In 1950, The Weavers released “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” the first and only Hebrew-language song to top the charts in America. Encouraging girls to leave the farm and greet returning soldiers, the lyrics recall the agrarianism and honest poverty of Israel’s youth. An affecting if verklempt ditty, “Tzena” matters most because of the people who sang it. The Weavers—Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger—were the Lewis and Clark of the early 1960s folk music revival, surveying territory Peter, Paul, and Mary, The Byrds, and pre-electric Bob Dylan would roam. The band broke up in 1955, the victim of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the blacklist. Seeger, later to become the big macher of the folkies, had been a card-carrying communist. The other three had been fellow travelers. Progressive troubadours, they were enamored with Israel, including in their repertoire several other Hebrew tunes.
Now lost in the Billy Bragg agit-prop, Israel was once a revelation to the left. And with good reason. The settlers of the Second Aliyah were socialists, and they transmuted the Mir, the Russian peasant’s communal farm and the intelligentsia’s idée fixe, to the kibbutz, the organizing unit of Jewish economic activity during the Mandate period. As independence approached, the Yishuv was so in the thrall of leftism that the State Department feared a Jewish state might come under Soviet tutelage.
A springtide of neoliberalism washed over Tel Aviv in the 1980s, tearing down the kibbutz from its status as a national symbol. The country has also grown more religious, with fully 30 percent of Israeli Jews identifying as Orthodox. And what liberal or leftist of good conscience could forget Israel’s occupation of the West Bank?
But it’s time to hear Israel’s side of the breakup story. By 1945, six million Jewish bodies had been burned to ashes or tossed into mass graves. 250,000 survivors clamored to leave behind the bloodlands for Palestine. The British, fearing Arab recriminations, moved to block large-scale immigration. That led to memorable showdowns like the 1947 Exodus incident, in which Jews trying to enter the Mandate were detained off-coast and deported to Germany. British wantonness, added to the Nazi horrors, rendered the Jews perfect victims, intensifying the left’s ephemeral support for the establishment of a national home.
Though the left had historically protected the individual Jew in his rights as a citizen, it was highly antagonistic toward the Jew as a member of a distinct collectivity. In “On the Jewish Question,” Marx posits that Judaism, in its practical sense, is the worship of money, and that true freedom requires the emancipation of society from “Judaism.” After his overtures toward Israel were rejected, Stalin drew on (and distorted) Marxist criticism in a campaign against Soviet Jewry. Orchestrating the murders of prominent intellectuals and suppressing Yiddish culture, he alleged the Jews were Zionist agents, the servants of a bourgeois nationalist movement opposed to communist internationalism. His brand of anti-Semitism outlived him, creating a propaganda machine that linked Zionism with racism and cast the Israelis as Nazis.
Imperative to the liberal-left turn against Israel was the bloc’s fetishization of victimhood. The man of the left enlisted himself in the defense of the marginalized and unfairly maligned. But weakness came to be thought the sole qualifier of victimhood. Often constructed where it did not exist, victimhood was invested with moral uprightness; the “victim,” deprived of agency, was freed from scrutiny. Inversely, the powers-that-be were believed immeasurably evil, earning the left’s un-abating scorn. Documented in the work of New York Intellectuals Leslie Fiedler and Robert Warshow, this phenomenon was on full exhibition in the Rosenberg case.
After Israel romped in the Six-Day War, capturing the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula, it was no longer the victim. The Jewish state was a regional power. This presented a challenge to the leftist Weltanschauung.
Fortunately for the left, the non-aligned countries of the Third World and Middle East were then making common cause against the West and vestiges of imperial control at the United Nations. The Palestine Liberation Organization, aided by post-modernism, deftly assimilated itself into such a narrative; Palestinians were the righteous victims of the militant, colonial Israeli juggernaut. Soviet dreck, once confined to the Iron Curtain schmattes, found expression at the U.N. in 1975, as the General Assembly passed an Arab-sponsored resolution equating Zionism with racism.
That pathogen endures. Its initial reservoir of infection, the Soviet Union, was long ago eradicated, yet its means of transmission, the victimhood complex, remains intact. One need only think of “Israeli apartheid” and “pink-washing.” Or look at the folkies. A decade ago, Ronnie Gilbert joined Women In Black, an organization aiding Palestinian anti-occupation activism. Seeger recently endorsed Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel movement.
Daniel J. Solomon ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Matthews Hall. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter @danieljsolomon.