“The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky” by Susie Linfield— Struggling with Zionism Philosophically 

Linfield Susie. “The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky.” Yale University Press, 2019.

Struggling with Zionism Philosophically

Amos Lassen

Zionism is quite the hot topic today and I believe that many Jews have great problems trying to formulate personal definitions that are acceptable and politically correct at the same time. I know that I do and with my spending much of my life in Israel, I really have a rough time trying to figure out (on an hourly basis sometimes) where I stand Zionistically.

Cultural critic Susie Linfield looks at the issue and I was hoping that she would be able help me out and while she has many important things to say, she is not a philosopher. I do, however, appreciate her probe into how eight prominent midcentury public intellectuals struggled with the philosophy of Zionism, and then with Israel and its conflicts with the Arab world. I also appreciate that as she explored Zionism, she also dealt with modernism and how it affects how we think as seen through the minds that she focuses on. More specifically, I was interested in what she had to say about Hannah Arendt as I have been a student of her views for years now.

Linfield’s style is “lively” as the blurb tells us but liveliness is not what I look for when facing a difficult issue such as Zionism. We get something of an intellectual history of the political Left, through looking at twentieth-century intellectuals struggling with the philosophy of Zionism, and then with Israel and its conflicts with the Arab world. Linfield constructed this as a series of interrelated portraits that bring together the personal and the political and includes philosophers, historians, journalists, and activists— Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Maxime Rodinson, Isaac Deutscher, Albert Memmi, Fred Halliday, I.F. Stone, and Noam Chomsky. As they considered Zionism, these thinkers also had to wrestle with many of the twentieth century’s most crucial political dilemmas including socialism, nationalism, democracy, colonialism, terrorism, and anti‑Semitism. In other words, as they thought about Zionism, they also confronted the very essence and nature of modernity and the often catastrophic histories of our time. Through examining these leftist intellectuals, Linfield also tries to understand how the contemporary Left has become focused on anti‑Zionism and how Israel itself has moved rightward. We are all certainly very aware of how the political hot bed of the Middle East has generated fierce responses from the left.

Linfield gives us an analysis of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through an examining how left-wing intellectuals came to their strong views on Zionism that Linfield sees as “support for a democratic state for the Jewish people.” We see here the debate which is filled with “fearless intellectual energy” and, the upsetting imposition of “fantasy, symbol, metaphor, and theory overtaking reality and history.” Her subjects, like Arendt, held an “ideological antipathy to sovereignty” that made them critical of Zionism (although Arendt remained a Zionist her entire life and certainly philosophized about it at every opportunity and unapologetically so). Some, like Koestler, who was an admitted  combative self-loathing Jew, “insisted that there was no Jewish history and culture” to merit statehood for “a chosen people.” Rodinson, who was a French scholar of Islam, believed that Palestinians, as victims of colonial oppression, were justified in their one unifying stance: hostility to Israel (and we certainly see where that has gone). That position has been repeated over and over again by Chomsky, whose hatred for Israel and championing of Palestine has cost him followers and support as well as consideration as a has-been. Linfield criticizes him as arrogant and ignorant, based on “manufactured history” and “staggering” misrepresentations. Here was a man who was loved by many but who now has few followers. On the other hand, Linfield lauds Memmi and Halliday for their principled, humane analyses. For Memmi, Zionism is “the national liberation movement of an oppressed people,” and worthy of being supported by the left. Halliday who is an activist, journalist, multilinguist, and scholar, condemned the “profound mistakes” and crimes committed by both Zionist and Palestinian movements. Memmi and Halliday agree that support for terrorism was indefensible and simply “a short circuit that substitutes immediate fear and panicky responses for long-term solutions.” Halliday (and Linfield) advocated the establishment of two democratic states of Israel and Palestine. In presenting an unusually clear and informed history of the Arab-Israeli struggle, Linfield sheds  light on the perils of fanaticism and insularity.

Now while Linfield sees her book as an incisive commentary on eight intellectuals who wrote about the Israel/Palestine conflict she seems to forget the ninth intellectual, Linfield, herself, Her position is strong and persuasive and I take back what I said earlier bout her not. Being a philosopher. Susie Linfield is herself the ninth intellectual in this book, with a strong and persuasive position of her own.

Wherever you stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this book is a must read for devotees of exciting debates. I cannot often sit and read a philosophical text from cover to cover in one sitting. That happened here and I could not read quickly enough. If you have ever wondered why some of the brightest minds in the American and European Left been unable to understand Jewish nationalism, this is the book you need to read. You might not find the answer you are looking for, but you will enjoy the quest.

2 thoughts on ““The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky” by Susie Linfield— Struggling with Zionism Philosophically 

  1. David Lee

    In reality this is pretty simple: Israel abandoned its role as the exemplar of socialism done right. Likud and their allies are guiding the nation further to the right, and leftist Jews around the world are apoplectic with rage. All the various intellectual attacks on Israel from the Left are motivated by this rage.

  2. Amos Post author

    Yes you are quite right. However looking at Arendt is a bit problematic since she expressed her views long before the present situation and the growth of the right. It is interesting that when I read this some three weeks ago there was not a review to be found. Today it is being reviewed everywhere and tomorrow in The NY Times. It has become an important book now that the world has been talking about Israeli politics.


Leave a Reply