The Teacher


Susie Linfield

ROBERT BOYERS: Your book deals with a great many issues, and opens up troubling questions—about Israel, about Zionism, and about the Arab world. But I’m especially interested in the questions implied in a passage of your introduction, where you speak of your book’s “heroes,” those “who allowed history to matter: those who…based their political positions on history rather than vice versa” and honored “the demands of the reality principle.” By contrast, most of the thinkers on the left who are discussed in your book—from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky—“viewed Israelis and Arabs as projects on which to impose their a priori concepts,” and used “Israel and the Arab- Israeli conflict….[as] templates upon which the left has projected all sorts of inapt ideologies, hopes, anxieties and fears.” As a writer on the left you were no doubt appalled by much of what you found as you prepared to write this book, and I can assure you that as a reader on the left I was properly appalled by the record you present. Would you speak about what you found particularly troubling as you studied thosewho consistently misrepresented the historical record and promoted the kinds of lies that have had a considerable impact on the way we think about the middle east and about our responsibilities as intellectuals?
SUSIE LINFIELD: There were many surprises in researching this book. In the introduction I speak about the false narratives—really, fake histories—that are casually put forth in terms of the Israeli-Arab conflict. (Fake news is not, alas, the province of Trump and the Right.) Take Enzo Traverso, a historian whom I greatly admire. He works within the Marx-ist tradition but is critical of it, and his book on Marxists and the Jewish Question was an acute analysis of why Marxists have generally failed to understand the Jewish Question (though many of the Marxist thinkers in question were Jewish); this failure had especially fatal consequences, of course, as Nazism gained strength. But Traverso’s new book [The End of JewishModernity] is littered with errors—such as the claim that Israel was established as a Jewish-only state. In reality, starting in 1948—the very first year of its independence—Israel was (and is) approximately 20 percent Arab: all of whom are citizens. This isn’t an error that’s akin to getting a number or a date wrong: it’s a fundamental misunderstanding at best, a deliberate falsehood at worst. In fact, it’s basically impossible to understand anything about Israeli history or about contemporary Israel without this knowledge. I honestly don’t understand how someone like Traverso could make this sort of “mistake”—and this is far from the only example in his latest book.There is a weird paradox in the fact that Israel, and the Israe-li-Arab conflict, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are among the mostwritten-about issues in the world. Yet basic facts—including, significantly, how the 1948 war started and how the Palestinian refugee crisis was cre-ated—are ignored, or manipulated, or falsified. I see the consequences of this with my students, too many of whom seem to think that once upon a time there was an independent, peaceful, multi-cultural nation called “Palestine” (there wasn’t) that was somehow ruined by callous Jewish imperialists. Whatever you think of the Israeli-Arab conflict, that narrative simply has zero basis in fact.In terms of specific subjects, the two biggest surprises for me were Hannah Arendt, who was guilty of a kind of arrogant ignorance, and Noam Chomsky, who is guilty of lying. I will discuss them in more detail later. However, having said all that, I would add that many of the thinkers I discuss—even those I disagree with—had a far firmer grasp of history, at least sometimes, and of the conflict’s nuances, than do many intellectuals on the Left today. That older generation of intellectuals also had a far deeper understanding of tragedy—perhaps because they lived through the rise of fascism and the shock of the camps.I was also surprised by how, frankly, crazy the PLO’s positions were until 1988: Its program consisted of a murderous desire, repeatedly and publicly expressed, to “eliminate” (its word) Israel’s institutions and people. It also believed it was in the vanguard of a great revolutionary upheaval throughout the Arab world—it wanted to turn Amman into “another Hanoi,” though given what the US was doing to Hanoi in the 1960s and early seventies, this sounds like a truly terrible goal. But I was also surprised by how some leftist supporters of the Palestinians—Alain Gresh, Maxime Rodinson, Eqbal Ahmad—begged the PLO to drop its hideous program and put forth a solution that moderate and leftist Israelis could support. (One tragedy is that Israel had a much bigger moderate and leftist public then than it does now.) And I was surprised, and impressed, by the sober way that Arab historians like Rashid Khalidi and Yezid Sayigh wrote about the Palestinian movement: supporting its aims when valid but not holding back from some pretty severe criticisms of its program, analysis, and actions—including its use of terror.RB: In the chapter on Arendt you talk about the role of the social critic, and quote Michael Walzer, who argues that “the ideal critic is part of his or her society” and that “closeness is the crucial