Interventions

Interventions is a feature in Middle East Report Online offering critical reviews of important Middle East-related books, films and other cultural production. Click here for past Interventions articles.

The Left, the Jews and Defenders of Israel

by Joel Beinin | published August 2012

Peter Beinart, The Crisis of Zionism (New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2012).

Jeremy Ben-Ami, A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Robert Wistrich, From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews and Israel (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, for the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012).

When Menachem Begin first visited the United States in December 1948, a host of Jewish notables including Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Irma Lindheim (former president of Hadassah), Seymour Melman (former president of the Student Zionist Federation) and the biblical scholar Harry Orlinsky wrote to the New York Times to issue a warning about the Herut (Freedom) Party that Begin led. Herut, they wrote, was “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.” [1]

This opinion was not on the fringe. When the Irgun set off a bomb in a Haifa market killing dozens of Arabs in 1938, the future prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, could not believe that Jews would commit such a heinous act. He believed Nazi agents were responsible. [2]

That was then. Now, both American Jews and Israel are far more secure and powerful than they were in 1948. But influential American Jewish community leaders, in alliance with prominent neo-conservatives (William Kristol, Rachel Abrams and the Emergency Committee for Israel), evangelical Protestants (Gary Bauer, John Hagee and Christians United for Israel), academics in Jewish studies (Edward Alexander, Alvin Rosenfeld, Ruth Wisse) and their Israeli partners, believe that global anti-Semitism is rampant and that Israel is in existential danger. And it is unlikely that prominent American Zionists would so sharply and publicly condemn the leader of Israel’s Likud party -- the organizational and spiritual heir of Herut and the Irgun -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Peter Beinart reports in The Crisis of Zionism that in 2007 and 2009 Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Hoenlein gave speeches entitled “Is It 1938 Again?” and “Is It 1939?” In 2009, B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman likewise announced that, “Global anti-Semitism [is]…reaching a peak that we haven’t seen since the tragic days of World War II.” The Republican Party brass, Beinart notes, endorses this indecent trivialization of the Holocaust. “In 2010, [now] House majority leader Eric Cantor devoted his entire speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference to an extended analogy with the Nazi era.”

Beinart is deeply distressed that American Jewish communal leaders promote what Salo Baron called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” in which Jews are always and everywhere victims. He argues that they are trying to hold the community together with a combination of Holocaust commemoration and unquestioning loyalty to Israel, but that this stratagem will not work, because Jewish identity must be based on positive values. Beinart proposes that a liberal interpretation of the Jewish prophetic tradition is the appropriate form of identity for the great majority of non-Orthodox Jews, who compose the most liberal sector of American society.

Beinart gives a chilling account of the escalating anti-democratic tendencies in Israel, which he attributes to the extended occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip: “Occupying another people requires racism, and breeds it.” Consequently, younger, non-Orthodox American Jews, repelled by the brutalities of the occupation and Israel’s increasingly illiberal character, no longer identify with Israel to the degree that their parents did. They are not convinced that they must remain uncritical of Israel because it is their only refuge should they face a recrudescence of violent anti-Semitism, still less that such a threat is imminent. Beinart, as a former insider, knows the people and the institutions of the Jewish community and has the polling data to support these claims.

In From Ambivalence to Betrayal, in contrast, Robert Wistrich comes very close to endorsing the views of Hoenlein, Foxman and their ilk. The first substantive page of the book asserts, “The proposition that Jew-hatred seriously declined after 1945 is…largely a myth.”

Wistrich directs the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Its raison d’etre appears to be to issue a constant clarion call that anti-Semites are clawing at the door. Like Foxman and Hoenlein, the Center’s associates carelessly blur the distinctions between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and between those phenomena and criticism of Israeli policies. One of the Center’s prominent authors, Deborah Lipstadt, famously won a case against David Irving, who sued her for libel because she suggested that his writings constitute “Holocaust denial.” Bravo! But Lipstadt’s characterization of President Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid as “soft-core denial” because “the chronology lists nothing of importance between 1939 and 1947” is historical demagoguery. [3]

The heart of Wistrich’s text is a traditional treatment of the writings of the classic thinkers of the nineteenth-century European left on Jews, anti-Semitism and Zionism. This intellectual history is sandwiched between chapters excoriating both “Islamo-fascism” and the “Marxist-Islamist alliance” (presciently discovered by Bernard Lewis in 1954) and sundry evildoers, supported by references to the ultra-right madcaps David Horowitz, Laurent Murawiec and Caroline Glick (of the Jerusalem Post).

