Guest post: London Jewish Book Week 2012 – the sane left and Israel

This is a guest post by Brian Goldfarb, a frequent commenter on this blog. I felt his report of London Jewish Book Week was very important in order to shine a light on the sane left (as opposed to the rabidly extreme anti-Israel left) and to show us that support for Israel emanates from all points of the political spectrum.

 

London Jewish Book Week

London Jewish Book Week

There was much to enjoy at this year’s Book Week, as there always is. However, the highlights for me were the sessions involving Colin (“Israel & The European Left”) Shindler (reviewed at the JC) & Nick (“You Can’t Read This Book”) Cohen (reviewed at Standpoint Magazine); Jeffrey Goldberg (of “The Atlantic” magazine), chaired by Robin Lustig (those of you either living in the UK and/or listening to the BBC World Service will know of him); Jeremy Ben-Ami (of J-Street), chaired by Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian (what’s a nice Jewish boy like him doing still working for that paper?); and Deborah Lipstadt on her new book “The Eichmann Trial”, chaired by Anthony Julius. We did go to other things, such as Umberto Eco on his new novel “The Prague Cemetery”, and that will be worth a word or two later.


However, to those first three, first. Goldberg wasn’t pushing a book (but I have now got The Atlantic on my document list, so that’s a win for him), but was looking more generally at the situation in the Middle East. Indeed, his session was called “Israel After the Arab Spring”, which gave him the opening for the obvious line: “Ah, the ‘is this good for the Jews’ question”.  Given the title, we got what we expected: a “tour d’horizon” of the Arab Spring and the possible effects on Israel. Broadly, little likelihood of change for the better on Israel’s borders, even a worsening, with Egypt being subject, in the short term at least, to a Moslem Brotherhood dominated government. Goldberg made the point that whatever else it wanted to do, the next Egyptian government (and the army hasn’t given up power yet) has an enormous political/economic problem to solve: with tourism going through the floor and no oil to speak of, how does Egypt grow its economy to provide for the expanding population? 

This led to a brief exchange between Goldberg and Lustig, along the lines of whether we might see a “one man one vote, one government, one time” situation, when the Brotherhood (to say nothing of the Salafis to their right) finds that it can’t solve the economic problems and is going to lose power at the next election.  Will there be a next election? Goldberg didn’t draw any comfort, either, from the change of emphasis of Hamas, in moving its HQ from Damascus to Cairo. He noted that this was sensible, given the situation in Syria, but also that Hamas is, after all, the military wing of the Brotherhood, and has more in common with it, despite the military and financial patronage of Iran. 

It’s useful to note that he had written, according to Lustig, at the beginning of 2011, that we should expect an Israeli attack on Iran that Spring or, at the latest, summer. While acknowledging that he’d got that wrong, Goldberg reiterated the point, for 2012, adding that this might depend on whether Obama could convince Netanyahu that he (Obama) had just as much interest in not letting a nuclear-armed Iran loose on the world.

Later that day, we went off to hear Ben-Ami and Freedland. Ben-Ami has a book out: “A New Voice for Israel”, which is part biography/part story of J-Street. The biography is interesting (especially if you are an amateur psychologist, which I’m not – nor a professional one either): Ben-Ami’s father was a right-wing Zionist, a supporter of Jabotinsky, one of the group that built Tel Aviv, and attempted to smuggle people and arms into Israel, as a member of Irgun.  According to the father, Ben-Gurion refused to support Irgun’s efforts to get people out of Europe and into Palestine during the 1930s (this, of course, is not supported by the work of academics such as Dina Porat of the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, based at Tel Aviv University and author of “Israeli Society, the Holocaust and its Survivors”). Further, the father was on the Altalena. Need I say more? Except that the son is on the left of the debate.

The other part, of course, is all about J-Street and why, in Ben-Ami’s view, it is needed. He claimed that many of the organised Jewish lobby groups operate, effectively, on the ‘right’ of the argument. He (and therefore J-Street) takes the two-state, Green Line (give or take necessary land swaps) position, and claims that this isn’t pursued vigorously enough by these other groups, so that Congressional representatives get the wrong view of what might be on offer. Of course, in Israel, this isn’t such a weird stance, although, of course, it’s only one of many there. He also defended J-Street’s right to criticise Israeli Government policies, while staunchly defending Israel’s right to exist. That is, he was arguing that it does Israel (or world Jewry) no favours by adopting an “Israel right or wrong” position. 

I suspect that whatever he’d said (other than adopting exactly the position he rejected in the last sentence), he’d have been unpopular with some. After the talk, while queueing to have his book signed, I heard a young woman, who I judged to be an Israeli from her accented English, being persuaded to let Ben-Ami finish the book signing before approaching him. Given that she was muttering that “he should join the PLO”, I don’t think that she was a fan of his or J-Street’s. I did suggest to a representative of the sponsors that they try to police such a meeting, otherwise it might come to blows. Clearly, not everyone is in favour of free speech!