quality of the good social critic.” This view, you say, is quite different from Arendt’s notion of the critic as “pariah.” I’m not fully persuaded by Walzer’s take on this, and don’t really see that “closeness” is invariably required for effective social criticism. But I’d like to hear more from you on this question. And really your book seems to me an exemplary instance of the closeness Walzer wants. Would you agree? SL: First, thank you for the kind words on my book! Second: Let me clarify. I don’t think that Arendt believed that the critic should be a pariah. But in the crucial 1947-48 period (and after) she did have a kind of Olympian haughtiness from which she looked down (in all senses of the phrase) on the conflict. She had not been in Palestine for many years. She did not, so far as I know, read the Hebrew or, certainly, the Arabic press. She knew a small sliver of Zionists (basically liberal or leftwing intellectuals from Germany like herself). She seemed to have no understanding of what the 1948 war was about: no understanding, for instance, that the head of the Arab League had publicly declared that its invasion of the newly-founded Jewish state would be a “war of extermination.” In the midst of all this she insists that the solution is brotherly bi-national councils—which had never existed, and certainly didn’t once the war began. (She also seemed to be unaware of the unhappy fact that the very few Palestinian Arabs who even considered any sort of agreement with the Jews were assassinated by other Palestinian Arabs.) Arendt’s friend Gershom Scholem was ex-tremely critical—rightly so, in my view—of her utter disconnect from the existential realities of the conflict, which led her, perhaps inevitably, to propose utterly chimerical “solutions”—proposals that, weirdly, are still cited with admiration by people like Judith Butler and Jacqueline Rose.As for pariahs: In some ways, Arendt wrote insightfully and movingly about them. “The Jew as Pariah” is a brilliant essay—and I think its implications are profoundly Zionist. But what I discovered in my research is that Arendt admired a certain kind of pariah: intellectuals like Bernard Lazare and Rosa Luxemburg and like, well, herself. At the Eichmann trial, when she came face to face with the world’s truest pari-ahs—the immiserated, devastated survivors of the camps—her reaction was, at best, a complete lack of interest and, at worst, contempt. This is clear both in her letters at the time and in her book on the trial. And I find this, frankly, unforgivable.RB: In the chapter on Albert Memmi you speak of the long line of Jewish Marxists who held, in effect, that “a Jew’s only duty was to disappear” and that Jewish leftists were thus transformed into what Memmi derided as the movement’s “cuckolds…accomplices in our own destruction.” Rightly Memmi asked “Why such historical masochism?” Consider, you suggest, that ordinarily “a socialist might…oppose Polish nationalism, or at least Polish chauvinism. But he would not deny the existence of the Polish people or look forward to its erasure. That would be a fascist position. Yet in the case of the Jews, self-negation and brotherhood were considered synonymous.” How do you account for this bizarre discrepancy between the way people on the left have often thought about the duty of Jews and the duty of other peoples? And isn’t it clear that this long habit on the left informs recent left thinking about the “duty” of Israel & Israelis? SL: I have tried to tracewhat you rightly call a “bizarre discrepancy,” though in truth I still do not completely understand it. Part of it has to do with an insistence, on both the Right and Left, that the Jews constitute only a religion, not a people. (Of course, with the Jewish Enlightenment and growing secularism this became a harder position to maintain, but never mind.) Part of it has to do with an insistence, on both the Right and the Left, that the Jews were synonymous with international capital, so that when the revolution came….well, you know. Part of it is a kind of demented form of Jewish exceptionalism: Jews will be the model inter-nationalists by being the first people in history to eliminate themselves. Maybe that’s the job they were chosen for.Actually,all of thisstrikes me as both ludicrous and loathesome, but there is no denying that it is a real theme in Marxist thought. You can find it in the early Marx, in Karl Kautsky, in Victor Adler, in Otto Bauer, in Maxime Rodinson. The only thing I can say in defense of leftists, in terms of this particular idea, is that in the Left’s telos, it was modernity and socialism—not, of course, mass murder—that would lead to the disappearance of the Jews. I guess you could say the Left wanted a peaceful demise.And yes, there is obviously a corollary—though like all corollaries, it is not exact—with the way some on the Left approach Israel today. On the other hand, the fact that the corollary is not identical does not mean it is random or coincidental. There are those—in the Western Left, and in the Arab world—who insist that Israelis don’t actually constitute a nation but are (take your pick) just a group of adherents to a rather strange religion or, alternately, just a group of colonialists. In either case, destroying Israel qua Israel would be no crime, since it’s not a nation to begin with. And even if it is, it’s