From the River to the Sea

Getting it Right, Getting it Wrong


Susie Linfield

ROBERT BOYERS: You’ve had much to say about Israel and Zionism over many years, especially in your book, The Lion’s Den: Zionism & The Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky. More recently, in November of 2023, you published a provocative essay on “The Return of the Progressive Atrocity,” which was a fierce denunciation of the reaction by much of the global Left to the Hamas attacks, a reaction you decried as a kind of moral rot that had been years in the making. The essay has circulated widely. What has been the reaction from readers from whom you’ve heard?

SUSIE LINFIELD: I received more responses to that essay than to anything I’ve ever written. That was hugely gratifying (and any writer who says that she doesn’t care if people do or don’t read her is probably lying). The piece was sort of my “J’Accuse,” written out of desolation, shock, sorrow, and fury. But I also—and I have to credit my partner for this—tried to modify the tone. He’s a philosophy professor at the New School, and he told me, “I want my students to be able to read this.” The original version was more sarcastic; it included phrases like “useful idiots.” I took those out; you can’t influence people by insulting them. Tone is not only an aesthetic question; it’s a political, and even moral, one. Orwell knew that.    The responses have been overwhelmingly positive (though I should add that I am not on, and don’t look at, social media of any kind, so I don’t know what’s going on there. Maybe nothing good!). Clearly there was—there still is— a tremendous feeling of desolation, of betrayal, of isolation among those whom I would define as the humane or universalist Left. And of course I hope that the piece contributed to a sense that we are not alone, even if the “anti-imperialists” and “decolonizers” are a lot noisier at the moment. The emails from shocked, beleaguered Israeli leftists were moving, painfully so. One of the responses that meant the most to me came from an Iranian-American friend. He wrote that he was so, so sorry that I had to write the piece. I am too.

Robert Boyers: A former graduate student of mine wrote to me asking why a writer like you, long associated with publications “on the Left side of the spectrum,” should have chosen to publish her essay in Quillette? Would this not, in effect, announce that you had moved to the political right, and thus that what you wrote would be discounted as an expression of “a reactionary Zionist ideology”? Her words, not mine. Of course I told her that she must read your essay and decide for herself whether or not it was ideologically determined. Now she’s read it and said it changed her mind about many things.

Susie Linfield: Is Quillette on the Right? I didn’t know that, and the reason I don’t know it is that I pay less and less attention to those compartments, those “camps,” these days (although there are some places that I would not publish). Quillette publishes Benny Morris, one of the Israel’s finest “revisionist” historians. It publishes Michael Walzer, a lifelong social democrat. How are they on the Right? One of the points of my piece—and I am certainly not the only one to raise this—is that the whole definition of “the Left” needs to be re-thought.    Your former student’s question illustrates what I think is a disturbing trend: a weird and self-defeating sectarianism on the Left when it comes to reading, of all things. There are publications, and writers, that are haram. You read John McWhorter? But he’s a critic of racial affirmative action! (Bob, I know that you read and publish him.) Do you read Ross Douthat? But he’s a conservative Catholic! Do you read Bret Stephens? Do you read the Journal of Free Black Thought? And on it goes, as if you’ll be contaminated by reading the “wrong” people or the “wrong” publications. I think that many people on the Left live in an information ghetto: They watch MSNBC and read a small number of Left publications. As a result, they labor under the dangerous misconception that most people think the way they do. I always advise my students: Don’t let publications do your thinking for you. Think for yourself.    However, your student’s question brings up something interesting about the political situation at liberal and Left publications. The “Progressive Atrocity” essay (in a shorter version) was accepted twice and killed twice. First, it was commissioned by the very prestigious journal of the New York intelligentsia (you can guess which publication it was), then killed, because a young, woke editor argued that this was “not the time” to criticize the Left. Then a major newspaper (you can guess which one) asked to see the piece and told me that they wanted to get it into the paper quickly—except that another editor killed it. I don’t know why.    This tells you something about the publishing atmosphere after October 7, and today.

Robert Boyers: When Masha Gessen published, in a December issue of The New Yorker, her controversial essay on the current crisis, she almost had her about-to-be-conferred Hannah Arendt prize cancelled, though in fact the prize was conferred, in spite of the defection of two of the prize sponsors. The offending passages in Gessen’s essay, apparently, had to do with the suggestion, first, that conditions in Gaza before the current Israeli siege were comparable to conditions in the Polish ghettos under Nazi occupation, and second, that the intention implicit in such an arrangement would entail “liquidation.” What do you make of those analogies?

