Review of From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel by Robert Wistrich

Review by Manfred Gerstenfeld

Historian Robert Wistrich, who holds the Neuberger Chair for Modern European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is the head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, publishes prolifically. His recent books include Lethal Obsession, which analyzes contemporary anti-Semitism in the broadest sense of the word1 and a book in German on Muslim anti-Semitism in which he identifies its similarities between with Nazi anti-Semitism.2

Wistrich’s newest book, From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel, is another tour de force of scholarship. Its beautifully crafted chapters stand as essays in their own right. The book provides a fascinating analysis of the evolution of the views of the extreme left and social democrats on what has become known as the “Jewish Question.”

Opening in the nineteenth century, Wistrich treats a long period. This breadth of view enables the reader to see left-wing anti-Semitic motifs that in recent decades have re-emerged in various permutations. For example, approximately one hundred years before the United Nations would adopt its infamous “Zionism is Racism” motion in 1975, Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of the German Social Democrats, branded Zionism as racist (308).


The last quarter of the book, upon which we will focus, deals with issues relating to the post-Second World War period. The Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky, about whom Wistrich published an earlier study, is described as the quintessential left-wing, self-hating Jew. Interestingly, Kreisky claimed that he experienced no anti-Semitism in his youth, a claim that seems highly improbable in view of the events in Austria during the pre-Second World War period.

Wistrich writes that Kreisky was, “the one Jew who could grant Gentile Austrians full exculpation from a latent sense of guilt over their prominent role in the Holocaust.” Kreisky did this in several ways. He ruthlessly attacked Simon Wiesenthal, whom he branded “a dangerous reactionary.” He also said “If the Jews are a people, then they are an ugly people.” (496) Kreisky was a pioneer in the slandering of Israel as a “semi-fascist” and “apartheid” state. In his view, Israel was “undemocratic,” “clerical” and “militarist.” (480)

Contemporary anti-Semites find a Kreisky-type Jew quite useful in insulating themselves from criticism, as they can point to Jews who share their opinions. Elhanan Yakira in his book Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust: Three Essays on Denial, Forgetting, and the Delegitimation of Israel, addressed a related issue. Post-Zionist Jews—in fact, anti-Zionist Jews—demonize Israel. In this way they become members of “an intellectual community of similar-minded distorters.” Yakira adds that, “The best way to advance internationally in academic circles is to be part of a system. One is then frequently invited abroad and gets published, even if one’s work has no significant substance.”3

The Kreisky-type approach does not always work well, even if one is a more extreme anti-Zionist. This is particularly true in the context of dictatorships. Rudolf Slansky, a former Czech Communist leader and a main figure in the Prague show trial of 1952, was accused there of “Zionism.” Wistrich notes that he “was a sworn enemy of Israel and the whole Zionist enterprise, who had blocked the sale of heavy weapons to the Jewish state after 1948.” There were other extreme anti-Zionists among the Jewish majority of the accused in the trial. They were forced to confess in classic Communist style that they were “bourgeois nationalist Jews.”(450)


The author, who was raised in England and has elsewhere dealt with the problem of English anti-Semitism,4 entitles one chapter “Great Britain: A Suitable Case for Treatment?” Wistrich regards anti-Semitism as deeply embedded in British culture, going back a millenium. He recalls how anti-Semitic Jews became “associated as much with Communism as with capitalism in the early Twentieth Century” (539). After the Second World War, Ernst Bevin, the Labor Party Foreign Secretary, was viewed by many in pre-Israel Palestine as Britain’s foremost anti-Semite.

Wistrich notes numerous contemporary sources of anti-Israel hate-mongering from the British Left. Among the newspapers, the liberal-left Guardian holds a prominent position. Wistrich recalls that it compared Israel’s military campaign in Jenin after the massive suicide bombing in an Israeli hotel, to September 11. The Guardian wrote that the Israeli action was “every bit as repellant in its particulars, no less distressing and every bit as man-made.” The paper added that the Jenin campaign “already has that aura of infamy that attaches to a crime of special notoriety.”(544)

A special place in the propagation of anti-Israel hatred is held by the state-owned BBC. Attorney Trevor Asserson has conducted a number of well-documented studies in which he details the BBC’s systematic bias against Israel. He found that “BBC news reports concerning Israel are distorted by omission, by inclusion, by only giving partial facts, by the selection of the interviewee and by the background information provided, or lack of it.”5