the only nation on Earth that has no “right” to exist. Or so the thinking (if I can honor it with that word) goes.RB: In the chapter on Fred Halliday you note that “Halliday’s disputes with the European and American left” intensified as a result of developments in Afghanistan, the war on terror, and Iraq. At worst, you argue, “some leftists expressed actual affinity with the forces of radical Islam or the Iraqi rebels, which they viewed as a brave new vanguard striking blows against the empire. To which Halliday responded tartly, ‘The anti-imperialism of racists and murderers is a perverse programme.’” Would you speak to the sources and component features of the “perverse programme” Halliday cites? How widespread on the American left is the “perversity” to which Halliday alludes? Where is it chiefly to be found? SL: Well, there are many aspects to the Left and many kinds of leftists.I wrote this book from within the Left tradition; I am a part of it.But you asked me earlier about shocks and surprises—one of the biggest was discovering how the editors of the New Left Review defended, even extolled, the murderous Iraqi “resistance” (which specialized, and still does, in killing other Iraqis and other Muslims), along with Hezbollah and Hamas. You can look at what is happening today in Britain’s Labour Party and see that this tendency is still vibrant. And it’s distressingly easy to find so-called leftists who are sympathetic to Assad; they seem to see him as some sort of anti-imperialist waging a noble battle against both Israel and Islamism.I think the situation in the US is somewhat different. Frankly, I don’t think that most leftists in the US care about the Arab world—at all—except to the extent that the US is involved (or at fault), and except to the extent that Israel is involved (or at fault). With some exceptions, how many astute leftist analyses have there been of the war in Syria—much less any activism around it? (And by the way, you can find many Left activists from Syria, such as Leila Al-Shami and Yassin Al-Haj Saleh—people who really suffered under one or both Assads—who are scathing about the non-interventionism of the anti-imperialist Left in the West.) There were demonstrations when Obama threatened to bomb Syria after Assad’s chemical attacks; but where were the demonstrators after the release of the thousands of “Caesar” photographs, which documented Assad’s torture gulag? Does the US Left know, or care, what’s happening in Yemen? Do those who are boycotting Israel also want to boycott the military regime in Egypt—which, like Israel, receives billions of dollars in US aid? Or on the other side: Where is the movement to support, and aid, the fragile democratic regime in Tunisia? Another example: One can certainly make the argument that US soldiers should not keep dying in Afghanistan—but if you do so, you also have to acknowledge the horrific deluge that will follow, especially for women. I have seen few leftists, other than some feminists, care to address this. “Out now!” seems to be the beginning and end of the Left’s demands.Again, I come back to some discussions I’ve had with my students (who, by the way, I like enormously). We have had some debates about wearing the full-face veil: the burqa, or niqab. They see this as a matterof “freedom of choice” or “freedom of religion.” But when I ask if people should be able to come to class hidden behind a Ku Klux Klan costume, they say, “No, that’s a political statement!” I point out that Salafi Islam is also a political program. They don’t see it that way. All of which is to say: I think that many leftists, and many young people, in the US have read Edward Said’s Orientalism, and their knowledge of the Arab and Muslim worlds stops there. Which is ironic, since that book is about representationsof the Arab world, not a work of history itself. Real scholars of the Arab and Muslim worlds like Halliday and Rodinson were critical of the book and somewhat mystified by its popularity in the US.Islamophobia is real. But the fear of Islamophobia is also real, and I think has hobbled debate or, even, inquiry into the Arab world, especially in the US (I think the situation in France is different)—though there are certainly Arab and Muslim intellectuals who are self-critical about the trajectory of their countries (look, especially, at Turkey, Syria, Iran). To castigate an entire religion is, in my view, completely unacceptable. To castigate a political program that bases itself, by its own accord, inreligion—which is the very definition of political Islam—is not Islam-ophobic, or racist, or imperialist. But there’s a lot of anxiety that surrounds this—along with a lingering romanticization of the Arab world, though the grim results of the Arab Spring have made that more difficult.RB: In the chapter on Isaac Deutscher you note that he often spoke of Israel’s failure to achieve a “sustainable coexistence” with its Arab neigh-bors, but “never discussed Arab intransigence as a factor in this stalemate.” Would you speak about the widespread reluctance of many people on the American left to acknowledge that very factor—as if to do so would somehow undermine the left’s critique of Israeli policy? SL: This connects to the previous question. In the 1950’s and sixties, many leftists, including Deutscher and Rodinson, believed—or tried to believe—that the