conflict had been, starting in the 1930s.

AJ: Before we discuss the book, can I ask you to explain what you meant in the introduction when you say you were writing in response to a ‘double grief’ you felt?

SL: The double grief is, first, the unreflective and ugly anti-Israelism or anti-Zionism of the Left now, its obsessive, laser-like denunciation of everythingabout Israel, including even its progressive policy on gay people, which is denounced as ‘pinkwashing’ the occupation. Israel is now written about in the way North Korea is written about: as a kind of prime evil. And egregiously bad histories of the conflict abound. There is a game of telephone in which an incorrect fact is relayed by one person, and then footnoted by someone else, and so on, until the origins of the conflict are falsified. I feel grief about all that.

But mine is a ‘double’ grief because of the way Israel itself has moved so far to the right, both domestically and of course in terms of the occupation, which has now lasted for decades. Both of those trajectories, both of these failures – of the Left and of Israel – fill me with sorrow.

AJ: You self identify as a ‘Left-Zionist’. Today, many see that as an oxymoron because, so they say, there is a bad ‘essence’ to Zionism, making it incompatible with any notion of ‘Left’. Why are they wrong?

SL: A lot of people on the Left exult in Israel’s move to the right. They can say ‘I told you so, you see Zionism really is racism, it really is reactionary, this was all inevitable’. Theirs is such a simplistic analysis. I think very few things in history are inevitable. I don’t think that Donald Trump was inevitable and that American democracy was destined to move to the right.

The people who insist that no different kind of Zionism is possible are often the same people who say a different kind of socialism is possible, radically different than the one built in the Soviet Union and its satellite states. That is another huge contradiction and really a kind of hypocrisy. We know that a different kind of Zionism is possible because it was built and it lasted for several decades.


AJ: You point out that the Left’s break with the idea of Israel did not start after the 1967 war, but much earlier, in the late 1950s, when the New Left, having given up its earlier misplaced faith in the Soviet Union, moved from anti-Fascism to anti-imperialism, and lost its way by putting its faith in anti-colonialism, deciding that ‘anti-colonialism is socialism’. At that point, as Albert Memmi put it, some parts of the Left began ‘dubbing any political mutation that they could find useful “socialist and revolutionary”’. Even the fascistic could now be deemed objectively progressive, because it was ‘anti-imperialist’, and because it had the right enemies. Parts of the Left, you tell us, began ‘indulging the independence movements and simultaneously ignoring what was actually happening within them.’ You cite Albert Memmi’s insight into the baleful consequences: ‘The toleration of every kind of excess – terrorism, xenophobia, social reaction’. Is the Left’s ‘anti-Zionism’ one part of a larger story?

SL: Yes. The European Left, especially in France and Britain, was in a conundrum in the 1950s, when anti-colonial movements began to sweep what was then called the Third World. These were nationalist movements while the Left had been traditionally antinationalist and internationalist. Trotsky was once asked, ‘are you a Jew or a Russian?’ and replied, ‘neither: I am a social democrat!’ That universalism was a foundational idea on the Left. But then along come all these revolutionary nationalist movements.

Some of those movements paid lip service to ‘socialism’ but they were not really socialist. The Left invested all sorts of hopes in these movements, deciding that they were socialist or progressive, even though it was clear, or became clear very quickly, that they were not socialist at all, but often extremely reactionary in terms of their authoritarianism, their hostility to democracy and political rights, their view of women’s rights, sometimes their relationship to religion, and so on.

After the disillusionment of large parts of the Left with the Soviet Union you had the rise of a New Left looking for a new revolutionary actor. Many decided that the third world revolution was that actor, so you had an inexcusable idealisation of the third world by large parts of the Left: ‘Third Worldism’ some called this new illusion. In my book I discuss how very early on the New Left Review was critiqued by E. P. Thompson, an older, reason-based Marxist, for idealising profoundly retrograde movements.


AJ: I have personally witnessed, again and again, nonsense about Zionism, Israel and the conflict being passed off as wisdom by the intellectuals of the Left. I have seen Jacqueline Rose, repeating Arendt, tell an audience that the Zionist movement could have had a harmonious bi-national state in Palestine in the 1940s but refused to pick up the prize that was lying at its feet. I have debated Norman Finkelstein and heard him tell 300 students that ‘Hamas does not have rockets’ and watched them applaud his lies. When I tell them a truth: Hamas rockets reached the outskirts of Tel Aviv in the last conflict, they laugh. I have seen Judith Butler’s declaration that Hamas and Hezbollah are ‘progressive, part of the global Left’ excused by the Left, and her position at its top table be unaffected by mistaking the fascistic for the progressive. It is as if parts of the Left are brain dead, ideologised zombies. I mean, can you imagine if these people had power?

