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Singling out Israel: a perspective from the left

How did the struggle for Palestine gain such prominence on the left? The answer might tell us something about broader patterns of thought in left-wing politics today.

Eloïse Bollack/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The left is frequently accused of singling Israel out for censure. Of all the authoritarian and oppressive countries in the world, so the argument goes, left-wing thinkers and activists disproportionately target the Middle East's only democracy. This is often just a rhetorical ploy, a propaganda device used to imply that Israel's critics are biased, or worse, prejudiced. However, it also happens to be true.

States everywhere behave in a manner comparable to Israel. Occupation, ethnic nationalism, exclusion, racism—these are systemic issues, products of the modern nation-state system we live in, and not the unique characteristics of any particular country or nationalist ideology.

Yet Israel, and the Palestinians' struggle for self-determination, occupies a position within the left's political imagination that is incommensurate with its relative size or importance in the international struggle for justice. Israel's crimes (and they are crimes) against the Palestinians elicit a moral outrage that comparable acts of brutality in other countries (India in Kashmir, Russia in Chechnya, to name only a few examples) do not.

This is often dismissed as mere “whataboutery” or simply buying into one of Israel's favoured propaganda tropes. But the question of how the struggle for Palestine—an unquestionably just cause—has gained such prominence on the left is one that needs addressing seriously. The answer can also perhaps tell us something about broader patterns of thought in left-wing politics today.

A new anti-Semitism?

For some the reason is obvious: anti-Semitism. In his response to the divestiture campaign on US campuses against Israel, The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, “singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction—out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East—is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.”  

This argument is often dismissed as ideologically motivated special pleading. And sometimes it is. But we should be careful on this score. The left is not immune from prejudice and, historically, anti-Semitism has found a home at both ends of the political spectrum.

As an explanation for the left's disproportionate focus on Israel and the Palestinians, it is however, unconvincing. True, anti-Semitism sometimes creeps into anti-Zionist discourse. But the notion that the left has become anti-Semitic en masse is, frankly, absurd. If you doubt this then ask yourself the following: given the history of Israel/Palestine (see below), would attitudes on the left be any different if Israel was a Christian country of European origin? I suspect not.

Towards a more convincing explanation

Two explanations that are frequently given in response to the “singling out” accusation concern Israel's relationship with the US. Firstly, it is argued, Israel is one of America's major allies in the Middle East and a recipient of roughly $3 billion per year in aid. In this context, singling it out makes strategic sense from an anti-imperialist perspective. The second argument is a corollary of the first. Given the close relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv, pressure applied by activists in the former capital will be keenly felt in the latter and so concentrating resources there is a logical move.

These are both true to a point. But it does not explain why other close US allies—Turkey, Egypt, the Gulf states, India—all implicated in US imperialism and all culpable of oppressive behaviour, rarely excite comparable passions in left-wing circles.

A more compelling response, and one that gets us closer to our answer, is the comparison with the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). The AAM, which has provided much inspiration to those resisting Israel's occupation, mobilised civil society to garner support for those fighting the oppressive and racist regime in South Africa. In a world that contained many a despotic state, left-wing supporters of the AAM could quite reasonably have been accused of singling out South Africa. Perhaps some even suggested they were anti-White. Today, however, nobody would claim that what they did was wrong.

While this does not answer our question, it does point us in the right direction. Certain conflicts over the past 50 years—South Africa, Israel/Palestine, Algeria, Vietnam—have stood out as exceptional for many in the west, especially for those on the left. The common denominators, the strands that tie these conflicts together, are western imperialism and/or the related phenomenon of white-settler colonialism. These two factors are crucial for understanding how it is that the Israel/Palestine conflict has gained such a prominent position within the political imagination of the modern left.

Zionism and white-settler colonialism

To understand the place that Israel and the Palestinians occupy in left-wing consciousness, we need to first place Zionism in its proper historical context. It is, essentially, the movement of national self-determination for Jewish people. It is also, though, a colonial movement that was realised under the aegis of a European imperial power.

There is no contradiction here. Zionism began its life in Europe as an ideology of national liberation for an oppressed minority, but on touching ground in the Middle East it also necessarily became a colonial movement. It is, in the formulation coined by Israeli sociologists Gershon Shafir and Yoav Peled, a national colonial movement.

The idea of a 'return to Zion' is an important part of Judaism (and Christianity) but it was only in the last quarter of the 19th century—a period characterised by European expansion and the spread of nationalism—that it was transformed from an esoteric theological notion into a concrete political aim. Russian pogroms and many other pernicious forms of oppression made life for Jews in Europe intolerable. Many emigrated to America, but a minority began to formulate what were, from their perspective, more long-term plans.

Zionist thinkers, chief of whom was Theodor Herzl, looked at the state of modern Europe and concluded that existence as a minority there meant perpetual insecurity. From this they inferred that the only way to be free, and on an equal footing with their European oppressors, was to create a nation-state, a place where Jews were the majority and subject to nobody.

