There can’t have been more than half a dozen of them. Crowded as usual near the railings of St John’s church graveyard in the center of town, the Côr Cochion (Reds Choir) were known of old to shoppers in Cardiff, Wales’ capital city. Every weekend, rain or shine (more commonly rain, this being Wales), this tiny gaggle of diehard Trotskyists would assemble to sing hymns to the death of capitalism and a world ruled by workers. Politics at this level more closely resembles religion than anything else, and so it was with the Côr, who faded into the background like any other street evangelists.
Then, one weekend in my childhood – I was probably about ten – something about their display caught my eye. Among the torrent of far-left buzzwords on their amateurish placards, one leapt out at me: “Zionist”. I felt like I’d heard this word before. Wasn’t it something to do with Jewish people? But in close proximity to it were other words. “Aggression”. “Apartheid”. “Fascist”. Now I was confused, because what little I’d absorbed of history at that age told me that in the Second World War, fascists hated Jews. Didn’t they? I pointed the sign out to my father, walking by my side. “Well,” he said offhandedly, “the ideology of the people who founded Israel was quite close to that of the Nazis.”
I thought little more of it. As a child and teenager, I broadly accepted my parents’ worldview. This chiefly consisted of dogmatic (not extreme) leftism, of which anti-Zionism was but a tiny part. The truth is, the subject just didn’t come up that often. American and Israeli accounts of anti-Zionism have a tendency to portray modern Europe as slouching towards a Bethlehem of Jew-hatred, with far-left and far-right combining to bring about a return to the 1930s. I wouldn’t go that far. Anti-Zionism is certainly ubiquitous on the hard left, but in my experience is merely one component of a seamless, all-encompassing theory of the world that, if I may be cynical for a moment, revolves around three questions:
- Which side is the United States on?
- Which side has all the money/weaponry?
- Which side, overall, has lighter skin?
Where all three questions generate the same answer, that answer is The Enemy. Where the answers are mixed or unclear, the result is abject confusion, as in the case of Syria. In the manner of a stopped clock, this formula will occasionally yield the correct position, as with South Africa (of which more later). More often, it’s a first-class ticket into the moral abyss. In the interests of balance, I should point out that a non-trivial percentage of right-wingers make use of the same three questions with the results inverted.
It is this dogmatic form of anti-imperialism, in my view, that most accounts for leftist hostility to the Jewish state. In Israel’s troubled early years, and in the long years of struggle before its foundation, Zionism was chiefly associated with the political left, to the extent that Orwell could write in 1945 that “it was de rigueur among enlightened people to accept the Jewish case as proved and avoid examining the claims of the Arabs”. Only with Israel’s emergence as a regional superpower and staunch American ally did the worm turn; a sequence of events that also miraculously coincided with conservatives discovering their deep-seated love of the Jewish people.
I don’t mean to suggest that genuine Jew-hatred is unheard of on the left, merely that cause and effect operate differently than many suppose. Once you’ve decided that Israel is an avatar of Western imperialism and Jewish supremacy, it’s hard to avoid being drawn into a clammy underworld of paranoia in which mainstream criticism of the Jewish state cross-pollinates with, as the phrase goes, something much darker. An example that might be familiar to American readers is the sad case of Professor John Mearsheimer. Once he’d identified Israel as the the chief source of American foreign policy woes (with partner-in-Jew-baiting Stephen Walt), it was only a matter of time before he plunged into the gutter with an endorsement of notorious Israeli neo-Nazi Gilad Atzmon.
Another source of leftist anti-Zionism, I have observed, is nostalgia. Disheartened by the shabby, workaday compromises of a democratic polity, a certain segment of the left yearns for an illusory past age of moral clarity. In Britain, this manifests itself in the myth of the Battle of Cable Street, the 1936 confrontation in which Oswald Mosley’s Nazi-aligned British Union of Fascists were forcibly prevented from marching through London’s East End by a motley assortment of working-class Jews, Irish, anarchists, communists and other sympathisers. This was indeed a high point for the radical left, but the memory of Cable Street leads countless activists to waste their time organising “anti-fascist” rallies against modern-day fascists. The latter are universally a pathetic and harmless bunch, certainly in the UK, so nothing is achieved save giving them free publicity.