Your book reveals some of the roots of this phenomenon, highlighting the Left’s ‘calamitous obliviousness’ to reality and its ‘treacherous readiness to substitute ideology, wishful thinking, or sheer fantasy for reality’. You show us intellectuals who are busy ‘shielding’ themselves from awkward truths, ‘failing to notice’, ‘closing their eyes’, embracing ‘palpably erroneous history’, and seeing only through a ‘cloudy lens’, cleaving to an ‘ersatz history’, that ‘cannot lead us to an understanding of the past and therefore to what is either achievable or just in the future’.

How do you explain this abandonment of the reality principle by the Left?

SL: I am somewhat bewildered by it, in all honesty. I’m not sure I have a full explanation –though it’s not entirely new. For a long time the Left denied what was going on in the Soviet Union – although at least there were better reasons for that, especially during the war years when the Soviet Union was fighting Hitler. Soviet Russia was the bulwark against fascism. But there was a denial of the show-trials, the political famines, and the Gulag. I think it was the desperate wish for the revolution to succeed and a desperate wish for utopia on earth.

In terms of Israel: In the 1947-1948 period you have Azzam Bey, the head of the Arab League, promising the Jews ‘a war of extermination’ – yet Hannah Arendt is busy saying the Jews should try for a something akin to a bi-national state (she was not precisely a bi-nationalist, but close enough). She even said this entity should be part of the British Commonwealth, although that empire was starting to collapse: the Indians had begun the ‘Quit India’ campaign. She was not only oblivious to what was going on in Palestine, but also to what was going on in the colonial world. Not wanting to be part of the British commonwealth was probably the only thing that Arabs and Jews in Palestine agreed on! It is unclear to me where she was getting her information from. As far as I can tell she only spoke to the German Jewish intellectuals, but even they had rejected the bi-national idea by then because, as one early proponent, her friend Gershom Scholem, reluctantly observed, the Arabs had rejected every single initiative put forward by the Jews for bilateralism.

Wishful thinking on the Left is combined with a Manichaean world view: extreme animus against Israelis, identified as the evil white colonists, combined with an idealisation of the Palestinians, cast as the oppressed non-white revolutionaries. But what follows from any kind of Manichaean world is falsity, bad politics, and bad political analysis, because the world itself isn’t actually Manichaean. You can only preserve that structure by regularly buttressing it with great dollops of delusion. I think that’s the ‘theoretical’ root of the Left’s denial of reality.

One of the themes of my book is that even brilliant thinkers abandoned the reality principle. Arendt abandoned it in 1947-1948. Deutscher, Rodinson, and even I.F. Stone to some degree, professed to believe that the Arab world was about to revive itself in some kind of democratic progressive direction, when in fact the exact opposite was happening before their eyes. The rise and consolidation of the Saddams, the Assads and the Gaddafis was actually happening, the Arab world was going backwards to brutal dictatorship, its liberalising tendencies were being extinguished. Yet these people were too often unwilling to look and to see.

Part of that, frankly, was that it was very hard to get into some of these Arab countries, and someone like Deutscher – and I don’t criticise him for this – was much more interested in western political movements than in the Arab world. It was the same with I.F. Stone. But that lack of knowledge, combined with a Manichaean world view and a desperate hope that the conflict could be resolved, has resulted in layer upon layer of bad, fallacious and indecent political analysis.

I also think a kind of narcissism is involved in all this political fantasising. When I read Jacqueline Rose writing about how this great bi-national opportunity was missed by the Zionists, I think she is projecting her own wishes and ideas onto people for whom they had absolutely no bearing. Western intellectuals tend to do this a lot and it is a kind of narcissism: ‘I think something, therefore everyone else must’. Weirdly, although the people who do this think of themselves as anti-imperialist, this is itself a form of intellectual imperialism. I think that is true of Arendt too. She assumes that Hannah Arendt and Palestinian peasants must have the same ideas. Well, they didn’t. Palestinian peasants did not want the same things that Hannah Arendt wanted. It’s a kind of arrogance.


(i) Toxic Solidarity

AJ: You make large claims about the consequence of the Left refusing to face the ‘harsh, complicated realities’ of the conflict’, and of preferring to ‘project their apriori theories, hopes, wishes and antipathies on it’: that the Left engaged in a kind of political malpractice.

One form of this political malpractice is that Left-wing solidarity, being ‘glib and uncritical’, can sometimes be a ‘toxic gift’. You agree with Albert Memmi that the solidarity of the Left could be bad for the colonised, and cite Fred Halliday’s reflections on the terrible ‘fate of solidarity’ in our times. Can you talk a little about what you think has gone wrong with the idea of solidarity?