First, though, a sense of Jewish nationhood had to be 'awakened'. The communal and religious traditions of Judaism—a deep and varied source from which modern intellectuals could draw upon—provided the necessary raw materials from which a national identity could be crafted. There are some pro-Palestinian advocates who get a certain frisson out of deconstructing Jewish national consciousness and dismissing it as an artificial construct, particularly when measured against Palestinian nationalism. As a sociological observation, this is accurate. All national identities are the products of a combination of human will and historical contingency. Zionism is certainly no exception. These critics should be aware, though, that it is only true nationalist ideologues who, lacking a sense of irony as they often are, talk about “authentic” and “inauthentic” nations.

Zionism was, however, exceptional in one way: it was a national movement whose population was not concentrated in a single space. Jews collectively possessed no homeland. This fact necessitated mass Jewish settlement in one area, or, as it is known in the Zionist lexicon, the “In-gathering of Exiles.” After some debate amongst the Zionist leadership, Palestine was nominated as the Jewish 'homeland'.  

Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine (also known as Southern Syria) began in the 1880s. But it was November 1917 that marked the crucial turning point. The British Foreign Secretary at the time, Lord Arthur James Balfour, issued what became known as the Balfour Declaration which stated that:

His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.

This historic promise effectively meant that Zionism would be underwritten by British imperial power. London, pursuing its own geo-strategic plans of dividing the Ottoman Empire up with Paris, took Jerusalem the following December. Three years later Mandatory Palestine was established by the League of Nations, putting the British government in a position to keep its word—to the Zionist leadership. From this point onwards, Jewish immigration to, and colonisation of, Palestine could proceed apace under the aegis of British rule.

European Jews did not choose to move to the Middle East voluntarily. They were driven there by anti-Semitism. This must certainly be taken into account in any moral reflections on the legitimacy of Zionism as an idea. It does not, however, change the facts on the ground. Zionism became a white-settler colonial movement whose realisation was only possible thanks to European penetration of the Middle East. In his essay “Settlers and their States.” published in the New Left Review (March/April 2010), Gabriel Piterberg sums up the situation succinctly:

From the moment Zionism's goal became the resettlement of European Jews in a land controlled by a colonial European power, in order to create a sovereign political entity, it could no longer be understood as 'just' a central or east European nationalism; it was also, inevitably, a white-settler colonialism.

The native Palestinians never had any illusions about this fact. But it was only in the last third of the 20th century that the western left began to understand Zionism as a case of European colonialism. And now in most left-wing circles it is practically a truism. Before looking at how this change occurred though, and how it has led to Israel being singled out for criticism, it is important to consider the inter-communal conflict that followed from Jewish settlement in Palestine.

Two peoples, one land

Before 1947, Jewish colonisation of Palestine proceeded primarily through land purchases. This meant, in the words of Gershon Shafir, “a less violent process of primitive territorial accumulation than was typical of other colonies.” Even so, there was a fundamental contradiction between the aims of Zionism and the rights of the native population; a tension that Lord Balfour, steeped in messianic Christian teachings as he was, did not concern himself with. The drive to create a majority Jewish nation-state in territory inhabited by a majority non-Jewish population was inevitably going to lead to conflict. Two peoples cannot both be a majority on the same piece of land.

Sure enough, conflict came. While there were outbreaks of inter-communal violence in the 1920s, it was the 1930s that saw a shift from sporadic attacks to a mass uprising with the Arab Revolt (1936-39). The rise of Nazism in Europe was a key factor here. Between 1882 and 1931, 187,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine. But between Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948 this number rose to 313,000 (see Gilbert Achcar for the figures). The liberal democracies also introduced immigration restrictions leaving Jewish refugees with little choice but to flee to the Middle East.

This was a massive influx of newcomers in a relatively short space of time. From the perspective of the native Arab population—who were becoming conscious of themselves as Palestinian Arabs—their land was disappearing from under their feet, sold off by absentee landlords and settled by Europeans. As far as they were concerned, the settlers were not simply refugees fleeing persecution. They were also an extension of British colonial rule. Inevitably, they revolted against both the occupiers and the settlers.

The 1940s saw the violence come to a head. On 29 November 1947 the United Nations (which consisted of only 57 countries at the time) passed a partition resolution—accepted reluctantly by the settlers, rejected understandably by the natives—which divided the territory between Jews and Arabs. This produced bitter fighting between the two communities, which ended, in the words of the historian Avi Shlaim, “in triumph for the Jews and tragedy for the Palestinians.” On 14 May 1948 the British Mandate expired and the State of Israel was proclaimed. The following day, the surrounding Arab states, seeking to legitimise themselves in the eyes of their own populations by helping the Palestinians, invaded.

This was a war of independence for the small population of Jewish refugees fleeing European anti-Semitism and the gas-chamber. And it was a catastrophe for the indigenous population who were ethnically cleansed from their land by Zionist militias and sent into the grey-zone of permanent refugeehood. Both of these conflicting narratives are correct. But rather than risk getting bogged down in morally complex considerations of the rights and wrongs of the conflict's origins, each side and their respective supporters—often with an eye on the politics of the moment—prefer to entrench themselves behind the safe walls of nationalist rhetoric and victimhood. This has made discussion of the Israel/Palestine conflict viciously polarised.  