Arab world would be capable of what might be called modernization with a human face. (This is my phrase, not theirs.) They would build modern societies—freeing themselves from their feudal, op-pressive pasts, as well as from the stranglehold of religion—and enter into the modern world, building up their economies and also, it was thought, socialist, or at least quasi-socialist, societies. Many of these countries, of course, professed to be socialist. The problem is that they were actually vastly inegalitarian, corrupt, violent dictatorships. They were also dealing with an important psychological problem—which was no less important for being psychological. That problem was, to be blunt, humiliation: the humiliation of falling behind the West but, more directly, of having been defeated by Israel in 1948 and, even more shockingly, in 1967. This led those regimes to become increasingly intolerant, indeed cruel—not to Israel, but to their own citizens. Think of the trajectory of Syria, of Libya, of Iraq, as well as countries like Algeria and Sudan, after 1967. Rodinson, of course, spoke and read Arabic, had spent much time in the region, had many friends and contacts there, and knew what was happening. He wasn’t always, in my opinion, honest about it—though he did, very early on, see what a disaster the 1979 revolution in Iran was (he didn’t shy away from using the term “fascism archaïque,” and he couldn’t stand the naïve Third-Worldism of Foucault). It was Halliday, who trav-elled throughout this region repeatedly, and who spoke to everyone from revolutionary leftists to dictators, who really saw what was happening. This was key in his break from the “anti-imperialist” tendency and his insistence that human rights, not anti-imperialism or even anti-capitalism,must be the basis for any revolution: in the Arab world or anywhere else. Ditto for Albert Memmi. Because Memmi was Tunisian, and had been a fervent participant in his country’s anti-colonial movement, he had none of the guilt toward the Third World that cripples so many Western leftists. Memmi had no trouble holding two positions simultaneously: that the Arab nations (and the Third World in general) were entirely justified in overthrowing colonialism and demanding self-determination; and that most of the resultant regimes had become grotesque tyrannies that betrayed their peoples time and again. Memmi was also completely committed to left-Zionism, which he viewed as a movement for national self-determination.Deutscher didn’t speak or read Arabic; he was mainly interested in Russia and the West. In fact, he rued the fact that Communist revolutions had occurred in the underdeveloped world (i.e. Russia, China, Vietnam, etc.): he would have much preferred, as did Marx, the West. I think he didn’t know too much about what was happening in the Arab world. Hewas deeply critical of Israel after its victory in 1967—in fact, he was furious—but he was also critical of the Arab nations’ lack of democratic freedoms, hysterical nationalism, and cults of personality. He urged the Arab states to stop obsessing about how to destroy Israel and instead achieve what he called “a civilized victory,” that is, the true emancipation of their own societies. Deutscher died soon after the Six Day War, but I like to think that, had he lived, he would have supported the Oslo Accords, though of course that is pure speculation.RB: In the course of your book you pay close attention to the various options and demands associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and study the evolving perspectives of the thinkers who have tried to address the several options. On the left, as you indicate, there has been a continuing insistence on the necessity for the contesting parties to arrive at a one-state solution. Fred Halliday, you say, has confronted “the Left’s cherished fantasy of replacing Israel with a ‘secular, democratic, socialist Palestine,’” and has asked “Where will this socialism come from,” given that “neither Israel nor the Arab world is moving in a socialist direction.” Even more to the point, you go on to say, “Where would this democracy come from? Virtually all Israelis vehemently opposed a combined state and would take up arms against it; the plan was also opposed by most Palestinians.” The result of what you call “forced fusion” would not be “multiethnic harmony but…civil war.” The reality—so you argue—“that many on the Left still deny” is this: “Unless it is agreed to by both nations, one state is not a marriage but a rape.” Why this insistence upon a “cherished fantasy” when it ought to be entirely clear that it is merely that? Does the inclination to fantasy where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned also figure prominently in its thinking about other conflicts and prospects? SL: It stuns me that after 50 years—or 70 years, or 100 years, depending on where you start—this conflict is still dominated by a catastrophic lack of realistic solutions, which may be another way of saying by an ability to come down to earth and compromise. Thomas Friedman recently wrote a column in the New York Times that I agreed with—though I certainly don’t always agree with him—in which he spoke to this. This lack of realism infects Israel’s Right, the Western Left, the Arab nations, the Trump administration (Jared Kushner!), the “Israel lobby”—where is