Wistrich wrongheadedly asserts that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s ideas, drawn from the Shi‘i tradition, were inspired by Sunni Islamists Sayyid Qutb and Abu al-‘Ala’ Mawdudi. He cannot understand why Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is so critical of Israel, apparently never having heard of Israel’s diehard support for Anastasio Somoza, the dictator overthrown by Ortega’s Sandinistas in 1979. The pinnacle of Wistrich’s tendentious charges is his imagined scene of leftist demonstrators in Europe chanting “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas,” which appears on the same page where he criticizes the left for “paranoid conspiracy-mongering.”

There is, in fact, anti-Semitism to be found among anti-Zionists. Gilad Atzmon, who has written on his blog that “we must begin to take the accusation that the Jewish people are trying to control the world very seriously,” is a good example. [4] The founding documents of Hamas and Hizballah, and statements of Muslims from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Mahathir Mohamed, repeat calumnies of the sort found in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which circulates all too promiscuously in the Arab world. But Wistrich conflates Atzmon with Daniel Boyarin and Sara Roy (both Jewish anti-Zionists) and ignores Palestinian, [5] anti-Zionist Jewish [6] and leftist [7] denunciations of Atzmon. To consider such complexities would require him to fashion a different narrative.
     
Let us pass lightly over these excesses on the grounds that Wistrich is uninformed about Islam, Latin America and the contours of the contemporary American left.

The history of the European left is his ostensible area of expertise. He acknowledges that what he alleges is the “profoundly antisemitic” history of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French and German left is in large measure due to its critique of religion, its refusal of the notion of a “chosen people,” and debates over how to contend with populist, anti-Semitic anti-capitalism. Nonetheless, for Wistrich, any statement which is politically incorrect by his standards is, if not overtly anti-Semitic, then suspect, and if uttered by a Jew, potentially “self-hating.”

Immanuel Kant (not a leftist, but part of the intellectual lineage leading to Hegel and Marx) does not pass muster because he thought Judaism had no authentic moral or spiritual content and was concerned only with adherence to ritual law. While Kant’s philosophical critique of Judaism was severe, he supported Jewish emancipation and was a friend of Moses Mendelssohn, the pioneer of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), and applauded his writings.

Mendelssohn and the founder of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Abraham Geiger, advanced similar critiques of Lithuanian-style, legalistic, Orthodox Judaism. Geiger also repudiated Jewish “chosen peoplehood,” argued that Jews were not a nation and refused the specifically Jewish dimension of the 1840 “Damascus blood libel” -- an accusation that Jews had murdered a Christian boy in order to use his blood in making Passover matzah. Geiger was willing to address the case as a humanitarian issue.  But he felt no kinship with Syrian Jews, and his attitude toward them would qualify today as “racist.” Wistrich brands Karl Marx, Wilhelm Liebknecht and other Jewish leftists with similar views as “self-haters.”

Like other Haskalah thinkers, Geiger returned Kant’s favor and regarded Christianity as influenced by paganism. But he had a more positive view of monotheistic Islam. So perhaps Geiger was an “Islamo-liberal”? In any case, Kant also inspired the major Jewish neo-Kantians, Hermann Cohen and Ernst Cassirer. None of this context is relevant for Wistrich.

The core subject of From Ambivalence to Betrayal is, rightly, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), Europe’s largest and most important socialist party before World War I. Wistrich grants that the entire SPD leadership “undoubtedly despised the antisemitic movement” and that August Bebel, a prominent Jewish party leader, “had few illusions about the narrow-minded stupidity and endemic Judeophobia within German society.” Bebel is credited with coining the phrase, “Antisemitism is the socialism of fools,” a popular formulation in the party in the face of rising prejudice against Jews in the 1890s.

Karl Kautsky, Marx’s literary executor and the guardian of Marxist orthodoxy between Marx’s death and World War I, expressed “unequivocal opposition to antisemitism” to the point that he was often taken for a Jew. Kautsky strongly supported the intervention of the French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès in favor of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer convicted of treason in an anti-Semitic frame-up.

In his youth, Friedrich Engels endorsed Marx’s formulations in On the Jewish Question, where he wrote that Judaism expressed the economic role of Jews in Europe as “hucksters” and the quintessential capitalists. There is an extensive scholarly debate about the meaning of this text, but Wistrich ignores it, denouncing Marx’s essay as unequivocally anti-Semitic. Marx himself supported Jewish emancipation, and when anti-Semitism became a political force in Europe, Engels forthrightly opposed it.