Later still (it was a very busy day), I went to the Shindler/Cohen session, and very instructive it was too, especially for those of us on the pro-Israel Left. I can’t review the book in the conventional way, because it’s on my ebook reader, and that makes it virtually impossible to flit backwards and forwards, as one must in order to review it. So, you’ll have to accept a skimming of the themes. Shindler made it very clear that by “the Left” he means the Marxist left, as developed by Lenin, Stalin and their successors (and Trotsky isn’t immune from this process, either).  Although Lenin was prepared to treat with the Moslems of Asia, in seeking allies, he was not prepared to countenance the continuation of nationalism; it was the Moslem proletariat he was seeking to recruit for world revolution. 

This anti-nationalism extended to Russia’s Jews, and presented an acute dilemma for them. Many were in favour of more equal society, from which Jews, severely disadvantaged as a group, could not but benefit. This the Bolsheviks promised to deliver, but at a price: the renunciation of their Jewish identity. To many, this was a price well worth paying, and they readily discarded their Jewish identities, along with their “Jewish” names, despite the creation of Jewish organisations to represent those who persisted in retaining their “national” identity. However, this latter phase didn’t last, and over time, the Jewish organisations were, slowly but surely, wound up, and Zionism became a thought-crime (those to whom such a phrase is strange need to read Orwell’s “1984”).  Stalin’s antisemitism only made matters worse: many of the victims of Stalin’s show trials who were Jewish by origin were tried under their original but now discarded “Jewish” names, as though this was part of their offence. 

What it comes down to is that Shindler is arguing that the problem the Left has with Israel and Jews has nothing, or very little, to do with Israel or Jews or anything they’ve done and everything to do with this Marxist-Leninist background. The problem persists after the demise of Communism because of the far left background of those in this category and their wholesale swallowing of the Leninist and Stalinist line. This means that even those who still acknowledge their Jewish identity are forced by their ideology to adopt these positions, but their “as a Jew” formulations serve to justify both their own and others dismissal of the national rights of Jews (and, in an imperfect world, only Jews). 

It’s important to note that Shindler comes from a working-class background in Hackney, East London, and was never further left than the “normal” Labour Party. Among his views are that nothing that Israel has done (other than “be”), including the aftermath of the 6-Day War, has done anything other than enhance already existing attitudes on the far left. I’d love to show you the cover of Shindler’s book – it is instructive as to the contents – but you can probably see it on Amazon or in the bookshop.

There’s nothing I need to add about Nick Cohen’s latest book, “You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom” except to urge you to buy and read it. Thanks to him, I have uploaded and have read Milton’s “Areopagitica: A speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England” (a snappy title) and am reading J.S. Mill’s “On Liberty”, an essay on freedom of speech and thought, both free in e-book form.  

We also went, the previous Sunday, to Deborah Lipstadt’s talk on her latest book “The Eichmann Trial”. The book is interesting on the trial, but I was more interested in her reminiscence about the Irving Trial (especially given that her lawyer, Anthony Julius was the chair for her session) – for which the transcript of the Eichmann Trial was provided by the Israelis – and her view of Hannah Arendt’s book on the trial: “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, about which Lipstadt is quite critical.
Finally, Umberto Eco and his new book The Prague Cemetery. He insisted, at his session (chaired by David Aaronovitch, author of “Voodoo Histories”, on conspiracy theory), that all the characters in his latest novel are all real bar one. The exception is the central character’s grandfather, about whom no records exist except “the letter” (read the book to understand this cryptic comment), and for whom Eco had to invent a back story. Essentially, the novel is about the man who created “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and it wasn’t some grubby member of the Tsarist Okharana, but Captain Simonini a compulsive and successful 19th Century forger. You’ve never heard of him? As Cohen says in the introduction to his latest, “you can either be a famous forger or a successful one. You can’t be both.”

However, Simonini provided the information to one Joly, who printed a book, in French, in Geneva in 1864, but about the Masons. I’ve even held a photocopy of a legal agreement between a Times of London foreign correspondent, Philip Graves, and one Michel S. Raslovleff, an exiled White Russian, for a loan to the latter in exchange for a copy of the book mentioned above. This led to The Times declaring The Protocols a fabrication in 1921. Not that anyone took any notice. It was only much later that Simonini sold the same forged information to a Russian, only this time, it was about Jews. To make matters worse, Simonini apparently never met a Jew in his life.

So, it was a good week, and you should go and read these books as well as taking a look at Jeffrey Goldberg’s work, if you don’t already know it.

