In search of an Israeli left

The disconnection between the international left and its counterparts in Israel has become near total, to the detriment of the causes that both espouse. But a situation with complex roots can be remedied by looking more closely at the work of people on the ground, say Keith Kahn-Harris & Joel Schalit.

Every Israeli news outlet, from the website of the arch-right Arutz Sheva radio-station to the centre-left newspaper Ha’aretz, was broadcasting the same story and showing the same video-clip. Aboard the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara in Cyprus before it set sail towards Gaza, a Turkish activist called Bülent Yildirim was exhorting the vessel’s passengers to prepare to be martyrs and to throw Israeli troops into the sea.

The significance of the footage, released earlier the same day by Israel’s foreign ministry, was clear: it provided yet another indictment of the motives of those traveling on the flotilla, whose ostensible aim was to carry “humanitarian aid” to suffering Palestinians. Their true purpose, the images seemed to reveal, was not so much humanitarian as Islamist - and spiced by a good dose of anti-Israel bigotry.

Some of the western activists who joined the mainly Turkish contingent may not have have shared this ideological complex in detail, but even if naive (ran the common argument) their actions made them complicit in such hatred and the violence that was to follow. The death of eleven Turkish citizens in the Israeli commando-raid on the Mavi Marmara on 31 May 2010, which caused an international outcry and forced the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu to hold an official inquiry into the incident, in this view reflected the bad faith of those on board; and after all, what more could be expected of partisan westerners  whose hostility to Israel is deep-rooted?

In an article published that same day in Ha’aretz, the paper’s defence correspondent Amos Harel argued that international NGOs are now being utilised by Israel’s enemies as tools in a global campaign to delegitimise the Jewish state. The pro-Palestinian political stance of most of these organisations hides a deeper story: that a new global left has become duped by the “asymmetrical-warfare” strategies of Israel’s Islamist foes. The effective alliance between militant Islamism and international leftism lies behind much of the criticism of Israel today.   

Amos Harel’s case is a variant on a familiar story that has been made with various degrees of intensity for over a generation. In the first decade of the 21st century it has been fuelled by United States neo-conservative supporters of the “war on terror”, who have sought every opportunity to link political and NGO critics of US and Israeli foreign policy to jihadi ideas and campaigns. The argument extends to targeting the Israeli left and its sympathisers within the Jewish diaspora, who are scorned for disloyalty or worse on account of their critical stance towards Israeli governments and their policies towards the Palestinians. In this mindset, foreign and domestic leftism fuse into a single threat to Israeli statehood. The result is that the Israeli left is further marginalised and excluded from the heart of the country’s political discourse, even on such major issues as the assault on the Mavi Marmara.  

A great transformation

The Israeli left’s reasons for advocating Palestinian rights and statehood may often differ from those of their European or American counterparts, but the Israeli right is happy to portray the motives as the same in order to exclude such voices from any core debate about Israel-Palestine and even from Israeli politics as such. The aspiration, striking in the context of a country with a rich and fertile leftwing political and intellectual tradition, is that the left should have no natural home in Israeli-Jewish politics whatsoever.

Such assaults on the Israeli left and those in the Jewish diaspora with affinities to it reflect how far Israel has changed. Both rightist champions of Israel and many leftist critics of the country share a historical myopia that ignores or dismisses Israel’s progressive roots. From the state of Israel’s foundation in 1948 until the elections of 1977, which saw the electoral breakthrough of the rightwing Likud party, Israeli politics was dominated by a leftwing consensus which shared close parallels with European social democracy and labour movements. Israel in this period had strong trade unions, centralised economic planning, and a highly regulated economy; its most characteristic institution was the collective farms (kibbutzim) scattered across the country. At the same time, this was a leftism that had very few links, for reasons of geopolitics and anti-semitism, with the Soviet bloc.  

Israel’s subsequent role as a bête noir for much of the world’s left is often attributed to the events of 1967 and subsequently, principally the six-day war and the occupation of the West Bank; as well as to the breakdown of Israel’s leftist consensus during the 1970s. But a neglected source of this change is the way that after 1968, the dominant (mainly economic) definitions of what it meant to be “leftwing” were increasingly supplanted by more identitarian definitions that foregrounded anti-racism and anti-colonialism. This change revealed two things about the preceding period: it revealed the limitations of the Israeli left, under whose auspices (it should be recalled) the settlement movement began, and who had never properly attended to the needs of  Israel’s Palestinian minority; and it demonstrated the parochialism of leftist critiques of Israel, which failed to recognise that such a situation could have arisen under “progressive” stewardship.

In this view, the heightened importance of identity politics amongst western progressives - as well as accentuating the decline of labour politics in the west - made inevitable a post-1967 turn against Israel. This transition to a new political mindset was reflected within Israel itself, as in the 1980s newly formed groups such as Peace Now began to challenge Israeli territorial politics without introducing a corresponding social agenda. It was also reflected within Israel’s leftwing political establishment, as the once dominant Labour Party which had already capitulated on the economic front now half-heartedly embraced the peace agenda.

This generational transformation has had the effect of consigning Israel’s progressive roots to a general forgetting. Ze’ev Sternhell’s analysis of the failings of Israeli socialism (in The Founding Myths of Israel [1995]) and James Horrox’s study of the anarchist origins of Israel’s kibbutz movement (A Living Revolution [2009]) are valuable efforts to recover and explore this history. But overall, a new sensibility that reflects the bitter partisanship of the times - shared across left and right, in Israel and the diaspora alike - rules. On one side, Israel is a Jewish state, justly restoring a people originally exiled by European imperialism to its ancestral middle-eastern roots; on the other, Israel is a monocultural, repressive entity, invoking Judaism to mystify its fundamentally western, colonial character.