When it comes to Israel, this toxic brand of sentimental self-indulgence orbits the word “Apartheid”. The long, dogged and ultimately successful campaign against South African white supremacy is one of the great triumphs of the international left. Nothing has approached it since. This is why anti-Israel propaganda openly tries to force the complicated reality of the Middle East into a Mandela-shaped mould, complete with a “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” campaign. The Palestinians are wronged innocents, the Israelis racist thugs, and that’s the end of the story. A semi-optional element is the Rueful Nazi Comparison, probably familiar to most readers, in which the speaker furrows their brow, looks furtively around and says, with wide-eyed earnestness, “you know, I hate to say it, but Israel is behaving just like Nazi Germany”. I’ve heard variations on this theme from countless peers and associates and, I’m sorry to say, my own mother (my father was less subtle – he just shouted it at me).
I wish I could provide you with a dramatic conversion story (I almost said Damascene, before remembering St. Paul’s thoughts on the Jews), in which a single incident suddenly made me realise the error of my ways and become the supporter of Israel I’m proud to be today. Real life is always rather messier. It was more a gradual process of self-education in which I steadily came to appreciate the discrepancies between reality the dogma around me. One watershed moment was reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s Prisoners (which you should too, if you haven’t). According to the anti-Zionist left, Goldberg is little more than a neocon propagandist, a stenographer for Benjamin Netanyahu who never met a war he didn’t like.
That’s why it can be jarring to open Prisoners and find a moving account of a tortured ideological journey, a painstaking attempt to reconcile Zionism with liberal values. I don’t agree with some of Goldberg’s conclusions, but here was a balanced, humane outlook from a self-described Zionist. There was simply no way of reconciling this with my previous frame of reference, and so I found myself unmooring from the anti-Zionism of my early youth.
Countless events combined to furnish me with a different, truer picture of the Jewish state. The flotilla incident of 2010 was another. While I initially jerked my knee and condemned the raid as barbaric, I was then struck by the curious nature of the international response. Certain details had a way of going missing on their way into print: the flotilla’s ties to Hamas and other Nazis-in-keffiyeh; how the “victims” were armed with iron bars and knives; the legality and original purpose of the blockade itself. My initial overreaction caused me to question my own motives. Was I really giving Israel a fair hearing?
Then, the more I learned about Israel proper (as opposed to the West Bank), the more I liked. In late 2010, former president Moshe Katsav was found guilty of rape by a panel of three judges that consisted of two women and an Israeli Arab. Can we imagine the equivalent happening in any Arab country? Can we, in fact, imagine it happening in most Western countries, given that Richard Nixon enjoyed a rich twilight as an elder statesman? These are not the actions of a fascist state. Nor is the high level of tolerance and acceptance extended to the LGBT community. Nor is the incredible explosion of science and technology Israel has husbanded. Nor are a hundred other things, great and small.
In recent years, the single greatest factor leading me to solidarity with Israel has been the threat of a nuclear Iran. Having studied the Nazi period, in a piecemeal and amateurish fashion, it is difficult not to be sensitive to inaction and complacency from the enlightened West when faced with eliminationist Jew-hatred. Here is a regime that openly compares Israel to a cancer while almost-openly seeking nuclear weapons, just one of which could kill millions if detonated over Tel Aviv. Yet the reaction of many left-wing commentators is to make excuses for the Mullahs as cravenly as they can. This is the subject of another essay, but suffice it to say that the failure of the democratic world to stop the Shoah is our deepest shame as a civilization. If we allowed a second Shoah, it would be beyond shame. Beyond words, even. We could never hold up our heads again.
Being the bleeding-heart pinko I am, this is the statutory paragraph in which I set out my disquiet with current Israeli policy, so here we go. West Bank occupation: bad. Two-state solution: good. Settlements: bad. Land for peace: good. Avigdor Lieberman: bad. Salam Fayyad: good. Are we done? Glad to hear it. A nuanced view of the Middle East shouldn’t be the rare virtue it apparently is.
In 1939, the British government issued a White Paper that called for harsh restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine and the creation of a binational state. At a time when the Jewish people faced an existential threat from Hitler, the Zionist establishment could have been forgiven for leaving this battle for another day. Instead, when war broke out months later, David Ben-Gurion said this:
“We will fight the White Paper as if there is no war, and fight the war as if there is no White Paper.”
His example, I believe, shows a way forward for all friends of Israel who also seek justice for the Palestinians. Let us challenge the far-right, but not forget which is the Middle East’s only democracy. Let us champion Israel’s right to defend herself, but not to the exclusion of mercy. Let us let complexity in. We will fight the occupation as if there were no enemies of Israel, and fight the enemies of Israel as if there is no occupation.
Tom Doran is a Welsh blogger and writer with a perennial interest in Zionism and related issues.