Why Does the Left Hate Israel?
[Editor's note: during the holiday period, we are republishing classic articles along with a few new ones. This article was written in January 2004.]
For decades, most American Jews have believed there were far greater threats from the fringe right than the fringe left in this country. While this view may have been reasonable in the past, it is certainly not so today. The fringe right still exists— the neo—Nazis in Northwest Idaho, Matthew Hale, and David Duke, and the remnants of the KKK. But the views of the fringe right have been marginalized by their repudiation by virtually all mainstream elements on the political right.
The fringe left, on the other hand, has evolved into a broader left, and become more mainstream. The political perspective of this new left is vehemently anti—Israel, and the power and reach of this movement represent a real threat to Israel, and by extension to Jews who support Israel.
What is the Left?
The left does not mean the Democratic Party in Congress. When pro—Israel resolutions come before the Congress, due in part to the extraordinary efforts of AIPAC [America Israel Public Affairs Committee], a very high percentage of both Democrats and Republicans vote a solidly pro—Israel agenda. There are some small differences between the parties, however, especially in the House. In particular, the support for Israel among African American Congressmen, all Democrats, has dropped in recent years. However, the defeat in the 2002 cycle of Cynthia McKinney, and Earl Hilliard, two members who were hostile to Israel, and the election to their seats of Denise Majettte and Arthur Davis, has put two highly visible, very pro—Israel African Americans into the Congress.
In the Senate, you have a different situation. Senators run statewide — which tends to move them towards the center in competitive states. Add to this the fact that many Senators have national political ambitions, and almost all Senators wind up having mainstream views on the Middle East. The mainstream view in Congress is to be a supporter of Israel. This is due in part, as I said already, to effective lobbying, but also to the widely held view that Israel is an embattled democracy, living in a neighborhood full of authoritarian, thuggish anti—American regimes, that Israel shares the western values this country holds dear, and is engaged in the same fight against Islamic terrorists as this country.
These views are also mainstream for most Americans, which is why support for Israel routinely runs three to five times the support level for the Palestinians in every public opinion survey that is taken. In the House, the tendency to use the redistricting process after every census for incumbent protection, has led to the creation of a very large number of safe seats, and very few competitive ones (perhaps 10—15% of the total). This has given incumbents the ability to be less mainstream in their views on this issue and others. The growth in the Arab and Muslim population in America, and the creation of more districts with high percentages of African American voters, are both elements that could create more House members sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, since both African Americans, as a group, and Arabs and Muslims, to a much larger extent, are less sympathetic to Israel than the general population. In any case, it would be hard to point to any individual member of Congress today and say that he or she hates Israel.
The left in this country includes large numbers of academics, journalists, human rights activists, environmental and animal rights activists, entertainers, and some church groups, women's groups, racial advocacy groups and unions. There are also liberals who are members of these same groups. I distinguish between leftists and liberals by one key test: how they feel about the country in which they live. If you tend to regard America as a primarily flawed, evil, unjust, racist country (or at least when Republicans are running it), and most importantly, believe that the US is the primary threat to world peace internationally, then you are a leftist, and not a liberal. Of course, many leftists are perfectly happy to be living here, amidst all their complaints about the country, and regrettably all too few Hollywood artists carried through with their threat to leave the country after the 2000 election.
This does not mean, however, that many liberals, while generally pro—Israel, have been on the right side of many foreign policy debates. From the cold war to both of the Iraq wars, many, though certainly not all liberals, have been on the anti—war side of the foreign policy debate. But liberals, as distinguished from leftists, do not think America is a bad country. Most liberals think America is an improvable country, if only we made the tax system more progressive, spent more money on social services, and worked more through multilateral organizations abroad. Liberals tend to support overseas military missions when our effort supports a human rights concern, and much less so if the military engagement is claimed to be in support of a strategic objective. Liberals, by and large, supported American military involvement in the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti, and now Liberia, while opposing the two wars with Iraq.
