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  • The Lions' Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky by Susie Linfield
  • Jack Jacobs (bio)
The Lions' Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, by Susie Linfield. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019. 389 pages. $32.50.

In The Lions' Den, a study of Zionism, Israel, and the Left, Susie Linfield, who teaches cultural journalism at New York University, explores relevant components of the ideas of eight prominent 20th century writers—Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Maxime Rodinson, Isaac Deutscher, Albert Memmi, Fred Halliday, I. F. Stone, and Noam Chomsky. Linfield describes the backgrounds and upbringing of each of her subjects, the works they discussed Israel or Zionism in, and changes in their positions over time.

Her thesis is that changing attitudes toward Israel on the Left can be attributed to "the transformation of the Left itself" (p. 4). The Left, as Linfield sees it, had, in an earlier part of the 20th century, defined itself first and foremost as anti-fascist but began, in the second half of that century, to characterize itself as, above all, anti-imperialist. This shift within the Left, according to Linfield, helps to explain the increasingly strong criticism of Israel on the Left in recent decades.

Linfield makes her political perspective quite clear. She is a Zionist, and asserts that "the goal of the Zionist movement was to generate a thoroughgoing cultural revolution and build a new Hebrew democracy" (p. 305). She is also a sharp critic of the occupation, [End Page 684] and of Israel's settlement policy, but is a critic who rejects both the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) and one-state solution proposals to the on-going conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Linfield engages knowledgably and passionately with the ideas of those she has written about, and regularly provides insightful and original—often piercing—critiques of those positions she disagrees with.

Linfield asserts that the figures she has focused on are all leftists, noting that her "definition of the Left is ecumenical: It includes anti-fascists and anti-colonialists, social democrats, Marxists of the Old Left, anti-imperialists of the New Left, avatars of Third World revolution, and the more recent term 'progressives'" (p. 4). Even with this broad definition of the Left in mind, however, some of Linfield's choices are open to question. Arendt was certainly an important 20th century intellectual—but consistently denied that she was a leftist. Linfield is well aware that this was the case: "Arendt was not a Marxist or a socialist, and she did not consider herself part of the Left" (p. 49). Given Arendt's self-understanding, ought Linfield not have provided a stronger justification for including Arendt in this volume?

The case of Arthur Koestler is very different but ultimately raises a similar question. Koestler was a member of the Communist Party of Germany in the 1930s. In later decades he broke very firmly from the Left. However, Linfield attempts to create links between Koestler's late positions on Jewish affairs and the positions of Marxists of earlier eras. She writes that "[a] long line of Marxist thinkers regarded the Jewish people as a reactionary … anachronism who should and would disappear with the victory of the world revolution … Koestler came to regard Communism as worse than Nazism, yet he echoed these revolutionary Left theorists" (pp. 109–10). Assimilationist views were common in the first years of the 20th century, not only on the Left but also on other points on the political spectrum. Are Koestler's positions in the era after the creation of the State of Israel really relevant to a study that focuses on changing Leftist attitudes toward Israel from the 1950s onward?

Linfield mentions the New Left, in pass ing, at a number of points in her text. In describing positions of Fred Halliday, a figure that Linfield is notably sympathetic to, Linfield claims, without comment, that Halliday "noted that denial of Israelis' right to statehood was so fundamental to the New Left that the assumption didn't need to even be articulated, much less argued" (p. 317). At other points in her book, Linfield suggests that she...


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