the realism? In the Israeli Right’s hope of annexing the West Bank and creat-ing one state without rights for Palestinians? In the “non-Zionist” Left’s fantasy of taking two peoples with different histories, religions, political institutions, languages—who have been killing each other’s children for 100 years—and forcing them to unite into a nation that will of course be peaceful, multi-cultural, democratic, secular, LGBTQ-friendly, and ev-erything else a good leftist imagines? Good god: hasn’t history taught us anything? The one thing I would say about the two-state solution—which many insist has also become a fantasy—is that if it were to become a reality, it has some possibility of creating a reasonably just, reasonably viable, reasonably livable outcome. My problem with the fantasies of the Left and Right is that even if they were to become real, they would be nightmares, not dreams.Whythe role of fantasy in this conflict? Again, that’s a difficult question to answer, and I don’t think I fully can. I would say a couple of things. First, Israel has always been, and continues to be, a kind of template on which every modern conflict—nationalism, colonialism, anti-Semitism, self-determinism, democracy, religion, secularism, socialism, racism—is played out. (This was true of the pre-state Zionist movement too.) It is a sort of Rorschach test for the world.Second, the Jewish people have been a source of fantasy for over 2,000 years. In the Western (and then the Eastern) imagination we have been able to fill any and every role; we are the ultimate shape-shifters. We have been seen as craven, feeble, abject, weak, humiliated—but also as powerful, conspiratorial, and demonic. In the Middle Ages, Judaism was regarded as a barbarous, introverted, ignorant, antediluvian cult that rejected the wider world; with emancipation, Jews were seen as the over-educated messengers—indeed, the imperialists—of secular modernity, who would colonize, and eventually control, the world. Jews have been seen by Europeans as too Semitic, that is, too Eastern and too dark; and by Arabs as too European, that is, too Western and too white. We are jabbering, emotional, irrational fanatics mindlessly adhering to nonsensical customs and rites, but we are also cold, heartless rationalists devoted only to following our rigid laws and to accumulating money. We are arch-capitalists and arch-revolutionaries. (In fact, many Jews wereone or the other, though most were neither.) Given that history, maybe it’s no surprise that Israel, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, are fertile grounds for fantasy. Though I would add that Israelis are as prone to fantasy—in their case, the belief that they can continue dominating another people ad infinitum—as much as anyone else.RB: The most astonishing chapter of your book is the one on Noam Chomsky, who has long remained to many on the left the heroic figure who wrote a stirring essay on “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” fifty years ago, though he has gone on to promote palpable falsehoods and irresponsible fantasies that ought to have left us scratching our heads in wonder and disappointment. What you demonstrate in your chapter on Chomsky is that he has adopted what you call “trademark” rhetorical put-downs to cover the willful fabrication he routinely indulges. “Opponents of his ideas, or even those who differ from them,” you say, “are to him toadies for power, propagandists, fabricators, hysterical fanatics.” So he would have it. “The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, who has written extensively reported articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is ‘too depraved to even discuss.’” American Zionist institutions are said to be “Stalinist.” This would not be so alarming, of course, if Chomsky did not still have a very large following on the left, and if his “inaccuracies” were not “so numerous and ideologically consistent.” Nor are Chomsky’s “false statements” limited to Israel. “It is not true,” as you write, “that Iran is part of the ‘international consensus’ on a two-state settlement.” In fact, “Chomsky suffers from an ailment I think of as Anti-Imperialist Attention Deficit Disorder. Ask him about al-Qaeda and he’ll zip over to Nicaragua; Rwanda and he’ll discuss Vietnam. This can be irritating, yet one can’t help but be awed by the sheer inventiveness of Chomsky’s obfuscations.” Of course your arguments with Chomsky are supported by careful anal-ysis and in no way ad hominem. And so I ask you, please, to explain to us what has happened to Chomsky over the last forty years—beyond the “disorder” you cite—and to then go on to ask why he has remained, for a great many people on the left, a kind of hero and authority figure.SL: In my book I try to analyze the trajectory of Chomsky’s work—from his early criticism of what he called the PLO’s “insane” and immoral position of trying to eradicate Israel, and his early, humble admiration for the non-violent Civil Rights Movement in the South—to the vitriolic, rigidly ideological Chomsky of today. I can trace the trajectory, but the “why” is harder to answer. I am not Chomsky’s psychoanalyst and—given his almost complete refusal to understand the human side, the emotional side, of political conflicts (I.F. Stone criticized him for this)—I doubt that he has one.Chomsky was, without doubt, the biggest surprise of my research. Starting out, I knew that I was not a Chomsky fan. What I did not know is that he bases his analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—in numerous writings, in speeches, including before the UN, etc.