The relationship between Israel and center-left wing political parties around the world has become increasingly complex in recent decades, as reflected by ongoing debates regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the US Democratic Party, Labour Party in the UK, Liberal and New Democratic parties in Canada, and among numerous center-left wing parties throughout the globe.
What is often forgotten to the casual observer of trends in politics and ideology are the deep-seated and overarching paradigmatic debates that intensely shape left-wing perceptions of Israel. The core root of these perceptions, I suggest, centers on three all-encompassing themes:
The role of Jewish people and Israel: Universalism vs. Particularism
An enduring aspect in the perception of Israel among those on the center-left is the way they approach the lessons of Jewish history, whether as a set of universalistic lessons applied to all mankind, or a particularistic experience unique to the Jewish people. It is in this contention of values that perceptual lenses are applied, and among those of the left, are typically understood from the universalistic end.
The legacy of the Holocaust is a reflection of the debate on the lessons of Jewish history. While Jews may emphasize the concept of “Never Again,” this saying can be understood as “never again for anyone” from the universalistic outlook, or from the particularistic view, “never again to the Jewish people.”
In this respect, was the Holocaust a lesson for the world on religious, racial and ethnic persecution of any national group, including Rohingya, Sri Lankan Tamils, Middle Eastern Christians and dare I say it, Palestinians? Or was the Holocaust, as a lesson, a Jewish experience with a proscribed “uniqueness,” that is, a result of a millennia of evolving religious, economic, racial and cultural antisemitism unseen in the experience of other minority communities that have faced genocide, including Bosniak Muslims or Armenians?
As a state born out of the Holocaust, Israel straddles along the edges of both Universalism and Particularism. This can be seen in the notion of a particularistic Jewish and universalistic democratic state, debatably mutually compatible or incompatible concepts, and Zionism itself. Is Zionism a movement for ensuring Jewish security after the Holocaust, a legitimate expression of Jewish self-determination or an ethno-nationalist movement not distinct (hence universal) from others?
Besides the Holocaust and Israel/Zionism as a framework of debate among the Left, particularly those of a social-democratic and socialist bent, a third debate centers around the role of Israel in the international system. Being universalistic by design, the Left constantly struggles with the debate on Israel being either an outpost of Western imperialism, or as a nation-state of the Jewish people much the same as the Czech Republic.
Internal tensions within the Left
These debates on the role of the Jewish people and Israel in the global scheme does not take into consideration a second factor: internal tensions within the Left. The initial development of Israel as a social-democratic state with some revolutionary implementations of socialist practice via the kibbutz movement made the country a beacon for the labor-movement oriented Old Left in the West, but the sudden creation of the New Left in the 1960s, which emphasized Third Worldism, reshaped that perception. Israel’s miraculous victory in 1967 cemented the changed perception and split between the Old and New Left.
While the initial perception of Israel among the Old Left was that beleaguered social-democratic state surrounded by reactionary Arab regimes, the Six Day War, leading to the capture of Jerusalem and West Bank, paved the view in the New Left of a Western state with irredentist goals. Where one stands in the current makeup of left-wing political parties, whether Old or New Left, inherently shapes your perception of Israel.
The left-wing debate over the 1967 war, as a justified war of defense or conquest, is another fundamental point of contention the Left currently struggles with. The change could be seen in the UK Labour party, initially dominated by the Old Left and strongly supportive of Israel up until the 1980s, then following the Blair era, becoming increasingly supportive of radical anti-Zionism, hitting its peak with Jeremy Corbyn. The same struggle today can be seen within the two camps of Antifa in Germany, the fiercely Zionist anti-Germans and the dominant anti-imperialist camp that is also anti-Zionist. It remains unclear if the US Democratic Party will follow the same path as Labour, but the split does exist, between the weaker democratic-socialists and liberal/moderate factions of the party.
New consensus on the Right
The last aspect to the Left’s confusion is dialectical, a response to the Right’s new consensus of support for Israel. Part of the new consensus is due to the Right’s perception of Israel as a state embracing nationalism and religious traditionalism, as opposed to decreasing religiosity and growing secularization in North America and Western Europe. This has been spurred further by efforts in Christian–Jewish reconciliation over the last decades, particularly among Catholics and Protestants.
Related to the Right’s new embrace of Israel is the security aspect, the view of the Jewish state as a defense against Islamic extremism and as a potential model to be emulated in other states. This notion came about after the onset of the war on terror following September 11 and attacks in Western Europe. The central perception on the Right was to link the war on terror with the Second Intifada in Israel, as beleaguered Western liberal-democratic states were experiencing terrorist attacks.
As the Right linked Israel to the West, so did the Left, but in another respect. In the Left’s view, the cause of terrorism was not ideological hate for Western values, but rather the conditions created by the West, vis-à-vis economic exploitation, support for abusive regimes and prior US wars in the Middle East. Among the Left, this same lens applied to Israel in its relations with the Palestinians, by which the Jewish state created the conditions of Palestinian terrorism. Consequently, opposition to the Right’s approaches to security also meant opposition to the Israeli model, and sympathy with the Palestinians.
It is in these three complex paradigms, the lessons of Jewish history and Zionism, internal tensions within the Left, and the new consensus among the Right, that the global Left struggles so much on its perceptions of Israel.
The writer is a Ph.D Candidate of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Breaking News Editor at ‘The Jerusalem Post.’