As Israel’s war to defend its civilians against Hamas rockets continues, the absurdities mount. After Israeli TV reports that the Air Force destroyed fifty Hamas smuggling tunnels along the old Philadelphi line, from which Israel withdrew voluntarily, hoping for peace, in 2005, I thought of the classic Maxwell Smart line – “if only they used their talents for niceness not rottenness.” Gaza is not a garbage pit. It has a beautiful seacoast. Israel’s settlers showed what could flourish there. Palestinians could have made it their Riviera instead of their ammunition dump. As Hamas waits for bloodier Israeli mistakes, having hidden infrastructure and leaders among civilians, knowing that their most useful diplomatic currency is more casualties of their own, I am equally disgusted by Palestinian cruelty and the world’s gullibility. “Strike a blow on Tel Aviv!” a new hit song in the supposedly moderate West Bank shouts. “Don’t let the Zionists sleep! We don’t want a truce or a solution! Oh, Palestinians, you can be proud!” Nevertheless, in such an environment, the New York Times, fighting the conventional liberal wisdom for once, editorializes: “Israel is not the only party responsible for the current war in Gaza” -- how’s that for reluctant praise.
Underlying this latest Gaza conflict – and these anomalies -- are three overlapping mysteries. When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, why did the Palestinians choose rocket-launching over state-building there, perpetuating the conflict? Moreover, as protests mount on college campuses and among progressives against Israel, how did the radical Left end up supporting Hamas, an autocratic, illiberal, Islamist terrorist group? And, how can Israel win a war without clear war aims, no chance of conquering the enemy, and so many diplomatic and military handcuffs? These anomalies – all connected to the Great Inversion -- are leftovers from the Cold War’s ideological combat and the chaotic rebellions of the 1960s.
Soviet propagandists understood the power of manipulating words to trigger “Pavlovian” responses, the Princeton kremlinologist Robert Tucker taught. For them, the “ultimate weapon of political control would be the dictionary.” Terms like “racism,” “colonialism,” and “imperialism” came straight out of the Communist playbook for demonizing enemies and helped the Soviets malign the United States, while transforming Israel from the post-colonial poster child to the world’s bad boy. In 1967, Israel dared to win the Six Day War, precisely when the Third World and the Left began hating winners, especially if they could be cast as Western and white. And despite the many dark-skinned Jews from the East – and some light-skinned Palestinians – Soviet propagandists and their fellow travelers started libeling Zionism as racism. This lie built on deep anti-Semitic caricatures mistaking Jews’ “chosenness” as proof of arrogance rather than a humbling mission – and caricatured Israel as the Middle Eastern version of apartheid South Africa.
As this anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Zionist Soviet campaign grew in the 1970s, Yasir Arafat was supplementing the Palestine Liberation Organization terror campaign with an ideological war to shape world opinion. The Palestinians understood that if they could link their cause to the global anti-colonial, anti-racist struggles in Vietnam, South Africa, Cuba, they could become popular. Criminalizing Zionism turned David into Goliath, deeming Israel the Middle East’s perpetual villain with the Palestinians the perennial victims.
This doctrinaire rhetoric obscured what was really occurring—a clash of nationalisms between two nations emerging following the collapse of two imperial powers, the Ottoman Empire, then Great Britain. The result was what Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse calls this great inversion: in changing from the bloodthirsty rhetoric of Arabs and the Right— “We will destroy you!”—to the Left’s self-righteous rhetoric—“the racist Zionist-Imperialists are destroying us”—Jews again were seen by a broad Left-Right coalition as a threat.
Meanwhile, the New Left started betraying its defining rational, universal ideals and its liberal patrons, especially regarding human rights. Post-sixties radical leftism worshiped the new god of identity, valorizing racial and colonial victimhood as proof of virtue. Who you were determined the justice you deserved. And there was some extra self-righteous currency in criticizing your own. The totalitarian Left became reactionary, often robotically opposing America and Israel.
This great doctrinal inversion spawned today’s unlikely Red-Green alliance, uniting radical leftists with Islamists. The blackening of the Palestinians – and Muslims – along with the whitening of Israelis led radicals on the Left to support Islamist totalitarians whose ideological home is closer to the far Right.
This totalitarian anti-Zionism damns Israel’s existence, not its actions, discouraging compromise. Ending Israel -- not just the “occupation” – became too many Palestinians’ preoccupation. Hamas sees more upside in bombing Israel than developing Gaza -- while anti-Israel radicals, the great enablers of this great inversion, excuse Hamas’s sins.
The rules of war were inverted too. Terrorist aggressors were allowed to target civilians in service of their supposedly noble goals, Western powers, especially Israel, considered inherently guilty, were supposed to behave ethically even when the enemy didn’t. Constrained ideologically and morally, Israel undertakes these police actions, with limited goals and, alas, limited chances of success. A war with no aim beyond maintaining the status quo – which itself was unacceptable – is unrealistic, especially because every war’s one guaranteed casualty is the status quo.
So we live in a topsy-turvy world, a world where Hamas targets its neighbor instead of building its model state – then gains popularity. It is a world where some people who call themselves “liberals,” “enlightened,” can cheer a monstrous, dictatorial, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic Islamist terrorist regime. And it is a world where military options are limited, thus protecting some innocents while condemning others to constant trauma, in this case from a perverted Palestinian “liberation” movement which must become liberated from its pathology and its fellow travelers before we can ever hope for peace or stability.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow. His latest book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, which explores these origins of anti-Zionism, was just published.