Why the Left went from being pro-Israel, Zionism to opposing them - opinion

Solidarity with the struggle of the long-persecuted Jews for national freedom was seen as an integral element in an anti-fascist, anti-colonialist, and anti-racist worldview. 

'Long live the Intifada': Palestinians and pro-Palestinian supporters protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza amid days of conflict between the two sides, in Brooklyn, New York, US, May 15, 2021.  (photo credit: RASHID UMAR ABBASI / REUTERS)
'Long live the Intifada': Palestinians and pro-Palestinian supporters protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza amid days of conflict between the two sides, in Brooklyn, New York, US, May 15, 2021.
(photo credit: RASHID UMAR ABBASI / REUTERS)

This Sunday, socialists across the globe will be proudly waving red flags at May Day parades to mark International Workers’ Day. 

Once widely celebrated by labor, social democratic and socialist parties worldwide (including extensively in Israel), today May Day is primarily associated with the regime-sponsored events in authoritarian socialist countries and with the familiar radical left demonstrations across the West and the Global South.

This year in cities from Johannesburg to Toronto, and from Dhaka to Athens, protesters will be advocating revolutionary change, a world liberated from the capitalist system “that puts profits before people.” Overwhelmingly, May Day 2022 marchers will also self-identify as staunch enemies of the Jewish state. 

This anti-Israel hostility is not limited to strident criticism of Israel’s behavior but encompasses the repudiation of Zionism itself. Today’s militant socialists reject the legitimacy of the Jewish state, the very right of the Jews to national self-determination in their homeland. 

Across the contemporary radical left, including Europe’s Mélenchonists, Podemitas, Corbynistas and Sinn Féiners, it is widely believed that the Jewish state should never have been established. They often erroneously view Israel as an illegitimate colonialist creation, a state founded on racist precepts and built on the dispossession of the land’s rightful Palestinian inhabitants. 

 SINN FEIN leaders launch the party’s manifesto in Belfast for the Northern Ireland Assembly election. Among Sinn Feiners, it is widely believed that the Jewish state should never have been established.  (credit: CLODAGH KILCOYNE/REUTERS) SINN FEIN leaders launch the party’s manifesto in Belfast for the Northern Ireland Assembly election. Among Sinn Feiners, it is widely believed that the Jewish state should never have been established. (credit: CLODAGH KILCOYNE/REUTERS)

Some remain stuck in a Marxist Cold War narrative that sees Israel as an imperialist outpost to ensure Western domination of the Middle East’s people and resources. 

Sadly, today’s leftist anti-Zionism is not confined to the hard-core militants, but in its more presentable manifestations, is an all-too-fashionable liberal-progressive worldview. 

YET THIS perspective involves rewriting the politics surrounding Israel’s birth in May 1948, ignoring the fact that the Left celebrated Israel’s Declaration of Independence, seeing it as the culmination of a progressive struggle to correct historic injustices inflicted upon the Jews. In parallel, those then in charge of Britain’s colonial policy ardently opposed Jewish statehood.  

Already in 1939, prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s Conservative government adopted the infamous anti-Zionist White Paper closing the gates of Mandatory Palestine to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, trapping them in Europe to face Hitler’s Final Solution.

Britain knew that the Jews had no alternative but to support it in the conflict with the Axis, while the loyalty of the Arab leadership to the Allied cause was in question. The geopolitical realities demanded appeasing the Arabs. 

Britain’s attitude did not change in 1945 with the end of World War II. Despite the Zionist contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Jewish struggle for self-determination was fervently opposed by the British government. The Arab world’s size, resources and strategic importance trumped any sympathy London felt for the Jews who had just undergone the horrors of the Holocaust.

As the British colonial authorities stepped up their suppression of the Zionist underground – then engaged in an increasingly violent struggle for independence – it was the Soviet Union’s representative at the UN, Andrei Gromyko, who came out in support of the Zionist position. 

Addressing the UN in 1947 Gromyko stated: “The fact that no Western European state has been able to ensure the defense of the elementary rights of the Jewish people and to safeguard it against the violence of the fascist executioners explains the aspirations of the Jews to establish their own state.”

Soviet support was not just declarative. When Arab countries invaded in 1948 to destroy the nascent Jewish state, their military forces were armed with British weapons and in some cases even commanded by British officers. In its struggle for survival, the young State of Israel relied on weapons from Communist Czechoslovakia, their provision authorized by the USSR.

MOSCOW’S BACKING of Israel was far more about Soviet realpolitik than genuine solidarity with the Jews. Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship was becoming increasingly antisemitic, the infamous Doctor’s Plot just one expression of the Kremlin’s anti-Jewish prejudice. Rather, the USSR was motivated by the desire to roll back the British empire and establish influence in a region that until then was monopolized by the West. 

Predictably, communist parties across the globe faithfully echoed Gromyko’s position. The democratic Left was also unabashedly supportive, chiding Britain’s post-war Palestine policy as a betrayal of the UK Labour government’s pre-election pro-Zionist manifesto commitments. 

In America, Israel’s cause was championed by progressives in Congress and organized labor, while the State Department’s patrician diplomats, like their British counterparts, worried about Washington’s relations with the Arab states and the flow of oil.  

For many on the Left, the politics of the newly established Israel also appeared promising. The largest party in the first Knesset, elected in January 1949, was the Labor-Zionist Mapai, which gained 46 out of 120 seats. The second-largest was the Marxist-Zionist Mapam with 19 seats, and the Middle East’s only legal Communist Party, the Stalinist Maki, gained four. 

Undoubtedly socialism was clearly reflected in the institutions defining the young Jewish state: collectivist agriculture in the kibbutzim, the all-powerful Histadrut labor federation, and an expansive network of cooperative and labor movement-owned commercial and industrial enterprises, including Israel’s largest bank, aptly named the Workers’ Bank (Bank Hapoalim).

In Washington and London, some conservatives looked on with concern. Perhaps influenced by antisemitic stereotypes, they feared the emergence of a Jewish-Bolshevik Trojan horse in the Middle East. 

CONCURRENTLY, the left viewed the Arab states and the Palestinian leadership as reactionary. The former were traditionalist autocratic monarchies averse to progressive influence, the latter headed by Amin al-Husseini, an overt antisemite and Nazi collaborator, with Yugoslavia’s independent Communist leader Josip Broz Tito seeking Husseini’s extradition for direct involvement in Axis war crimes perpetrated on Yugoslav soil. 

It is therefore unsurprising that Israel’s cause garnered massive support across the global left. Solidarity with the struggle of the long-persecuted Jews for national freedom was seen as an integral element in an anti-fascist, anti-colonialist, and anti-racist worldview. 

This year’s May Day marchers may confidently profess their anti-Zionism, but logic dictates that their revolutionary indignation should not be channeled toward contemporary Israel. Instead, they should be castigating an entire generation of progressives who oversaw the defeat of fascism and the birth of anti-colonialism.

While serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, I wrote an article for the socialist Morning Star newspaper about Israel’s struggle for independence. The idea was to challenge hegemonic anti-Zionism across the British radical left, only to have my piece rejected. Unlike their paladin Karl Marx, the editors showed little interest in a serious discussion of history.

Happy May Day!

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS at Tel Aviv University. Follow him at @MarkRegev on Twitter.