—on a totally fraud-ulent reading of an obscure UN document. He claims that this document proves that in 1976—in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War, when the Arab world was in acute turmoil— the “frontline” Arab states and the PLO had an abrupt about-face and proposed recognizing Israel. Chomsky further claims that since then the Arab world has fervently sought a two-state solution—which, he claims, all sectors of Israeli society, including its peace movement, have adamantly rejected. With this, Chomsky enters cuckooland. Remember: This was the Arab world of Saddam, of Assad, of Qaddafi, of the eliminationist PLO, of the Axis of Resistance….Nothing, and I mean nothing, that Chomsky says about this document, or about the subsequent political situation, is true: starting from the fact that, contrary to what he states repeatedly, the proposal was not even put forth by the Arab states. (He apparently thinks that countries like Pakistan and Tanzania are Arab.) With Arendt, the problem was ignorance and, I think, a kind of hopeful/arrogant projection. With Chomsky, something else is going on. This is a willful misreading of an actual document and the rather blood-cur-dling debates in the UN around it, which are official records and can be easily accessed by anyone who cares to do so. Though I should point out that the document in which he places so much faith is, in any case, of absolutely no consequence—I could not find one historian, including Arab and Palestinian historians, who mentions it, much less gives it (or Chomsky’s analysis) any credence. What is one to make of a man who insists that Saddam Hussein was more of a peacenik than Amos Oz?Why is Chomsky so popular? Part of this goes back to his early, principled opposition to the war in Vietnam, and to his defense of many other endangered peoples and victims of violence. But even that is extremely partial: his subsequent positions on Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and on Milosevic and the Bosnian War were horrific. His concern for victims is pretty specific! His main interest, indeed obsession, is American imperial-ism. This is a real force in the world, but it has blinded him to everything else. Yet it’s precisely that one-notedness that makes him so attractive to many in the Left, and especially to young people. Chomskyism is a kind of intellectual-political fundamentalism, and it is attractive for the exact same reason that other kinds of fundamentalism—Islamic, Christian, Marxist, whatever.—are attractive. Here is a simple way to explain the world and a one-step way to fix it. In my view, one of the healthiest things the Left could do is to grow up, cure itself of Chomskyism, start thinking independently, and stop following gurus. RB: In an especially interesting passage of your chapter on Chomsky you note that “he is strongly antagonistic to the idea of the state, which he has described as an inhuman institution that traffics in violence and repression. This,” you go on to say, “is an unanswerable indictment because it is true. But it is also true that states, in their good-enough versions, provide their citizens with access to health care and education; establish, and guard, their freedoms; protect their safety (sometimes, yes, through violence); fight corruption; defend the rule of law and the rights of minorities; produce, distribute, and sometimes redistribute goods and wealth.” And Chomsky, as you say, “has never recognized any of these virtues.” Why has he not? Because to do so would seem to commit him to a sort of moderate, comfortable view of things that would compromise his status as a radical? Because the “good- enough versions” are embraced by ordinary citizens who cannot be expected to understand the nature of the violence and repression routinely carried on in their name? Is Chomsky’s reluctance to acknowledge the virtues of the state a characteristic feature of the kind of radicalism he and many other social critics embody? And is that likely to change any time soon? SL: I think that the critique of—indeed, hostility to—the state is becom-ing increasingly prevalent on the Western Left. Chomsky has long beenpart of this; I guess in some sense he is an anarchist, or has anarchistic tendencies. Of course, this critique emanates from people who are the beneficiaries of viable states and everything they provide! I don’t think most people in failed states dream of a world without one; what they want is a state whose leaders they choose, a state that represents and protects them, a state that provides the necessities to create a decent life as a free citizen. The countries in the world that have virtually no central states, or are imploded states—think of Somalia, Syria, Libya, South Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan—aren’t really models that anyone would want to emulate, to put it mildly. Of course there are states that are too powerful, that are oppressive and exploitative, that terrorize their citizens. (Syria is also a prime example of that.) But the conclusion that the state itself should therefore be dissolved is