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Misguided fellow travelers

Jewish thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Noam Chomsky don’t deserve
their reputation as astute observers of Israel, a new book proves
By Tibor Krausz

DURING A visit in 2012 to Hebron with Running through Linfield’s book is a re- and the Palestinians are similarly tenden-
the New York-based left-wing Zionist current insight into the mindset of her cho- tious as he turns actual realities on their
group Partners of Progressive Israel, Susie sen leading lights: they could not help but heads.
Linfield recalls witnessing the heavy Israeli see the realities of the Arab-Jewish conflict Chomsky obfuscates, distorts and fudges
security required to keep the small belea- through the tinted prism of their political the facts. In a dubious form of scholarship,
guered enclave of ultra-nationalist Jews convictions and ideological preferences. he frequently cites himself as the source for
safe in the midst of a hostile Palestinian Often, they chose outright to ignore history his own statements in a self-referential loop
population. and facts on the ground. As a result, in their of rehashed claims that usually were not
To the Jewish American academic, the voluminous writings on Zionism and Israel, true the first time he made them. “Israel, he
self-contained ghetto of “fanatical settlers” both got distorted beyond recognition. Like- contends, is an ‘ugly’ and ‘sadistic’ society
seemed like an atavistic throwback to a re- wise, they invariably opted to view Israel’s defined by ‘criminality,’ ‘utter hypocrisy’
ligiously insular mindset secular Zionism actions in the worst possible light while ig- and ‘moral depravity,’” Linfield writes ap-
had set out to eradicate. The experience, noring or downplaying Arab aggression and ropos of Chomsky’s views on the Jewish
Linfield surmises in her book The Lion’s intransigence. state. “The shame, and the crime, is that he
Den, made her “ashamed to be a Jew.” One of the worst offenders has been has misled generations of young people who
That is a curious sentiment. Whatever the Chomsky, a linguist-turned-social commen- know little if anything of Israeli, Arab or
merits of maintaining a Jewish presence in tator who has long been lionized in leftist in- Middle Eastern history.”
Hebron, Linfield is hardly responsible for tellectual circles with an outsized influence That’s not to say Israel’s actions and its
the views, deeds and lifestyle choices of in academia. There are few anti-Israel cal- treatment of Palestinians have always been
settlers there. By professing to be ashamed umnies to which Chomsky will not readily beyond reproach. Far from it. Yet by failing
because of other Jews she doesn’t even subscribe. He has warned of Israelis’ sinis- to provide anything remotely resembling an
know, she inadvertently reinforces the old ter “Judeo-Nazi tendencies,” labeled Gaza honest appraisal of them, Chomsky peddles
antisemitic trope that Jews are a monolithic a “concentration camp... under a vicious a caricature of the conflict that no informed
entity burdened with collective guilt for the siege,” and insinuated Israeli Jews are edg- observer can take seriously.
actions of a few. ing closer to ethnically cleansing Palestin- Linfield is charitable about Chomsky’s
Barely the first page into her book we ap- ians. And he did all this in just one book of obsessive anti-Israeli activism, arguing
pear to be standing on shaky ground. Read many on Israel, Gaza in Crisis, a collection “some of his most deeply flawed ideas about
on, however, and things begin to look up. of his essays published in 2010. Israel stem from his fears about its survival.”
The Lions’ Den is an intellectual history of Meanwhile, Chomsky patronizes Palestin- Is Chomsky a latter-day Jeremiah who cas-
several prominent left-wing Jewish think- ians, whom he often treats as mere extras in tigates wayward Israeli Jews for their own
ers’ animus toward Israel. For it, Linfield, a reductive Manichean morality play of evil sake in his vituperative jeremiads? That’s
a cultural theorist at New York University, oppressors and their innocent victims. To debatable, to say the least.
set herself a laborious task. In a political Chomsky, Palestinians are “unconstrained Chomsky hasn’t been alone in passing off
exegesis of sorts, she subjects to rigorous in their search for peace,” as Linfield puts ill-tempered diatribes as learned commen-
scrutiny the words and ideas of such cele- it, while Israelis are incorrigibly belligerent tary. In fact, what often differentiates intel-
brated lions of academe as Hannah Arendt, expansionists. He refuses to take homicid- lectuals from garden-variety kooks is that
Arthur Koestler, Isaac Deutscher, I. F. Stone al Islamism among Palestinians seriously, the latter are not lauded for their reflexive
and Noam Chomsky. Linfield brings plenty choosing instead to see its purveyors as prejudices and crackpot ideas. Thinkers like
of panache and perspicuity to the endeavor. peaceable souls brutalized into resisting Is- Chomsky are widely regarded as fearless
Pedantic philippics the likes of Arendt rael violently. truth-tellers. Yet on issues like Israel and
and Chomsky have long been seen to lend In Gaza in Crisis, for instance, he posits the Palestinians they are often so hopeless-
highbrow heft to the cause of anti-Israel ad- Hamas “has long been calling for a two-state ly biased that their views are essentially
vocacy. Yet in their substance, if not nec- settlement in accord with the international worthless as anything other than partisan
essarily their style, their arguments were consensus.” In fact, Hamas has never devi- hucksterism.
often indistinguishable from the manic ated from its stated aim, duly spelled out in Cockeyed views of Zionism have a long
outpourings of dime-a-dozen demagogues, its charter, of eradicating Israel. Chomsky’s history among leftist Jews who have refused
firebrands and rabble-rousers. countless other essays and books on Israel to take the Jewish state at face value, deeming


