Hands off we don’t even know anymore: On Israel/Palestine and the Left

James Bloodworth has written an article for The Independent titled “The Israel/Palestine Debate has More to Do with Revolutionary Tourism than Real Politics.” It’s a pretty predictable piece, not without its problems. Bloodworth insists, for example, that “there’s really something to be said for both sides,” when in fact there’s really nothing to be said for either side. All the same, he asks an important question:

Why isn’t the same level of concern shown for the world’s many other seemingly intractable problems?

Of course, there are a number of reasons that readily account for this fact. As a putative “first world democracy,” Israel’s hypocrisies are more obvious. When it holds a subject population in indefinite captivity — lingering in stateless limbo along its borders — it’s bound to reflect badly on its liberal cosmopolitan image. Moreover, it regularly mistreats many of its own citizens, black Jews from North Africa in particular. Plus, the U.S. provides it with military and financial support, which shifts at least some of the onus  to its constituency stateside. Finally, there’s the sheer length of time the problem has endured with no real end in sight. Intermittent conflicts only serve to illuminate longstanding grievances.

Returning to Bloodworth’s question, however, I find the points listed above insufficient as an explanation. The amount of attention that Israel/Palestine receives is so disproportionate compared to other major issues of the day that additional factors must be sought. Jews Sans Frontières, a Jewish anti-Zionist website of some renown, has stated that “Palestine is the moral question of our time” (italics mine). Notwithstanding its rather dross appeal to morality, something I’ve never found too compelling, I disagree with the singularity of this statement. How can its magnitude possibly be so great that it overshadows every other injustice in the world? What makes it the cause du jour, rather than something else?

A couple of suggestions Bloodworth makes in his article, trying to answer the question he posed early on, are worthy of mention. These I found at least somewhat convincing, as far as the inordinate coverage of Israel/Palestine in leftist circles and the press goes:

1. “Because when Arabs are killing Arabs no one cares.”

Syria is the obvious example here in terms of sheer body count, with an estimated 110,000 to 180,000 deaths having occurred since the outbreak of civil war in 2011. Most major media outlets and human rights organizations place the death toll above 160,000 since May. In Iraq, the wretched legacy of the U.S. invasion lives on in sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia extremists — groups like ISIS and the Sadr militia. Meanwhile, in Egypt, an old-fashioned Bonapartist regime has been set up, with frequent government crackdowns on independent news agencies and other civil society organizations. The democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi that the army overthrew was hardly much better, especially considering that the Muslim Brotherhood (which has since been outlawed) carried out similarly repressive measures right before it collapsed.

Ukraine naturally falls outside of Bloodworth’s narrow regional purview, though it was covered fairly extensively back in the West when it still seemed like Putin and Russian separatists were on the offensive. Casualties there have been heavier than what’s gone on in Gaza so far, though it’s been a bit more diffuse and has unfolded more gradually over time. Granted, it’s not been nearly as one-sided as Israel/Palestine, and leftists today tend to care less whenever they feels the sides are evenly matched.

None of this should be taken to imply that Zionism shouldn’t be opposed. As Lenin categorically put it, “Marxists resolutely oppose nationalism in all its forms.” But it does beg the question of why every other struggle seems to take a backseat whenever Israel-Palestine flares up.

2. Because “people are…inclined to project their desire for ‘struggle’ onto the seemingly exotic disputes of people in the developing world.”

I’m sure you’ve all seen the various “keffiyeh selfies” that Western leftists have posted in supposed solidarity with Palestine, LARPing intifada from afar. Separated by the safe distance of an ocean, of course, or at the very least thousands of miles. Leftists in the more advanced capitalist countries of the world refuse to reflect on the degraded political reality in which they live. The international, militant working-class movement that socialist parties in the 19th and 20th centuries took for granted no longer exists, or has long since entered into torpor. And so they prefer to transfer their hopes and ambitions onto remote parts of the globe, where the good fight is still being waged.

Zionism has always been a reactionary ideology, a right deviation from mainstream European socialism, and I have little patience for its apologists and supporters. Let’s be honest, though: the only reason this is getting so much more play than other issues is that the Left has rehearsed its “position” on this dozens of times, whereas it’s utterly confused when it comes to Egypt, Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq.

