The main title of my new book, From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel, may raise a few eyebrows. To what “betrayal” am I referring? Surely neither anti-Semitism nor hostility to Israel can be seen as prerogatives of leftism; and if they do exist in some quarters of the Left, is that not an example of “legitimate criticism” of Israel, a country regularly pilloried in international forums as one of the last remaining bastions of Western colonialism?
I have been hearing such arguments for over forty years, ever since (as a young radical) I myself participated in the student revolts of 1968, in both America and France. True, for most of my contemporaries (born like me after the end of World War II) the “Jewish Question” still seemed marginal at that time.
However, in my case it was something more than mere background noise – perhaps because I had been born in the Muslim Republic of Kazakhstan, in Stalin’s Soviet Union at the height of the Great Dictator’s prestige following the victory over Hitler’s hordes; perhaps because my father’s experience as a wartime prisoner of the NKVD (secret police) meant that from the outset there was great ambivalence in my own mind concerning the “fatherland of socialism.”
I grew up in 1950s England, seemingly far removed from these totalitarian nightmares. Nevertheless, during my adolescence I was becoming radicalized at grammar school, at the very time Great Britain was beginning to definitively shed its colonial Empire. In 1961 I first visited Israel, spending a month on a far left kibbutz – fascinated but also slightly repelled by its intense collectivist ethos. It was also the time of the Eichmann trial which made me even more intensely aware (at the age of 15) of the Holocaust, in which so many of my own relatives had been killed.
I would return to Israel in 1969 after two years of study and radical protest (mainly in Stanford, California) against the “capitalist alienation,” racism, and militarism of the West. The intellectual baggage I came with did not predispose me to any special sympathy with a country that struck me then as being dangerously intoxicated with its stunning military victory of June 1967. The result had been to greatly expand Israel’s borders from the frighteningly narrow dimensions of the cease-fire lines after the 1948 war, to something that seemingly offered secure and defensible boundaries.
The other side of that coin was a certain degree of hubris which seemed to me frankly alarming. As the literary editor of the peace-oriented left-wing magazine New Outlook (in Tel Aviv) I found myself at the age of twenty-four suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into the internal political debates of the Israeli Left. I did not get on with the principal editor of the journal, Simha Flapan, who came from the left wing of the Mapam movement – a Marxist-Zionist party whose power base was in the kibbutzim. Though no Communist fellow traveler, his view of the Cold War and the Soviet Union struck me as naïve. Even at the height of my own anti-American feelings in the late 1960s as a result of the Vietnam War, I had never seen the United States as being morally equivalent to the USSR.
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By the time I left the Middle East during the month of “Black September” 1970 (when King Hussein summarily crushed the PLO challenge to his rule) I had begun to crystallize the theme of my future doctoral research on socialism and the “Jewish Question” in Central Europe. The idea had arisen in conversations I had in Jerusalem, earlier in 1970, with Israeli historian Jacob Talmon and Professor George Mosse (then a visiting professor from Wisconsin at the Hebrew University) whose courses I had been taking. They both felt it would be better for me to do my dissertation at University College, London, where I would enjoy easier access to the relevant sources, especially those in France, Germany, and East-Central Europe.
During the next three years I traveled widely, learned a number of new languages, and focused on my research. I also became aware of the Soviet Jewish self-awakening – the first real crack in the Iron Curtain. At that time, the cause of Soviet Jewry, including the demand for “repatriation” to Israel, even enjoyed some support on the non-Communist Left, which condemned the growing manifestations of Soviet anti-Semitism.
About the Author: Robert S. Wistrich is Neuberger professor of European and Jewish history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. This essay was adapted from his new book, “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel” (University of Nebraska Press).
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