SL: When you read the histories of the Palestinian movement, many by Arab and Palestinian writers, you quickly see that they are often very critical of the leadership of the Palestinian movement. (I refer to real historians, not to anti-Zionists propagandists.) One of the things that frankly surprised me in my research was to realise just how catastrophic that leadership has been. A small cadre of PLO militia believed for decades that they were going to destroy Israel by physical force, which was preposterous. They also believed that they could overthrow the Jordanian state, radically change the politics of Lebanon to their liking, and foment worldwide or at least a pan-Arab revolution. And in this unbelievable grandiosity they were encouraged by the international Left. I think that was a terrible thing to do to the Palestinians. It was a complete misunderstanding, morally and politically, of the reality. The Left’s support for the delusions of the Palestinian movement has greatly contributed to the catastrophic situation of the Palestinians today. Hamas is still vowing, against all evidence, that the armed struggle will defeat the evil Zionist entity. And again, we see the abandonment of the reality principle in favour of theoretical schemas. The idea that Israeli was a fragile colonial implant, which could be easily toppled by the ‘anti-imperialist armed struggle’, had a tenacious hold, and in some places still does.

That’s what I meant by a toxic gift: being in uncritical solidarity with programmes that are morally revolting and politically unviable. And I think that we see that kind of thing again and again.

(ii) Values Turned Upside Down

AJBy 2015, Fred Halliday pointed out, parts of the Left were revelling in the slaughter of civilian UN officials in Iraq, condoning the killing of children in Israel, and were willing to sacrifice the population of Lebanon to the ‘national resistance’ movement Hezbollah. Jeremy Corbyn claimed that Hamas and Hezbollah were ‘leading forces for peace and social justice in the region’. So the fascistic is now misread as progressive by parts of the left. It’s that bad. As you put it, the Left’s bad theory had ended up with it issuing ‘the resistance’ with licenses (the code is ‘whatever means they find necessary’) to ‘secede from civilisational norms’. 

SL: Yes, parts of the Left, either through ignorance or maybe by just not caring, either refuses to criticise or even ‘critically’ supports some of the most grotesque regimes in the world under the aegis of ‘solidarity’ with ‘the oppressed’. Of course, the oppressed in Zimbabwe or Syria were and are being oppressed by their own regimes, not by foreign colonialists, but that does not compute. Only the West can be opposed. To do otherwise is to give succour to ‘imperialism’.

Fred Halliday began to elaborate a different approach. He said that we must look at the real lives of the people on the ground not at the grandiose ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric of these dictatorships. Forget what the regime claims to be, and look hard at what it does, and at the human rights of the people living under the regime.

Take the Syrian war. You can find articles on the web by Syrian Leftists who are enraged at those parts of the western Left that are, in effect, pro-Assad, whom they view as part of the axis of resistance to ‘imperialism’ (including, or maybe especially, Israel) or as a secular bulwark against terrorism. The Syrian leftists who have suffered at the hands of this ‘anti-imperialist’ dictatorship are absolutely furious at this. They say the Left is guilty of rationalising the actions of a fascist butcher.

(iii) Terrorism and the Left

Traditionally, the Left was opposed to terrorism. (Andre Malraux’s The Conquerors, set in China in the 1920s, is a good illustration of this.) Yes, you had the Russian movements who assassinated the Tsar and some government officials, but planting a bomb in the middle of Saint Petersburg to kill civilians would have been incomprehensible. The classical Marxist Left was totally against terrorism, correctly arguing that it pushes the masses of people to the right and contradicts the principle of self-emancipation.

The real change on the Left comes with the Algerian revolution. What was hitherto inconceivable – that the Left would support, or not condemn, or excuse, the killing of unarmed civilians – is now very conceivable, because the terrorism is justified as anti-colonialist’ and the right of Western socialists to condemn the actions of such movements is now denied. In other words: If the movement’s aims are just, everything it does must also be. And with the emergence of the Palestinian movement, which uses terrorism as its main form of political activity for several decades, the Left collapses and justifies terrorism, even romanticises it. To the point where some parts of the Left substituted terrorism for actual political organising.

(iv) One-Statism

AJ: And what of the far-Left proposal for a ‘one-state solution’?

SL: I went to a conference years ago and heard an anti-Zionist Israeli put forward the ‘one-state solution’ idea. I approached him afterwards – this was before I wrote the book – and I asked him how he envisioned this one state coming about. Would Hamas suicide bombers be integrated in the IDF, I asked? What kind of education system would this new state have, because Israel and Palestine have very different education systems? What kind of foreign policy would it have? Would it become part of the Arab League? What would be the status of women, and their rights? I posed a whole series of questions to him. He just shrugged and said ‘yeah, ok, but it’s a good idea’.

