Israel and Palestine – A Conflict for the Left?

by Jack McGinn

Why is there a fascination with an apparently intractable conflict in the Middle East – and why are we expected to have chosen a side simply based on our political affiliation? Something as simple as a name for the sliver of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River has become a shibboleth for determining activist credentials. Why is this so important to people?

The Left, fragmented and fractious as it is, usually seems to have a clear array of causes that one should subscribe to if seeking membership. Values of equality and cooperation are naturally the foundations, but young politically aware people will often be quickly introduced to an array of specific issues that are considered battlegrounds, where one can nail one’s colours to the mast and be on the right (left) side. Watershed moments in history are defined by the struggle of ideas that have caused and shaped them, be it women’s suffrage, the eight hour day, or the civil rights movement for equality before the law. The Left is progressive, and seeks to move society forward to a fairer, more equitable reality.

However, not all causes appear as clearcut to the young activist as civil rights and women’s liberation, which are after all hard to argue against in a society somewhat more civilised than the industrial dystopia it sprang from. What about humanitarian intervention, or affirmative action? Those fundamental values that underpin our actions on the Left don’t always seem to provide an easy answer for these dilemmas; what if I’m against imperialism, but I’m also an internationalist; what if I want to redress past injustices, but I’m for equality and against entrenching racial divisions?

And what should I think about Israel and Palestine? The issue is so ubiquitous on the Left that one could be forgiven for assuming that it was a matter of barricades set up, with workers on one side and cigar chomping industrialists on the other. There is even a nifty acronym for those who are otherwise leftist, but don’t identify with the Palestinian cause: PEP, or ‘Progressive Except for Palestine.’ The instant identification that the Left has with the Palestinians confuses some, who are wary of associating with ‘Islamofascism’ (read ‘Arabs’), or still see Israel as the beacon of Western liberal/progressive ideals in the region, if no longer bona fide socialism.

A residual sympathy for Israel has certainly featured in left wing movements over the last 60 years. From the idealism of the early kibbutzniks and the stream of international volunteers that went to Israel in the ‘60s and ‘70s, eager to build socialism, the image of a tiny nation struggling to prosper against the odds has been promulgated. Even as the Occupation became more entrenched, and the internal politics more neoliberal and militarist, the emotional attachment to ‘what could have been’ was hard to cast off.

The idea that you could be on the Left and still support Israel held on for a long time, not least because Western Jews have historically been well to the left of most other subgroups of society, but it has recently become more and more untenable. It’s easy to see why. Looking past Orientalist assumptions regarding uncivilised Arabs and intrepid pioneers ‘making the desert bloom’, the conflict increasingly appears to be about an oppressed population struggling for equal rights. For those on the Left, there is no less moral force to the Palestinian cause than there was for the causes of black South Africans, the native Vietnamese, or any people who fought against colonialism. The common refrain of ‘two sides to this complex issue’ has become harder for progressives to accept in the face of brutal occupation in the West Bank and airborne devastation in Gaza. In reality, people on the Left see all the values they hold dear exemplified in this vastly unequal ‘conflict’. They argue that the Palestinians are primarily the victims of racism backed by state violence, with the aggressor state entirely funded by the world’s only superpower, which also happens to be the mediator for the conflict. The Palestinians have no significant economic, political, or military support, and have been relentlessly imprisoned, displaced, and killed for almost 64 years, all of which would not have been possible without the support of Western governments.

This is not to say that those promoting Israel have nothing to offer to the left-inclined. Israel certainly has a more secular and liberal society than its neighbours, especially in modern cities like Tel-Aviv, and the rights of women and homosexuals are trumpeted as evidence of an Enlightenment bastion. The other most persuasive advocates emphasize Israel’s relative size and the magnitude of the forces opposing it, with the quite small Palestinian population subtly substituted at this point in the argument for the 280 million Arabs, who do look to be encircling the Jewish state. Large parts of the Left have directly taken these arguments head on, generally accusing the proponents of misleading via omission. The protection afforded to minorities is demonstrable, but pales somewhat when the treatment of the disenfranchised population in Gaza and the West Bank is brought up. A gay Palestinian may have an easier time in Haifa than Gaza City, but then, so would any Palestinian, free from the constant threat of aerial attack, house demolitions, and arbitrary detention. Even within Israel proper, an Arab minority that is considered a demographic threat faces more than 20 laws which discriminate against them on the basis of race. Similarly, Israel’s defence of being a tiny state in a hostile Middle East is hard to balance with the statistics – Israel can boast the world’s fourth most powerful army, an arsenal of at least 200 nuclear missiles, and the near-unconditional support of the United States. Israel is the regional superpower by any measure, and when compared with the powerless Palestinians, the Left is instinctively less than sympathetic.

The case seems then to have a clear moral dimension, but Palestine is primarily relevant for those in the West because of our complicity, and therefore the possibility for the Left to help change it. Though demonstrating against foreign repulsive regimes remains important, the fact that we need only change our own government’s policy in order to help prevent Israel’s daily crimes against the Palestinians gives the issue a certain pertinence. As has historically been the case, the Left is now taking up the same weapons, including boycotting and mass protests, which helped end the destruction of Vietnam and the Apartheid in South Africa. Palestine seems indeed to still be the issue.


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