Pro-Israeli Left, Pro-Palestinian Left

In general, today being pro-Israeli is considered a right-wing position, while being pro-Palestinian is considered left-wing. In fact both are ultimately left-wing, though they clearly represent different kinds of left-wing politics. The characteristic pathologies of each side are either common to radicals of both leftist and rightist flavors or unique to the left.

First, the pro-Israeli position is not traditionally right-wing. The traditional right in every country with a visible Jewish minority is anti-Semitic: Pat Buchanan, Jean Marie Le Pen, Jörg Haider, even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The early Zionists and their allies were liberals and socialists concerned with the rights of Jews, just like the American civil rights movement was with the rights of blacks.

In fact, it’s largely an accident that the most rabid pro-Israelis in the US and Europe are right-wing, owing to several triggers, including the particular form of Evangelism that came to dominate American fundamentalism, the rise of American neo-conservatism, and the shift in the mainstream European right from hating Jews to hating Arabs.

But the pro-Israeli position is ultimately derived from an equal rights movement, and still talks like one. Telling a supporter of Israel that Israel discriminates against Arabs elicits the same reaction as telling an American civil rightist that blacks discriminate against non-blacks. Suggesting pragmatism in Israeli foreign policy elicits the same reaction as touting realism to a Western leftist.

Meanwhile, pro-Palestinians have just as much claim to leftism. Their position derives primarily from anti-imperialism. Israel in their view a colonial state dominated by white people (who, incidentally, have no compunctions about discriminating against Mizrahi Jews) that occupies a third world state and kills its civilians based on flimsy pretexts.

While part of this concern is humanitarian, the anti-imperialism left has always cared about whites killing non-whites than about non-whites killing non-whites. Israeli atrocities are relatively well-known because they happen close to the first world, like the Serbian genocide and unlike Burmese atrocities, or for that matter American atrocities in Latin America. However, this obvious bias can only account for part of the focus on Israel, since Chomsky and Said seemed to be silent on Serbia.

Some of the two sides’ pathologies are more or less universal among political movements. Allegations of media bias are a good example: the best way to know someone’s politics is to ask him what he thinks CNN’s bias is. Finding excuses for the movement’s own side’s atrocities is another.

But most pathologies are uniquely left-wing, or at least were before the right appropriated them. The civil rightist nature of Zionism leads its supporters to view any opposition to Israel as anti-Semitic, including opposition on pragmatic grounds. Martin Luther King said that pragmatism in the case of one particular march was misguided; hence pragmatism is misguided everywhere.

At the same time, the anti-Imperialist nature of pro-Palestinianism ensures that pro-Palestinians view every Israeli act as oppressive. Killing civilians is one thing; assassinating terrorists at zero civilian casualties is another. In their quest to portray Israel as a dirty aggressor, they often end up justifying Hamas as a liberation movement, or extrapolating from Israel’s collaboration with Ahmad Yassin in the 1970s that Israel engineered everything up to and including Hamas’s rise to power.

On all traditionally conservative issues – immigration, police power, gender, the military – the standard line is to appear realistic and, as a result, tough. It’s only on Israel that right-wingers start talking about root causes and eschew any form of realism. Even the justifications for violence are indistinguishable from Trotskyist apologetics.

At the same time, the pro-Palestinian left uses general anti-imperialism to inspire it to hold entirely nutty positions about Israel. Some go as far as saying that it’s an illegitimate state; many others just talk about the heroism of suicide bombing. And to date I haven’t seen any pro-Palestinian commentator attribute Israel’s problems to its incompetence rather than concoct grand conspiracy theories.

Look, Hamas is an Islamist terrorist organization. You don’t negotiate with it because you want to, but because you have to since that’s who the Palestinians elected. Self-serving bullshit about who’s braver, or who gets the shorter end of the media stick, or who started the conflict, produces among the stupidest debates I’ve ever seen.

And ranting about general goals makes just as much sense as proposing as a matter of policy that the US colonize Alpha Centauri by 2020. Think of not killing civilians as a parameter you have to work anti-terrorism policy within. But talking about the details of how to get two parties that hate each other to stop murdering each other’s civilian populations is crucial.

14 Responses to Pro-Israeli Left, Pro-Palestinian Left

  1. SLC says:

    Much of the anti-Israel stance of the left actually has little to do with Israel; its really anti-americanism. The reasoning goes like this: USA supports Israel, USA bad, therefore Israel bad. or as Bibi puts it, to them, Israel is the little satan and the US is the big satan. This is most obvious in the writings of Noam Chomsky who apparently believes that the US can do no right and therefore Israel can do no right. Although not as blatent as Chomsky, this is also the implicit stance of publications like the Nation magizine (just listen to people like Katrina vanden Heuvel and David Corn when they appear on talk shows).

  2. Bryan says:

    Two states! We want two states! There’s no culture! There’s no spies!

    (Kudos if you know what I’m talking about.)

  3. Alon Levy says:

    I know what you’re talking about, Bryan… after Googling.

    I’m not sure it’s just about the US, SLC. Chomsky criticizes Israel a lot more than he does other pro-American states – in that region alone there are Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. The only one that comes under fire to any degree approaching that of Israel is Turkey, and that’s because its abuses have an imperialist tone as well.

  4. MTraven says:

    Dunno, Zionism has had both left- and right- wing components since its very early days (the Socialist/Communists/Marxists and the revisionists) and this duality has been reflected into its present day politics pretty well. The reality of the situation in Israel has led the leftists to lose power and the right-wing to gain, which fuels leftist anti-zionist sentiment in the rest of the world.

