Review: Israel and the European Left

By Vernon Bogdanor, February 17, 2012
Trotsky: heartfelt echo

Trotsky: heartfelt echo

By Colin Shindler
Continuum, £17.99

In the early 20th century, Eastern European Jews had two love affairs - with Communism and with Zionism. But the Communists betrayed them. The Hungarian intellectual, Arthur Koestler, compared his time as a Communist with the deception practised on Jacob when he slept with the ugly Leah instead of Rachel.

Early Communists didn't want to be bothered with Jewish issues which, they thought, would be automatically resolved under socialism. By the 1920s, Stalin was using antisemitism to defeat his opponents in the party, many of whom were Jewish. One, Karl Radek, asked: "What's the difference between Moses and Stalin? Moses took the Jews out of Egypt. Stalin takes them out of the Communist Party".

By the 1930s, Stalin's great opponent, Trotsky, had come to believe that Jews might well not assimilate after all. He began to speak of "the Jewish nation". A socialist Zionist who met him in 1937 thought her words "penetrated deep into his heart, that he was glad to hear about a world from which he had dissociated himself". She thought that "he was listening not like a man who placed himself above all nationality," and that, "our great idea found an echo in his heart". Trotsky's biographer and disciple, Isaac Deutscher, a self-confessed "non-Jewish Jew", later admitted that, had he urged Jews in the 1930s to go to Palestine, many, including his own family, would have been saved.

The non-Communist left was more sympathetic to Zionism. Ralph Miliband, father of Ed and David, insisted, in a long correspondence with a Belgian socialist, Marcel Liebman, that his kind of socialism did not preclude recognition of Jewish identity. "What right do the Jews have to be in Palestine… Their right stems from the fact that the world is what it is". Perhaps there is no better answer.

But the correspondence has a sad and ironic sequel. In 2010, the London School of Economics, with a foolishness of which only academics are capable, nominated Saif Gaddafi to give the Ralph Miliband memorial lecture. In 1945, the more left-wing someone was, the more likely he or she was to be a Zionist. Today, the opposite is true. Colin Shindler, Emeritus Professor of Israeli Studies at London University, asks why this is so. His answer is that, well before the Six-Day War, the acquisition of the West Bank, or the construction of settlements, Israel came to be seen as an outpost of imperialism and so found itself on the wrong side of liberal-left opinion.

Shindler has written a fascinating book. But, given his conclusion, it seems a pity that he devotes so much attention to the Marxists, who have never had much influence in Britain, rather than the liberal Left - readers of the Guardian or the Independent - whose growing hostility threatens the legitimacy of Israel, even though Israel is the only Middle Eastern country in which liberal values have much chance of a hearing. Israel and the European Left badly needs a sequel and Shindler is the man to write it.

Colin Shindler will discuss the subject matter of 'Israel and the European Left' with Nick Cohen at Jewish Book Week 2012 ( on February 26 at 6.30pm. Vernon Bogdanor is a research professor at the Institute of Contemporary History, King's College, London

Last updated: 3:26pm, February 17 2012