Although I’m rather despairing regarding the prospects of the two-state solution, I find the one-state prospect even more unrealistic. And if there ever is a one-state, it will not be the democratic state that Leftists envisage – the chances of that are less than zero. Again, the proposal is based on a refusal of the reality principle. One state will either be the one that the far right in Israel envisions – with no, or at least no equal, rights for Palestinians; or it will be the state that some Palestinian irredentists envision: an authoritarian state with Jews as a beleaguered minority. Neither version would be secular, or bi-national, or democratic. Why would any Leftist support this?

One state is sometimes put forth by Leftists as the only ‘just’ solution for the violence and dispossession of the past. But justice is something that human beings make, and everything that human beings make is imperfect. Justice cannot vindicate all these years of suffering, on either side – because there is no vindication of suffering. I hate it when people say Israel vindicates the holocaust. Nothing vindicates anything. The only thing that you can do is look to the future for something that is humanly possible and has enough justice upon which to build something real, something sturdy. That’s what I am really arguing for in the book.

People are not interchangeable. You cannot just smush people together, irrespective of history and culture, and assume they’re going to meld into a peaceful, democratic and unified whole. Look at the breakup of Yugoslavia. Look at Lebanon. With Israel and Palestine, I do not believe that you can take two people who have murdered each other’s children for a hundred years and expect them to combine into a peaceful democratic nation. I also believe very strongly that there should be one small place in the world where the Jewish people have sovereignty, where Hebrew is the language, where Jewish history is taught – with full, inalienable rights for all citizens. Given the rising antisemitism in the world, that is not an outmoded need.


Fred Halliday and mature internationalism

AJ: When a group of us wrote the Euston Manifesto in 2006, Fred Halliday presented a keynote lecture at our second conference, alongside the main author, Norman Geras, and Michael Walzer. Halliday emerges as one of the heroes of your book. Why did you find him such an attractive thinker and what is the importance of his notions of ‘revolutionary realism’ and a ‘mature internationalism’?

SL: Halliday starts out as a typical sixty-eighter, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. His first article on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, written in 1971 for New Left Review, was an interview with Ghassan Kannafani, a prominent Palestinian intellectual and leader of the PFLP, which was one of the most ruthlessly violent organisations. (Kannafani was assassinated by the Mossad after the PFLP’s attack on the Lod Airport.) The PFLP was doing a lot of hijacking at that point, and in that piece it’s clear that Halliday was disturbed politically by the terrorism. He clearly thought – although he didn’t exactly come out and say this – that it was disastrous politically. But he didn’t raise any moralqualms about terrorism.

Things changed for Halliday for several reasons. First, more than any other intellectual in the book – even Maxime Rodinson, who was also true scholar of the Arab world – Halliday travelled throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. He really knew what was happening in those countries, and he wasn’t afraid to keep his eyes open.

Second, the Iranian Revolution had a huge impact on Halliday. He spoke Persian fluently and had written a book about Iran, predicting that there would be revolution and that a socialist democratic Iran would emerge. He is a witness in Tehran at the moment that the Ayatollah and Islamist forces refute all his predictions by consolidating their power against the Left, against secularists, against women. He is stunned. He stood in Tehran and heard thousands of people screaming ‘Death to Liberalism!’ and he said ‘I knew that they meant me’. Here’s a revolution that is anti-imperialist but it’s also profoundly reactionary: It literally wants to erase centuries of history. He also notices that many women are supporting the Islamic forces. They actually want the rollback of their own freedoms. Iran made him re-analyse anti-imperialism and the political meaning of revolutions in the third world.

Through the 1980s Halliday travels throughout the region. He visits Iraq under Saddam. He allows himself to see what is happening. He allows himself to not be mystified by theory. His analysis really starts to change, profoundly so. He begins to situate human rights, not ‘anti-imperialism,’ as the true basis of any genuine Left. He argues that solidarity has to be based on support for, defense of, insistence on, human rights and not on anti-imperialism. The Left has to base itself in a ‘for,’ not in a sterile ‘anti.’

As part of that shift in position, his analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict necessarily changes, and he comes out for a two state solution. He knew that he would be accused of being a ‘Zionist collaborator’, but he insisted that any solution had to honour the national aspirations of both peoples, Israelis and Palestinians. So he writes up his new position in MERIP Reports, a very Left-wing journal that covers the Middle East. His new position was not supported by most of the Left and it was definitely not supported by the PLO or by any Arab country: this was 1981.

Halliday becomes very critical of the Left’s support for, or rationalisation of, groups like Hezbollah – in fact he’s horrified. Not only because of their terrorism against Israel, but also because he is staunchly opposed to religious fundamentalists of any stripe. He is very critical of the so-called ‘resistance’ in Iraq, i.e. the Sunni and Shia death squads, each of whom were murdering the intelligentsia and the democratic secularists as well as each other. He breaks with New Left Review over precisely this question of anti-imperialism. And these were his comrades, his longtime friends; it’s a hard thing to do.