    Meanwhile, some traditional rightist anti-semites really just hate cosmpolitan, multicultural Jews and are OK with Jews off in their own state exercising their nationalist perogatives at the expense of nonwhites.

    The dynamics of the conflict favor “right-wing” forces on both sides, by which I mean strongly nationalist/sectarian/fundamentalist as opposed to liberal universalism. Wish that weren’t so.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    The revisionist movement was, as its name suggests, revisionist. Zionism began as a liberal nationalist movement parallel to the nationalism of the Spring of Nations; the revisionist movement postdates Herzl by several decades.

    Furthermore, pro-Israeli sympathy in the West derives almost entirely from the socialist and liberal strands of Zionism. Conservatives around the world don’t coalesce; they bash and hate one another. In Israel and Palestine, Labor and Fatah are more liable to negotiate with each other than the Likud and Hamas are. So Western conservatives, at least the traditional ones, just continued hating Israel…

    This of course has nothing to do with the fact that both Hamas and the hodgepodge of parties that make up the Israeli right are dominant now but shouldn’t be.

    Finally, I know that there are Westerners who, like Konrad in Crabwalk, combine anti-Semitism at home with pro-Israelism abroad. But they don’t tend to dominate the pro-Israeli movement in the West (though they form a substantial part of its rank and file); the intellectual and political leadership of that movement is typically Jewish or philo-Semitic, and often liberal on domestic cultural issues.

  6. SLC says:

    1. The reason Chomsky and his ilk criticise Israel more then other US allies is because the relationship between the US and Israel is seen as special in that it appears to be beyond US self interest. For instance, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is about oil and nothing else.

    2. The conservative born-again Christian support for Israel is based on their belief that Joshua of Nazareth will not return until the Jewish people return to Israel and the third temple is rebuilt. This is their explanation as to why he has not returned in the intervening 2000 years. These ideas have been heavily encouraged by the Likud party which sees the born-again support as crucial to continued US backing. Thus the Rev. Franklin Graham allegedly tried to convince Ariel Sharon to demolish the Al Aqsa mosque which currently stands on the site of the 2nd temple, which was razed in 67 CE, and build the third temple. This would, of course bring on WW 3 between the West and the Moslem world, which many born-agains would see as the battle of Armageddon.

  7. MTraven says:

    pro-Israeli sympathy in the West derives almost entirely from the socialist and liberal strands of Zionism…

    That may have been the case until 1980 or so, but at the current moment Israel’s support in the US is heavily Likudnik in flavor. Liberal Zionists are still around but have less proportional influence than AIPAC and the unholy alliance of neocons and fundamentalists that makes up the present Republican party.

    The US left, when it isn’t actively anti-Israel, is increasingly isolationist in response to Bush’s disastrous adventures in Iraq.

  8. Alon Levy says:

    While right now Israel’s Western supporters tend to be right-wing, their rhetoric still derives from left-wing causes. For example, the equivocation of pragmatism with hatred is something that is alien to conservatism, at least on foreign policy issues (on immigration, because of the research that shows immigration restrictions don’t work, conservatives are just as anti-realistic). For another example, the response of pro-Israeli people to attacks on Israeli racism is closer in form to the response of black nationalists to attacks on black racism than to the response of Dominionists to attacks on discrimination against secularists.

  9. KH says:

    It may be that Left vs. Right distinction here isn’t much more helpful than classifying Israelis & Palestinians according to the Blue vs. Green politics of 530s Constantinople. Although the facts of the conflict obviously disputed, your question is mostly conceptual: what do ‘Left’ & ‘Right’ mean? The fundamental conflict is between nationalisms, & what is nationalism? Does it have any (intrinsic or adventitious) valence? In 1798 it was Left, by 1848 not so much, by 1871 on the Right, but 1914 even more. Anti-imperialism notoriously is a huge problem, combining features of both left & right. Ultimately though, all nationalism is a form of particularism, & particularism largely belongs to the Right, universalism to the Left. That’s why liberal nationalism resists coherent formulation (Yael Tamir notwithstanding). Nationalisms do differ, however, & Zionism remains far more liberal than Palestinian nationalism, esp. as it increasingly becomes a religious nationalism. You’ve read Sternhell?

  10. Alon Levy says:

    No, I haven’t… and obviously comparing Israelis to Palestinians is fruitless here. Zionism began as liberal, became socialist, and then spawned a revisionist version; Palestinian nationalism began as socialist, and then spawned an Islamist version (and even so, it’s not so much that Hamas won as that Fatah lost).

    I’m mostly looking at the Western conception of it: in the West, leftism correlates fairly strongly with pro-Palestinianism nowadays. The American right is dominated by neo-conservatives who see Israel as a fellow Western country, and an aggressive one at that; the European right is dominated by racists who hate Muslims even more than they hate Jews.

  11. KH says:

    Grim, no?

  12. SLC says:

    Mr. Levy hasn’t bashed Israel over the use of cluster bombs yet. Let’s get with it; this is an opportunity not to be missed.

  13. Alon Levy says:

    I told you a while ago that I don’t comment on every news story around. I missed Qana entirely, for example (the final verdict appears to be that it was real, but that the initial count overstated the number of civilian casualties). Sometimes I’m in Israel-bashing mood; sometimes I’m in Iran-bashing mood; yet other times I’m in sexist-bashing mood.

  14. SLC says:

    It almost sounds like Mr. Levy is waiting for all the facts to come out before wielding his louisville slugger. One could only wish that the news media and the other Israel bashing bloggers would act in the same manner.

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