A narrowing agenda

Alongside the amnesiac marginalisation of the Israeli left from central debates about the country’s future, Israel’s political scene leaves little room for optimism. Its centre-left parties are reduced to a minority presence in parliament, leaving most progressive activism to take place outside the parliamentary sphere - through NGOs and campaigning organisations such as Physicians for Human Rights. The most leftwing parties in parliament with any liberal credentials - such as the former communists, Hadash - are automatically disenfranchised from the Jewish national consensus because they include significant Arab memberships. An Israeli/Jewish right can easily portray the extra-parliamentary left as unrepresentative on the sole grounds that the latter operates outside of the legislative sphere. Similarly, the diaspora left has no difficulty in viewing Israel as being intrinsically rightwing, precisely because of the great distance of Israel’s left from the country’s political establishment.

The narrowing of the agenda of pro-Palestinian activism within the global left plays an important role here. Since the conflict over Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 the situation there has been the focus of most pro-Palestinian campaigning. But the activist left, in highlighting Israel’s siege of the territory and its consequences, has made remarkably little criticism of the Hamas movement which rules the strip. The result is to ignore both an Islamist government’s deep opposition to many progressive values and the need to show more support for democratic Palestinian activism in the West Bank. In contrast to the Islamist retrenchment in Gaza, organising against the occupation in the West Bank has begun to develop in non-violent directions. Fatah, the governing movement there, has a historically secular and leftist tradition (despite its corruption) and Israeli activists are much more involved with it.

More broadly, many progressives outside Israel overlook the fact that an Israeli left still exists and can be worked with. In part this “forgetting” derives from the view that the situation in Israel-Palestine is so bleak that only the most radically pessimistic critiques of Israeli politics provide any affirmation; there is, in effect, no one left to work with (an ironic echo of the Israeli right’s complaint that “there is no partner for peace”).

As a result, much of the global left has abandoned Israeli politics altogether in favour of a discourse that focuses solely on the superiority of a “one-state” rather than a “two-state” solution. The problem is that by taking leave of the Israeli political sphere, many progressives have absolved themselves of supporting those organisations that could yet challenge the status quo. What remains is a kind of negationism, based on the fantasy that the situation could be transformed entirely through outside pressure, without any Israeli involvement. While external pressure on Israel is vital to any true change, internal pressure also plays a crucial role. A democratised Israeli public sphere will be a key component in making any kind of solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict work.

A closer look

The very possibility of nurturing such progressive change in Israel requires at least three things:

* finding ways to support NGOs such as the New Israel Fund

* actively supporting multiethnic and Arab political parties and NGOs

* drawing attention to the plight of Israeli Christians and Muslims, migrant workers, illegal immigrants - and rising social inequalities amongst all Israelis.

Anyone investigating each of these specific issues will soon discover an enormous amount of individual activism, even if not a dedicated organisation directly connected to them. There is no better way to challenge the Israeli right than to support and adopt these causes - for it is here that Israel’s left is working to protect people and contest the status quo, and in a manner that defies the right’s denigration and marginalisation.

The lesson to be learned from the situation of the Israeli left is that details are always important. The more attention is paid to them, the less plausible are flattening generalities which encourage neglect and negation. In the end, a refusal to look at what is happening on the ground is a conservative attitude that upholds the status quo and (in this case) is unwittingly complicit in the decline of Israeli democracy. The only way to reverse this situation is to raise Israel’s left up to the same position of importance as its global counterparts.  Can’t find it? Try looking a little harder.

About the authors

Joel Schalit is the author of Israel vs Utopia (Akashic, 2009). He is an American-Israeli writer based in Berlin, who has worked as the online editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture and the managing editor of Tikkun. He has written about Israeli politics for (among others) France 24, the Guardian, and The Forward

Keith Kahn-Harris is honorary research fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck College. He is the author (with Ben Gidley) of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today (Continuum, July 2010). He has written widely on Israel, Jewish affairs and politics. His website is here

Read On

Colin Shindler, A History of Modern Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Ha'aretz

Ynet

Joel Schalit, Israel vs Utopia (Akashic, 2009)

Ze’ev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism and the Making of the Jewish State (1995; Princeton University Press, 1999)

James Horrox, A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement (AK Press, 2009)

Colin Shindler, The Triumph of Military Zionism: Nationalism and the Origins of the Israeli Right (IB Tauris, 2005; paperback 2009)

More On

Joel Schalit is the author of Israel vs Utopia (Akashic, 2009). He is an American-Israeli writer based in Berlin, who has worked as the online editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture and the managing editor of Tikkun. He has written about Israeli politics for (among others) France 24, the Guardian, and The Forward

Keith Kahn-Harris is honorary research fellow at the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society, Birkbeck College. He is the author (with Ben Gidley) of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today (Continuum July 2010). He has written widely on Israel, Jewish affairs and politics. His website is here

Also by Keith Kahn-Harris & Joel Schalit on openDemocracy:

"Israeli post-democracy: origins and prospects" (10 June 2010)

Also by Keith Kahn-Harris on openDemocracy:

"The seductions of denial" (13 September 2007)

"How to talk about things we know nothing about" (21 February 2008)

"The politics of ME, ME, ME" (9 January 2009) - with David Hayes