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September 30, 2014 / 6 Tishri, 5775
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Behind The Left’s Betrayal Of Israel

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Forty years on, I have to say that the classical Marxist Left whose ideology and politics I studied during the early 1970s seems to me to belong to a very different political universe from the pro-Palestinian leftism of our own time. True, there are a number of theoretical continuities between today and the anti-Zionism of prewar European Social Democrats like Karl Kautsky or Otto Bauer. There is even a connection between the hostility to the “separatist” Jewish labor movement exhibited by Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin, and the ideological negation of Israel on the contemporary Marxist Left. Outwardly at least, there is also a common language of socialist “internationalism” that still animates the radical anti-Zionist discourse.

Yet even in the mid-1970s, when I became more directly involved in debates on British campuses with pro-Palestinian leftists, there was a sharp edge to anti-Israel sentiment which went beyond theory. Though I well understood Palestinian resentment toward Israel, it was more difficult to comprehend why so many on the new Left had turned against the Jewish state with such vehemence. The “progressive” take on the Middle East stuck me as extraordinarily simplistic – dividing the conflict into “good” and “bad” guys, the “oppressive” Israelis against the “oppressed” Palestinians.

At one level, this is less surprising when one recalls that much of the Western Left (especially the Communists) had for decades applauded “revolutionary” dictators like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Colonel Khaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Castro. Today, it still remains either supportive, indifferent, or silent about populist dictators like Ahmadinejad, Mugabe, or Chávez while rallying its militants on behalf of Hizbullah and Hamas. At the same time, the anti-Zionist Left systematically demonizes Israel—which in terms of its civil society, democratic norms, freedom of criticism and rule of law is light years ahead of the Arab world.

One might well ask if this is not an “anticolonialism” of frauds and fools. Can we seriously imagine Marx, Engels, Kautsky, or Rosa Luxemburg remaining silent about the advocacy of sharia law, censorship, female genital mutilation, honor killings, suicide bombings, or making the world safe for Allah’s rule? Can we conceive of any circumstances in which they would have envisaged an alliance with Sheikh al-Qaradawi and the Muslim Brotherhood – along the lines of British leftists like Ken Livingstone or George Galloway? The question almost answers itself.

* * * * *

In my book I have tried to explain what went wrong with the Left while suggesting that the degeneration was already prefigured in the 19th-century seedbed of anti-Semitic socialism. A poisonous anti-Jewish legacy can be found in Marx, Fourier, and Proudhon, extending through the orthodox Communists and “non-conformist” Trotskyists to the Islamo-Leftist hybrids of today who systematically vilify the so-called racist essence of the Jewish state.

From Karl Marx to Sheikh al-Qaradawi, via Ken Livingstone (former leftist Mayor of London), it would appear that the Jews (whoops, sorry, the “Zionists”) are always “guilty” of something bad. It is also worth noting that this is a language that neither the radical Right nor the Nazis and the Islamofascists have any pangs of conscience in warmly embracing. European fascists, no less than leftists, regularly identified the Jews with capitalism and western imperialism.

Today, rather than denouncing the “Jewish-Bolshevik” alliance (as Hitler and the prewar fascists continually did), the extreme Right focuses on attacking the “American-Zionist axis.” This is the consensual point where it meets with the “anti-Zionist” Left and the Islamists; where neo-Marxists or liberal “progressives” find common cause with Islamic revolutionists. This is the place where “Islamofascism” merges with “Islamo-Marxism” in an empty “progressivism” without progress, driven by a convulsive hatred of Western modernity, of Jews, of bourgeois liberalism.

But why are Jews still the scapegoats at the heart of this jihad? Why does a whole section of the Left – which has almost abandoned Marx (except for his “Jewish” anti-Semitism) – flirt with a counter-Enlightenment so fundamentally alien to its self-proclaimed core value of human emancipation? I can still remember young French students chanting “We are all German Jews” in the streets of Paris in May 1968, their way of protesting against the Gaullists, the Communists, and police brutality.

Today, such a march in the streets of Europe would be more likely to echo to calls of “Death to Israel,” “End the Holocaust in Gaza,” or “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the Gas!” In such demonstrations, radical leftists frequently join hands with pro-Palestinian jihadists in their relentless campaign to defame, delegitimize and ultimately to destroy the Jewish state of Israel.

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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5 Responses to “Behind The Left’s Betrayal Of Israel”

  1. Thank you Professor Wistrich for your incites in this synopsis.The future of peace in the Middle East will not be helped along by either the far left or the far right. The basic idea of allowing Jews and Arabs to live in peace with each having the right to national self-determination based on territorial compromise in the Holy Land, is now much less likely than it was twenty years ago. Ideas towards progress like those of Dennis Ross are falling on deaf ears, leaders on all sides, in Jerusalem, in Gaza, and in Ramallah are unable or unwilling to prepare their people for real peace and reconciliation.

  2. Rc Fowler says:

    Its no surprise the Marxist left is against Israel–they never were genuine supporters of Israel.

    No one who is a Marxist–can be a genuine Zionist–the two ideologies are incompatible!

    Marxism is anti God of the Bible and anti human being!

  3. Charlie Hall says:

    I personally identify as a Leftist supporter of Religious Zionism. But I can't find anything in Prof. Wistrich's essay with which I can disagree.

    I would have added, however, that the Old Left was far from monolithic: In much of Europe before and after WW2 it was the political Left that supported Jews and Israel. Examples are easy to find: Every Socialist member of the Reichstag opposed granting Hitler dictatorial powers, and every non-socialist member vote the wrong way. France under the Left (and even under some governments of the Right) welcomed numerous Jewish refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe prior to WW2 (most of whom were unfortunately rounded up by the Right-dominated Vichy regime), and then after WW2 France under the Left was the biggest ally of the new State of Israel.

    And in America, Pete Seeger and his musical group, The Weavers (two of whose members were Jews) sang the famous Zionist song, "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena". It became the B side of a #1 single. (The A side was Hudie Ledbetter's, "Goodnight, Irene".) Unfortunately Seeger, now 93, has now expressed support for boycotts of Israel, and his long time performing partner, Arlo Guthrie, another hero of the Left for his opposition to the Vietnam war, endorsed for President none other than Ron Paul, the single most anti-Israel politician in Washington (and whose politics are so far to the Right that they are attracting naive Leftists like Guthrie). Woe to us all!

  4. Susan Ellman says:

    Maybe Arlo was brainwashed by his right wing bar mitzvah tutor.

  5. Charlie Hall says:

    Arlo, who is indeed halachically Jewish, converted to the Roman Catholic Church.

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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?

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On November 9, 1938, a massive nationwide anti-Jewish pogrom took place during peacetime across the entire territory of the Third Reich. The pretext for this explosion of violence against German Jews was the shooting in Paris two days earlier of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish-Jewish refugee.

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