Halliday wanted to reconnect the Left to enlightenment principles. The enlightenment is not white western hegemony. It is s rationalism, secularism, democratic principles, dignity and the defence of human rights. He wants us to ask, is being opposed to ‘the imperialist powers’ our start and end point? Or is our most important commitment to the enlightenment principles from which the Left originally emerged?

AJ: Some fear that following Halliday ends up in supporting US interventionism, in Iraq for example

SL: No, you don’t have to support any particular American intervention because of those commitments. Much that the U.S. does is wrong and is sometimes criminal (although it should be noted that the Syrian catastrophe has developed in the context of the absence of an American intervention). It is about taking a wider view of global politics than simply dividing the world into ‘imperialism’ and ‘anti-imperialism’. And it’s interesting that those who do so divide the world have a strange tendency to ignore two of the world’s main imperialist powers: Iran and Russia. They are the imperialists in Syria. If you’re going to be anti-imperialist, fine, but recognise that imperialism has many faces. If you think that imperialism consists only of the US then you have completely misunderstood the actual constellation of world forces, especially in the Middle East. Look, Iran is an imperialist country, and Saudi Arabia is the imperialist country in Yemen and elsewhere. You have to look at what is really happening today. You can’t have an analysis that comes from a Cold War mindset or is rooted in the Vietnam War.

The world has changed so much. A country can define itself as anti-imperialist – and maybe in some ways it is anti-imperialist, if you consider opposition to the US as the main value – but can still be a barbaric tyranny. Many anti-western countries are horrendous regimes: Look at the torture gulag in Syria – which, by the way, existed for decades before the war. What do the people who have to live there gain from this spurious ‘anti-imperialism’ or from the Left’s apologias for the regime that oppresses them?

Noam Chomsky and ‘Chomskyland’

AJ: Almost every bookshop in the UK has a shelf of books by Noam Chomsky. You set out his central claim about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that since 1976 the PLO and the Arab states (later joined by Hamas and Iran) have all been working for the two-state solution, only for the dastardly Israel and the US to block their efforts – and you take it apart piece by piece. Indeed you show that Chomsky’s inaccuracies about the conflict are ‘so numerous and ideologically consistent’ that they cannot be considered errors in the normal sense. Rather, his radically untrue and Manichean history ‘demands that he cleanse away, misrepresent, ignore, and deform an immense amount of evidence.’

SL: I included Chomsky because I wanted to bring the book up to the present and because he has such influence. My students who have never even heard of Albert Memmi, Fred Halliday or Maxime Rodinson have read Noam Chomsky. And he writes a lot on Israel and Palestine.

Chomsky did have a sane position in the late sixties and early seventies, basically a two-state position, but that really changed in 1980, or maybe a little bit earlier. I’m not an admirer of Chomsky, but when I researched the chapter on him, I was frankly stunned to discover the shabbiness of so much of his analysis and the fraudulence of his use of documents.

Chomsky changed his position on the conflict based on his own odd reading of a 1976 UN resolution that was never passed. He has insisted in book after book and in speeches – recently at the UN –that this UN resolution was proposed by what he calls the ‘Arab confrontation states’ and the PLO, and that it supported a two state solution and recognition of Israel. He also claims that the Israelis – and by the way, he means all Israelis, including Peace Now and the socialist-Zionists – and all American presidents, including Obama, have resisted this.

But none of that is true. Zero.

Right from the start I thought it was an odd claim for Chomsky to make, and I was confused by it. I knew the PLO didn’t even recognise Israel until 1988. And 1976 was the height of the Palestinian terrorist attacks; furthermore, the Lebanon civil war, which involved much of the Arab world and of course the various Palestinian factions, was heating up. So I looked into his claim.

By the way, I found that one problem in judging Chomsky’s claims is that he footnotes himself a lot. You’ll go to a footnote to find a source for what he writes, but the source is actually Noam Chomsky. You then go to a different book to find that source, and the new source is again Noam Chomsky. He creates a sort of self-enclosed, maddeningly autistic world.

So I went to the actual documents on which his odd claim rested and I was stunned to find out that everything he said about this resolution was wrong.

First, it was not proposed by the Arab ‘confrontation states.’ In fact it wasn’t proposed by any Arab state, but rather by countries such as Tanzania, Panama, and Guyana.

Second, the resolution doesn’t propose a two-state solution; it proposes the return of the Palestinian refugees, which is the opposite of a two-state solution – something that Chomsky knows (and that he himself doesn’t support).