One can not generalize about all liberal political leaders, however. Scoop Jackson, President Harry Truman, President Lyndon Johnson, and President John F. Kennedy were all liberals, and so today is Dick Gephardt, and to some extent Joe Lieberman. All of these men, however, supported assertive foreign policies, not much different from today's neo—conservatives. So, among liberals, and certainly within the Democratic Party, there is debate and there are differing views on foreign policy. Among leftists, however, there is a lockstep view of America's role in the world. You can not be a 'card carrying' leftist today, and find any reason to support American military efforts abroad, whether it be to save Kosovo from the Serbs, or to liberate Iraq, or destroy the Taliban in Afghanistan. Certainly, some leftists defend American involvement in World War II, since we were fighting right wing fascists. But even here, many on the left argue that most of the heavy lifting in this war was performed by the Soviet Union, our communist allies. DOES THE LEFT HATE ISRAEL?
Opposition to the recent American invasion of Iraq is not a defining characteristic of a leftist. You could be opposed to the war, without being a leftist. However, some, perhaps many, of those who opposed the war are leftists, by the definition I provided above. While I was a supporter of the war effort, there were legitimate reasons to be opposed to going to war, that do not in any way raise a question of someone's patriotism.
However, when a demonstrator carries a sign in an anti—war rally saying Stop AmeriKKKan Imperialism, or America and Israel are the Real Axis of Evil, that I think is different, and reflects not a reasoned consideration of the Iraq question, but a worldview that is anti—American, hence leftist, and guarantees opposition to the war effort. Only one other country other than the US was ever named in a sign carried by a demonstrator at the marches or rallies I saw, and that of course was Israel and always negatively.
I happened to witness several anti—war demonstrations. There were always many printed signs attacking Israel, signs in other words produced by groups that participated in anti—war demonstrations, and thought it was entirely consistent to be both against the war with Iraq and anti—Israel. Think about this issue this way: was there a single pro—war rally in the country in which there was an anti—Israel sign? I don't remember seeing one or hearing about one. During the period leading up to the war and in the months since, has there been any supporter of the war on any talk show or newscast, or in any op—ed, gratuitously attacking Israel?
What is it about Israel that brings forth this ill will from the left? Why this exceptionalism about Israel? Alan Dershowitz once wrote an article describing a visitor from another galaxy who comes to earth, and spends several weeks visiting major American colleges and universities. At the end of his tour, the visitor would learn that of all the nations of the world other than the one he was visiting, only one is subject to a divestment effort for a university's endowment, only one is viciously described in literature regularly distributed to students on campus, and in essays and editorials in college papers and magazines, and only one is discussed in classes across the humanities curriculum with relentless rebuke and scorn. And this country is not, say Sudan or Nigeria, where millions have died in vicious civil wars perpetrated for the most part by Muslims against Christians, or other countries in Africa that still practice slavery, or Saudi Arabia, where women have no rights, and those who try to practice a religion other than Islam are arrested or expelled, or the Palestinian territories, in which homosexuals or those suspected of being homosexual, are tortured or mutilated in the same way as captured Israelis. It is not in fact, any of the dozens of other unsavory places on the planet that provide little or no freedom for their citizens and ruthlessly exploit their country's workers and resources for the benefit of the ruling few. This much maligned country of course is Israel.
The treatment of America itself on the college campus is pretty bad. When a Columbia University professor calls for a million Mogadishus (in other words, the death of many millions of Americans), that is beyond even what we normally get from the academic left — rationalizing and explaining the root causes of the 9/11 attacks (American policies of course), or defending suicide bombings in Israel as acts of resistance and national liberation.
But there are differences between the anger towards Israel and that directed against America. The level of anger directed against America seems to depend to some extent, among some critics at least, on the party controlling the White House and Congress. Leftists hated America less when Clinton was president than they do now. Some leftists seem so agitated by President Bush, they have become unhinged from any ability to see the world except in conspiratorial, and apocalyptic terms. With Israel, the party in power makes little difference in terms of the attitudes towards it in academia, or for others on the left. A left of center Israeli government may make Israel easier to defend for some Jews, but does not change the nature of the historical crime that was committed in establishing the Zionist state for most leftists.
Why does the Left hate Israel?
I believe there are several reasons:
1. It is an easy way to express one's hatred for America.
2. Israel is viewed as an outpost of colonialism , and an active practitioner of it.
3. Israel is a western nation, and hence can be judged by the left. Israel is not protected by cultural relativism, as the Arabs are.