Edouard Bernstein, leader of the right wing of the SPD, not only spoke out forcefully against anti-Semitism, but also was “sympathetic” to the socialist-Zionist Po‘alei Tziyon (Workers of Zion), though he was not himself a Zionist.

If so many SPD luminaries “despised” anti-Semitism, what is the problem? Bebel and some other SPD leaders thought that populist anti-Semitism would undermine the conservative-liberal monopoly on German politics, thereby leaving an opening for the SPD to become more influential and do away with anti-Semitism in the course of abolishing capitalism. Therefore, combating anti-Semitism per se was a distraction. For Wistrich, this political misjudgment qualifies the SPD eminences as anti-Semites or self-haters. Wistrich also objects to Bebel’s reference to Jews as an oppressed “race.” In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Zionist leaders and many others regularly used “race” to refer to what we would today call “ethnicity.” But blaming the left for using terminology that was common across the political spectrum is ahistorical.

Not unlike Abraham Geiger, some Jewish SPD leaders, like Wilhelm Liebknecht, opposed intervening in “Jewish causes” like the Dreyfus affair. They believed that socialism would do away with Jewish “characteristics.” Rosa Luxemburg was the most extreme in this respect. In other words, like many bourgeois German, French and American Jews, they were assimilationists. Not okay, by Wistrich’s lights -- he labels them “self-haters.”

According to Wistrich, “some of the most extreme anti-Zionist vitriol today undoubtedly has its origins among the Israeli and Diasporic Jewish ultra-left.” Peter Beinart and Jeremy Ben-Ami are not named among those nefarious forces, though Beinart would surely qualify since his Crisis of Zionism advocates “Zionist BDS” -- a boycott of products manufactured in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. This project is well intentioned, but unrealistic. As the website WhoProfits.org demonstrates, it is impossible to isolate the settler economy from that of pre-1967 Israel. For example, every major Israeli bank has branches in West Bank settlements and lends money to the development companies based in pre-1967 Israel that build them. And if international norms are the referent, settlements in East Jerusalem are just as illegal as those built anywhere else in the West Bank.

Beinart endorses the two-state program promoted by J Street, the “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” founded in 2008, and expounded at length in J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami’s A New Voice for Israel. Establishing a Palestinian state and restoring a liberal Israel would allow Beinart and non-Orthodox American Jews to remain both liberals and Zionists. They could then feel at home both on the Upper West Side and in the “Tel Aviv bubble” (though perhaps not in large parts of Jerusalem or peripheral, largely Mizrahi towns).

The most original and insightful part of Beinart’s book is his account of how President Barack Obama folded on his demand for an Israeli settlement freeze. He offers a well-informed domestic politics explanation casting former National Security Council official Dennis Ross as the principal villain because he was the one figure in the administration who could brace American Jews’ confidence that Obama was not anti-Israel. But making that case meant that Obama had to follow Ross’ advice and reassure, rather than pressure, Israel. What is missing is Israel’s function in sustaining the American empire. This exclusion is necessary for Beinart; Israel could not play that role and be all that liberal at the same time.

Sustaining the two-state program also requires excluding a realistic view of pre-1967 Israel. As Roi Maor argued in response to retired Labor politician Avraham Burg’s New York Times op-ed bemoaning “Israel’s fading democracy,” [8] Israeli democracy was “flawed from its inception.” [9] There was always a contradiction between being a liberal-democratic state and being a Jewish state with an Arab minority. Moreover, the hegemony of labor Zionist Mapai from 1948 to 1977 involved many undemocratic practices, even among Jews.

Beinart argues that the two-state solution is “not enough” to save American Jewry from the predicament created by Israel’s flaws. He writes: “When Obama, a Democratic president genuinely committed to ending the occupation, ends up capitulating to an Israeli prime minister whom many Democrats privately loathe, it is hard to imagine any American president significantly challenging Israeli behavior any time soon.” Hence, American Jews must divest themselves from the occupation via “Zionist BDS,” which Ben-Ami and J Street oppose as an attempt “to place blame entirely on one side of the conflict.”

The main difference between Beinart and Ben-Ami is Beinart’s unflinching realism about the American Jewish community, Washington politics and the extent of anti-democratic practices in contemporary Israel. But both minimize or eliminate inconvenient facts. Ben-Ami offers a sanitized history of the Irgun (his father was a member); Beinart echoes Ben-Ami’s version of the 1967 war, according to which Israel’s destruction was imminent.