Wistrich’s chapter on the Marxist-Islamist alliance is tremendously topical. In 1954, Bernard Lewis wrote a seminal article on “what qualities, what tendencies exist in Islam, in Islamic civilization and society, which might either facilitate or impede the advance of Communism.”6 Lewis pointed out that Communist propaganda against the West could always rely on a positive response from the Muslim world when it attacked imperialism. There, Communism also found a source of sympathy due to the extreme juxtaposition of the poor masses and the few very wealthy people in Muslim countries. Lewis mentioned that the Communist doctrine of the state controlling economic life was not so alien to the world of Islam. He also stated that attempts to show that Islam and democracy are identical were based on “a misunderstanding of Islam or democracy, or both.”

Wistrich updates almost 60 years of developments on the nexus of Communism and the world of Islam. To that he adds the more recent collaboration between the extreme Left and radical Islamists. He quotes the Arab-Palestinian-Marxist terrorist leader George Habash, who stated that his wing of the PLO drew equally on Soviet and Iranian fundamentalist sources of inspiration. “Beyond ideology, we have in common anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli elements” (564).

Wistrich writes that many Shiites also share the Leninist principle that “whatever promotes the revolution is good and whatever opposes it is bad” (565). The Supreme Guide of the Iranian Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini was partly influenced by the Iranian Islamo-Marxist Al-Shariati, a theoretician of “Red Shiism.” Like the Nazis, the Communists saw Muslims as potential allies (566). Iraqi Baathism, according to Wistrich, combined “an eclectic mixture of Arab-nationalist, socialist, Nazi and Stalinist themes,” and found expression under Saddam Hussein (570).

Among the promoters of the leftist-radical Islamic alliance one finds such diverse figures as the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the British leader of the Respect Party, George Galloway, and the terrorist, Carlos. On the other side, Muslim philosopher Tarik Ramadan maintains links to the anti-globalist Left through his hostility to neo-liberal economics. He is supported by neo-Communists, Trotskyites, and Third World circles in France (579).

Yet Social Democrats also collaborated with jihadists. Both Kreisky and Willy Brandt received Arafat with full honors when they led the Socialist International. Wistrich writes, “This was the first time that Socialist leaders had so publicly legitimized the Palestinian jihad, as if it were really a secular, democratic enterprise.”(571) Spanish Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodrigues Zapatero stressed his solidarity with the Palestinian radicals by putting on a keffiah (581). Wistrich provides many examples of this type of collaboration.


Contemporary left-wing anti-Semitism is a serious problem that merits serious attention. One might begin with a treatment of anti-Israel hate-mongering in European trade unions in countries such as Great Britain, Ireland, Belgium, Norway and Denmark and the anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism of the Nordic countries. The double standard of many European Socialist parties toward Israel also demands investigation.

Wistrich’s masterful book makes a major contribution to our understanding of the anti-Semitism of the Left. It represents a further addition to his seminal works on the history of this eternal hatred, its contemporary incarnations, and its newest permutation, anti-Israelism. At the same time, much remains to be written about left-wing anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, both of which are in a state of continuous change. Indeed, it is to be hoped that Wistrich will one day analyze in detail the rather meek reactions from many leaders of British Jewry to the ongoing, pervasive defamation of Israel.


  1. Robert Wistrich, A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (New York: Random House, 2010).
  2. Robert S. Wistrich, Muslimischer Antisemitismus, Eine aktuelle Gefahr (Berlin: Edition Critic, 2011), 161 pp. [German]
  3. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Elhanan Yakira, “Commonalities of Holocaust Deniers and Anti-Zionists,” in Demonizing Israel and the Jews (New York: RVPP Press, 2013), 82–84.
  4. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Robert Wistrich, “Anti-Semitism Embedded in British Culture,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 70, June 2008.
  5. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Trevor Asserson, “The BBC: Widespread Antipathy Toward Israel” in Israel and Europe: An Expanding Abyss? (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Adenauer Foundation, 2006), 193.
  6. Bernard Lewis, “Communism and Islam,” International Affairs, Volume 30, No. 1, January 1954, 1–12.

Manfred Gerstenfeld is a board member and former Chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (2000–2012). He is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award (2012) of the Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism.