nonsensical. Without a state, what you get is Libya, not Denmark.The Left has always had a problem with this: with confusing allegiance to a nation—to a culture, to a history, to a language, to a set of political principles—with aggressive, ethnocentric nationalism. Of course the first can lead to the second, and those, like Arendt, who watched the devolution of the Weimar Republic into fascism were especially and understandably suspicious of any kind of nationalism. Allegiance to a nation—a sense of fraternity with fellow citizens—can devolve into the kind of nationalism that bases itself on exclusion of the other. We are unfortunately witnessing that today in the US, in Europe, in India, and yes, in Israel. But national loyalty and ethnic exclusion, much less ethnic hatred, are not synonymous. Having pride in one’s nation or one’s culture or one’s religion is not the same as hating others. Marx was simply wrong when he wrote that “the workers have no homeland”—and his sometime-friend Moses Hess, an early social-ist-Zionist, argued with him about that. Rosa Luxemburg was a fanatical anti-nationalist, something for which Arendt criticized her. The irony is that, when it came to Israel in the crucial 1947-48 period, the same could be said of Arendt. On the other hand, Bernard Lazare, another early socialist-Zionist and Dreyfusard, insisted that identification with a nation and internation-alism were not antithetical; in fact, the former was a precondition for the other. But sadly, I think that Israel is a prime example—though certainly not the only one—of the move from nationalism as a form of democraticself-determination to ethnically exclusionary, indeed racist, nationalism. The recently passed Nation-State Law is an ugly manifestation of this. Again, there is an irony here: For decades, Israel has been criticized for being “too Western” and for not “fitting into” the Middle East. Well, now it is becoming increasingly like its neighbors: anti-liberal, racist, religious, tribal. Mazel tov!But I think that, today, the Left is making a tremendous mistake by assuming that we are all rootless cosmopolitans who can simply roam the world at will. The corollary is that countries have no right, much less obligation, to rationally and humanely decide who they will and will not allow to enter and become members of the polity. Too often, anyone with a national identity or national pride is considered, ipso facto, a racist. This is political suicide for the Left. Again: haven’t we learned anything from history?Chomsky has put forth a “no-state” solution for the Arab world. But the Arab Spring showed that state collapse does not lead to a world of international fraternity; it leads to a world of horrific tribal violence. The Arab Spring, and the destruction of so many states in the region, does not prove that the state is useless or obsolete; it shows what happens when societies cannot create states that are worthy of their citizens.RB: In your chapter on I.F. Stone you anatomize Stone’s “narcissistic fallacy: the belief that everyone shares your essential aims and worldview. It was inconceivable to him that Israelis and Arabs were not working in tandem toward what he called ‘that haven they have all so long desired.’” In truth, you say, the Israeli left in the period of the 1970s was fully intent upon achieving a two-state solution, while the Arab left was opposed to that project and thought of a negotiated settlement and a “Palestinian state” as but “the first stage in a process whose second stage would be the de-struction of Israel.” Palestinian suffering was of course real, as you affirm, and Israel today is by no means the country that the Israeli left thought it was forty and fifty years ago. But it would seem that even now there is substantial evidence of the very “narcissistic fallacy” you observe in the willful self-deception of Izzy Stone, who was singularly willing and able to speak truth to us on other issues, where most of us were enwombed in lies and deceits regarding the war in Vietnam and other conflicts. Howdo you account for Stone’s susceptibility to the belief that everyone must inevitably share the “essential aims and worldview” that seemed to him transparently rational and desirable? Is it not our responsibility—even those of us who take ourselves to be realists and truth-tellers—to insist upon the hope that others can be brought around to reasonable and desirable aims? SL: I have a tremendous amount of respect, indeed tenderness, for Izzy Stone. But again: I think he just didn’t know much—or maybe care much?