Most of all, when I went to the debate at the UN on the resolution I was really shocked. The Syrian and Libyan delegates, along with the PLO, gave speeches with vitriolic, blood-thirsty rhetoric about how ‘the Zionist entity’s’ colonialism, imperialism, racism, immorality, aggression, etc. would be defeated by the Palestinians’ armed struggle. How anyone could read that resolution, and follow that debate surrounding it, and come to the conclusion that this was the Arab world uniting to recognise Israel and support a peaceful two-state solution is literally incomprehensible.

I kept having my fact-checker go back to this resolution, thinking we were missing something. I even emailed Chomsky to ask if this was indeed the UN resolution he was referring to. (It was.)

The ‘sea change’ that Chomsky claims came about after this resolution is one that only he sees. It is not mentioned in any writings on the Palestinian national movement that I could find, including those by experts like Rashid Khalidi, Alain Gresh, Rodinson, or Yezid Sayigh. Nobody writes about it, because it did not exist.

It is staggering that Chomsky rests his whole analysis of the conflict on his radical misinterpretation of a never-passed resolution from 1976. He refers to that resolution again and again, and cites it as proof that Israel has never sought a political solution but has somehow preferred to reject the peace offerings of the Arab world. Look, it’s ridiculous: At this time the Arab leaders were Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Hafez Assad, the Islamists in Sudan, the dictatorship in Algeria – the idea that these people, along with the PLO, were proposing a peaceful resolution and recognition of Israel is a grotesque and blatant lie. And by the way, Chomsky never explains how the fierce ‘Axis of Resistance’ decided to annihilate its entire raison d’être. It’s literally impossible to understand the whole subsequent trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of the Arab world in general, if Chomsky’s analysis is your foundation.

I found many similar examples of Chomsky’s wayward analysis and unreliable use of documents in other cases. Chomsky ‘s editors at his various publishing houses obviously do not check anything, regarding him as the guru who cannot be questioned.

Albert Memmi’s Left Zionism

AJ: Of the individuals you write about, Albert Memmi will be least well known to readers. Can you say a little about him? (Linfield’s chapter on Albert Memmi is available to Fathom readers by kind permission of Yale University Press here.)

SL: Discovering Albert Memmi was a revelation and a delight. He was a Tunisian Jew, brought up in the impoverished Jewish ghetto when the country was ruled by France. He was, like many of the people I discuss in the book, extremely poor but phenomenally gifted, making his way through his intellectual acumen. He won the country’s top philosophy prize, and a rich Jewish benefactor paid from him to go to an elite French school (where, as a poor Jew, he felt quite marginalised). He was very involved in the Tunisian anti-colonialism movement and wrote an extremely insightful book before Frantz Fanon (I believe they both knew each other) about what colonialism does to both the colonised and the coloniser. But he also saw that something surprising was happening in the Tunisian revolution. He expected Tunisia to mould itself into a secular republic, much like the France. But instead, it Arabised and became a dictatorship. The Jews who had lived there for over 2,000 years were not seen as true Tunisians; it became impossible for them to stay. Virtually the entire Jewish community left, many for Israel.

This forces Memmi to rethink the question of Jewish identity. Until that moment, he had been, like many Leftists of that time, a universalist who believed that a Jewish identity extraneous, even embarrassing. But he finds out that having a Jewish identity was not some selfish or anachronistic sideshow but a plain reality.

He moves to France, where he becomes a teacher and a writer. His project is to meld his French, Tunisian and Jewish identities. He refers to himself as a Jewish Arab. Because of his background, he didn’t possess the guilt that many Western intellectuals have vis-à-vis the Arab world. He had a very realistic view of the Jewish experience in the Arab world, completely rejecting the view – proposed by Rodinson – that the pre-1948 period had been a ‘Golden Age’ for Jews in the Arab world, and that it was the emergence of Israel that led to Jewish-Arab hostility.

Throughout his life Memmi remains a very strong anti-colonialist and a very strong Zionist. He saw Zionism exactly the way he saw the other anti-colonial movements, that is, as a movement for national self-determination. He insisted that political independence was the key for the Jews to develop themselves politically, culturally, intellectually. He believed that diaspora culture had created a kind of psychic mutation in the Jewish people, which Zionism – and for him that meant secular Zionism – had to destroy. He also became an opponent of the occupation and of many policies of the Israeli government.

Much later in his life he writes a very critical book about the trajectory of the anti-colonial revolutions, pointing out how the formerly colonised world was now drowning in violence, repression, religious fundamentalism, and dictatorship. He wrote that this fact did not make him any less of an anti-colonialist, just as the occupation did not make him question the importance of the right of Israel to exist as a state for the Jewish people.

AJ: You argue that ‘Memmi’s Zionism affirms rather than negates Arab aspirations.’ Can you elaborate?

