Commentary Magazine


Watchman on the Walls

From Ambivalence to Betrayal:
The Left, the Jews, and Israel
By Robert S. Wistrich
University of Nebraska Press, 648 pages

The volume, character, and tone of Judeophobia to be found in the public discourse around the world, whether in the form of classical Jew-hatred or the more respectable negation of the validity of the State of Israel, forces us to ask: What is anti-Semitism? What does it mean in 2013? Does it continue to pose a significant threat to the physical and spiritual integrity of the Jewish people?

The past 12 months have provided us with ample evidence that the oldest hatred endures. The far right has returned to the parliaments of Europe on the back of economic despair, in the shape of Jobbik, a neo-Nazi faction that wants to draw up a list of Jews in Hungary, and Greece’s Golden Dawn Party, with its fondness for Fascist salutes and Nazi-style imagery.

Left-wing anti-Semitism and extreme hostility to the State of Israel have continued to increase. The unwelcome encroachment of the Israel-firster, the Jewish lobby, and Maureen Dowd’s “slithering” “neocon” “ventriloquist” tropes into America’s mainstream liberal discourse has mirrored the spread of Israelophobia around the world. The Guardian, once London’s finest liberal newspaper, now publishes ugly cartoons depicting the Israeli prime minister as the puppet-master of British foreign policy. Vincent Browne, one of Ireland’s most respected broadcasters, told viewers of his television show that Israel was “the cancer in foreign affairs.” The Batsheva Dance Company has been pursued around the theaters of Europe, targeted for boycott by “human rights” campaigners who do not pursue Russian or Chinese or Zimbabwean performers.

Israel’s ambassador to Denmark—liberal, tolerant Denmark—warned Copenhagen’s Jews not to wear kippot outside of shul and advised Israeli tourists against speaking Hebrew in public. His injunction would have seemed alarmist five or 10 years ago but not after the slaying of a rabbi and three children at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, France, in March, the same month that an Anti-Defamation League report revealed that a majority of Europeans surveyed believe Jews to be more loyal to Israel than to their country of residence. Compelled by these developments, and a spate of high-profile assaults on Jews in some of the Continent’s most urbane enclaves, Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar, the chief rabbis of Israel, have written to EU President Herman Van Rompuy asking him to establish a committee of inquiry into European anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, the latest statistics from the FBI show that 62 percent of racially motivated hate crimes in the United States are anti-Jewish in character.

There could hardly be a more opportune time for Robert Wistrich’s From Ambivalence to Betrayal. Wistrich is director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has dedicated his scholarly career to cataloguing, analyzing, and debunking anti-Semitism and has published scores of journal articles and almost 20 books, including Between Redemption and Perdition: Anti-Semitism and Jewish Identity, the masterful Socialism and the Jews, and the edited collections The Left Against Zion and Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism in the Contemporary World. George Orwell, himself no abstainer from the intoxications of Judeophobia, observed in his 1945 essay “Anti-Semitism in Britain” that “above a certain intellectual level people are ashamed of being anti-Semitic and are careful to draw a distinction between ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘disliking Jews.’?” It might be said that Wistrich has made his research interest the new dichotomy advanced by the dominant intellectuals of the early 21st century: a supposed distinction between “progressive” anti-Zionism and “reactionary” anti-Semitism. As far back as 1984, Wistrich warned of “a basic continuity between classical anti-Semitism and contemporary anti-Zionism,” which had become “an integral part of the cultural code of many leftist and some liberal circles” and which located Zionism as “an enemy on a par with imperialism, racism, and militarism—and invariably identified with these evils.”

The left’s contempt for Israel is the primary subject of From Ambivalence to Betrayal. Wistrich critically examines the willingness of contemporary liberals to excuse, and sometimes even advance, certain manifestations of anti-Semitism and extreme anti-Zionism as mere critiques of the Israeli government, its settlement construction, or the political character of the Likud Party.

Even more intellectually stimulating—in part because they are more complex and sensitive—are the chapters that deal with those radical Jewish intellectuals who draw on their heritage to attack Israel and Zionism as secular evils that are harmful to Jews the world over. Wistrich defines these intellectuals as those “Jewish anti-Zionists from the left” who “increasingly provide a crucial alibi for those of their political persuasion who have transformed Israel-bashing into a fine art. One of their favorite ploys is to assert that Israel has irrevocably compromised Jewish ideals, turning the Jewish people into a nation of victimizers and oppressors.”

Wistrich considers a number of prominent left-wing Jews who sought to reject their identity all the while invoking it when convenient to condemn the Jewish state and its supporters. A chapter is given over to Bruno Kreisky, the notoriously anti-Zionist Chancellor of Austria in the 1970s and early 1980s who abandoned Judaism in early adulthood and expressed derision for the idea of Jewish nationhood. He insisted, “There is nothing that binds me to Israel or to what is called the Jewish ‘people’ or to Zionism,” and reserved a special contempt for Israel and its leaders, dismissing Menachem Begin as “a little Polish lawyer” and branding Yitzhak Shamir a “terrorist leader.” When he came to form his first cabinet in 1970, Kreisky, who had spent World War II exiled in Sweden and had lost 21 relatives in the Shoah, appointed four former Nazis to senior positions in his government. When Simon Wiesenthal objected and initiated investigations into the wartime activities of these men, the Bundeskanzler denounced him as a “Jewish fascist.” But these outrages were to be overshadowed by Kreisky’s handsome welcome of Yasir Arafat to Vienna in 1979 and his public declaration that Israel was planning to construct a South African–style “Bantustan” in the territories of Judea and Samaria. Thus, an Austrian Jewish socialist became the first Western leader to articulate the libel of Israel as a racist apartheid state. 

The Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg, raised by Jewish parents in Czarist-occupied Poland, was another leftist thinker who comprehensively, and rancorously, dismissed the culture and creed into which she had been born. She “felt constantly embarrassed by her parents’ petty-bourgeois tastes and self-evident Jewishness” and could not find common ground with Warsaw’s “world of men with long beards, yarmulkas, and kaftans, Jews with earlocks, women in wigs, schnorrers, and street vendors constantly gesticulating in Yiddish.” As a young woman, she threw herself into revolutionary politics, helping to found an internationalist Polish socialist party and denouncing any attempt by the left to assert a distinctive Polish identity, especially so for Jews, believing that sectional interests, particularly those based on ethno-religious identities, would only divide the proletariat. Her denunciations of the Bund, the secular Jewish socialist party, were coruscating in their unabashed anti-Semitism. “I do not agree to any alliance with the Jews,” she told a correspondent. “This rabble needs us, we do not need them.” Her anti-Jewish rhetoric grew more vitriolic. In 1907, she caused an uproar among even her comrades by attacking Jewish socialists as “those who speculate with the rising and falling prices of sugar,” a line of argument she expanded upon in a 1910 pamphlet explaining that Jewish identity was based on “socially backward, petty-bourgeois small-scale production” and a “small-town lack of culture” promoted by “Yiddish publicists.”

The Jew-hatred of Kreisky and Luxemburg would sound almost lunatic without Wistrich’s historical and theoretical context, with which it seems merely perverse. “This antipathy,” Wistrich explains, “had its roots in a dismissal of Judaism as the fossilized ghetto offshoot of a dispersed ethno-religious group lacking any national characteristics.” Marxist doctrine told Jewish intellectuals that they must “obliterate their identity as Jews if they sought to be fully emancipated” or risk aiding the reactionary doctrines of nationalism that were blamed for the suffering they wished to alleviate. Kreisky and Luxemburg, along with Trotsky and Marx, were, for Wistrich, “determined to kill the ‘Jew’ in themselves, usually wrapping this ethnic death wish in the more idealistic mantle of the universal brotherhood of man.”

In his tract “On the Jewish Question,” Marx identified religion as a source of division that only politics—that is, class consciousness—could repair. The grandson of a rabbi who despised the “superstitious” Judaism of his childhood, he saw the separation of Jews from Judaism as essential to social emancipation, observing: “Religion has become the spirit of civil society, of the sphere of egoism, of bellum omnium contra omnes. It is no longer the essence of community, but the essence of difference. It has become the expression of man’s separation from his community, from himself, and from other men.” By “abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism—huckstering and its preconditions,” he hoped, “the Jew will have become impossible.”

Marx’s dialectic of division has cast a long shadow. Prior to the re-establishment of Israel, a divide was commonly found in the Diaspora between the integrationists and those who held fast to the customs of the old religion and the old world. The distance was always exaggerated, a fact readily seen in American Jewry, where assimilation and cultural integrity enjoyed a more equitable balance than in Europe or South America. (As Irving Kristol quipped, “The problem is that they don’t want to persecute us, they want to marry us.”) While tension between Zionists and Jewish anti-Zionists can be traced back as far as the first large-scale European migration to Palestine at the end of the 19th century, the attempt to widen this divergence in the present day, particularly by radical anti-Zionist Jews who are the modern heirs to Kreisky and Luxemburg, serves only to jeopardize the well-being of the Jewish people. Whereas the anti-Semitism of swastikas and ghettos was intended as the separation of the Jewish people from humanity, the progressive bigotry of far-left anti-Zionists separates the Jewish nation from the nations of the world, and cleaves Jew from Jew in the process, a violation of the Torah’s sacred injunction: Lo telech rachil b’ameicha (“Do not be a talebearer among your people”).

Robert Wistrich is a modern-day watchman on the walls, casting his eye over simmering threats to the Jewish people and drawing on his remarkable historical knowledge to warn us of which ones could boil over. He is a scholar and writes as a scholar should—in depth and at length, favoring insight and description over pith and polemic. But his style is far from pedagogic; there is a moral furnace that burns in books such as A Lethal Obsession (2010) and Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred (1991). And while his marshalling of facts is dispassionate, his analysis is colored by a humanitarian ethic, if a distinctly Jewish one. Good and evil exist in Wistrich’s scholarship; and in rebuke to the arch relativism of many of his colleagues in the academy, he is not afraid to say so. He does not, contra Robert Frost, fail to take his own side in a quarrel.

From Ambivalence to Betrayal is a landmark work on left-wing anti-Semitism, and its rich tissue of historical analysis provides a starting point from which to understand the new forms of Jew-hatred that metastasize every day. But the book’s true value rests in its lucid, judicious, and damning critique of radical Jewish anti-Zionism, a curse in the best of times but a dangerous ideology that is ill afforded in the worst. When we survey the rising tide of Judeophobia in the op-ed columns, the academy, the culture, and the cafés and parliaments of Europe, we can see where the delusions of the radicals have led.

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