4. Leftist Christian churches can escape any lingering guilt about the Holocaust, by turning Israel into a villain. Some leftist churches hate Israel because they think this will help protect their members in the holy land— in other words they feel threatened.
5. Ferocious Muslim hatred of Israel and the Jews reinforces the natural cowardice of many on the left who go along with the Muslims to stay out of their line of fire.
6. Jewish leftists are prominent in the anti—Israel movement. This opens the floodgates for everybody else.
7. Israel is attacked because the secular left is appalled by the influence of religious settlers and their biblical connections to the land of Israel, and by the support for Israel by evangelical Christians, and Christian Zionists.
1. Hatred of America
The most basic reason as suggested already is that those who hate America, also hate those whom America supports, of which Israel is exhibit A. For Al Qaeda, there is the great Satan, America, and the little Satan, Israel. Since 9/11, Al Qaeda has made the focus of its hatred for the great Satan, the great Satan's support for the little Satan. In Europe there are a much larger number of hardcore leftists than we have in the United States. Score one for America, I think. Two percent of the population vote for the Green Party here, 10% or more do so in European countries. While many think the Greens are primarily an environmental movement, the party platform in every country in which they are a factor, including the US, is replete with harsh attacks on Israel. In many European countries, the Greens are part of a left of center governing coalition, which helps explain why there is so little sympathy for Israel in Europe.
Why do the Greens hate Israel? The Greens hate the western consumer society in which they live, they hate corporations and capitalism, and they hate globalization. America is the great Satan for the Greens — the killer of Kyoto, the maker of genetically modified foods, the exporter of McDonald's, Disney, Hollywood trash and Starbucks. So the Greens are leftist by definition. And economic leftists have an anti—American world view which tends to make them reflexively pro—Palestinian and anti—Israel. This hatred of America, which spills over into anti—Israel venom, is, as mentioned earlier, also quite common on the college campuses in America.
Along with the hatred for America, comes a world view about what America and its Western allies represent. In short, the western capitalist societies are believed to be colonialists. While the European empires disbanded half a century ago in most cases, the left believes that colonialism is still evident in the economic relations of the western countries with the third world— in the exploitation of their economies. Globalization has become the catchphrase to describe how the west gets rich off of the backs of the poor countries and their people. Hence, a critical slogan of the anti—war effort in Iraq was No War for Oil. Why do western nations go to war? To steal the resources of the Third World One might wonder about what resources we were fighting for in Afghanistan, but consistency has never been a requirement for a leftist world view. Israel in the mind of the left is a colonialist creation. The Zionists were given a country to settle where other people already lived. Then the western nations tried to expunge their guilt for the Holocaust (which most leftists will tell you was a bad thing, though hardly unique in the long history of western colonialist genocide) by agreeing to partition Palestine and formally create one Jewish majority state and one Arab majority state.
After 1967, the left's job became easier in attacking Israel, since Israel became a very juicy target. By absorbing millions of Palestinians in the west bank and Gaza, Israel became an occupier. By creating settlements, Israel showed the left its desire to permanently dominate the Palestinians. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Eastern European satellite nations gained their freedom. So for the left, Israel has become the most glaring example of a western society oppressing indigenous peoples.
Now of course the left never became too agitated over the Soviet Union and their system of satellite nations. After all, the economic philosophy of communism had a lot of appeal for many on the left, even after many decades of proof that neither the Soviet Union, nor China, nor any other communist countries had created economic or political systems that had much to so with any noble visions about workers paradises that leftist philosophers might have gleaned from the writing of Karl Marx. Today's economic explosion in China has, of course, come through the Communist party's capitulation to capitalism. But the left did not criticize China's now permanent occupation and annexation of Tibet, nor the movement of many Chinese into Tibet to create a Chinese majority there, nor the Soviets' movement of hundreds of thousands of Russians into the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia after World War II, so as to diminish the percentage of the native stock in those countries. Jewish settlers are perhaps 10% of the population of the West Bank. So no—one could seriously suggest that the settlements were an attempt to create a Jewish majority in the area. Instead, stories are circulated about nefarious Israeli plans to move the Palestinian population out of these areas, and make them Arab free, in other words— ethnic cleansing, one of the left's favorite charges.
