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“The Left, the Jews and Israel”

June 25, 2012 20:12

This is the subtitle of a new book by historian Robert Wistrich (University of Nebraska Press). As a stand-alone, its apparent neutrality gives little away, reminding me of T.S. Elliot’s Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The topic appears cool and analytical, ‘like a patient, etherised upon a table.'

Until, that is, you look at the full title: From Ambivalence to Betrayal.

When talking about the Left, this pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

Perhaps not.

Readers will need to wait until this Friday’s edition of the Jewish Chronicle to find out. I’ve written a profile of the head of the well-known director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at Hebrew University, where I focus on the ‘betrayal’ aspect of the title as a key to Wistrich’s thesis.

Aside from space limitations, I chose to leave ‘ambivalence’ alone for the time being. It seemed like well-trodden territory, even though for many researchers, there is very little that’s unambiguous about Left’s attitude towards the Jews and the Jewish project for the last 150 years.

Take, for example, Karl Marx’s famous quote from his classic essay, Zur Judenfrage (On the Jewish Question, 1844). Here the ‘father of socialism’ encapsulates his view, based on his conviction that Jews, who he saw as society’s ultimate purveyors of commerce, were antithetical to the Left's utopian worldview: “In the final analysis,” wrote Marx, “the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.”

Nothing ambivalent about that.

But of course, no quote says it all. One needs to appreciate the entire sweep of Enlightenment ideas as well as their their origins and permutations throughout the cataclysmic decades that followed – not to mention the impact of the Haskalah on the emergence of a Jewish Left and its own role in the founding of a Jewish State – in order to obtain a more textured – and accurate portrayal.

For that, JC readers don’t have to wait until Friday’s paper. They can hear the author himself at a lecture he’s giving the London Jewish Cultural Centre Tuesday night, called “The Anti-Imperialism of Fools.”

For those who can attend, here’s a sneak preview that never made it to my profile:

First, Wistrich wants to examine “the beginnings of European Socialism until World War I, when leftists were highly ambivalent towards what they called ‘The Jewish Question’.

In this phase, he said, the Left “embraced a number of antisemtic stereotypes that connected Jews with the most exploitative features of finance capital”, while Judaism – with a nod to Marx – was portrayed as “a backward obscurantist feudal relic of the Middle Ages.”

At the same time, said Wistrich, “the Left contemptuously dismissed Jewish nationalism as a futile and hopeless effort to turn back the wheel of ‘progress’.

The second phase took place between the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and Israel’s establishment in 1948. At this juncture the communists hardened their anti-Zionist world-view, choosing to equate Zionism with British imperialism and western colonialism.

On the positive side, said Wistrich, before that happened “the left did oppose antisemitism in the face of the rising threat of Fascism and Nazism in Europe.”

This brings us to the current phase. Here the “traditional anti-antisemitism of an earlier epoch has been greatly weakened” while Zionism and Israel are “relentlessly blackened as dark reactionary forces and the greatest current threat to world peace.”

A key feature of today’s leftist mindset? The growing alliance between Marxists and Islamists – a sign, said Wistrich, of “just how far removed the contemporary left is from the roots of its own credo.”

Ambivalence and betrayal: For those who still embrace the left’s transformative vision, “The Anti-Imperialsim of Fools” could be a bumpy ride.

June 25, 2012 20:12

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