Singling out Israel: a perspective from the left

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
. 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.

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