The charge that Israel has plans to move the Palestinians out is almost amusing, since it is the reverse that is true: the Palestinians demand and the left wholeheartedly endorses the call for making the west bank Judenrein [all Jewish settlers out], yet also demands that Israel accept the Palestinian right of return, and absorb 4 million displaced Palestinians, 95% of whom are descendants of original refugees, and have never set foot within pre—67 Israel. One might ask how these people are returning to anything that is theirs or that they know, but why complicate things?
3. Moral Relativism
There is another perhaps more important reason why Israel is singled out. Objective observers might look at Israeli society, and while noting all its obvious problems, would also recognize its vigorous free press, its system of justice, its democratic form of government, its willingness to absorb immigrants of different skin color and national origin to create a new society, its great tolerance for diversity, the role of women in society. Such observers might conclude that Israel compares quite favorably to the authoritarian nations surrounding it. But Israel will always be judged by a different standard from its neighbors. The reason for this is that Israel is not only viewed as a western creation, but a western nation, and its neighbors are not.
With the west, anything short of perfection is intolerable, because for the left perfection is the goal. With the third world countries, the left expects nothing (and for the most part gets nothing). When Hutus used machetes to slaughter Tutsis in Rwanda in 1993 — almost a million in four months — the left reserved its criticism for western nations for their inability or unwillingness to intervene. But as regards the ethnic slaughter, the left's attitude was more or less paternalistic: what do you expect of these natives? I do not remember reading any criticism of the Hutus, or their culture, or their practicing majority rule in such an unsavory way. Of course, had the West militarily intervened, the left would have criticized the countries that sent troops for attacks that killed innocent civilians.
The reason for this hypocrisy I think is the triumph in the academy, and among many in the journalistic profession and the intelligentsia of many western nations, of the noxious notion of moral and especially cultural relativism. This is especially true as regards the left's attitudes towards the behavior of non—western third world people. This is the triumph of the late Edward Said, the distinguished man of letters, and Professor at Columbia University. Said was a professor, but also the photographed rock thrower on the Israeli Lebanese border (thereby presumably perfecting the body and the mind). Said of course was also the man who fabricated his entire personal history, claiming for half a century to be a dispossessed Palestinian, when in fact he was a member of a wealthy Egyptian family, and neither he nor his family suffered any expulsion from Palestine. But why mess up a good story that combines the personal with a historical narrative that one is fabricating in both cases? Of course Columbia University took no action against Professor Said for either his violent act, or his fraudulent history.
Said wrote a watershed book, Orientalism, arguing that the west could not judge the Eastern world, because it did not understand it, and never could. This is the diversity of separation. We can't judge what we don't know, and more importantly can never know. Hence, no universal standard of justice or judgment can ever apply. What may be judged bad or inferior here (say religious intolerance) might be an important feature to hold together a different kind of society, where the role of religion in society is different from ours, and transcends the very notion of nation state.
But Said of course went further. He not only wished to defend the Third World from attacks from the West that many of these third world states were intolerant, bad societies. He attacked the West for its intellectual imperialism, for daring to believe that western philosophy and religion could provide a framework for judging other societies and for our trying to make the rest of the world in our image, which of course we believe is superior: a cultural arrogance. The West he argued, judges the rest of the world inferior for not measuring up. So Western attempts to criticize Arab countries for their intolerance of non—Muslims is a form of colonialism. It is not hard to understand how this kind of argument would have massive appeal among the refugees of the sixties now dominating the faculties of most American colleges and universities. 4. Christian Holocaust Guilt
There is also a religious dimension to the left's hatred of Israel. Some of this I think represents the attitude prevalent in Christian churches to show sympathy for the perceived underdog: in this case the Palestinians. This support for the underdog is a big part of the leftist ideology — the teenage rock throwers combating the Apache helicopters and tanks of the occupying army. But I think there is something deeper, and less savory to the preference of the Christian left for the Palestinians over Israel. The Jews, in the view of the Christian left, have been waving the bloody sheet of the Holocaust for over 50 years. And the Christian left is tired of hearing about it.
