In her new book, The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky, Susie Linfield provides a stunningly cogent account of how Jewish nationalism has troubled leftist thought from the foundation of Israel until today. Like The Cruel Radiance, Linfield’s earlier book on photography and politics, The Lions’ Den is compulsively readable and nearly always persuasive ... Just as when Memmi wrote, the left’s Jewish problem looks depressingly inevitable, and intractable.
[This book] is...something more original, more interesting and probably more important than a standard intellectual history would have been ... The six overlapping profiles...tell such an intriguing story ... [Linfield's] writing combines the storytelling of a journalist with a scholar’s analysis of ideas. She repeatedly jumps in and argues with her subjects, point by point, giving each chapter the feel at times of a 'Meet the Press'-type interview occurring across time. If the book has one problem it’s Linfield’s inability to recognize the significance of the document that she herself has produced. She tries to present it, particularly in her tacked-on introduction and conclusion, as foreshadowing and illuminating the tragic deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. To be blunt, it doesn’t work.
In fact, its success is in foreshadowing and illuminating a different conflict that has been simmering under the surface for a decade and has exploded into the headlines just in the early months of this year. The Lions’ Den illustrates the individual struggles of Jewish leftists in the World War II generation to reconcile their conflicting impulses, the particularist pull of Zionism and the universalist pull of socialism ... Unexpectedly, her book appears just as its stories and lessons become urgent.
Linfield offers detailed, often probing readings of how her subjects adjusted their analyses and ideologies to the complex and ever-shifting political terrain of Israel-Palestine. Yet the cumulative effect is to call into question her overarching claim. Rather than elucidate the reasons the left and Zionism suddenly parted ways, her profiles reveal the tensions that have long existed between Zionism’s exclusionary nationalism and the left’s egalitarianism and internationalism ... Cloaking false equivalences and ideology in the language of realism has long been a hallmark of liberal Zionist argument ... Linfield wants to position herself among those brave realists who are willing to criticize both sides in equal measure and are equally committed to a two-state solution. Yet in doing so, she demonstrates precisely what she finds objectionable in her subjects ... Linfield charts [Arthur] Koestler’s 'Damascene-like reversals' with sensitivity and skill ... The chapter on I.F. Stone, the intrepid American journalist, is another of Linfield’s strongest profiles ... Her chapter on Noam Chomsky—who perhaps more than any other American left-wing intellectual has come to represent the New Left’s legacy of anti-imperialism—is the most unduly vicious one in the book ... Linfield has created an anthology of sorts for a new generation of Jews looking to understand how those who came before them criticized Israel, the occupation, and Zionism. They will find much to argue with in The Lions’ Den. But they will also, if they read carefully, learn a lot from it.
Susie Linfield's new intellectual history...is a fascinating examination of the attitudes of a series of Jewish figures identified with the left on the question of Zionism and Israel. Linfield defines herself as a liberal, and thus The Lions’ Den might be best understood as a liberal critique of leftist perspectives on this question ... Throughout the book, Linfield employs a notion of 'realism' that is never adequately explained, even as the purported threat of an ideological war against realism serves as the book’s centerpiece ... One can only infer that Linfield is referring not to realism in a developed philosophical sense, but rather to a version of what one might call common-sense realism, which involves presuming that certain empirical observations about the world are obvious and incontestable. The problem with this kind of realism is that it’s a subjective category disguised as an objective one ... the eight case studies in The Lions’ Den represent not so much a rigorous accounting of the left’s critique of Zionism and Israel, but a scorecard of how much each figure fails or succeeds in apprehending the “real,” which amounts to no more than Linfield’s own liberal view of the situation in Israel/Palestine combined with her vision of gradualism as the only solution. Arguing in this way allows Linfield to avoid actually engaging with the thinkers she critiques, making her own ideology the primary measure by which to weigh the subjects’ commitments to theirs. The book suffers greatly from this facile acceptance of her version of the 'real,' which asserts its self-evidence without ever arguing for its accuracy.
No fully satisfying explanation for contemporary leftist anti-Zionism emerges from The Lions' Den, except perhaps in the book's demonstration that the left never supported Israel. Not really, not down in its bones ... Susie Linfield looks...for ways to remain a leftist while being generally pro-Israel—and, presumably, a leftist while not falling into the anti-Semitism that follows all too often from criticism of Israel. It's a dream and a delusion, a false light leading only deeper into the swamp, readers will conclude as they reach the end of The Lion's Den.
Linfield clearly finds the represented authors fascinating, and so offering a book on Zionism in the middle of a conflicted series of Israeli political scandals is a great way of trying to connect her own personal obsessions, which she indulges in writing the book, with a larger political issue. How she frames that issue is confused at times, it is based around her notions of what a 'correct' position would be for the Left, one many anti-Zionists (but not all of Israel’s critics) she believes have abandoned. In doing so she claims to search for a Left universalism, but fails to show how that universalism would somehow immune Israel from the harsh denunciations it regularly receives from Left social movements ... The book is thus a complicated and well written polemic about the fractious way the Left has dealt with Israel. The hope for Linfield is that she will find an audience for such a narrow study by connecting it to the larger debates on Zionism (it worked on me, to a degree), but I do wonder if there is actually an audience enough for a book like this. All the represented authors besides Noam Chomsky and Hannah Arendt will be completely unknown to most readers ... Besides being a book that is ostensibly about the Left and Zionism, you learn very little about how the Left actually sees Zionism ... Linfield’s study suffers from the narrowness of its scope. The authors she studies are, largely, of the Old Left, so not representative of the shift Linfield hopes to analyze ... The absolute lack of a Palestinian perspective is glaring from the volume, where casually insulting characterizations of Arab politics are dotted throughout ... All of this should not ignore that Linfield actually weaves the stories and analysis masterfully; the writing is clear, arguments clear, and it is an enjoyable read throughout ... It is doubtful that the book will change any minds (it even hardened my own against the viability of the two-state solution Linfield argues for), but a difference of opinion may be less important in this situation than the ability to see three dimensions.
An astute study of how the political cauldron of the Middle East has generated fierce responses from the left ... In a series of linked, deftly delineated portraits, the author reveals fraught debate ... Besides presenting an unusually clear and informed history of the Arab-Israeli struggle, the author throws a glaring light on the perils of fanaticism and insularity. A significant contribution to contemporary political discourse.