Susie Linfield: I don’t like cancellations, so I don’t think the prize should have been withdrawn, or challenged. And I thought some parts of Gessen’s article, especially its discussion of the ways in which the memory, or rather the facts, of the Holocaust can be debased, or deformed, or politically manipulated, were quite good.    But then it went wildly off-base. The problem with the essay is the problem with all analogies: They are almost always inaccurate; they almost immediately collapse on close (or even cursory) inspection; they are an evasion of specific, which is to say of political, thinking; they are lazy; and they are an attempt to shock the reader through provocation rather than trying to convince her through reasoned argument. Gessen’s essay is riddled with sloppy and manipulative thinking. She had to keep running away from her own analogies—because they make neither political nor moral sense.    Gessen tries to construct an analogy between the killing of civilians in the Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Gaza wars, with Israel presumably playing the part of Russia. But the analogy falls apart even as she writes it, and she has to quickly admit, “There are significant differences, of course.” I’ll say! As Gessen avers, it was Russia that provoked the war with Ukraine; it was Hamas that provoked the war with Israel. In fact, the real parallel would be: Russia believes Ukraine has no right to exist; Hamas believes that Israel has no right to exist. Then Gessen cites the protection wall that Israel built in the wake of the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada and compares that to the walls that enclosed Jews within the Nazi ghettoes. But the Nazis were not, of course, attempting to protect the Poles, or anyone else, from terror attacks by Jews, which is one of the many reasons why Gessen must again admit that there are “essential differences” between the two cases. In fact, the differences are so monumental as to render the analogy meaningless. Why make it in the first place? The answer can only be to incite a kind of pavlovian rage against Israel in the reader—and, more important, to prevent critical, informed thinking, which would have to encompass thorny, indeed agonizing, contradictions on all sides. The very use of the word “Nazi”—there are a number of other such words, including “Orientalist”—is almost guaranteed to obstruct thought.    Do I really have to delineate the differences between the Warsaw, Lodz, and other ghettos under Nazis supervision and the situation in Gaza before the war? Good lord. Well, for a start: Jews—who, of course, had never attacked Germany, Poland, or any other country—were herded into those Eastern European ghettos to be beaten, starved, tortured, terrorized, and murdered in large numbers in preparation for the remnants being deported to the death camps. Gaza is a mini-state run by Hamas, a well-armed, well-financed terror group that has built an enormous underground city for the express, and only, purpose of storing enormous quantities of military equipment with which to attack Israel. Before this war, the streets of Gaza were patrolled by Hamas, not Israel. Gazans are the recipients of massive amounts in international aid—and Hamas receives enormous sums from Qatar and Iran. So far as I know, no one was aiding the Jews in the ghettos. Gazan women have traditionally had a relatively high fertility rate. None of this sounds too much like Jewish life under the Nazis. Most of all: The Nazis aimed to kill every Jew in the world. That has nothing to do with the Zionist project, even in its most brutal and reactionary iterations.    Should I go on?    Analogies and metaphors are of course also used by the Right, where they are equally misleading. Netanyahu and other members of the Right have referred to Hamas as Nazis. Well, no, they’re not. Wearing a yellow star at the United Nations was shameful: Israelis—with a powerful state, a powerful civil society, and a powerful army—are not like the helpless Jews of Europe of the 1930s and 40s, who had, alas, none of those things. (Indeed, one major aim of Zionism was to ensure that Israelis would not be like their predecessors.) Hamas is bad enough, and the reality in Gaza is bad enough, without our needing to bring in “Nazis.”    Gaza, even before the war, was a very bad place. And more important: It was a politically hopeless place. That is what is so devastating, and so dangerous. But it has attained an almost mythological status in much of the world’s imagination—the ninth circle of hell, so to speak. It was not “like a Jewish ghetto” in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, as Gessen charges, and it was not a “concentration camp,” as some have even more egregiously charged. In a recent report in the New Yorker, David Remnick quotes Mustafa Barghouti, a West Bank politician, castigating the destruction that Israel is causing to Gaza’s “cities, mosques and universities, schools and courts and hospitals.” Does this sound like the Warsaw Ghetto, or Treblinka? Far from being completely isolated from the world, Gazans have an entire United Nations agency, consisting of 13,000 workers for a population of two million, devoted to their health and education—which Syrian, and South Sudanese, and Rohingyan, and millions of other refugees definitely do not. Numerous humanitarian organizations worked there. It had apartment buildings, restaurants, shops, pharmacies. The charge of “liquidation” is also hyperbole. Palestinian casualties in the current war are staggeringly high. But there will eventually be a ceasefire, and Gaza will still be one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Virtually all the Jews in the Nazi ghettos were murdered; that’s liquidation. I feel angry, and somehow degraded, at having to address these specious, grotesque comparisons. Again: The Israelis aren’t Nazis, and the Hamas aren’t Nazis. There’s a kind of repetition compulsion at work here. Can we please put the Nazi metaphors to rest?    I should add, though, that as we speak in early February, Netanyahu is threatening to invade Rafah, where there are now over a million Palestinians, most of whom have been pushed from other parts of the Strip. I understand the military logic behind this, but for humanitarian reasons, it can’t be done. On the other hand, the assault on Gaza—the deaths in Gaza—would end tomorrow if Hamas would surrender and release the hostages, which it refuses to do. They are fighting to maintain their dictatorship of terror. It’s astonishing to me that this is so rarely mentioned.

Robert Boyers: Thomas Friedman wrote a column in the New York Times pointing out that Hamas could have taken a very different route and actually developed Gaza into a thriving entity.

