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Democratic Deviations: Zionism And The Left

David Olesker

On August 26, 1960 Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave his views on Israel to a convention of American Zionists, “Israel was not created in order to disappear—Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom.”

This Zionist sentiment stands in contrast with Ilhan Omar, another member of the same Democratic Party, who tweeted that, “It's all about the Benjamins baby.” 

Although Israel is not above criticism, and even supporters of the Jewish state can legitimately disagree over the US’ exact policies towards it, the divergence between two leading Democrats’ views on Israel over a period of six decades could not be more stark. JFK waxed lyrical over the virtues of the Jewish state. When discussing the pro-Israel lobby in the US, Rep. Omar did not hesitate to invoke an antisemitic trope regarding Jews and money. (It is true that she apologized for her Tweet, but only after being scolded for it by mainstream Democratic leaders.) Nor was this attitude toward Israel due to some greater ideological commitment stemming from isolationist or more neutral sentiments about the Middle East.  Blatant antisemitism such as this emerges from a political milieu in which the most extreme and unjustified accusations against Israel (“apartheid”, “racist”, “terrorist”) are bandied around as political commonplaces. And such attitudes have practical consequences. 

In September 2021, passage of a short-term government-spending bill was stalled in the House of Representatives, not by the Republican minority, but by members of the Democratic majority. Opposition came from a small cadre on the party’s left wing, referred to as “the Squad”. The original members of this grouping – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – are thought to represent a section of the youthful demographic of Democratic voters. This is not the first time that they have challenged the more centrist leadership of their own party on an issue they disagree with. This time, however, the bone of contention was an item in the spending bill that would have funded the replenishment of Israel’s Iron Dome missile system that had been depleted in the course of defending Israeli civilians from Hamas rocket attacks during the missile war launched from Gaza in Spring 2021. 

So, what were they so upset about? 

Alan Dershowitz is one of many who have highlighted the grotesque nature of the opposition to funding the Iron Dome program. He points out that the anti-missile system is purely defensive in nature, is not intended to kill or injure, allows Israel to prevent casualties amongst its own population without inflicting any on Palestinian Arabs and was supported by President Obama. As such it seems to be a strange target for left wing critics of Israel, who tend to couch their critique of the Jewish state in terms of its alleged abuses of Palestinian Arab human rights. Why not oppose American funding for an offensive weapon system? The answer to that question illuminates the nature of a segment of the left’s opposition to Israel. 

David Hirsh is a British sociologist, a long time (but no longer) member of the British Labour Party and a fierce opponent of left antisemitism, recently had this to say about some of the attitudes regarding the Jewish State that are widely shared on the antisemitic segment of the left. Amongst his comments, “Israel relies for its existence on the 'imperialist' states (read democratic states), yet Israel is also hugely powerful and influential amongst the imperialist states. Antisemitism does not exist, antisemitism is invented by Jews to silence criticism of Israel and Israel is responsible for antisemitism. After what they went through, Jews should know better than to behave like Nazis. Jews murder civilians, particularly children, carelessly, or carefully, in order to terrorize, or just out of pure evil. Jews are white and then white supremacist and so antisemitism is not a racism, it is not something which targets the oppressed or which makes its victims oppressed; Islamophobia is the new antisemitism, antisemitism is a thing of the past. Israel is the only illegitimate nation. Israel isn't a real nation, unlike all other nations. Israelis are vulgar and arrogant, and they behave badly when they travel.” 

When strung together like this, the varying and often contradictory nature of the allegations become obvious. The way in which Israel is portrayed as a supreme evil explains the central role it occupies in the demonology of the radical left. Given this extreme (and of course, inaccurate) view of the Jewish State, the animosity towards it is not going to go away. It will continue to manifest itself against every expression of support for Israel, no matter how innocuous. Iron Dome can be defunded, because anything to do with Israel is fair game. Israel is such an overwhelming, malevolent and an all-consuming threat that every opportunity to thwart it must be seized. Funding to save Israeli lives will be attacked, because – in this warped worldview – Israelis simply do not deserve to live. The overlap between this worldview and that of classical antisemitism is so obvious as to be inescapable. It should be noted that other potential explanations of the worldview from “the Squad'' toward Israel are difficult to make. Their attitude cannot simply be attributed as issuing from some greater ideological commitment to isolationism or from more neutral sentiments about the Middle East. This is evident by the fact that “the Squad” is happy to spend their country’s cash on overtly pro-Palestinian pet projects like UNRWA , the scandal-ridden UN agency dedicated toward perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem. The fact that, within a week, the funding for Iron Dome was restored by the more rational members of the Democratic Party, should not lull us into a false sense of security. Those who traffic in such vile views are now a constituency that must be listened to and mollified. And if anyone thinks that such views are doomed to remain marginal, have no further to look than the recent history of the UK’s progressive party, Labour. 

Labour’s Love Lost 

Britain’s social democratic party has generally had a positive relationship with Zionism. It unreservedly supported the rights of Jews to Palestine even before the famed Balfour Declaration was issued and  the party supported Zionist aims during the subsequent British Mandate for Palestine. The feelings were reciprocated, with British Jews voting in disproportionate numbers for Labour candidates. Although the relationship did exhibit ups and downs on the whole, the relationship was a happy one. What hostility there was to Jewish nationalism in British politics tended to come from conservatives with links to the oil industry, who wanted to maintain good relations with Arab oil producing countries. 

