Facing Reality

In The Lions’ Den, Susie Linfield studies eight Jewish leftists’ views on Israel but fails to confront her own liberal Zionist preconceptions.

Shaul Magid
October 15, 2019
The book deals with various Jewish leftist thinkers’ viewpoints on Israel. Pictured: Hannah Arendt, Maxime Rodinson, and Noam Chomsky

Discussed in this essay: The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, by Susie Linfield. Yale University Press, 2019. 400 pages.

SUSIE LINFIELD’S NEW INTELLECTUAL HISTORY, The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, is a fascinating examination of the attitudes of a series of Jewish figures identified with the left on the question of Zionism and Israel. Linfield defines herself as a liberal, and thus The Lions’ Den might be best understood as a liberal critique of leftist perspectives on this question. All of the thinkers she examines—Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Maxime Rodinson, Isaac Deutscher, Albert Memmi, Fred Halliday, I.F. Stone, and Noam Chomsky—at some point had a deep intellectual and personal engagement with their Jewish identity, Zionism, and Israel. All were or are leftists who for a variety of reasons came to criticize, and in some cases reject or abandon, the Zionist project. 

Linfield’s subjects can be divided up into two basic groups, although this is not how she chooses to organize them. The first group (Arendt, Koestler, Deutscher, Rodinson, Stone, and Chomsky), which serves as the crux of her critique, comprises intellectuals who came to see Israel as a failed experiment, largely as a result of their leftist ideologies. The members of the second group (Memmi and Halliday) serve as Linfield’s counterexamples; they too held leftist beliefs, yet they also remained dedicated to Israel as necessary and legitimate, even as they openly criticized its policies and social structure. These counterexamples are the linchpin for Linfield’s thesis that leftist political commitments need not result in a rejection of a Jewish nation-state. 

In Linfield’s view, the figures in the first group reject Israel because they cannot quite integrate their leftist political frameworks with what she calls “reality”—specifically, the “reality” of the situation on the ground in Israel/Palestine. Throughout the book, Linfield employs a notion of “realism” that is never adequately explained, even as the purported threat of an ideological war against realism serves as the book’s centerpiece. At one point, late in The Lions’ Den, Linfield remarks that for her, “realism is what enables” ideological values “to move beyond theory into lived actuality.” In the book’s last lines, she writes, “The opposite of realism isn’t principle; it is pathology. To reject realism makes you —and your children—into slaves of the past and strangers to the future.” But what is the “real” in this “realism”? One can only infer that Linfield is referring not to realism in a developed philosophical sense, but rather to a version of what one might call common-sense realism, which involves presuming that certain empirical observations about the world are obvious and incontestable. The problem with this kind of realism is that it’s a subjective category disguised as an objective one; despite the complex nature of politics and human society, the common-sense realist argument asserts that things “really” are precisely the way that I interpret them to be—and that anyone who see things differently is mistaken or deluded. 

Arendt, the first figure Linfield considers (her chapter takes up almost a third of the book), serves as the measure against which all Linfield’s other subjects are compared. Linfield clearly respects Arendt, and finds much common ground with her: she fully acknowledges Arendt’s Zionist credentials, her battles against Jewish assimilationism, and her devotion to the figure of the pariah (the Jew who refuses to abandon her Jewishness to become a part of the larger world in which she lives). But for Linfield, Arendt’s many mistakes—such as her conclusion that Jews were not ready to abandon the status of being the most victimized victim and her unwillingness to “confront the contradiction between the risks of statelessness and the risks of nationalism”—all rose from one fundamental error: the inability to subordinate ideology to history, or the “real.” It is for this reason that Linfield judges Arendt a marvelous political theorist and a lousy interpreter of politics.

Linfield’s summation of Arendt hints at her idiosyncratic definition of the word “real”: “Arendt’s Zionist writings,” Linfield writes at the end of the chapter, “are a model of the pitfalls into which so many commentators of Israel fall: arrogance, ignorance, remoteness, abstractness, and the tendency to see the country, and its conflicts, as a replication of previous histories rather than as uniquely themselves.” Linfield’s critique of Arendt implicitly demands that political theorists—who often work comparatively, as do most political scientists—abandon the notion that Israel can be understood according to any previous histories and, by extension, to accept that Zionism is an exceptional nationalism, not easily comparable to any other. If, for Linfield, it is an error to understand Israel within the context of the webs of history and ideology, as Arendt does—if to do so is to retreat from “reality”—then the “real” is simply Israeli exceptionalism. 

In her examination of Koestler, a different version of Linfield’s “reality” argument is deployed. Linfield correctly identifies Koestler as someone who was quite Jewishly militant, Zionist even in his antagonism to Judaism (“I became a socialist because I hated the poor,” he wrote in a novel, “and I became a Hebrew [Zionist] because I hated the Yid”), but who still, in the end, could not see Israel for what it was. Koestler wanted Zionism to become a substitute for Judaism, which he felt was a religion “unlike any other”: “racially discriminatory, nationally segregative, socially tension-creating.” He was later disappointed when Zionism failed to transform these tendencies. As Linfield reads Koestler, he took Zionism too seriously. He fails her “reality” test, because reality would tell us that Zionism comes not to replace Judaism, but to serve as part of its fulfillment, or else arises out of a contingent, historical necessity for Jewish survival. The latter idea might or might not be empirically legitimate; the former is pure conjecture.