They think that Israel has gotten a free pass for too long, because the Holocaust prevents Israel's critics from attacking it, for fear of being labeled as anti—Semites with no historical memory. For years, the criticism of Israel in Germany, in particular, has been more muted than in other parts of Europe, for this very reason. But in the last year, even this sensitivity evaporated. This Christian coldness to Israel is a factor in the liberal or high churches in America — the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Quakers, and all the other mainstays of the National Council of Churches, the good friends of Fidel Castro, and the group that pressured the Clinton administration to send Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba. Absolution for failure to intervene to prevent the Holocaust, or for complicity in its having occurred, can be wiped away by accusing Israel (the Jewish surrogate) of all kinds of high crimes and by using the same language of the Holocaust: ethnic cleansing, genocide, brutal occupation, starvation, human rights violations, to describe Israeli behavior today.
There is also one other factor for the problem of the Christian churches with Israel, and that is fear. The number of Christians in the holy land has been declining, and at an accelerating rate, since Muslims assumed more control over Lebanon, and the Palestinians assumed control over much of the West Bank after Oslo. The Christian churches in the Palestinian territories and Jerusalem have little to fear from Israel, and much to fear from the Arabs. Just as European governments have become more pro—Palestinian as their Arab population has grown, so Christian churches have become more pro—Palestinian to try to appease the Arabs who control the future of the Christian churches in the Holy Land.
5. Cowardice and Group Think
It is difficult to miss the virtual unanimity within the left on the subject of the Middle East. There is little visible political courage on the left to take contrary views to those held by most others in the movement. The left, much more than the right, seems to need group reinforcement. If there is aggressive anti—Israel sentiment from the chorus on the left, those who are not as passionate about the issue, find it easier to join the chorus, than stand aside. On the campuses, there is another problem: Muslim students are fiercely hostile to Israel. Confronted with this aggressive hostility to Israel, even many Jewish students recede, rather than confront it. So there is no effective counterweight.
It took a physical attack against a small group of Jewish students at San Francisco State University last year, and the action of a single professor who witnessed it and described what happened in a widely circulated email, to finally alert many in the Jewish community to how desperate things were getting for Jewish students at many colleges in the face of this anti—Israel venom. The hard core left on campus, both faculty and students, are happy to make common cause with Muslim students and show their solidarity, particularly since a new issue for the left, since 9/11 concerns protecting the civil rights of Muslims and Arabs in this country. Jewish students are also resented by other minority groups on campus because of their perceived hostility to affirmative action. Minority students have therefore become active enthusiasts of the Palestinian cause on many campuses— a solidarity action in the face of perceived common enemies.
There is a distinction between being pro—Palestinian and anti—Israel. Those who hate Israel prefer to say they are for Palestinian self—determination and freedom. This sounds better than claiming that you hate Israel. Of course, were Israel not to exist in the Middle East, the last thing the Palestinians would have is self—determination, and freedom. Why would the Palestinians have what does not exist in any of the other 21 Arab countries? But the left is happy to demand a free, democratic Palestine— all of it of course, not just the West Bank and Gaza, but Israel too, after a right of return brings 4 million refugees into Israel to create a majority Palestinian state.
Those who support the Palestinians are also reluctant to attack the methods the Palestinians choose to use to win their freedom. So while lip service may be paid to a perfunctory condemnation of certain suicide bombing attacks, there are always root causes— the occupation, and settlements, and discrimination. There can be no conduct by the favored group— in this case the Palestinians, that can be judged bad in its own right, for that might serve to muddy the waters on the moral valence between the two sides of the conflict. In some circles, the violence is even romanticized, just as Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh were heroes to the left in the 60s.
6. Jews Who Hate Israel
The passion with which the left hates Israel is also related to the fact that the left contains many Jewish haters of Israel. When Noam Chomsky, and Norman Finkelstein are the thought leaders of the movement to deny Israel's legitimacy, and moral standing, this gives cover to those who hate Israel for perhaps baser motives— raw anti—Semitism for instance. Israel's universities are full of professors who detest Israel and Zionism, such as Ilan Pappe, and major Israeli newspapers such as Haaretz employ Jewish pro—Palestinian writers such as Gideon Levy and Amira Hess. Many Jewish anti—Zionists in this country get their guidance from Israelis in various left wing groups, such as Jeff Halper, who are actively working to destroy the Jewish state.
