Both the Democratic Party in the U.S. and the Labour Party in Britain are in a tizzy over issues relating to Israel and anti-Semitism. Stateside, Rep. Ilhan Omar’s various statements about Israel, AIPAC, hypnosis, dual loyalties, and “Benjamins” sent the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives into months of tormented contortions over how to respond; such controversies are sure to continue. Overseas, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has been repeatedly rocked by charges of anti-Semitism. Nine Members of Parliament recently resigned from the party in protest, in part, over this issue. Fathom magazine, a British publication edited by longtime democratic socialist Alan Johnson, has just issued a 30,000-word report that charges Labour with being “institutionally anti-Semitic”; three former Labour members were arrested late last month for alleged anti-Semitic hate crimes. “Can Anti-Semitism Split Democrats Like It Split Labour?”, New York magazine asked.
These imbroglios are most heated and most frequent among the liberal parties of the center-Left. It is true that some on the right have chimed in—President Trump offered the helpful suggestion that the Democrats “hate Jewish people,” and Senator Ted Cruz has a sudden interest in the Golan Heights, though it’s not clear that he could answer the question, “Who are the Druze?” But it is primarily among those who consider themselves “progressives” that debates over Israel—as opposed to, say, debates over Syria or Afghanistan–really rankle. (Actually, Syria and Afghanistan are rarely debated, despite the fact that American forces fight and die in both countries.) And this fixation on Israel is nothing new.
For decades, Zionism, and then the State of Israel, have been uniquely polarizing issues—indeed, obsessions—for the left, including (or especially) the Jewish left. As the British socialist Mervyn Jones wrote in 1970, “One cannot easily recall a another problem over which Socialists of good faith have disagreed so much—disagreed in their sympathies, disagreed over possible solutions, . . . disagreed in analysis of the very nature of the problem. “ He concluded, “The maxim of ‘Tell me where my enemies stand and I’ll know here I stand’. . . will not guide Socialists through this labyrinth.” His words still ring true.
From its inception, Zionism stirred up fundamental questions not just about Jews and Arabs but about the essential nature of modernity itself. Indeed, almost all of the 20th century’s most vexing issues, and its political lightning rods, emerge in debates over Zionism. These include nationalism and internationalism, democracy and colonialism, religion and secularism, self-defense and terrorism, imperialism and independence, racism and anti-Semitism, aggression and just war. Israel, and the subsequent Arab-Israeli conflict, have called into question the very definitions of left and right. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for instance, many Marxists were anti-Zionist because they opposed all forms of nationalism. But there were also Marxist-Zionist parties, such as Hashomer Hatzair, and for decades Israel boasted two Communist parties. Furthermore, many if not most of the early 20th-century Jews who built the State of Israel were avowed socialists; some were enthusiastically pro-Soviet.
The basic nature of the Zionist project was hotly contested, and twisted leftists who tried to define it into knots. Was Israel a “colonial-settler” state, inherently despotic, which, alone among all countries, had no right to exist? Or did it represent the coming-into-history of a pariah people? Was it an example of ethnic nationalism (bad) or of national self-determination (good)? Would a true anti-imperialist oppose Zionism or support it? (In the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, it was Britain and the feudal Arab monarchies, not Israel, that were regarded by many leftists as imperialist.) Albert Memmi, a Tunisian-French Jew, was an active participant in the Tunisian independence movement and an equally fervent socialist-Zionist. He believed that leftist principles demanded support for Arab independence—and, just as surely, for Jewish independence too. As Mervyn Jones wrote: a labyrinth.
Knowledge of the Holocaust changed the minds of many, though certainly not all, leftists, and not necessarily in predictable ways. Marcel Liebman, a prominent Belgian Marxist political theorist, was staunchly pro-Arab and doubted that the Jewish people had a right to a state of their own; his beloved older brother had been murdered in Auschwitz. Liebman engaged in a long series of letters with his close friend Ralph Miliband (father of Labour Party politicians Edward and Ralph), a Marxist sociologist who held diametrically opposed views of the conflict—not, Miliband wrote, because he was a Jew but because he was a socialist. (The respectful tone of their letters stands in stark contrast to the Manichean vitriol with which the Israeli-Arab conflict is debated today.) Maxime Rodinson, a noted French scholar of the Arab world and longtime member of the French Communist Party, detested Zionism and believed that the solution to the “Jewish Question” was assimilation, though his avidly secular parents had been deported to Auschwitz, where they too perished. But Isaac Deutscher, a Marxist historian of the Russian Revolution, admitted in 1954: “If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers.” That is where Deutscher’s own family was extinguished, and though he was ideologically opposed to Zionism he couldn’t help admiring Israel, where some of his surviving relatives lived. Deutscher visited the country often and praised its destruction of “all the marks of indignity, all the stigmata of shame, all the yellow patches that Jew-hatred ever devised.”
I.F. Stone was one of the few American journalists with the courage to consistently oppose the McCarthyite Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s. Like his comrade Robert Capa, the world’s most famous left-wing photojournalist, he thrilled to the building of the nascent Israeli state, which he and Capa celebrated in their 1948 book This is Israel. Capa had documented the anti-fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War, and both he and Stone saw a direct link between the anti-Franco Loyalist armies and the Haganah. Visiting Palestine in 1945, Stone praised the young Zionists as as inspiration to “all who prize human courage, devotion, and idealism,” and he observed that the Yishuv was “the one place in the world where Jews seem completely unafraid.”Yet like many, Stone turned sharply against Israel after the 1967 War. For Stone, this was due in part to a genuine feel for the torment of the stateless Palestinians. For others, this animosity emerged before any settlements had been built and with scant historic knowledge of the Palestinian crisis. In their case, anti-Israel antipathy was an almost Pavlovian reaction that identified Israelis as the new imperialists or, even, “racist-fascists,” and the Arab nations—all of which were fearsome dictatorships—as “liberation forces.”
Yet for all the talk about Israel and all the millions of words that have been written about it, the country is often seen not in terms of its own, complex realities but as a metaphor for something or somewhere else. Hannah Arendt regarded Israel in its early years through the prism of Weimar Germany, though it is hard to think of two countries that were more dissimilar. In the 1960s, Liebman identified the Jewish state, whose population at the time numbered less than three million, with miring the Arab world of over 100 million people in underdevelopment. In the same era, Israelis were often described as a colonizing force akin to the French in Algeria and the Americans in Vietnam, though subsequent events have shown the inaptness of this comparison and some radical activists, such as Noam Chomsky, warned against such a grave misdiagnosis. Many, though certainly not all, contemporary anti-Occupation activists, including the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, insist that Israel is the South Africa of old, though this manifests, if anything, a lack of interest in either place.
And today, debates about Israel are really internal debates, having far more to do with factional domestic quarrels within the liberal-left—and between left and right–than with the actual, enormous problems of either Israel or Palestine. That is why Republicans could attach denunciations of anti-Semitism to a bill that would end U.S. military involvement in the Yemen war, although the two issues bear zero relationship to each other. Israelis and Palestinians seem to know this, though Americans and Brits might not. As the Israeli daily Haaretz recently asked, “Ilhan Who? In Israel, Nobody Knows or Cares About the Omar Anti-Semitism Controversy.”
Susie Linfield teaches cultural journalism at New York University. A former editor at the Washington Post and the Village Voice, she has written for a wide variety of publications, including the New York Times, the Nation, Dissent, and the New Republic. Her previous book, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.