Susie Linfield: The Israelis pulled out of Gaza in 2005—which was accomplished by a super-hawk, Ariel Sharon. There’s criticism on the Israeli Left for how this was done, and criticism on the Israeli Right that it was done at all. Nevertheless, Palestinians were now in control of a territory. A small bit of territory, true. But you have to start somewhere. (Look at what the Kurds have accomplished in the areas they control in Iraq and Syria.) There was a lot of hope, among Israelis and Palestinians alike, that Gaza would turn it into a thriving entity, which is to say that energy would be put into the development—economic, civil, etc.—of one’s own people and society, not into destruction of the Other. A Middle Eastern Singapore! Under Hamas, the opposite happened. David Grossman told the New Yorker that, had Palestinians chosen peaceful development, withdrawal from West Bank settlements would have commenced. Instead, Hamas began lobbing rockets into Israel and, eventually, turned the whole Strip into a terror base while enriching itself. You can begin to understand what effect this had on Israelis, including those who desperately want two states.

Robert Boyers: Is your account of the conditions Hamas has enforced on Palestinians in Gaza at all reflected in most of the commentary you read?

Susie Linfield: Not really, though Masha does call them “tyrannical.” It’s now known, reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, that there are 450 miles of underground tunnels in Gaza, a narrow strip of land that is only 25 miles long. This is where Hamas stores its enormous amounts of weaponry: missiles, drones, bombs, bomb-making factories, assault rifles, etc. It’s true that not everyone in Gaza is a Hamas supporter—in fact, we really have no way of knowing what Gazans’ views are. (Though a December poll by the respected Palestinian Center for Policy and Policy Research made my heart sink: It found that 72 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza support the Oct. 7 attacks.) It’s equally true that virtually everyone in the Strip must have known about this huge underground infrastructure project, and that many young men must have been involved, whether willingly or not, in building it. And I think that, frankly, groups like Doctors without Borders, which I have always revered, have been lying when they insist that the tunnels—which mean weapons and fighters—don’t exist under hospitals, schools, and other civilian sites. How could an entire society, whose people are crammed into a tiny space, be kept in the dark for two decades, along with all the humanitarians who work there?    For Israel, the tunnels are a strategic and military nightmare. For Palestinians, they raise an important moral question. Since October 7, Hamas spokesmen have openly, indeed brazenly, asserted in the New York Times and other venues that they bear no responsibility toward Gazan civilians, that they are proud to create “martyrs,” and that the tunnels are meant to protect only the group’s fighters. Pause for a moment to consider this. Think of the countless thousands of Gazan lives, especially those of children, that could have been saved had Hamas shielded its population from the bombs, which it could certainly have done. What kind of “liberation movement” purposely wants its people to die? Can you imagine the African National Congress having done this in South Africa? The National Liberation Front of Vietnam? The Sandinistas? Anyone? Most liberation movements want their people, and especially their children, to survive. Children are the future. In contrast, Hamas wants its people, including and perhaps especially its children, to die. And it wants those deaths to be photographed, and to circulate throughout the world. The depravity of this is difficult, perhaps impossible, to comprehend. Hamas is a death cult, for Palestinians and Israelis alike. All those signs demanding “Free Palestine” should also demand freedom from Hamas—though frankly, I’ve never seen one of those.    Gessen’s piece is important because it illuminates, or at least displays, the muddled, inflammatory thinking that dominates too much of the Left. I found the essay particularly depressing because Masha is an astute, well-informed, morally centered journalist who does so much important work, especially on Russia. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, alas, the place where critical thinking, which must always be based on sharp distinctions, goes to die. Still, I believe Gessen’s assertion that “I want Israel to continue to exist. I want it to exist in a way that would make me want to love and respect it.”    And there is one short phrase in her essay—a casual one—that caught my eye and has sort of haunted me. In a discussion of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, she writes. “Indeed, some B.D.S. supporters envision a total undoing of the Zionist project.” Whoa! What does it mean to “totally undo” a national project—in this case, one that saved millions of Jewish lives? Who the hell is B.D.S. to undo a national project? Are there other national projects on its hit list—France? Bangladesh? China? Why is eliminationism considered a valid “project”—a progressive project!—when it comes to the state of the Jewish people? What will the “total undoing” of Israel look like? We know the answer: It will look like October 7.    There is also something almost laughable—though also deeply irritating—about the increasingly Talmudic debate over whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, on which Gessen spends a lot of space. So do others: n+1 published an open letter signed by many leftist Jewish writers, insisting that the two “anti’s” aren’t the same. But they couldn’t bring themselves to even mention the Hamas attacks by name, instead putting forth a sort of wimpy “all lives matter” line. So let’s stipulate: No, anti-Zionism isn’t always anti-Semitism. You’re not an anti-Semite? Mazel tov! Unfortunately, the political positions of many self-professed anti-Zionists are atrocious nonetheless. And what’s so weird about all this is that in the aftermath of October 7, it’s become crystal clear that anti-Zionism is often anti-Semitism, and deeply so. The loathing, the resentment, the vilification of Jews is viscerally palpable in so many of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations, articles, statements. The n+1 statement was titled “A Dangerous Conflation.” It seems to me that what’s dangerous is the vicious, unhinged anti-Semitism that is circulating all over the world and all over this country, including in its elite spaces. Do organizations like B.D.S. or Jewish Voice for Peace vigorously disassociate themselves from this, as they would, rightly, if their movement was infected by white supremacy? No, they spend their time tediously explaining what good folk they are. Anti-Zionists need to get their houses in order, though I have zero confidence that they will.

