November 2012, Week 2


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Wed, 14 Nov 2012 22:10:22 -0500
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Left's Love-Hate Relationship With Zionism: 
Robert Wistrich's Details Long and Strange Path

By Tony Michels
The Jewish Daily Forward
November 09, 2012.

“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

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.

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

Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin detested that “unique
devouring parasite,” that “bloodsucking people,” the
Jews. Victor Adler, a founder of Austrian Social
Democracy, denounced “anti-Semitic incitement” but also
felt compelled to condemn “philo-Semitic incitement” in
a show of misguided evenhandedness. Adler and many of
his comrades argued that anti-Semitism would inevitably
disappear in the future socialist society “in which the
qualities referred to, rightly or wrongly, as Jewish
would not ensure influence and power or a life of
indulgence.” Into such a society the Jews would
completely assimilate, or, in Adler’s words, the
“wandering Jew” would wander “into his grave.” And
there was the problem of what might be called
theoretical discrimination. Austrian Marxists developed
an innovative theory recognizing the national rights of
small nationalities living within the Austro-Hungarian
Empire, but denied those rights to Jews. Croats
qualified as a genuine nation; the Jews amounted to a
moribund caste.

Wistrich establishes a blemished record. Ambivalence,
callousness, even prejudice existed within socialist
movements dating back to the mid-19th century. Yet how
should we evaluate the Socialist record overall?
Wistrich fails to say directly. His selection of case
studies implies that Socialists generally suffered from
a special Jewish problem. Austrian Chancellor Bruno
Kreisky receives a scathing portrait for his smelly
innuendos about Polish Jews and his embrace of the
Palestine Liberation Organization during the 1970s.
Fine. Yet Wistrich does not see fit to grant French
Socialist leader Leon Blum and Socialist International
chairman Emile Vandervelde equal attention for their
roles in supporting Zionism during the 1920s and ’30s.
A 600-page, “pathbreaking synthesis” ought to cast a
reasonably wide net.

“From Ambivalence to Betrayal” misleads in another way:
It fails to situate Socialists within the larger
political contexts in which they operated. To what
extent were Socialist parties better or worse than
other parties? Wistrich mentions, here and there, the
existence of right-wing parties that agitated against
Jews, but he does not adequately underscore their
differences from Socialists. A newcomer to the subject
could easily conclude from Wistrich’s study that
Socialist parties were anti-Semitic parties. In fact,
the great social democratic movements of Austria and
Germany, for all their flaws, neither agitated against
Jews nor proposed restrictions on them. They stood for
full civil and political equality. No wonder, then,
that Central European Jews, almost entirely, voted for
social democratic and liberal parties.

Wistrich profiles several seeming exceptions. French
Jewish intellectual Bernard Lazare abandoned “self-
hatred” and developed an anarchist brand of Zionism in
response to the Dreyfus Affair. German evolutionary
Socialist Edward Bernstein never minimized the
seriousness of anti-Semitism and even cooperated with
Zionists. The theoretical journal with which Bernstein
associated, Sozialistische Monatshefte, published
numerous pro-Zionist articles. Even the quintessential
revolutionary internationalist Leon Trotsky moderated
his opposition to Zionism in the 1930s and predicted
with remarkable prescience the destruction of European
Jewry. In an appeal to American Jews, written in
December 1938, Trotsky warned: “It is possible to
imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the
mere outbreak of the future world war. But even without
war, the next development of world reaction signifies
with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews.”

Wistrich treats Trotsky, Bernstein and Lazare as
exceptions. Yet numerous other exceptions, mentioned
usually in passing, accumulate over hundreds of pages,
and the accumulation suggests a different possible
account. The broad outlines of this alternative version
might look something like this:

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).

Copyright © 2012, Forward Association, Inc. All Rights

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