The UK’s Labour Party had always had an international outlook, maintaining close and friendly relations with like minded parties around the world. Since, from the pre-State era until the election of Menachem Begin in 1977, Israeli politics was dominated by its own social democratic party, it was easy for Britain’s socialists to see common ground with a “sister” party in Israel. All that started to change with the rise of the “New Left” in the 1960s. 

No “summer of love” for the Jews 

The nature of and reasons for the divergence between “new” and “old” left is too big an issue to tackle in this article, but what is important to note is a shift away from the left’s traditional roots in the working classes and towards domination by an academically trained elite. Such a cadre was capable of enunciating a well worked out ideology that marked them out as “purists” who did not compromise their socialist principles. In the ideological context of European socialist parties, this gave an intellectual minority the power of a tail that could wag the party dog. 

Central to the new left’s worldview was anti-imperialism. Since the dissolution of the overseas empires of most European states was already largely completed by the late 1960s, the anti-imperialist imperative shifted to vaguer targets, such as supposed “neo-imperialism”. Within this worldview, Israel was seen as an “outpost” of Western Imperialism in the Middle East, a tool of shadowy forces bent on world domination. Israel’s success in staving off a policidal attack in 1967, and the subsequent extension of the Jewish state’s rule over territories largely inhabited by Palestinian Arabs made the Jewish State self evidently imperialist and even racist in the minds of the extreme left. From this point on, antipathy to Israel and Zionism became the shibboleth of left wing credibility. 

War for Labour’s soul 

Labour spent nearly two decades in opposition from 1979. When Tony Blair rose to the leadership of the party in 1997, he did so as the head of a pragmatic and non-doctrinaire version of the new left, for whom issues like gay rights, feminism and ethnic diversity were as important as economic prosperity. Although Blair himself is a supporter of Israel, the party as a whole became less so. The left wing of the party felt that Labour had sold its socialist soul “merely” to be in power. To this day, one of the most insulting epithets hurled by the left wing at their rivals within the party is, “Blairite”. 

Sitting at the back of the Labour benches in the House of Commons was an undistinguished legislator called Jeremy Corbyn. An MP since 1983 one of his few distinguishing feats in Parliament was his prominence in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling! This unreconstructed 1970s crank was catapulted to the role of party leader by a revision of its arcane internal election rules, and quickly came to exemplify the new, radical direction the party was taking. When, as so often happens, criticism of Israel shaded over into antisemitism, Corbyn proved to be blind to it, indifferent to it, or in sympathy with it. Antisemitism became entrenched within Labour and a number of prominent Jewish party members and legislators left over the issue. 

In 2017 Corbyn led Labour to a better than expected result (although not a victory) in that year’s general election. His comparative success was widely attributed to his radicalism and appeal to the youth vote. 

Gradually, the luster eroded from Mr. Corbyn’s leadership. No intellectual giant, he frequently performed poorly in media interviews. His radicalism had never been limited to antipathy to Israel and repeated expressions of support for IRA terrorists (and other unsavory causes) from the 70s and 80s arose from the dead like zombies to pursue him. By the time 2019’s election results were counted it became clear that Labour had suffered its worst electoral defeat since before WWII. In the wake of the debacle Mr. Corbyn was forced to resign, a more centrist leader (Sir Keir Starmer) was elected and the UK’s independent Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reported that the party had been guilty of a number of instances of antisemitism. 

The departure of Mr. Corbyn from the Labour leadership does not alter the fact that in 2019 one in three ballots cast was for a party that had been revealed to be antisemitic. Although few people voted for Labour because it was antisemitic, most of those who favored it with their vote were willing to do so despite it being antisemitic. Such are the consequences of a mainstream political party being subverted by Jew hatred. 

Although Labour has taken some steps to place the Corbyn era behind it, the ghost of his leadership lingers. This anti-Israel (and frequently antisemitic) Corbynite section of the left is guaranteed by its very radicalism the role of the supposed conscience of the party. This means that, despite its paucity of numbers, it is now one of the established voices within the party and as such, needs to be catered to. Labour’s national conference in September 2021 saw the party adopt a policy in favor of sanctions against “apartheid” Israel. Clearly, once the antisemitic genie is out of the bottle it is difficult to put him back in and seal the cork. 

Lessons for Democrats

It is one of the features of ideological politics that a dedicated fringe can exert disproportionate influence over the majority. Whatever one thinks of the growing membership of the Squad, no one can accuse them of indolence – certainly not where Israel is concerned. Just as Mr. Corbyn and his supporters dragged the British Labour party into institutional antisemitism, so too could Ilhan Omar and her cohorts do the same for the Democrats, unless the pro-Israel majority is willing to take a stand against them. It is not enough that an attempt to stem US funding for saving the lives of Israeli children was reversed, it should never have been considered in the first place. 

In some ways, Squad members remind me of Holocaust deniers. Once you debate with a Holocaust denier – whether you defeat his argument or not – he has already won because his objective is to make the Holocaust the subject of debate. The Squad, and those who think like them, do not need to convince everyone that killing Jews is legitimate, they just need to make it an opinion worthy of discussion. Progressives need to make such views as inexpressible in their own political camp as support for lynchings are amongst conservatives.

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