There are two types of problematical reaction from two different audiences when confronted with information like the history presented in Robert Wistrich’s From Ambivalence to Betrayal.
The first reaction comes from those whose political disposition is liberal or otherwise left-leaning who might acknowledge this history but relegate it to the past or to a non-mainstream fringe that has little to nothing to do with them.
For those who primarily label themselves “liberal” or “progressive,” this is a problem for “The Left.” And for Israel supporters who consider themselves “Of the Left,” the history outlined in Wistrich’s book is something you might encounter on the “Far Left,” a marginal group that they claim no one listens to or cares about.
Paired with these attitude is the suspicion that attempts to brand liberals and Leftists as anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic is really just a tactic of the real enemy of the Left: the Right (or, more frequently, the “Far Right”) which is just interested in cherry picking facts and stories from the darker side of the Leftist political tradition in order to smear progressives in front of Jewish and non-Jewish Israel-supporting audiences.
This suspicion is nurtured by genuine anti-Israel Leftists who insist that anyone who not doesn’t hew to their agenda is not just a “Progressive for Everything but Palestine” (i.e., a traitor to Progressive values), but probably a closet conservative/reactionary/Republican/Likudnik just posing as a liberal in order to make “true liberals” like themselves look bad (claims which basically accuse liberal critics of the Israel bashers as being not just hypocrites, but liars and frauds).
But while we can dismiss the self-serving positioning of the Israel haters, we cannot pretend that conservatives do not try to draw political advantage by portraying anti-Israel opinion within the Left as being more widespread than it actually is. And then there is the phenomenon of lifelong liberals who justifiably lash out against anti-Jewish attitudes within their own tradition who, unable to get genuine Israel-haters to respond to their accusations, turn their wrath on more moderate liberal voices that should be seen as friends, rather than foes.
So where to begin to untangle such a mess of accusation, divisiveness and suspicion and is there a solution that can lead to genuine understanding (not to mention constructive interaction leading to successful action)?
Well first off, we need to acknowledge that diminishing suspicion between Left and Right involves coming to grips with the Left-Right paradigm that defines (and, in my opinion) over-defines nearly every aspect of our political discourse. I say “coming to grips with” vs. “eliminating” since it’s unrealistic to expect a framework so widespread to be put aside after nearly two-and-a-half centuries of use. Especially since this Left-Right framework is useful, providing as it does a meaningful way to fit positions on a range of political subjects into a belief system imbued with important human values.
But while acknowledging that the Left-Right axis we use is meaningful, we need to avoid shaping every issue in a way that focuses entirely on our most extreme differences, especially with regard to subjects containing large areas of agreement (such as support for Israel).
And even with this even-handed backdrop, I need to point out that those embracing a left-leaning worldview have the most heavy lifting to do since, for better or for worse, it is their tradition that is being co-opted and corrupted by ruthless totalitarians.
Claiming that Wistrich’s history of ambivalence and hostility towards the Jews and their state is part of the Left’s DNA (and thus unchangeable) is both inaccurate and unfair. But denying that it has been part of the Left’s tradition since the birth of that tradition would be equally inaccurate. And denying its relevance to the current debate (or relegating it to a marginal fringe) is not going to stop the totalitarians from continuing to use the language of the Left to continue to attack the Jewish state on the way to their real goal: The dictatorship of themselves.
These would-be totalitarians have their heroes and stories (the revolutionists of yore who used the language of progress to pave the way for their own total rule) which propels their world view and dictates their actions (which explains why they can ignore their own illiberal behavior and allies, since such questioning is of no concern to a revolutionary vanguard whose only goal is power).
But Progressive Zionists have their own heroes and stories to turn to: including those courageous liberals who stood against Communism, even while being accused of hypocrisy, class treason and every other imaginable crime. And then there are the founders of the Jewish state itself who were as much creatures of the labor movement as they were committed Jews and Zionists, commitments that provided them the faith and courage to overcome enemies far more ruthless than the lame, faux-liberal BDSers we confront today.
And as the many liberal Zionists it has been my pleasure to work with (and the many more I have never met) come to this understanding and fight this fight, it is the obligation of those not holding a liberal world view to distinguish friend from foe and support progressive allies (or, at least not denigrate them), in their fight for the soul of the Left. For it is the huge overlap between Left and Right with regard to belief in and support of the Jewish state that defines our strength, not the shrill and self-serving arguments of those who fall outside this consensus.
And to give us all some perspective (and perhaps an ounce of humility); consider other traditions that have historically grappled with their own relationship to Jews, Judaism and – most recently – Zionism. Christianity, for example, is now split between growing Evangelical churches whose devotion to Israel is second only to that of American Jews and dying Mainline Protestantism (Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.) who maintain – at best – an ambivalent attitude towards the Jewish state which frequently descends into hostility (although not yet outright betrayal).
Or look at America’s mainstream conservatives dedicated to Israel’s safety, security and success who can win at the ballot box vs. the “Blame Israel First” Buchannanist Right that can barely manage to maintain itself as a cult of personality.
And even within the Progressive tradition, who would you rather associate with: the Israel-loving American industrial Labor movement that gave us safety and fair wages for workers (not to mention the weekend) or the self-righteous, ends-justify-the-means tradition represented today by pro-BDS “Leftists” which has spent much of the last two centuries delivering nothing but tyranny, death and despair?