Ben-Ami cannot decide whether the traditional pro-Israel lobby is or is not a significant force, calling it the “loudest 8 percent” of American Jewry. Is that not what lobbies do -- amplify the voice of a minority? Most American Jews have supported two states and opposed the settlements for decades, but US policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not reflect the fact. Beinart credibly argues that the reason why the liberal majority of American Jews do not mobilize to change this situation is that they either do not care enough or are too dismayed to do so. Meanwhile, the base of the lobby is much broader than the Jewish community, or the Hoenlein-Foxman subset thereof, encompassing many evangelical Christians, parts of the arms industry and others. 

Ben-Ami offers Obama the utterly delusional political advice that a bold initiative on Israeli-Palestinian peace could help him in the 2012 election. Obama is not going to heed this counsel, and it would be surprising if he invested any political capital in the issue during his second term if he wins. Then what?

A few reports from the reality-based community in July-August 2012: The Israeli government spent 1.1 billion shekels (more than $272 million) on West Bank settlements in 2011, a 38 percent increase over 2010. [10] Dani Dayan, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria, insisted on the op-ed page of the New York Times that “the settlers are here to stay.” [11] And Yossi Sarid, an early champion of the two-state solution among liberal Zionists, concurred, writing that “there will soon be a binational state, which is either South Africa or South Africa, because there is no third option. And that South Africa has long since ceased to exist.” [12] What do they see that Beinart and Ben-Ami do not?

Ben-Ami will never cease spinning his wheels calling for two states. For unalterably committed liberal Zionists, it will always “soon be too late” to achieve that vision. But the hour will never arrive, and nonetheless these same people will always disparage sanctions against Israel as “counter-productive.” Beinart’s greater sense of realism, his greater openness to Palestinian voices, his ultimate concern with the future of American Jewry and the fact that he has become something of a pariah may save him from this fate.

The largest and most vibrant Jewish social movement in the first half of the twentieth century was the General Jewish Labor Bund of Lithuania, Poland and Russia, a secular, anti-Zionist, socialist organization that promoted a vibrant Yiddish-based Jewish culture. The Bund was devastated by the Nazi mass murder of European Jewry. But despite the claims of Hoenlein, Foxman and Co., and Wistrich’s manic accusations, the Nazi kind of anti-Semitism is not a significant force in the world today.

Wistrich mentions the Bund only in passing. Doing more would mean acknowledging that it was (and is) possible to be a leftist anti-Zionist and to have a strong, positive Jewish identity. It would mean asking why European and North American Jews were disproportionately represented in the ranks of communist and socialist parties and why Jews remain the most left-leaning sector of American society today. It would mean recalling, not only that the Soviet Union was Israel’s strongest international backer in 1948-1949 (for self-interested motives, to be sure), but also that the communist-leaning Pete Seeger and The Weavers made the rather militaristic and sexist Israeli song, “Tzena, Tzena,” number two on the Billboard hit charts in 1951. [13]

The Weavers, like much of the international left at the time, supported Israel as a progressive project, a land of hard-working, hard-playing agricultural communes where class distinctions were minimal. Much of the left views Israel differently today because the 1950s view turned out to be wrong. Beinart, Ben-Ami and other liberal Zionists hope that ending the occupation will restore a progressive Israel. Arguing that this aim is not feasible is not anti-Semitism.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Zachary Lockman and Steven Zipperstein for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

Endnotes

[1] New York Times, December 4, 1948.
[2] Tom Segev, One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000), p. 386.
[3] Jerusalem Post, August 14, 2012.
[4] The quotation appears at: http://web.archive.org/web/20050213011436/http://www.gilad.co.uk/html%20....
[5] See the statement, “Granting No Quarter: A Call for the Disavowal of the Racism and Antisemitism of Gilad Atzmon,” published online at: http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/palestinian-writers-act....
[6] See the statement of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network at: http://www.ijsn.net/679.
[7] See the statement, “Not Quite ‘Ordinary Human Beings’: Anti-Imperialism and the Anti-Humanist Rhetoric of Gilad Atzmon,” posted at: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2012/ga280212.html.
[8] Avraham Burg, “Israel’s Fading Democracy,” New York Times, August 4, 2012.
[9] Roi Maor, “Response to Burg: Israel’s Democracy Flawed from Inception,” +972, August 5, 2012.
[10] Haaretz, July 31, 2012.
[11] Dani Dayan, “Israel’s Settlers Are Here to Stay,” New York Times, July 25, 2012.
[12] Yossi Sarid, “The Zealots Have ‘Won’ Again,” Haaretz, July 27, 2012.
[13] This YouTube clip shows the band’s TV performance of the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZ5v651bQ1o.

Filed under: