The Jews, Israel and the left
May 11, 2012 | Henry Srebrnik
Though the topic was billed as Jews and the left, the conference held at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York earlier this month became most contentious when the 240 participants, from as far away as Chile, Israel and Lithuania, dealt with the animosity towards Israel on the part of the left worldwide.
Among the most heated arguments was the one between two political scientists, Yoav Peled of Tel Aviv University and Mitchell Cohen of Baruch College in New York.
Peled argued that the Zionist enterprise in Palestine fit the “colonialist thesis,” albeit it was an unusual case, because it did not have a “mother country” to support it. Great Britain, although committed by the Balfour Declaration to Jewish settlement in Palestine, soon proved an unreliable ally.
Still, asserted Peled, Jewish projects in the country after 1920 marginalized and impoverished the Palestinian Arab peasantry, as Jews bought up land from absentee landlords during the Mandatory period, and directly expropriated Arab land after 1948. Also, many institutions such as the kibbutz refused to employ Arab labour.
Peled was taken to task by Cohen when the Israeli academic maintained that the 1967 Six Day War was not a defensive one but one initiated by Israel. Cohen challenged this statement, referring to Egypt’s massing of troops in Sinai and closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.
Cohen also asserted that parts of the left “have swallowed anti-Zionism” and have “a Zionist problem.” Many see Hamas and Hezbollah as part of the “progressive movements” in the world. There is now an overlap between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, as more and more antisemitic motifs appear in the left’s critique of Israel.
Professor Ronald Radosh, author of a book on Harry Truman and the founding of Israel, concurred. The current left-wing delegitimization of Israel is, he remarked, the new “antisemitism of fools.”
The left’s attacks on Israel (and on the United States) also stem from their antipathy to globalization and western hegemony, remarked Moishe Postone, professor of modern European history at the University of Chicago, in his presentation. So, in Europe, the anti-globalist left now sees Israel as a centre of global evil.
The conference also dealt with Jews in both the old and new lefts of the 20th century, and the role of Jewish women in these movements. Among the distinguished speakers were Harvey Klehr of Emory University, Antony Polonsky of Brandeis, Riv-Ellen Prell of the University of Minnesota, Paul Berman of New York University, Alice Kessler-Harris of Columbia, and Michael Walzer of Princeton.
The final keynote address was delivered by Ezra Mendelsohn, the distinguished scholar from the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University.
He found it ironic that people on the left in the 1950s had believed that socialism had helped create Israel. “The kibbutzim and the Histadrut were thriving. Productive people were not exploiting others. The Arab minority was considered inconsequential.”
Yet now Israel is cast by the left as a nationalistic oppressor.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.