When Koestler writes that the Bible designates the Jews as a “Chosen Race” to whom God had promised “preferential treatment”—and thus that Judaism is intrinsically racist—one can rightly contest Koestler’s reading, but it’s certainly unfair to dismiss it, as Linfield does, as “[r]adically misunderstanding the Biblical covenant.” Anyone who knows the Jewish tradition (and many Zionists knew it well) knows that this is far from the case. Here, then, the “real” is expressed as a liberal Jewish sentimentality that views Judaism as the “ethical monotheism” par excellence. Whatever one may think of Koestler’s views, he clearly knew more about Judaism than Linfield.  

Communists such as Rodinson and Deutscher are easier targets for Linfield’s analysis, since their Marxist commitments were overt, which allows her to simply deploy a standard, readymade liberal critique of Marxism. Each articulated their criticisms of Israel from a place of complexity, at the nexus of their Jewishness and universalism—unwilling to abandon a positive sense of their own Jewishness, yet insistent that this Jewishness is best expressed in universalist, non-nationalist terms. As Deutscher noted (and Rodinson echoed in his own work), “[t]here is a touch of un-Jewishness about Israel.” Israel was, for them, a move away from this universalist Jewishness, even as many lauded the kibbutz movement and its attempt to inculcate Israel with socialism. Deutscher, writing in 1958, implored Israelis to “take a more sober view of their predicament and chances, and beware being carried away by their new-fangled and already red-hot nationalism” and “to get used to the idea that their state is not above criticism: it is an earthly creation not a Biblical sanctity.” Linfield avoids acknowledging the prescience of these statements by pointing out that Deutscher’s and Rodinson’s predictions—for instance, that socialism would eliminate or at least minimize antisemitism—did not come to pass in their totality, and by asserting a standard critique of Marxism as being unrealistic with regard to how societies function. In her treatment of these figures, it’s clear that Linfield is as blinded by her view of “reality” as she claims her subjects are by their “ideology.” 

Linfield concludes her study with the work of Chomsky, whom she sees as an ultimate exemplar of the critical tendency she denounces. “Many of the authors discussed in this book,” she writes, “have refused the harsh, complicated realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict, preferring to project their a priori theories, hopes, wishes, and antipathies onto it. This has hobbled them as analysts and activists. With Noam Chomsky, the flight from reality reaches its apotheosis.” In some ways, Chomsky provides a perfect counterpoint to Linfield, as his thoughts on these matters—like hers—comprise a self-enclosed system that one either accepts or rejects. Linfield writes that “Chomsky’s ironclad anti-imperialism makes him one of the least useful analysts of the Middle East,” later explaining that, in her view, “his loyalty to principle has morphed into a crippling ideological rigidity that prevents him, time and again, from apprehending what is happening in the world around him.” One can surely poke holes in Chomsky’s analysis of the fusion of the liberal state and imperialism, but pointing to historical fallacies or inconsistencies does not by definition undermine his structural critique. To do so would require a more systemic unraveling of Chomsky’s premises. (And of course, any reader of Chomsky will know that he hardly ignores the world around him.) But for Linfield, because world events are interpreted through the lens of his ideological anti-imperialistic commitments, he cannot see “the real” as she understands it: that liberalism is good, and that its deficiencies are easily corrected with incremental change. Mistaking liberalism for “the real,” Linfield simply cannot hear what Chomsky has to say. 

Thus, the eight case studies in The Lions’ Den represent not so much a rigorous accounting of the left’s critique of Zionism and Israel, but a scorecard of how much each figure fails or succeeds in apprehending the “real,” which amounts to no more than Linfield’s own liberal view of the situation in Israel/Palestine combined with her vision of gradualism as the only solution. Arguing in this way allows Linfield to avoid actually engaging with the thinkers she critiques, making her own ideology the primary measure by which to weigh the subjects’ commitments to theirs. The book suffers greatly from this facile acceptance of her version of the “real,” which asserts its self-evidence without ever arguing for its accuracy. 

If Linfield were to engage in a more honest mode of argument, with more self-awareness and attunement to the changing facts on the ground, she might find that her own strong criticisms of Israeli policy and society—she openly condemns the Israeli occupation and Israel’s nation-state law—align with the various structures and conditions identified in the critiques of many of her subjects. Many of these critics challenged Zionism’s initial aspirations to be both a humanistic and ethnonational state as structurally and practically impossible. Liberal Zionists disagreed, and still do; Linfield is among them. But whatever one’s current view on Zionism, I don’t think it is provocative to propose that in Israel today, ethnonationalism is effacing Israel’s aspirational humanism; in this regard, some of Linfield’s subjects proved to be less unrealistic than she claims, and she is guilty of being more unrealistic than she thinks. In the final analysis, committed leftists will have a problem with an ethnocentric nation-state founded on the exclusion or marginalization of an indigenous population. Some will make peace with such a state, for a variety of reasons; others will not. But in the end, the structural critiques are manifest in the severity of current conditions—and those interested in a better Israel, including Linfield, ignore them at their own peril. 

Shaul Magid is the Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and a Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest two books are The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi’s Commentary to the Gospel, and Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism. He is presently completing a cultural biography of Meir Kahane.