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.