There was a time when being a “Leftist Zionist” was no contradiction.
Zionism was built on principles of equality, common ownership and the sanctity of labor. In 1944, the British Labour Party resolved not only to support Jewish settlement of Palestine but, “on human grounds and to promote a stable settlement,” the transfer of the Arab population. “The Arabs have many wide territories of their own,” it resolved; “they must not claim to exclude the Jews from this small area of Palestine [excluding Transjordan], less than the size of Wales.” Theodor Herzl was far from being a right-wing ethnic nationalist. He dreamed of a Jewish state where Arabs would live as equals and no army would be necessary. Yet he understood that “Emancipation” was an empty promise for Jews, so long as they remained a powerless minority.
In short, there was a time when you could be a liberal or Socialist and still be a hard-nosed realist on questions of power.
Today’s Left prefers its heroes to be powerless. Israel commits the sin of being able and willing to defend itself. The Palestinians are absolved by dint of being less powerful. It is as if we should weep angry tears for the Nazis or Soviets because they proved (thank God) weaker than America.
Failing to understand the difference between how the army of a democracy exercises power – however, at times, ineptly or imperfectly – and how a Palestinian state would likely do so, if it had the opportunity, is akin to the mistake made by a certain brand of leftist in the 1930s who saw no meaningful difference between Churchill and Hitler.
Or is it a mistake? Is there something darker lurking in the modern Left’s anti-Zionism? When I entered university in the 1990s, the Left-inclined student’s default position was anti-Zionism. I was one of them. I wrote sanctimonious letters to the student newspaper, opposing Israel’s Grapes of Wrath operation in Lebanon in 1996. In 2002, I took moralistic pride in opposing Ariel Sharon’s Defensive Shield, while standing for election in a Jewish area of London. From 2000-2005, I worked for Britain’s Center-Left Liberal Democrats. In 2014, according to insider accounts, the party nearly blew up its coalition with the Conservatives over Gaza. Not tuition fees, healthcare, Europe, or trade with China and Saudi Arabia. Gaza.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, dubbed “Right Honorable Member for Palestine” by Prime Minister David Cameron, was fairly moderate. His parliamentarians mused about being Palestinian suicide bombers, described Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders as “actually very likable,” warned that Zionists were getting their “financial grips” into the political system, called for Israeli aid workers to be investigated for harvesting human organs, and had to be warned (twice) by party officials to stop talking about “the Jews.”
There came a point where I had to ask whether some of my “comrades,” when speaking about Israel, were talking about the same thing I was.
They slipped easily from humanitarianism into dark fantasies of hidden “Zionist” forces pulling the strings, medieval blood libels, rationalizations of terrorism and dubious sharing of platforms, shading into a kind of admiration and sense of comradeship with assorted Nazis and religious fundamentalists.
I visited Israel for the first time shortly after I left the party. Needless to say, it conformed to none of my leftist preconceptions. More than this, I no longer felt ashamed.
I understood that my anti-Zionism was composed largely of embarrassment and apology, impulses that were suddenly missing in Israel. “I am Jewish but not a Zionist” was like saying “I am Jewish but not one of them.” Why should there ever be a “but” after a statement of one’s identity? Another part of my anti-Zionism turned out to be based on a highly ideological brand of leftist historiography – inspired by the ideas of Gramsci, Said, Foucault and Chomsky – which I began to pick apart and question as a postgraduate.
Here are some of my questions.
Why is Jewish nationalism considered an “invention,” a “project,” an “ideology,” an “enterprise,” a “Western” imposition? Not to understand it, but to delegitimize it.
Palestinian nationalism is treated as a fact of nature but was itself invented out of a whole compost of ingredients, including European Nazism and Fascism.
Why is 1948 labeled a Zionist war to ethnically cleanse Palestine? As David Ben-Gurion put it, “Tel Aviv did not attack Jaffa. Jaffa attacked Tel Aviv.” The secretary general of the Arab League promised “a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”
If Palestinian leaders are true nationalists, then surely they are primarily concerned with securing a state? Apparently not.
Zionism was concerned with Jewish immigration above all. This was because it was fundamentally an ideology of rescue, not religion or land. So much so that in 1946 it offered to forgo statehood and give up its claim to Jerusalem in return for open immigration.
Palestinian “nationalism” was never intrinsically defined by a claim to statehood. It was quite happy to be part of Greater Syria or Jordan. Instead, it was defined by opposition to any Jewish immigration. That is why it said “no” even to the tiny Jewish state proposed by the Peel Commission in 1937, opposed the British White Paper in 1939 and bargained with Adolf Hitler to prevent Jewish refugees from reaching Palestine.
Put another way, the Palestinian leadership was quite happy to be part of a Pan-Arab empire or monarchy, even a Nazi-dominated world empire, provided it could get the one thing that mattered the most to them: a Judenfrei Middle East.
Why is Palestinian refugee status perpetual and saintly but Jewish refugees thought interlopers and a thing of the past? My grandparents were refugees from the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, but I do not go around calling myself a refugee. I have heard Norman Finkelstein repeatedly claim that 80 percent of Gazans are refugees. This is true only if you claim the label in perpetuity from generation to generation. On the same basis, Israel is close to 100% refugee, but nobody on the Left seems to think this grants the country any moral license or sanctity.
And what of the many thousands of Jewish refugees rescued by Israel in recent memory, for example from Ethiopia, Yemen and the former Soviet Union? Again, those who claim that Palestine was “ethnically cleansed” are not really bothered by refugees at all. They are bothered by Israel existing. Otherwise, Pakistan would be a far more obvious target of concern. 14 million people were “transferred” in that partition, which happened only the year before the pivotal year in Israel’s independence struggle. Unlike in Palestine, hundreds of thousands were butchered. No one says Pakistan – which engaged in two subsequent brutal and bloody occupations, in Kashmir and what became Bangladesh – has no right to exist.
In short, Zionism injected controversy into Middle Eastern politics not because there were competing nationalist claims for the same land, or because it entailed the creation of a Palestinian refugee issue. Rather, the issue was any significant Jewish presence in Palestine and the question of Jewish refugees.
I like to see myself as the sort of leftist you read about in textbooks. A democrat, an egalitarian, an anti-Fascist, a feminist and a peacenik. How can I be these things and not support Israel? How can I be these things and have any time for Israel’s enemies? How?
The author worked for a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament in the UK House of Commons for five years, 2000-2005, before becoming a teacher. He made aliya in 2015 and is writing a book on the Left’s attitude to Israel.