SL: Memmi believed the self-determination of the Jewish people was an advertisement for, an argument for, Arab aspirations for self-determination. In other words, he thought all peoples needed national self-determination, in the Middle East as much as anywhere else. In terms of the Israeli-Palestinian national question, he was very much a two-stater. He thought the only way to reach justice while acknowledging political reality was to support self-determination for both peoples. Maybe, after that had been achieved, there could be some kind of bi-national situation. Until then, he thought it was completely illusionary to speak about confederalism. In that sense, he was the antithesis of Arendt, who was against the idea of a state of one’s own.

Hannah Arendt’s retreat into the imaginary

AJ: Let’s talk about Arendt. You strike a note of dissent from today’s Arendt-idolatry, highlighting the ‘enormous miscalculations in her political judgement’. She emerges from your writing as a dogmatic and absolutist political thinker, routinely ignoring her own advice not to impose the straight lines of political theory on the messy human experience. Despite her early years of practical Zionist activity, she waited until the 1940s to deny what you call ‘the cruelly existential nature of the conflict’ and instead ‘retreated into the imaginary’ you point out? You write that you found ‘something strange’ in this reversal. What did you mean?

SL: Arendt is a hard person to grapple with. I have tremendous admiration for so many of her writings and for her original thinking. But I couldn’t understand what happens to her in the 1947-8 period. She was a very militant Zionist, even taking positions similar to those of Jabotinsky and the right-wingers; she insisted, for instance, that a Jewish army be formed during WWII. She did notview Zionism as colonialism or imperialism – which some of her present-day admirers seem to not understand – and she had great respect for the accomplishments of the Yishuv: the kibbutzim, the Hebrew University, the political self-organisation, the unapologetic pride. She believed that Jews had earned the right to (some of) the land by working it, developing it. And yet, just at this time of real crisis, when the Yishuv was faced with extermination, she retreated to fantastical ideas of Palestinian-Jewish unity, the incorporation of a bi-national entity into the British commonwealth, and so on. It makes no sense to me.

I think Arendt’s trajectory is another example of how Western intellectuals project their own ideas onto the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because of the experience of Weimar Germany, Arendt seemed to believe that any nation-state configuration was the first step to ethno-fascism. But what is so strange is that despite her earlier writings on the terrible price Jews had paid for Jewish helplessness and Jewish worldlessness, she came to epitomise that worldlessness at exactly the moment of the state’s creation.

Also, I couldn’t understand where Arendt got her information from. She didn’t speak or read Arabic, and I have no knowledge of her talking to anyone in the Arab world. I believe she did not read Hebrew, so she was probably getting her information from a small and unrepresentative group of German-Jewish intellectuals. But even they had rejected bi-nationalism by the time Arendt picks up the idea, because they saw that the Arab world had zero interest in a peaceful resolution and was completely opposed to any sort of joint venture. Bi-nationalism and confederation were solely Jewish ideas, just as much as Zionism was.

Arendt is viewed as a defender of organic, democratic politics, but was she? She was proposing a solution that had zero support among Jews or Arabs. If something has zero support among all of the people involved – if it negates the national aspirations of each group – in what sense can it be democratic? She prophesises the disappearance of the nation-state at precisely the time the anti-colonial movements are emerging and demanding nation-states! Whilst Arendt foresaw the many problems of the nation-state, she failed to put forward any real alternative to it. To propose that Arabs and Jews in Palestine wanted to be unified and tied to the British Commonwealth was, frankly, ludicrous.

To her credit, the one thing she did realise, more than most people, was that within Palestine, Jews and Arabs didn’t see the other as real. Instead, both were so fixated on the British that they had forgotten that the British were going to leave and the Jews and Arabs would be stuck with each other. Which they still are, despite decades of attempts by each people to make the other disappear.

Maxime Rodinson and the servile Left

AJ: Let’s talk about Maxime Rodinson, a hugely influential figure in shaping the Left’s thinking. A Communist, you tell us he believed ‘Jewish identity was a selfish sideshow and Jewish nationalism inherently retrograde’. It is from Rodinson that we get the idea – often heard today in the British Labour party – that ‘Jewish Leftists were expected to fight for others: they were the movement’s designated altruists’, an idea that Albert Memmi was angered by, as if ‘selflessness was the Jewish revolutionary’s ticket of admittance to the socialist fraternity’. Why are the Jews made an exception of in this way by the Left?

SL: There’s a long line of Marxist thinkers – Marx, Kautsky, Adler – who have believed that in the age of modernity, socialism and internationalism, the Jewish people will, and in fact should, disappear. This is a big departure from the normal idea of internationalism. Lenin was an internationalist but I don’t think he ever suggested that the Russian people should disappear. Even Luxemburg, who was so fiercely anti-national, didn’t think the Polish people should disappear. But somehow, when it came to the Jews, the idea of the melting away of the Jewish people into some sort of internationalist brotherhood had a big hold on several generations of Marxist thinkers. That idea is connected to another false belief, that the Jews are not a people, but only a religion, and since religions should wither away, so should the Jews.

