One of the most remarkable reversals in American culture in my lifetime has been the transformation of anti-Semitism into a predominantly left-wing phenomenon. Historian Robert S. Wistrich has just published From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel, a very substantial work that puts this development in the context of global leftism and the history of its leading thinkers and politicians, and makes it clear that Left anti-Semitism in itself is hardly new. The later chapters cast interesting light on how the Left, in its current self-described stance of “anti-Zionism,” is actually abandoning some of its older, and better, principles. Writes Wistrich:
The Zionist movement, far from being oriented to the ideology of “race,” arose as a direct response to the racist anti-Semitism created by reactionary forces in European, and later in Middle Eastern societies. It was external anti-Semitic pressure, analogous to foreign domination over other oppressed peoples, which became a major factor in obliging Jews to seek their own path towards auto-emancipation. . . . Moreover, [Zionism became] the first successful anti-colonial liberation struggle in the Middle East. . . .
The Zionist movement between 1945 and 1948 had to fight against the full might of the British Empire. . . . Contrary to the prevailing left-wing mythology about Israel’s creation being a Western Zionist-imperialist conspiracy, official American support for Israel was comparatively lukewarm. . . . For the crucial first 20 years of its existence, the United States scarcely considered Israel as an important ally and its material interests in the Arab world were infinitely greater.
The collective amnesia of the Left in this regard is especially striking since in the late 1940s, most Communists and socialists in the West enthusiastically hailed the “anti-colonialist” nature of the Israeli war of independence. Indeed they followed the USSR in strongly supporting the establishment of Israel as a blow against “Anglo-American domination of the Middle East.” . . .
What today is eulogized as the Palestinian “struggle against Zionism” was considered by most Communists or Socialists in 1948 as utterly reactionary.
The current opposition to Israel is usually distinguished, as “anti-Zionism,” from the phenomenon of “anti-Semitism” as traditionally understood. But the unprincipled nature of the reversal Wistrich describes — in which what was once portrayed as a heroic national-liberation movement is transformed into a colonial power-grab — suggests that this distinction may not be as helpful as it looks. I am far from suggesting that all criticism of the policies of the state of Israel is based on these (or other) low motives; there is of course the same right to question Israel as there is to question any other country. But that’s the point: Why does Israel find itself on trial, so much more than other countries — countries that actually do have abysmal records on human rights? When the basic narrative of the legitimacy of the Israeli founding has changed so drastically, I think we have the right to question whether other agendas might be at work in a great deal of the criticisms: agendas of political opportunism, and sometimes even of anti-Semitism on the classical model. If it was okay to support Israel back when it was seen as an anti-colonial effort, why must Israel be viewed as a fundamentally immoral enterprise now that it is a strong U.S. ally?
Most of Wistrich’s book is devoted to the history of the Left prior to the founding of the state of Israel, but the issues it raises will be with us for the foreseeable future.