Robert Boyers: A friend of mine, who writes often for Salmagundi, just the other day sent me a long essay by Mouin Rabbani in a journal called Mondoweiss, which argues that a policy of “transfer” and “ethnic cleansing” has long been the program of Israel and its leaders, going all the way back to the founding fathers, from Theodore Herzl to David Ben Gurion and on to the present. There is much in this essay to mistrust, and the journal is also appalling in many ways, including its open enthusiasm for the October 7th massacre. But I do want to ask you not only about the idea that population transfer has been on the table, as it were, since the founding of the state of Israel. Does it seem to you that the October 7th massacre has been taken by the government as an opportunity to undertake and complete a process that has long been a largely unspoken prime objective of many in the Israeli political establishment?

Susie Linfield: Rabbani’s essay pretends to be a historical narrative but is really an ideological tract. But since it repeats many of the myths, or at least the highly incomplete and often inaccurate narratives that are now accepted as “truths” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I think it is worth discussing. It represents something larger than itself.    Zionism has always been a capacious theory—and, then, a capacious practice. It has encompassed universalists and racists, peacemakers and war-mongers, socialists and capitalists, compromisers and rejectionists. The Palestinian national movement has also encompassed different approaches, both political and moral. Rabbani’s article ignores all that. I suspect that’s a function of ideological fervor rather than of ignorance, since he is an educated man.    Rabbani is correct: In today’s Israel, and more important, in the current Israeli government, there are indeed those who support transfer and ethnic cleansing. These are the messianic zealots, the fascists, the Kahanists, the racists. They were elected. They are poison. And yes, I do think they see October 7 as an “opportunity” to push their program. I don’t know if Netanyahu actually agrees with them—probably not—but no matter: He is beholden to what used to the be lunatic fringe but now, horrifically, is no longer a fringe. If he alienates them, his coalition will collapse. On the other hand, most Israeli analysts believe that his government will not survive once the Gaza war, or this most intense phase of the war, is over. And it will be Netanyahu, and his axis of arsonists, who will be pushed out. The rage toward them, and especially toward him, is deep and widespread. Although in Israeli politics, (almost) anything is possible.    Equally important: Transfer is not the policy of the current Israeli government; in fact, the current Israeli government is abysmally dysfunctional and has no coherent policies. (This is among the many reasons that a majority of Israelis loathe and distrust it.) But Benny Ganz and Gadi Eisenkot—members of the opposition who joined the war cabinet and who, if elections were held today, would almost certainly crush Netanyahu—are adamantly opposed to transfer. So is Yoav Gallant, the minister of defense, who, by the way, is a member of Netanyahu’s party but by no means his ally. The Kahanists aren’t running the war, nor do they run Israel. Rabbani—like so many “pro-Palestinian” analysts and writers—ignores the complex realities of Israeli politics. And they are complex! In doing so, he has put himself at a great disadvantage. How can you influence a debate, much less an increasingly blood-drenched conflict, if you approach it with blinders?    One of Rabbani’s most mystifying claims—there are many—is that Antony Blinken, “in particular,” has “enthusiastically embraced” a policy of transfer. In fact, as Blinken frantically traverses the Middle East, he has reiterated time and again—to Arab leaders, to Israelis, to everyone—that the U.S. adamantly opposes any such policy. On January 7, for instance, he publicly insisted that there will be “no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, not now, not after the war” and no “reduction in the territory of Gaza.” The U.S. policy has been reported everywhere from the New York Times to Al Jazeera. How can Rabbani fail to distinguish Itamar Ben Gvir from Antony Blinken? It’s really not OK to just make things up.    But again to the question of transfer: Transfer was certainly a part of the Zionist imagination, and it was definitely supported at various times by some Zionist leaders. They were worried, for good reason, that an Arab population within a Jewish state would be a fifth column. (In the original partition plan, the proposed Palestinian state contained no Jews.) But transfer was not part of some unified grand strategy in 1948. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled, or were expelled, sometimes very violently, by Israel, but at the end of the war 20 percent of Israel was Arab, and still is. And transfer—in fact, elimination—of the Jews was also the aim of many Palestinians, and certainly of their leaders. In fact, there was a dialectic between the two movements on this question: The more it became clear, starting in the 1930s if not sooner, that the Palestinians would never accept any Jewish state, regardless of its borders, the more the Zionists began to consider transfer as a necessary defense. As with so much of the writing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rabbani simply ignores this (or any) dialectic, choosing instead a Manichean reading of history.    Nor was the Nakba “a product of design,” as Rabbani charges. On the contrary, it didn’t result from the partition itself, but emerged in the course of the war, which was instigated by the Palestinians and, then, by the Arab states. Rabbani cites a line about transfer from Benny Morris. Benny is a superb historian; his books The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem and Righteous Victims, based on years of careful documentary research, exploded many Zionist and many Palestinian myths. These works should be required reading. They don’t comfort either side. He certainly does not shy away from the ugly aspects of Zionism or of Israeli history; in fact, some Israelis consider him a traitor. But I wonder if Rabbani has read these books, because Morris’s conclusions about transfer and other issues are often the exact opposite of Rabbani’s. These two volumes of Morris’s are, respectively, 666 and 784 pages long. It’s simply intellectually dishonest for Rabbani to cite one short line—to haul out Morris’s name, so to speak— and pretend that he is accurately reporting on Morris’s findings.

Robert Boyers: You say that the Rabbani essay is ideological rather than a historic account.

