Did the Left Get Zionism and Israel Totally Wrong?

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Professor Susie Linfield Photo courtesy of NYU

Israel and the Zionist ideology that the founding of the Mideast nation is based on have been topics at the heart of global politics for decades. On the left, progressives, especially Jewish intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, have become increasingly critical of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories as the same time the self-defined Jewish state has lurched further right with each election. The plight of Palestinians is moving center-stage in global human rights discussions, and the question of Palestinian statehood and the two-state solution are continually debated on all sides of the political spectrum.

In her recent book “The Lion’s Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky,” New York University professor Susie Linfield traces the history behind what she views as a leftist abandonment of Zionism. Acknowledging that the occupation of the West Bank is part of the reason leftist thinkers are critical of Israel, the Jewish cultural journalism scholar tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer that she believes “there is more to the story.”

“What I was really interested in was getting beyond just a discussion of the occupation---although that’s important, but that is written about, and still written about, including by Israeli journalists, a tremendous amount,” says Linfield in the latest installment of Scheer Intelligence. “[I was] trying to understand why the idea of Zionism---which I identify as a democratic state for the Jewish people, not a Jewish religious state---[has] always really been such a thorny, thorny issue for left-wing intellectuals.”

Scheer, a Jewish intellectual who himself has been critical of the Israeli occupation, disagrees strongly throughout the discussion with Linfield’s extreme condemnations of Chomsky, I.F. Stone, Arendt and others, who he views as having presaged the contradictions inherent in Zionism at an early stage. Linfield’s explorations lead her to a number of questions regarding Israeli nationalism, all while setting aside the central issue of an occupation that began after the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, also known as the Six-Day War, and has resulted in the proliferation of illegal Israeli settlements as well as the vast abuse of Palestinians by the Israeli government and military. While Linfield argues that the left has supported other nationalist countries such as Cuba and Vietnam, Scheer counters that is precisely nationalism combined with occupation that led to progressives’ warnings about the future of Israel, and later to their criticism.

“These Jewish intellectuals ... rejected the Israeli state at different points,” Scheer tells Linfield. “Most of them supported it quite enthusiastically. But they had a prediction that this nationalism--and this is true of nationalism throughout the world, including American nationalism--it has a destructive impulse. And when it turns to conquering other people, or having control over other people, it becomes quite evil.”

Linfield posits that at a time in which many Israelis were prepared to support a two-state solution, the Palestinian Liberation Organization did not work towards that objective. Now, it seems, the tables have turned ,and it is embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies and followers that are uninterested in anything but a one-state solution. While in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War, there was a broad discussion about the implications of occupation and there was a strong left in Israel, the nation’s left has been diminished and the ideology that has won out, as Linfield points out, is a right-wing “combination of religious Zionism and security Zionism.”

Listen to the full discussion between Linfield and Scheer as they come to grips with the historical events and various ideologies that have led to Israeli politics current breaking point.



Joshua Scheer