Book Review: The Lions' Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky

Review By: 
Jo-Ann Mort
Lion's Den book cover

Sometimes a book arrives at a necessary moment, a moment in which it can become part of the public conversation and help set the stage for political arguments to come. The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky is such a book.

Author Susie Linfield, who teaches in the cultural journalism progrm at New York University, is a leftist and a progressive Zionist. In presenting arguments of some of the most important contemporary left-wing thinkers (all Jewish, except one), she provides historical context and  sophisticated analysis.

The book’s clarity and intellectual honesty will make it an especially useful and important resource for college students, faculty, and parents who are at the heart of the debate over Zionism and the left. If there is one criticism of the book, it is that it is overstuffed with details.

Linfield  lays out her argument, which should be widely accepted common sense: “Caring about history,” she writes “is the only way we can care about politics – especially in a conflict that is, to a great extent, about history.” The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is too often argued out without any historic context, as a “Rorschach test of the Left,” with an overlay of psychological underpinnings that make it one of our most vitriolic points of debate and discussion.

“Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Linfield explains, “are templates upon which the Left has projected all sorts of inapt ideologies, hopes, anxieties, and fears. Too often, when these writers [profiled in her book] talked about Israel they talked about everything other than Israel itself; the same is true today. Inevitably, this has prevented the emergence of clear analysis and attainable solutions.”

The Jewish left – and its leaders – have always ping-ponged between placing their own Jewish struggle as their key identity or carving out a more universalist identity. Also, it can –and I would argue – should be a combination of the two. This is where the tension especially arises: Where do my particular Jewish interests stop and my universalist Jewish interests begin?.

Linfield points out that in the Arab-Israeli conflict there is massive idealization of one side over the other, with a lack of knowledge that plays into this  idealization. For instance,  some segments of Palestinian society are identified solely as freedom fighters without acknowledging their inexplicable commitment to terror against civilians, including their own people (as in the case of  Hamas). “Many of the authors discussed in this book,” Linfield reasons, “have refused the harsh, complicated realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict, preferring to project their a priori theories, hopes, wishes, and antipathies on to it.” 

To idealize a part of the dilemma or to isolate one issue from another means it will be more difficult to reach an honest rendering of the situation. And, when idealization becomes argument, tactics lose their meaning. This thinking, Linfield argues, is at play in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Disconnected from the political reality, the movement has strengthened Israel’s right wing at the expense of the left, and at the expense of a two-state solution.

Linfield gets to the heart of the BDS argument – which, in fact, is a one-state argument that would eradicate Israel from existence – by quoting one of the most influential current Jewish advocates of BDS – Judith Butler, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. In Butler’s formulation of a one-state solution, she is quoted as writing, “Jewish Israelis would have to set aside their Jewishness.” Butler goes on to argue that somehow, miraculously, this scenario will “be better for the Jews.” She shares the thinking of her intellectual colleague, Noam Chomsky, that, all facts be damned, a one-state solution will unite  peoples on the basis of  humanistic politics. Indeed, the lack of realistic thinking that has stretched from Jewish intellectuals on the left in the past to this day is nothing short of stunning.

But Linfield doesn’t let the right off either. She makes clear throughout the book that Israel’s inability or myopia in ending the occupation after 1967 cannot be a plus for democracy. She writes, “It is up to Israel to save itself from a future of what noted novelist and peace activist David Grossman called ‘a binational state, or an apartheid state, or a state of all its soldiers, or a state of all its rabbis, all its settlers, all its messiahs.’”

“Ending the occupation is the necessary condition for Israel’s political-moral reclamation,” according to Linfield. Whether this outcome will occur or not, she of course can’t predict, but the need to have a clear argument about the policies of a country – rather than the very right of that country to exist – is at the heart of this important and timely book.

Jo-Ann Mort  special advisor to the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, is co-author of Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today’s Israel and a former journalist in Israel.