Susie Linfield: Yes, the real problem with Rabbani’s piece is not its many factual errors. The problem is that it is a political tract that masquerades as history. But this is true of so much of what is written about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from all sides. So many writers pretend to be historians, but what they really want is to prove their point, and their point is how good they are and how bad the other guy is. This is one reason it’s so hard to teach the subject.    Rabbani’s essay in particular exhibits a weird kind of determinism and more than a whiff of conspiratorial thinking: Everything that happened was pre-ordained. It was all part of a plot—set into motion by Herzl in 1895 and faithfully carried out for over a hundred years: a master plan of the wily Jews! That’s so far from how the tangled, tragic history of the national conflict between these two peoples unfolded, and it definitely has no relation to the often sharply conflicting trends that have always existed within the Zionist movement. (If you have any doubts about that, take a look at Israel today.) I suppose Rabbani intends to be defending the Palestinians, but he actually erases the Palestinians. In his telling, they had no leadership, organizations, programs, aims, politics, analysis, or ideas, and they took no actions. They have never entered into history. (Entering into history, as Hannah Arendt wrote, was the purpose of Zionism.) They were and are only victims, helpless victims, of those powerful Zionists who have maintained a laser-like focus on destroying them for over a century. And because they are helpless victims, they are innocent.    There are many Israeli historians whose work is highly critical of multiple aspects of the Zionist movement, including the building of the settlements and the Occupation (though many and probably most of them identify as Zionists). And many Israeli journalists too: Take a look at the Israeli press. And there are Arab intellectuals who are astute historians and analysts of Middle Eastern politics; I try to follow the work of Hussein Ibish, Hussein Agha, Khaled Elgindy, and Yezid Sayigh. (As far as I know, most are not Palestinian, though some have represented Palestine in negotiations with Israel.) Still, I think that Rabbani’s piece manifests a lack of self-critical thinking—political, moral, even strategic—that is too common among some Palestinian intellectuals. Think of the title of Rashid Khalidi’s last book: The Hundred Years’ War Against Palestine.    Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University. He is the most prominent Palestinian-American intellectual in the U.S. today. He trains a lot of students. I recently interviewed him; it was for another publication, but it was on the record, so I can talk about it here. We had a cordial talk; I appreciated his time. But I was shocked by much of what he said. His thinking was, in fact, similar to Rabbani’s. He told me that he considered the Balfour Declaration the “origin point” of the conflict: “Everything follows a pattern that is set then.” Everything, I thought? A “pattern”? This is like saying that there is a straight line between the Versailles Treaty and Sobibor. I asked him if, looking back at 75 years of bloodshed and sorrow, the Palestinian leaders’ rejection of partition in 1947 had been a mistake. Now it may be that it was politically impossible, emotionally impossible, for the Palestinian leadership to accept partition, or any compromise, at the time. (And it’s useful to remember that most Palestinians had no say in this matter.) But think of how different Israel, and Palestine, and the whole Middle East, and the larger world, would be if there had been, as the UN envisioned, two sovereign states, flourishing side by side. It seems to me that the rejection was a world-historic mistake: a catastrophe of incalculable proportions, especially for Palestinians.    But Khalidi would have none of it. In fact, he didn’t seem to regard the 1947 rejection as particularly important—certainly not an “origin point” for the series of wars and conflicts that persist to this day. “I don’t think if the Palestinians had accepted partition, you would have had a different result,” he told me. “I don’t think a piece of Palestine was what the Zionists were after.” No reflection on Palestinian rejectionism and its terrible consequences was required: “The Palestinians were expected to give away most of their country: inconceivable. I can’t imagine any other people doing that.”    This sort of thinking profoundly depresses and frightens me—as does listening to Netanyahu insist that there can never, ever, be Palestinian sovereignty. What is so desperately needed now, when the Israeli-Palestine situation is at an absolute nadir—worse than at any time in my remembrance, worse perhaps than at any time ever—is new thinking. On all sides. And new leadership. On all sides. (A friend of mine has described Netanyahu and his wife as “the Ceausescus of Israel.”) You have two peoples drowning in fury, hatred, fear, blood, and death, and profoundly—I hope not irretrievably—traumatized. The Palestinian national movement is, frankly, in absolute shambles (despite all those heroic chants on college campuses): divided between a corrupt, repressive, dysfunctional Palestinian Authority and a corrupt, repressive, homicidal Hamas. Isn’t this a good time for self-critique? There are, of course, more than a few Israelis who cling to a parallel worldview, despite the disasters that many of their choices have led to. That’s why Morris called his book Righteous Victims: Note the plural.    By the way, Mondoweiss has published several repellent pieces that attempt to deny the Hamas rapes of Israeli women. Is that a “Left” position? Now there’s a publication I would not write for.

Robert Boyers: Rabbani talks about the “right of return,” something that is spoken about more and more frequently. What exactly does this mean?

