Book Talk and Review: The Movement and the Middle East: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Divided the American Left March 8, 2020 13:09

On Wednesday, March 4, Middle East Books and More hosted Professor Michael R. Fischbach to discuss his new book, The Movement and the Middle East How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Divided the American Left. Check out the book review, written by our bookstore director, Sami Tayeb, and listen to the talk (below), filmed by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

By Michael R. Fischback, Stanford University Press, 2020, paperback, 297 pp. MEB: $25

Reviewed by Sami Tayeb

Michael R. Fischbach’s The Movement and the Middle East is the first account to examine how the Arab-Israeli conflict fomented dissent and division within the American Left and how these divisions have informed present-day political discourse on Palestine and Israel. While “the Movement,” which he defines as a “large, loosely organized collection of people pushing for an end to the [Vietnam] war and radical change in America,” coalesced around their opposition to the Vietnam War, they were deeply divided on the question of Palestine. Fischbach lays out a nuanced and detailed history of the contentious debates that occurred in various leftist groups during the 1960s and ’70s that centered around the Arab-Israeli conflict and the actions they took—particularly in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War.

Building on the research of his previous book, which focused on the Black Power and Civil Rights movements’ positions on Palestine, Fischbach now directs his attention to the white American Left’s attitudes on the same issue. His analysis of this diverse and multi-faceted movement, which included over 200 organizations at the height of the Vietnam War, is laid out in 12 succinct chapters, focusing on the more prominent organizations including, but not limited to: student groups and campus activism, the Old Left (Communist, Marxist and Socialist parties), the New Left (organizations of young white leftists whose activism was based on moral passion and street-level politics rather than ideological constructs), and the anti-Vietnam War coalition, as well as the feminist movement that emerged in the ’70s.

Perhaps most central to the debate, is a chapter on the Israel exceptionalism that existed within the Movement, which explores the contradictions that emerged and rationale that was used to justify support for Israel by members of the Left. He notes that many of the pro-Israel positions were grounded in emotion and ethnic affiliation rather than history or consistent ideology and the issue of Palestine proved to be the litmus test on radicalism, or what “distinguished the true anti-imperialists from the liberals.”

Jews were overly represented in the Movement, and much of what Fischbach details are divisions among Jews that were involved in leftist organizations. The main schism was between groups and individuals that had an internationalist outlook and sought to confront imperialism, colonialism, capitalism and racism wherever it may be and those that made an exception for Israel and Zionism. The rationale for the latter’s position included the view that Israel was the non-aggressor in the Six-Day War; belief that Israel was the underdog surrounded by hostile Arab countries; Israel and Zionism being stand-ins for secular Jews’ Jewish identity; and that the U.S. military should be supported because it would, in turn, guarantee Israel’s military supremacy as well as create a balance of power in the region with the Soviet Union. The proponents of the last point largely came from a group that splintered from the Socialist Party of America (SPA) and later became the base of the neoconservative movement.

Fischbach lends insight to a variety of tactics that were employed by proponents of Israel. The most common tactic was for pro-Israel American Jews to send the message to other Jews in the Left to step in line and follow rank or else be prepared to face the backlash and vitriol of being called a self-hating Jew, not a real Jew or that they were a “psychological aberration” unable to conform to their identity as a Jew. Paradoxically, what emerges from this pro-Israel pushback is the “pro-Israel, non-Zionist” stance taken by some Jews, particularly by members of Communist Party USA.

Fischbach cites investigative reporter I.F. Stone to sum up the prevailing debate surrounding American Jews and Israel stating, “Israel was creating a ‘moral schizophrenia’ in world Jewry, because Jewish existence outside Israel depended upon secular, nonracial, pluralistic societies—but Israel was the exact opposite of that.”

The question of Palestine ultimately became a leviathan for the American Left to the extent that it was impossible to reach a consensus on this issue by the time the Movement began to decline in the mid-’70s. In fact, the issue was so contentious that there was a fear that it could unravel the anti-Vietnam War movement if the organizations involved were pressed to make a declaration on Palestine. Consequently, no declaration was seriously sought by organizers.

Remarkably, Fischbach is able to piece together a coherent, yet nuanced, narrative on Palestine and the debates that ensued in a fractious and dynamic Left during the anti-war movement. He also situates the historical context in which the neoconservative movement emerged from the Left and, conversely, the origins of progressive institutions that are still around today.

Fischbach even details a fascinating, yet brief, history of what could be called the Canary Mission’s precursor, the Youth Institute for Peace in the Middle East, which spied on other leftist and pro-Palestine groups for the Anti-Defamation League. He accomplishes this feat through numerous personal interviews, declassified FBI and CIA documents, and a thorough examination of the literature by leftist groups and individuals during this time period. Fischbach has successfully created an entryway for other researchers to further explore this fascinating yet little written history of the American Left.

What the reader longs for is a narrative that links the black civil rights movement to what Fischbach calls the Movement and how they complemented and differed from each other. Also, the reader wants to know what other factors contributed to the Left’s decline during this period and how the question of Palestine fits within this context. Was it the sole factor for the Left’s decline?

In the epilogue, Fischbach draws a tenuous link between the debates on Palestine during this time period to the politics of the present day. The reader would be well served if he devoted another chapter that sketches this out further and situates the effect this debate has had on the politics of the present. Moreover, many of the people Fischbach writes about are still active in politics today. It would be informative to hear more of these people’s stories and their influence on present day politics. For example, knowing more about the story of how Carl Gershman went from being a member of SPA to a key player among neoconservatives to becoming the president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Ultimately, Fischbach’s timely and invaluable account of the Movement’s debate on Palestine offers insight on the debates the Movement grappled with, and for anyone interested in U.S. Middle East policy, the history and politics of the American Left or the Arab-Israeli conflict The Movement and the Middle East is a must-have for their library. Fischbach’s wide-ranging analysis opens the door for other scholars to fill in the gaps of this incredibly fascinating story, which would be a welcome addition in the years to come.

Sami Tayeb is the director of Middle East Books and More and an independent researcher who frequently writes about the political economy of the Middle East, Palestine and urban development in the region.