Anti-Zionism in the Post-War USSR and Today’s Russia

Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Russian and International Studies Prof. André Gerrits: “Communists have always seen Zionism as a petty bourgeois deviant, as well as an expression of Jewish nationalism”.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld | 28/05/14

“Anti-Zionism became a significant element of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy toward the end of the 1940s. The Soviet leadership had supported Israel’s creation at the United Nations General Assembly in November 1947. They believed that Israel could become an ally in the Middle East. It rapidly turned out that this would not be the case.


“The initial anti-Zionism of the Soviet Union was also based on other considerations. The undesirable popularity of Israel among many Jews there became obvious in their enthusiastic welcome to the first Israeli Ambassador to Russia, Golda Meir in 1948. Furthermore, from an ideological point of view communism was against every form of nationalism including Jewish versions, Zionist or not.”


Historian André W.M. Gerrits is Professor of Russian and International Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. One of his books is titled The Myth of Jewish Communism: A Historical Interpretation.


“Communists have always seen Zionism as a petty bourgeois deviant, as well as a expression of Jewish nationalism. The emphasis anti-Zionism received in the Soviet Union and other communist countries during various periods depended mainly on international developments. Anti-Zionism played a role in the communist leadership struggles at the end of the 1940s and early 1950s in Czechoslovakia, as well as at the end of the 1960s in Poland.


“The communist leaders in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia would not use openly anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic arguments. Anti-Zionism however, fit in well with Stalin’s foreign policy. It also seemed that Stalin and his Czechoslovak followers thought that accusing people only of Trotskyism and Titoism would have less resonance in the party than anti-Zionism.


“This was yet another example of the communist manipulation of anti-Zionism as an instrument of political goals – in this case the affirmation of full political control over the Czechoslovak communist party.


“Anti-Zionism was also a factor in the Soviet Union’s relations with the United States and its efforts to strengthen relations with Arab countries and Iran. Only late in the 1980s, when Gorbachev changed the overall direction of foreign policy, did anti-Zionism largely stop being a Soviet political propaganda tool.


“One might say that anti-Zionism is a traditional ideological motif which has been mainly used and manipulated as an international political instrument. Anti-Zionism has deep roots in the socialist movement, and it should not be confused with anti-Semitism. Early Jewish socialists were also opposed to Zionism.


“There has been much speculation among historians about Stalin’s plans toward the end of his life to deport Soviet Jews. There is no consensus among historians about this. I have never seen proof though that Stalin had concrete plans to send all Jews to Siberia. He most probably was not interested in initiating pogroms, if only in view of his obsessive inclination to fully control Soviet society.


“Shortly before Stalin died in 1953, he accused nine doctors – six of whom were Jews – of a plot to poison the Soviet leadership. This infamous Doctors’ Plot was an extreme manifestation of Stalin’s mistrust of all ethnic groups which had a ‘link’ with other countries, particularly of his suspicion of the Jews. It is often asked whether Stalin was an anti-Semite. We don’t really know. Stalin allowed very few Jews into his direct environment, but his political suspicions were far from limited to Jews only.


“Stalin’s successors dropped whatever anti-Jewish plans there were in the Kremlin. They realized the absurdity of the accusations of the Doctors’ Plot and did not wish to confront pogroms or deportations.


“To the best of my knowledge, among later Soviet leaders, relations with Israel and the Arab world never led to serious disagreements. The geopolitical environment in the Middle East and the East-West conflict did not leave the Soviet Union much choice as from the 1960s, Israel was firmly in the Western camp.


“Anti-Zionist publications were subject to censorship by the state body Glalvit like anything else which was printed. Several anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic books were published in the Soviet Union, until the early 1980s. Trofim Kitchko’s  Judaism Unembellished, sponsored by the Academy of Sciences, was just one notorious example. One may assume that in view of the importance of this subject, the author had received publishing permission from high levels within the communist party.


As to the Soviet Union pushing the “Zionism is racism” resolution which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1975, Gerrits remarks: “I have no doubt that the major reason must have been to strengthen the Soviet Union’s global position, especially among non-Western powers. ‘Zionism is racism’ was a popular slogan among many ‘Third World’ nations”, especially of course in the Arab world.


He concludes: “Under the conditions of post-Cold War and post-communism, Russia has more room to maneuver. Add the increased number of Russians living in Israel, and you have the major reasons why relations between Russia and Israel have intensified and improved considerably. And this is of great importance to Russia. The country does not have many reliable and trustworthy allies or even relationships — neither in Europe, where the Ukrainian crisis has further isolated Russia — nor in the Middle East.”



Comments are closed.