Susie Linfield: Yes, that’s at the heart of Rabbani’s piece. It’s a phrase that rolls off the lips of many people who know virtually nothing about what it means; it appears frequently on the banners of pro-Palestinian demonstrations today. It’s a really important issue—perhaps the most difficult one in resolving the conflict. So it’s worth exploring.    Rabbani claims that Israel’s refusal to take back the refugees from 1948 is what distinguishes the Palestinians from all other peoples. On the contrary: This is exactly what the Palestinians share with the scores of millions of people who were displaced in conflicts in the immediate post-World War Two period, and the millions of people who are currently forcibly displaced; according to the UN, they numbered a staggering 110 million as of last spring. Only a tiny minority have ever returned, or will ever return. What does distinguish the Palestinians, at least from some others, is that they have remained stateless. This is partly due to Israel, for sure: That is the essence of the Occupation. But it is also due to the fact that neighboring Arab countries—the Palestinians’ “brothers”— have refused to offer citizenship and have thus kept them as, essentially, stateless pariahs living in often miserable conditions. The purpose of that cruelty is to keep hatred against Israel, and the conflict, alive.    Another thing that distinguishes Palestinians is that they are the only people in the world who are considered “refugees” ad infinitum: The children, grandchildren, great-children—every generation—of those who were originally displaced are considered refugees. By this definition, virtually everyone whose family was displaced at some point in the 20th century would be a refugee: including me. As are, by this reasoning, the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were expelled from the Arab countries, post-1948, as well as their descendants. It’s estimated that they now constitute half of the Israeli population; we’re talking, again, about millions of people. Can they return to the welcoming arms of Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Yemen, Egypt? Not likely. And it is sometimes forgotten that Israel, like all sovereign countries, has every right, indeed responsibility, to set its own immigration policies. The “international community” can’t dictate that Israel accept millions of Palestinians, many of whom reject the very concept of a state for the Jewish people, any more than it can dictate how many refugees or immigrants or migrants the U.S. should take in. But my larger point is that any “liberation project” that rests on trying to reverse 75 years of history is doomed. Can the whole world put the film into reverse and return to 1948? The advocates of return try to normalize their project, but I can’t think of any historic precedent for it—certainly not on the scale that’s being proposed.    In 2001, during the carnage of the Second Intifada, the Palestinian philosopher, activist, and public intellectual Sari Nusseibeh gave a brave speech at Hebrew University. He pointed out that the “right of return” means turning the State of Israel into a majority-Arab country. Palestinians, he argued, can’t demand both a sovereign Palestinian state to which they can return and a return to Israel: in effect, two Palestinian states. Nusseibeh was vilified for this, with some even demanding that he be fired from his post as the Palestinian Authority’s representative in Jerusalem.    Nusseibeh knew what Left organizations like B.D.S. and Democratic Socialists of America also know, but he was honest about it and they are not: The return project would be the “undoing,” as Masha Gessen rather delicately put it, of the Zionist project. There is no Israeli government, from the Left to the Right, that would ever accept this, because it would mean committing national suicide. It is mystifying to me why some people put forth “return” as a recipe for peace, since it is so obviously a recipe for immense bloodshed. So if you want to demand the right of return: Fine. But understand that to do so is not to solve the conflict, but to guarantee its perpetuation, perhaps forever.    Generations of Palestinians have been horribly misled by their leaders, told to hold the keys of their forebears’ homes in the expectation of reclamation. This is a travesty. (And even if those houses still exist, which is doubtful, they have been inhabited by someone else for 75 years. What then? Tel Aviv University is built on the ruins of what used to be an Arab village. Should it be razed?) Hamas, of course, is a big advocate of “return.” Hence the “Great March of Return” demonstrations it organized for a year starting in 2018, in which understandably desperate, angry Gazans were urged to breach the fence dividing Israel from Gaza and take back what is, presumably, theirs. The Israeli army fired on them, killing over 200. This incurred the wrath of international organizations. But what kind of leadership uses its people, including children, as cannon fodder—surely Hamas knew the outcome—in this way?    Like all revanchist projects, the right of return rests on a useless attempt to un-do the past rather than take on the responsibility of building a future. In that sense, its very essence is a kind of helplessness and hopelessness. Israel, remember, was built by losers: People who had lost their homes, their professions, their communities, their families, lost everything they loved—and, for those who had survived the camps, had been unimaginably degraded. Their worlds were shattered. They turned from the past to build something new: a new state, a new society, a new way of being Jewish. They knew that their losses were far too phenomenal to ever be redeemed, and that all they had lost could never be reclaimed.    Nevertheless, the demand for return continues to mesmerize the Left (though I suspect that there are Palestinian leaders and intellectuals who realize its futility). Like Lot’s wife, they are paralyzed by the past. In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Sari Bashi, who identifies herself as an Israeli American Jew married to a Palestinian refugee, argues that her husband’s mother has “two rights of return”: to Israel to reclaim the home she lost, as a child, in 1948, or to Gaza. (As in many accounts, Bashi conveniently sidesteps the origin of the war that created the refugee problem, implying that war somehow just happened.) She also notes that her father is an Iraqi Jew forced to flee his homeland in 1953. “He found refuge in Israel, where he became a citizen.” Isn’t that a good model: building a Palestinian state that would offer security, development, democratic citizenship?    There’s an excellent essay on the concept of “decolonization” in the most recent issue of Liberties by Kian Tajbakhsh. He’s an Iranian-American academic who was formerly a political prisoner of the Ayatollah. He has a very clear view of Middle Eastern politics; I urge everyone to read the essay, which I think is brilliant. Tajbakhsh writes that what the Palestinians need is not a Mandela but “an Adenauer, who can accept an imperfect and unsatisfactory reality in the present to achieve a better future.” That is, someone who can lead them from conspiratorial thinking and revanchist fantasies into the reality principle, which can be the only basis of a true national revival.    There is, of course, irrendentism on the Israeli Right. It is equally inane, equally insane, equally unrealizable, equally destructive: not just for Palestinians but, equally, for Israelis. I consider right-wing Israelis who support the “Greater Israel” project—the idea that Jews should control everything from the river to the sea—to be anti-Zionist. But contrary to what Rabbani and Khalidi claim, this was not the project of mainstream Zionism—certainly not from the time it first accepted partition, which was 1937.    The genius of the early Zionists was that they realized that if they didn’t compromise, they would lose everything. I think that parts of the Palestinian national movement have still not come to that realization. But I also think that, in recent decades, Israel has lost that capacity for realistic pragmatism. How else to explain the constant expansion of the settlements, the idea that the Occupation—and Hamas, for that matter—could be or should be “contained”? What a disaster.