Rodinson was the son of poor Jewish Communists from Russia, true Bolshevists whom he described as ‘Stalinists.’ They came to France after fleeing anti-Jewish violence and they believed in the idea of total assimilation. At a young age Maxime had to quit school in order to work. He taught himself history and languages and was able to pass the tests for an elite school in France, where he became an expert in the Arab world. He maintained his Communist membership throughout the Slansky trial, the invasion of Hungary, and other events. He was eventually kicked out for unauthorised writings. But he remained very much a Marxist.

Rodinson believed that Zionism, by its very nature, is a reactionary movement of nationalism. He resents it because he feels Israel has kept alive a consciousness of nationhood amongst the Jews, something he opposed. He believes 100 per cent in assimilation – although his own parents were deported and murdered in Auschwitz, which might make one question the value, or at least potency, of assimilation. But I don’t think that Rodinson ever did, despite his family’s history.

Yet Rodinson became a two-stater. He knew that Israel and the Israeli people were a reality, and he did not support their annihilation. He was very critical of the Palestinian irredentist programme and of the glorification of armed struggle by arm-chair revolutionaries sitting in comfort in the West while urging carnage on their Middle Eastern brothers in the hope of revolution. At the same time, he did not confront Palestinian terrorism nearly as openly as he could have. Again, he’s a complicated figure.

AJ: As you say, Rodinson was a French Communist Party member for many years. He was very influential in defining the Left’s role in the Middle East as being only a subsidiary to the ‘liberation movements’. You point out that this notion of subsidiarity soon ‘mutated into servility’. Was Rodinson updating the servile role he had earlier allocated the western Left in relation to Stalinism? How important was Stalinism, do you think, in setting down a template for the Left – a set of rules for siding with a supposedly ‘progressive camp’ rather than thinking for itself and defending its own values?

SL: Yes, in my view Rodinson substituted the view of a ‘Progressive Arab Revolution’ for his belief in the Soviet Union. In his French CP days he had an obeisance to the Soviet Union –something he later admitted – and he replicated that regarding the Arab world, although there were times when he challenged Arab audiences to be more self-critical. But for Rodinson, most important was his intellectual and emotion aversion of the very idea of a Jewish people, nation and statehood.

Arthur Koestler’s absolutitis

AJ: I felt a kind of ‘tradition-shame’ reading how Arthur Koestler’s ‘smug confidence in dismissing the religion, history and culture of the Jews was matched only by his ignorance of them’, not to mention reading about his later antisemitic obsessions. 

SL: Koestler was both a Communist and anti-Communist, a Zionist and anti-Zionist. He went through these extreme political reversals, which he called his ‘absolutitis’. And he had a tremendous amount of shame about being Jewish; he sometimes referred to himself as ‘half-Jewish’, which was completely false. He was actually descended from a long line of rabbis and everyone on all sides of his family was Jewish.

He associated ‘Jewishness’ solely with negative attributes. There was a real sexual undertone to this contempt. He thinks that to be Jewish is to be a coward, abject, helpless and defeated: the very opposite of traditional notions of virility that he valued. So, when he is a Zionist, the thing that he loves about Zionism is its militancy: Zionism has defeated the wimpy, frail Jew and created this ‘new Jew’, a tough Jew. But at the same time, he posited that Zionism was ‘un-Jewish,’ because the essence of Jewishness is cowardice. He believes that Israel will therefore lead to the disappearance of the Jewish people – which he regarded as a good outcome. It’s a very weird theory! Much of this is, I believe, linked to his own sexual pathologies – he had affairs with hundreds of women and biographers have concluded he was a sexual predator.

But this question of feeling shame about Jewish passivity was a big theme for many early Zionists, and was not particular to Koestler. The early Zionists thought the Jewish diaspora had created a culture of fear and helplessness. Zionism’s job was to negate the Diaspora by turning intellectuals into farmers and labourers and soldiers (and turning Yidddish into Hebrew). For example, Bialik’s poem on the 1903 Kishinev pogrom is an attack not only on the pogrom itself but on the Jewish victims – they didn’t defend themselves, they had no honour, the sons of the Maccabees had been turned into slaves, and so on. He writes that their shame is so great, they are not even worthy of pity! This was a major theme in Zionism. The early Zionists wanted a cultural revolution in the most profound sense. I think Koestler is part of that. But with him it takes a psychologically bizarre and extreme form, filled with sexual self-loathing.


AJ: Michael Walzer has said ‘Susie Linfield is herself the ninth intellectual in this book, with a strong and persuasive position of her own’. What is that position?

SL: 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 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.