it an aberration rather than a necessity. They theory [for facts], accompanied by a tone of tinely trotted out by Jew-haters to deny
often took Israel not for what it was and was imperious certainty.” European Jews’ ancestral claims to Israel.
intended to be – a small self-governing haven The same applies to numerous other intel- Koestler’s aim in embracing it was, in part,
for Jews – but for what they wanted it to be lectuals. Yet few left-wing Jewish thinkers to prove to Ashkenazi Jews, whom he ex-
– a pioneering socialist state or harmonious were as insidious at times as was Arthur horted to assimilate into their host societies,
multiethnic entity. Because the Jewish state Koestler, a prominent Hungarian-born jour- they had little in common genetically with
failed to live up to their lofty expectations nalist and writer. In some ways a remark- ancient Hebrews.
they came to despise it. able fellow, Koestler was a tormented soul The Khazar origins of Ashkenazi Jews, he
“Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict are forever in search of an ideology or political posited, should also put paid to traditional
templates upon which the Left has projected movement to anchor him in his topsy-turvy antisemitism, which was fueled, according
all sorts of inapt ideologies, hopes, anxieties, life during the turbulent decades of the 20th to Koestler, by Jews’ irksome insistence on
and fears,” Linfield aptly observes. century. being a “Chosen Race.” If European Jews
A case in point is Arendt, who was highly An ardent communist turned fierce an- are not semitic in their origin, “then the term
perceptive about several pressing concerns ti-communist, Koestler embraced, then dis- ‘antisemitism’ would become void of mean-
of her time but was far less so on the Ar- carded, a long series of causes with equal ing, based on a misapprehension shared by
ab-Israeli conflict. Arendt was ceaselessly zeal. A self-described “Casanova of Caus- both the killers and their victims,” he argued.
conflicted about Zionism and Israel, often to es,” he flitted passionately from one ideo- Make of that specious reasoning what you
the point of parody. In short order she turned logical entanglement to another. Frequently will.
from a militant Zionist during the years of on the move, he was a wandering Jew with Linfield does not dwell on Koestler’s take
Nazi ascendancy in her native Germany to a “homeless mind” in the words of historian on genetic anthropology, preferring to move
a vocal opponent of Jewish national sover- David Cesarani in his biography of the man. along and set about dissecting the often
eignty. Koestler was also drawn to far-out ideas equally questionable views and arguments
Just as Jews in the Yishuv were facing and intellectual pursuits, including a pseu- of French Marxist historian Maxime Rodin-
the prospect of being massacred by hostile doscientific interest in paranormal phenom- son, Polish Marxist writer Isaac Deutscher,
Arab militias she kept on advocating for a ena. Although he started out as a militant Tunisian-Jewish author Albert Memmi and
nebulous form of Arab-Jewish common- Zionist and an admirer of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, others. She’s a learned guide through a cer-
wealth without the trappings of an indepen- the Hungarian-born author, who disdained tain subset of anti-Israeli obloquy and her
dent state. The reason was Arendt saw eth- David Ben-Gurion, came to wax ambivalent book is a welcome corrective to the reams
nocentric states as reactionary. Massacres, about Israel once it was birthed in blood, of hokum that often passes for commentary
terror attacks, murder and mayhem – none sweat and tears. In a diary entry he dis- and scholarship on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
of them, Linfield points out, “led Arendt to missed the country as a “totalitarian Lilliput The Lions’ Den serves as a timely remind-
alter, or even question, her intercommunal [that] is no less totalitarian for the smallness er that views held by intellectuals, lionized
prescriptions” for Palestine. “She wished of its people.” though they may be, need to be taken on
away, rather than grappled with, an existen- Linfield labels Koestler an antisemitic Zi- their merits and not on the reputation of
tial clash of claims and needs” between Jews onist, a designation occasioned by his acer- those who hold them.  ■
and Arabs. bic contempt for his fellow Jews, whether in
Arendt was also maddeningly mercurial. the Diaspora or in Israel, where he returned
A few years prior, when Jews were facing repeatedly for longer stays until 1948. (In
unsurmountable odds to their continued his defense, Koestler could be no less scath-
existence in Europe, she castigated them ing about himself.) He pooh-poohed Juda-
for being passive, weak and fatalistic. An ism and Jewish culture, belittling them as
up-and-coming political theorist safely en- vestigial “fossilized remnants” of ancient
sconced in New York, she rhapsodized about traditions. “Koestler’s smug confidence in
the historical need for muscular Jewish dismissing the religion, history, and culture
self-defense. Yet once Jews in Palestine set of the Jews was matched only by his igno-
about defending themselves tooth and nail, rance of them,” Linfield argues.
she had second thoughts. In anti-Jewish circles, Koestler is best
“The woman who had demanded an imag- known for popularizing the notion most
inary Jewish army now opposed the actual Eastern European Jews, especially in Po-
one; the woman who had denounced Jew- land, were genetically descended not from
ish submissiveness now opposed Jewish ancient Hebrews but from the Khazars, a
self-determination; the woman who had in- pagan tribe of Turkic-Mongolian nomads. A
sisted on the creation of a specifically Jewish number of Khazars converted to Judaism in
political world now opposed the creation of the early 8th century before they went on to
a state to protect that world,” Linfield notes. create a warrior kingdom between the Black
In subsequent decades Arendt remained and Caspian seas. They disappeared from
ambivalent about the Zionist project, a pri- history in the late 10th century.
mary reason being she “substituted political The so-called Khazar hypothesis is rou-