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9 Responses to Guest post: London Jewish Book Week 2012 – the sane left and Israel

  1. Andrea says:

    This post has so many thinghs that would deserve to be discussed. Unfortunately it would take tons of pages to better understand two points I am particulary interested in : the first is how the identity of Jews was perceived by socialist left ( including socialist Jews) over the years and the second is how right wing Zionist overshadowed Social democrat Zionist positions ( in spite of fact yhat it seems tha majority of Jews in Europe and in USA look like being more centre left oriented even if less than in the pasts ).
    Well, I haven’t got any idea about the way to approach these two honestly but I trust that inspiration from this article will help me in the future.
    Just trying to collect some ideas I think that most of left’s attitude toward Jews has been partially conditioned also by same Socialist Jews thoughts. Most of Jews who embraced the Socialist cause over the last two centuries were maybe looking for a new concept of Jewishness in strong contrast with traditional religious values on one side and integration of Jews in the capitalistic system on the other side. On this score the very important ( but easily misunderstood) pages written by Marx in his “Judenfrage” and positions of a movement like Ha -Shomer ha Tzair can help to understand the effort of building a new kind of Jews even at the hardest price of loosing what was always considered essential part of jewish identity over the centuries. The day it was clear that a new kind of Jew was not so easy to come ( like a new kind of socialist human being ), disappointment and resentment against traditional Jews and Jews integrated in capitalist system resulted in something similar to a left mirrored sort of antisemitism. To make it simple – maybe too simple – as if socialism failure was attributed not to Socialism itself but to people’s inherent vices in the same way if Israel resulted so different from its original Socialist ideals and Jews became more “bourgeois” than ever, this was considered due to selfishness of jewish middle and upper class. All this is still true in some leftist minds who always prceived Socialism like a new form of human religion replacing Judaism and religion of market. ( free from religion of G-d and religion of Gold it was said by paraphrasing Marx ).

    Since I have written so much I will leave my considerations on the fact that right wing Zionist overhelmed progressive Zionist .
    Anyway thank you for this article

    • Brian Goldfarb says:

      Andrea, I’ll try to answer the question. The Jews of Eastern Europe (and especially, in the light of Communism, Russia) were mostly dirt poor, with some slightly better off. But, and it’s a huge but, a high proportion of the men and many women were literate at least in Hebrew (for liturgical purposes), with a fair number literate in the local language (to do trade) as well, often in Yiddish.

      This meant that given their economic position and also that they were subject to random violence from the local Christian population (the pogroms were often encouraged by the rulers to draw attention away from the general situation and the failure of the rulers to improve it), they wished for better things. They couldn’t be just fooled by the local rulers or religious leaders, they could read for themselves. So when the Communists came along promising better things, but only if they gave up their Jewish identity, for many, it seemed like a good deal.

      All this comes from the Shindler book discussed in the original post.

      However, the price to be paid was that all Jews were to be treated just like everybody: no national identity for anyone. Of course, most Jews weren’t prepared to buy this package: they didn’t believe that it would make any difference to the way they were treated. And they were right. Notice how many non-Jewish Jews were killed by Stalin under their “old” names in the Show Trials. But those who “kept the faith” (and we can include people like Yigal Gkuckstein (a Palestinian Jew who became Tony Cliff and founded what became the Socialist Workers Party in the UK) had to follow the Marxist/Stalinist line and deny nationalism for anyone. This meant and means denouncing Israel not only for existing but for their “persecution” of the Palestinians.

      And of course those who act in this manner “as a Jew” justify others in their anti-Zionism (when I’m being polite) and their antisemitism (when I’m not feeling polite).

      Hope this helps.

  2. Andrea says:

    Brian, thank you for your very clear answer, very helpful actually. Jewish experience in my country followed a similar path with two different exceptions which were represented by strong identification with struggle for independence of the country were they lived ( which Jews strongly contributed to – in spite of their very tiny number ) and Fascism ( originally supported by many high class and middle class Jews, before resulting in ideological alliance with Nazism ). A considerable number of intellectual Jews founded and animated the Italian Socialist Party but most of Jews stayed close to Liberal party ( I mean Liberal in the European acception of the term ). The strong identification and sharing of interests with Italian middle class were the basis of a long term loyalty toward centre right political party. Incidentally such loyalty was not greatly compensated during the Fascism but this is a pretty complicated story.
    Communism and not Jewish Jews was more than a controversial relationship I suspect. The enthusiasm expressed by important and often valid Jewish intellighenzia toward Marxism always looked to me like a sort of religious conversion. I hope to use the right words but ideological and anthropological impact and fascination that Communism had on many people ( Jews and Gentles as well ) was something extremily similar to the impact that only a religion ( even an Atheist one ) can have on the mankind. Communism was a religion, with its church its infallibility and its messianism. Communist Jews who had very strong influence on Communism -( maybe the founders fathers and mothers like Marx, Trotzsky, Bernestein, Rosa Luxembourg and many others ) expressed the most atheist definition of messianism.
    By exaggerating we could say that impact on some not Jewish Jews was the same as a messanic heresy ( the last jewish and gnostic heresy ) with promise of changing the man kind forever – this maybe explains how it is difficult for Marxist to come back to Judaism and accept Israel like it is now.
    I hope to meet you very soon on these pages Brian and thank you again ( and Anne as well of course )

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