For a long time, the left has argued that Jews need only fear the right — the fascists, the Christian crusaders, the neo—Nazi hate groups. Certainly there are lunatics on the right who are a danger not only to Jews but to a free society. But today I think there are many more Jew haters and Israel haters on the left than the right. It is wrong of course to generalize and equate anti—Israel views with anti—Semitism. One can be critical of Israel, and one can certainly be critical of specific Israeli policies, such as settlements, without being a Jew hater. On the issue of settlements, almost half the Israeli population thinks that many of them were a bad idea. But when Israel is singled out, as the left does, and held to account for things for which no other country is judged negatively, then something more is going on. Why is Israel the subject of 40% of all critical UN resolutions? Is Israel responsible for 40% of what is wrong in the world?
I have been to several of the left wing Israel hate fests. They are scary. There is real passion in the air. There is something about Israel that gets the juices going. Anti—Semitism is a part of it. There are a lot of people who are envious of Jews, on the left as well as the right. Patrick Buchanan thinks Jews have hijacked the conservative movement. But on the left, particularly in the academy, and in journalism, I am certain there is professional envy of the many Jewish faces and what better way to get even, and get back for sometimes losing the competitive battle, than by picking on the Jewish state as a surrogate. Leftist Jews sometimes lead the assault against Israel in these venues, thereby giving the attacks, whatever their reason, greater moral authority. Few Jews will stand up for Israel in these environments, because of the great pressure on the left to conform to the group think in the institutions they control.
7. Hatred of Religion
Finally, there is the conflict between the religious beliefs the left associates with the state of Israel, and the secular humanistic values of the left. The anti—Zionists in Israel are foolish enough to believe that a secular democratic bi—national state of Palestine would afford them the same liberties they enjoy today. The leftists in Israel and abroad seek an end to nationality, and other antiquated creations, and the building of mankind. How exactly they would deal with jihadist Islam and aggressive Wahhabism, we don't know. The left has its own religion— it just doesn't require going to church. Reading the New York Times over coffee will do, except on high holy days, when you also must read the New York Review of Books, the Nation, and the collected works of Paul Krugman. The left also despises Israel because it associates its policies in the territories with the behavior of religious Jews, the 'right wing zealots,' as they prefer to call them. Just as leftists hate the Republican Party in America, because they believe that it is controlled by corporations (bad) and Christian fundamentalists (very bad), the left believes that Israel's behavior is bad, because it is controlled by people who are 'irrational' religious believers.
All this talk by the settlers about the biblical ties to Judea and Samaria, is foreign to the ears of those who believe that everything in this world should be decided through reason, and can be negotiated by lawyers, and international organizations. It is ironic of course, that Israel's so—called religious zealots will likely be much less a factor in preventing a settlement to the Middle East conflict, than the religious exclusionists on the Arab side who have always detested, and wanted to expunge the presence of a non—Muslim state in their midst. But for the left, strong religious views in a Western country are those to be attacked, not those of third world people. For a Western county should know better than to allow itself to be controlled or influenced by religious people. There is a place for religion (a very private sphere for the few on the left who pay lip service to being a member of a church), and there is reason for everything else. The left basically detests religious people and religions of the west (particularly the Catholic church for its views on abortion), but is neutral about third world religions and believers, for which they are not able or willing to judge, but rather must protect against our cultural biases against them.
The support for Israel by Christian conservatives and evangelicals is also a source of great resentment by the left. While the fringe right may believe that the Jews control the world's banks, the left fears that Christian conservatives control the Republican Party, which right now controls the Presidency and maintains a small majority in both houses of Congress. If Christian conservatives are on one side of an issue, the left has to be on the other side. The friends of your enemies are also your enemies. It is impossible for the left to accept that there can be any common ground between themselves and religious conservatives. Sadly, there are many Jews who have been unable to welcome the passionate support for Israel that comes from the Christian conservatives, because of their disagreements with them on social issues, which I daresay are much less important issues for Jews than the survival of the state of Israel.
The evidence I believe is clear today that Israel faces far greater threats from the left than the right. The left is reflexively anti—Israel and has established important beachheads in significant American institutions— academia, the media, and the old line Protestant 'high' churches, as well as in the very seats of government power in many Western European countries, and their intelligentsia. It is not surprising that Israel seems unable to get a fair shake from college professors, the BBC, Reuters, NPR, or liberal churches. Being anti—Israel has become part of their religion.
Richard Baehr is the Chief Political Correspondent of The American Thinker.