Book Review: Shindler, Israel and the European Left

It is easy to forget nowadays, with Zionism being the bête noire of Left-leaning activists worldwide, that the Jewish state was once seen by the Left as a progressive democracy and a just response to the plight of European Jews after the Holocaust. The generally accepted analysis traces this shift in attitude to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza following the Six Days War, which signalled a drastic change in Israeli policy. While radical critics of Zionism disagree and argue that Israel was unjust from its inception, Shindler’s book challenges the common explanation from the opposite angle. While Israeli policies have definitely played a part, it argues, they have not caused the attitude of the Left, but only enhanced previous anti-Zionist tendencies. To affirm this thesis, the book traces the intricate relationship between the radical Left in Europe and Zionism in a historical analysis spanning from the 19th century to the BDS movement. Marxism-Leninism, as is emphasised throughout this narrative, has always been politically cynical in its approach towards Jews in general and Zionism in particular. It often sacrificed the particular interest of its Jewish adherents to the greater goal of world revolution. While the ‘double legacy’ of the Holocaust has kept some of the older intellectual Left in the pro-Israeli camp (e.g., Sartre), postcolonial Leftists were more inclined to ignore the complexities of the new political situation in the Middle East and fully embrace the Palestinian cause.

The book is clearly written, and much of the historical resources analysed are interesting and thought-provoking.   It is fascinating to see, for example, the degree to which early debates over Zionism differ from contemporary ones only by substituting ‘America’ for ‘The British Empire’. The author covers an extensive range of subjects and political movements, from the different variants of Zionism, the Bund and Israeli political parties to socialist and communist movements in Europe, though the focus is clearly more on the CPGB. The overall thesis, unfortunately, is less convincing. In particular, the controversial claim that a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians will ‘deprive some of the fat Left of the ability to utilize a situation abroad to serve the cause of revolutionary change at home’ (p. 278) requires, to the very least, more evidence than is provided in the book. It is also not clear why one cannot claim that Israeli policy in the last 40 years has changed dramatically to cause the attitude shift in the European Left. Nevertheless, the book remains a valuable resource to readers interested in the complex relationship between the Jewish state and the Left, both as an historical account and as a commentary on current affairs.

Colin Shindler (2012) Israel and the European Left: Between Solidarity and Delegitimization. London: Continuum. 308pp, £17.99, ISBN 978 1 4411 5013 4

(The definitive version of this review was published in Political Studies Review 11(2), 2013, and is available at


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