Isaac Deutscher was one historian who rejected the nationalist paradigm altogether when observing events in the eastern Mediterranean. The interview he gave the New Left Review in the wake of the Six Day War, is worth quoting at length as an illustration of what a genuinely radical and universalist response to the roots of the Israel/Palestine conflict looks like:

A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person's legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and console the other sufferer; and the latter might have realised that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control. But look what happens when these people behave irrationally. The injured man blames the other for his misery and swears to make him pay for it. The other, afraid of the crippled man's revenge, insults him, kicks him, and beats him up whenever they meet. The kicked man again swears revenge and is again punched and punished. The bitter enmity, so fortuitous at first, hardens and comes to overshadow the whole existence of both men and to poison their minds.

At the core of this analogy is a fundamental rejection of myopic nationalist narratives and identity politics. Deutscher understands the origins of the conflict through a cosmopolitan and materialist lens that views Zionism and Palestinian nationalism as the products of “circumstances over which neither of them had control.” In contrast, on the left today Zionism is generally seen as a necessarily malign force, an almost metaphysical evil that has brought ruin to the Middle East. How did such a shift in left wing thinking occur? Why is it that Israel is viewed with such disproportionate hostility on the left?

The left, the west and one-dimensional anti-imperialism

As was noted above, the answer lies in western imperialism and white-settler colonialism. But a question remains. Why is it that these related phenomena are so central to left wing politics today? They are, of course, examples of oppression and so any democratic movement worthy of the name should resist them. But why do they often take precedence over other forms of subjugation such as authoritarianism, theocracy or patriarchy to name only a few that are frequently overlooked or downplayed by the anti-imperialist left? The answer lies in Third Worldism and the versions of it that have become prominent in progressive circles.

The post-war period produced a profound transformation within the intellectual culture of the western left. The anti-colonial struggles in what became known as the Third World shook many progressives in the US and Europe out of their parochial mind-sets. A new politics of anti-imperialism—forged by the conflicts in Suez, Vietnam and Algeria, among others—blended with orthodox Marxism and became a staple of left wing theory and practice.

Thinkers and activists such as Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral and Che Guevara, whose ideas were crafted in the heat of bitter anti-colonial struggles, became essential reading for members of the New Left and have helped to shape progressive thinking about relations between north and south, west and east. These influences have led to a lot of productive work. European and American activists, for example, have grown increasingly conscious of issues relating to empire, colonialism and race, topics the western left had historically neglected.

As important as these changes have been, however, a counter-productive tendency has also gained traction; one that can best be characterised as one-dimensional anti-imperialism. This is a selective and deeply essentialist perspective that—in a curious inversion of Eurocentrism—understands imperialism to be an exclusively western phenomenon that emanates inexorably from western capitals; what’s more, it sees imperialism as the sole source of the world's ills and demotes other forms of oppression to a secondary position—or ignores them entirely. Conversely, it is a viewpoint that tends to accord victims of Western aggression a privileged position within an unwritten hierarchy of victimhood; a hierarchy that determines some people to be worthier of solidarity than others.

It is against this backdrop that the left’s over-attunement to Israel must be understood. The Jewish state, as we have seen, is the product of a white-settler colonialism that took root under western European imperialism. This, effectively, is a situation that has continued with the occupation of the West Bank and the strangulation of Gaza, and the creation of settlements with the support of the US. The creation of Israel also led to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and the post-‘48 period has seen repeated attempts by Israeli governments at politicide, or the complete destruction of the Palestinians as a political community. These are the undeniable realities of the very one-sided Israel/Palestine conflict.

But these are also unexceptional realities. The twentieth century was a brutal century of genocide, ethnic cleansing, violent attempts to forge nation-states out of diverse communities, rapid industrialisation and the persecution of minorities. The first couple of decades of the twenty first century have hardly been much better. Against this background the Israel/Palestine conflict has been a relatively mild affair. But when seen through the distorting prism of one-dimensional anti-imperialism it morphs into something more. Israel becomes the representative of western imperialism—the most malign of all evils—and the Palestinians gain the questionable privilege of becoming the victims most worthy of support (unless, of course, they are being killed by other Arabs. See Yarmouk).  

It is both just and necessary to support the Palestinian struggle for independence. But they are not the only victims worthy of solidarity. And Israel certainly is not the only—or even the worst—oppressor in the world today. A much more nuanced anti-imperialism and a more materialist and cosmopolitan approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict would serve both peoples immeasurably better than the simplistic and selective narratives of the conflict that predominate today.

About the author

William Eichler is an editorial assistant and freelance journalist who lives and works in the UK. He has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Nottingham, and reviews academic books on the Middle East for the LSE Review of Books. You can follow him on Twitter: @EichlerEssays.


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