Robert Boyers: In your recent essay, you refer to another piece, published in Dissent magazine, by a writer named Gabriel Winant, who focuses on what he calls “the power of the Israeli grief machine,” which is deployed to justify just about anything, including the violence unleashed on Gaza. This “grief machine” is said to set up and gear up Israel’s “genocide machine.” What does this mean?

Susie Linfield: I haven’t the vaguest idea. “Grief machine” is an utterly repellent phrase, and especially revolting in the wake of October 7. Israelis were burned alive, tortured, raped, murdered, kidnapped. Would Winant say that those who are suffering in Gaza are producing a “grief machine”? The fact that this was published in Dissent, a journal I’ve been closely involved with for decades, shocked and wounded me.    The shameful response to the atrocity by so many Leftists like Winant can be explained only by the fact that the victims were Israelis, which is also to say, Jews. (And please don’t tell me that Winant is Jewish: Who cares? That doesn’t make his piece any less repellent.) The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only the graveyard of critical thinking and historic accuracy; it is also the graveyard of humane universalism, solidarity, and all the values that the Left presumably holds dear, or at least used to.

Robert Boyers: In early January I sent you a SUBSTACK essay by my friend Mary Gaitskill, who does not often write about international politics. “Up until now,” she writes, “I have been sympathetic to Israel.” But with Israel’s war in Gaza, Mary writes, “my feelings have changed in a way that has shaken the foundation—or at least a foundation—of my world view.” Part of Mary’s disillusionment, she writes, came from reading a book by an American journalist named Nathan Thrall, which “lays bare…the cruelty that Palestinians have been subjected to on a daily basis for years.” What does Mary’s essay tell us about the effect of the present Gaza war upon thoughtful, decent people who have not before been deeply invested in questions about Israel? What would you wish to say to Mary at this terrible juncture?

Susie Linfield: Gaitskill’s essay made me think of David Nirenberg’s book Anti-Judaism. It’s a deeply learned, and deeply disturbing, study of how Jews, and Judaism, have been used throughout history as a way for other people, and other peoples, to figure out the world—and, especially, to explain all that is wrong with the world. Since that history is quite long, the book is too; it spans 3,000 years. Though large portions focus on Christianity, it begins in ancient Egypt and comes up to the present, including a brief discussion of antipathy to Zionism and, then, Israel. What Nirenberg explores is different from anti-Semitism, by the way, and he points out that you don’t actually need any Jews to be obsessed with them. Jews, and Judaism, are essentially an enormous Rorschach test for others. I understand Gaitskill’s ethical torment, and I welcome her newfound interest in politics. But I would suggest that she consider why this conflict, above any other in the world, is the focus of international attention and, indeed, international rage. And why Israel is the synecdoche of all evil, all cruelty, all violence—for her and, obviously, many others.    The great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once told an Israeli magazine—it’s an extraordinary interview—that Palestinians were “lucky that Israel is our enemy.” He pointed out that no one would care about the Palestinians if they were being oppressed by, say Pakistan. He continued, “I do not have any illusions. The international interest in the Palestinian question is really only a reflection of the interest in the Jewish question.” Please don’t misunderstand: I am not downplaying the Israeli violence in Gaza, at all. But Mary should think about what Darwish said, which is closely aligned with Nirenberg’s more general argument.    Nathan Thrall’s book can tell you some important things about the Occupation; he knows a lot, though I have political disagreements with him. But one book will not tell you all—or, frankly, a scintilla—of what you need to know if you want to develop either a moral or political perspective on Israel and its conflicts, including the present one. That’s because the conflict isn’t only about the Occupation.    Among other things, I think Mary would need to know more about Jewish history (which did not begin with the Holocaust!), the history of the Zionist movement (which did not begin with the Holocaust!), the history of the Palestinian national movement, the history of political developments in the modern Arab and Muslim worlds. Why is the region filled with violent, dictatorial regimes and failed states, whose only unifying theme, for decades, has been the hoped-for eradication of Israel? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most international conflict in the world today—which has never been more evident than since October 7. Can you imagine any war—say, Ukraine, or the Congo, or Syria—where millions of people who are not directly affected feel so passionately involved? Can you imagine any other conflict in which so many nations, national leaders (American, Arab, European), and such an array of non-state actors are politically and militarily involved? We are speaking of a tiny sliver of land that is home to about 14 million people. Why is the world fixated on it?    Israel is unusual in that it is the only country in the world that does not have settled borders: It has neither annexed the Palestinian territories nor freed them. The Occupation is a political and moral failure of phenomenal proportions. I have no problem calling it a crime. Israel is also the only country in the world that faces existential threats from an array of states and terrorist groups that are fanatically devoted to its destruction. Does this justify the Occupation? Not at all. Can the Occupation be separated from this? Not at all. And those actors—Iran, Hezbollah, Houthis, Hamas, Islamist militias in Syria and Iraq—aren’t opposed to the Occupation. Truly, I don’t think they give a hoot about that. They are opposed to Israel, and they seek to establish brutal Ismalist dictatorships there and throughout the region. So what I would say to Mary is: You need to understand all of those things to even begin to understand the war in Gaza.    And I would add: Keep reading. I’ve mentioned various writers and books in this interview. Other books I’d recommend are Sari Nusseibeh’s Once Upon a Country, Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, Tom Segev’s histories of Mandatory Palestine and the 1967 war, Yossi Klein Halevi’s Like Dreamers, Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land, Yezid Sayigh’s and Rashid Khalidi’s histories of the PLO, Jon Kimche’s There Could Have Been Peace, Shlomo Ben-Ami’s Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, David Grossman’s The Yellow Wind, Gershom Gorenberg’s The Accidental Empire. Tom Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem and Fouad Ajami’s The Dream Palace of the Arabs are good background histories of the region, though much has changed since they wrote them. It would help for Mary to know the history of partition proposals, starting in 1937, and why the Palestinians have rejected all of them. Two recent illuminating books by Beirut-based journalists, which cover political developments in a large swathe of the Middle East, are Alex Rowell’s We Are Your Soldiers and Kim Ghattas’s Black Wave. (Her subtitle is revealing: “Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East.”) And a short book that has always fascinated me, and is far too little known, is called Self-Criticism After the Defeat. It’s about the 1967 war and was written by Sadik Al-Azm, a Syrian intellectual.    Of course, someone else might offer a completely different reading list. But the point is: There’s a lot to learn, and none of it is simple.