—about the Arab world. Of course, a reporter couldn’t roam around Assad’s Syria or Saddam’s Iraq the way he or she could roam around Israel. But I don’t think that was the main problem. The main problem was interest and knowledge. The Western Left is very Western-centric! I do believe that essential human rights must be upheld, demanded, everywhere. I am the furthest thing from a cultural relativist. But upholding universal values should not lead one to assume that everyone shares them. There are fundamental differences between societies, and within them: including within our own. Some people believe in women’s emancipation; others don’t. Some people believe in the separation of church and state; others abhor this. Some people believe in freedom of speech and thought; others believe that “blasphemy” should be punished. No one can fail to notice how severely divided the US is right now on some fundamental issues. To assume that “everyone” shares the same values or aims is a comforting but dangerous error—and this is especially so in the Middle East.It’s also important to recognize that Israel, and the Arab countries, are not just Xeroxes of Western nations. The Middle East region has an entirely different history than the US or Europe (which of course have different histories from each other). When I read, or listen to, plans for a one-state solution by leftists (the Right is a different story), I am often struck by how closely the “Israel-Palestine” (or whatever you want to call it) they imagine is more or less a mirror image of a country like Sweden. But the odds of any country in the Middle East becoming Sweden are pretty slim. Again, this is the narcissism of the Western Left—something that Israelis, and for that matter Palestinians, cannot afford. This is not to say that the Arab world is “incapable” of democ-racy, or that, because of the Jewish people’s history or of Israel’s securitysituation, it is OK for Israel to continue the Occupation. I do not believe that at all. But I also believe that one has to have a realistic analysis of the political forces in a country or in a conflict, and not simply project one’s own hopes or fears or paradigms onto others. I have read analyses of the civil war in Syria that compared it to the Spanish Civil War. There may have been a moment, early on, where there was a similarity—I am still not sure. Certainly there were many Syrians who envisioned a democratic state, and they have paid a price in exile, torture, death. But I have also read many reporters, and indeed Syrian activists, who warned readers to look realistically at the anti-Assad opposition, and not to imagine that it was composed of a bunch of Vaclav Havels. This does not make Assad and his torture regime—are we allowed to use the term “fascist” here?— any more acceptable: no, no, no. But you can’t simply make movements into what you wish them to be. The same, by the way, goes for all the political tendencies in Israel and Palestine.RB: In the “conclusion” of your book you say that “the position of many leftists today, especially in the United States and England, is as fraudulent as the Israeli positions” you describe in your book. Would you elaborate on this fraudulence, identifying what you take to be its primary features, and the dangers it poses to all of us?SL: The fraudulence of the Israelis is, first, their belief that the Occupation can, and maybe even should, continue. The second fraudulence is the belief that Israel will not destroy the original vision of Zionism—a democratic movement for self-determination—if the Occupation continues. Full stop. The fraudulence of the Wester Left has several aspects. It stems, first, from a kind of political laziness. Instead of looking at the actual history, and the current realities, of the Israel-Palestine conflict, much of the Left has taken a shortcut: “Israel=South Africa.” Once you’ve done that, the solution is simple: boycott!There are several problems with this. First, Israel is not South Africa (any more than, say, Bosnia was Vietnam); the situation both within the Green Line and in the Occupied Territories is fundamentally different than was South Africa’s, as are the histories of the two countries. Second, Israel’s position within the world—both politically and economically—is not even vaguely similar to, much less synonymous with, South Africa’s. Third, the boycott of South Africa was not the major factor leading to apartheid’s dissolution.So I’d like the Left to do the work (and yes, it is work) of think-ing specifically—that’s the job of intellectuals. I’d like the Left to stop suggesting, either overtly or covertly (see: BDS), that the Jewish people have no right to a state of their own. I’d like the Left to try to figure out how to do several things simultaneously: oppose the Occupation and the anti-democratic trajectories of contemporary Israel; support the right of the Palestinian people to a state; recognize the failures of the Palestinian Authority and the criminal program of Hamas; oppose the pathologies of Israeli and Palestinian politics, both of which have to be addressed if any two-state solution can ever succeed; recognize Israel’s security needs and the dangers of the neighborhood in which it dwells (see under: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, etc.); educate itself on the complexities of Palestinian societies, both within and outside the Green Line, rather than painting Palestinians as a monolithic bloc of simple victims. (The Right’s version of this is equally simplistic: All Palestinians are uneducated, backward terrorists whose deepest desire is to kill an Israeli.) And, most of all, to acknowledge, as Fred Halliday wrote, that there is no solution—not now, not ever—that does not recognize the right to self-determination of both Israelis and Palestinians. None of that is easy; none of that is fast. And perhaps none of it will work. But anything else will lead—has led!—either to the continuing oppression of the Palestinians or to catastrophic violence.Maybe it’s time to try something else.
*Susie Linfield is the author of The Lion’s Den: Zionism & The Left from Arendt to Chomsky.