Robert Boyers: One final question. In Peter Beinart’s Jewish Currents we find, even in recent months, a drum-beat of enthusiasm for a binational Israeli-Palestinian state, open to the right of return for Palestinians and welcoming Jews from other countries “who are really in need of a refuge.” Can you help me to understand how this impossible dream can be seriously entertained?

Susie Linfield: Not really. This, again, is the unforgivable abstraction of intellectuals who have no feel for what is happening on the ground and who won’t pay the price for their so-called solutions. (By the way, that was true of Hannah Arendt, too, in the crucial 1947-48 period; I don’t think she ever spoke to an Arab leader, much less to an ordinary Palestinian, and she understood very little about the situation in the Yishuv or the thinking of its inhabitants.) One bi-national state? Most Israelis and most Palestinians can’t even countenance the prospect of two states at the moment. They are seething in distrust of, and visceral hatred toward, each other. How could it be otherwise? This is, of course, exactly what Hamas wanted: the more hatred, the better.    Two states is, I believe, the only real solution. But anyone who thinks that will happen anytime soon is seriously deluded. There is an abyss between what Israelis and Palestinians are thinking and feeling and what those in the West propose. Ezra Klein, though I think he himself supports two states, put it well: “I would not, as an Israeli, want to live next to a state where most people applauded the massacre of my neighbors. I would not, as a Palestinian, want to live next to a state that had just flattened my home and killed tens of thousands of my countrymen.” New leaderships will have to emerge on both sides, all sides, that can coax and pull and push their frightened, reluctant peoples into envisioning, and trusting, new futures. But at the moment, talk of any presumably imminent two-state solution is, horror of horrors, helping Netanyahu, who is putting himself forth as the bulwark against any hope of Palestinian sovereignty.    As for one-state: Here you have two national groups who have been killing each others’ children for a hundred years. They have different political cultures, different religions, different languages, and very different, indeed clashing, historic narratives. Their wounds are deep, their histories with each other, especially at this juncture, are unimaginably bitter. Many regard those on the “other” side as pitiless, barbaric murderers, for good reason. They are not going to suddenly unite to create some sort of harmonious democratic entity. And why should they? Because some lefty intellectuals in New York want them to? There’s nothing wrong with each people pursuing national self-determination. It’s terrible that people on the Left are peddling fantasies.    The job of an intellectual is to listen to the history that is being made all around you and to respond in new ways by re-assessing your previous beliefs. This is what the founding generation of Zionists did; this is what Nelson Mandela and the ANC did. Far from hewing to static master projects, they were forced, time and again, to accommodate themselves to shifting realities. This is what a thinker like Fred Halliday, who went from being a Third World anti-colonialist to being a Left universalist grounded in human rights, could do; this is what a thinker like Noam Chomsky, whose solution to every problem is to castigate U.S. imperialism, can’t do. The one-state Left, the boycotters, the decolonialists drone on, as all dogmatists do; they reject Arendt’s concept of bringing newness into the world, which she saw as the essence of politics and the essence of freedom. It’s as if they can hear only what’s in their own heads. But there’s a whole world outside, and that’s where history, and the future, are being made. You can deny the reality principle, but it won’t deny you. It will always catch up.