With all these new struggles erupting in various parts of the world, leftists have been at a loss as what their official “line” should be. Obsessed with the notion of having a “position” on every issue, and oblivious to its own historic inconsequence, they scramble to figure out which “side” they should back. Since the workers movement and the socialist parties traditionally attached to them have all but disintegrated over the last forty years, the Left is reduced to choosing sides between irreducibly right-wing forces. Hands off we don’t even know anymore.

You could almost hear leftists breathe a collective sigh of relief when they learned hostilities had broken out again in Gaza. This is familiar territory for them, at least. They know the score on this one. All the readymade slogans and talking points can be easily trotted out, and you don’t even need to make new banners or posters: the ones from a couple years ago are still lying around.

6 thoughts on “Hands off we don’t even know anymore: On Israel/Palestine and the Left

  1. There’s a bunch of other things more deadly than most wars:

    That makes philanthropists even more conscious than first world leftists… except not.

    The thing about Israel it is that it provides a huge projection for US as a main hub to dominate or threaten, by several proxies, 5 billion people. Note that the position of Israel is equidistant to Eurasian and African land masses, plus, easily providing a safe buffer on the Red Sea to act in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf.and Mediterranean. It makes it possible to make safer the bases and small bases surrounding Russia.

    Thus, the reliance of US on a small country, makes the Palestinian case the biggest case of American truculence and media cooptation, even outside US.And all this running over a people. And even the plight of Palestinian serves as distraction in many many ways, like keeping the hostility of religious fanatics of all sides at high.

    I should not look away from my city, Rio de Janeiro, to find wilder violence and all kinds of police and political corruption, which over all is worse than the Palestinian case. The problem here it is that it is extremely pervasive. There is no easy place to start a change, without being threatened to death (which will probably be ignored by the media or soon forgotten).

    So, in the case of Syria, I just wash my hands. The more I look at, the more I cannot trust anyone to support, nor need to do it. The case of Ukraine is easier, to deter the possibility of NATO expansion. But it is only a “support”.

    • I agree with you regarding the difficulty (even the impossibility) of finding anyone worth supporting in Syria. Not in Ukraine, either, I’m afraid. Yes, the US and NATO are awful, but so is Putin’s Russia.

      • No, I was not thinking about the awfulness of Putin, but rather making the circulation of capital smoother. For example, increasing the “stability” of the region will decrease the bargain power of the local elites, so surplus will flow more directly to the higher “global” elites.

        This centralization means less division among capitalists. So, it’s harder to fight against that.

        The thing about Israel it is the connection between 2 oceans and continents. I was not thinking so much about missiles, but naval force. Egypt is also a vassal, but there’s a need to keep the Suez Canal free just in case. It has a large capacity, see:

  2. Why isn’t the same level of concern shown for the world’s many other seemingly intractable problems?

    Surely one major reason why folk generally are more animated about this issue is because there’s simply nobody to argue with about e.g. Syria. 99.9% of people who pay attention to the issue think Assad is a bastard and will say so if prompted, so there’s not really an opportunity for a really angry argument to erupt.

    Almost no-one is penning lengthy articles trying to pretend that Assad is a moral human being, or that his military tactics are wholly justified, or that the civilians he kills are responsible for their own deaths etc, so the kind of furious accusation>counter-accusation action you’ll see in the standard Israel/Palestine debate is difficult to stoke.

    You’ll very rarely see e.g. News Corp or the BBC repeating pronouncements from Damascus as if they were facts, and you won’t often hear them furiously echoed and reinforced by public figures and pundits elsewhere, alongside accusations that everyone who disagrees is, oh, thirsting for genocide of a Syrian nation embattled by terrorism, or whatever.

    When it comes to the Israelis bombarding Gaza though, the opposite is true – much of the mainstream press repeats propaganda as fact as a matter of course and there are endless volunteers angrily repeating the IDF’s talking points in tones of high dudgeon and accusation. There are people to argue with, vociferously, and not many of them are very nice or reasonable*. Thus, a big, really angry row on a scale far larger than on other issues that don’t have people like James penning How dare you be upset by the violence articles about.

    The most amusing thing about James’ article there is that he immediately answers his own question about why this issue is so contentious by a) repeating a lot of received opinions, then b) announcing that everyone who disagrees with him are basically studenty, self-important, fake-revolutionary fannies who should be ignored.

    Yes, I wonder why this issue is so contentious when generous, fair-minded discourse of this nature prevails, and more than other issues on which pretty much the entire country is basically agreed. How very odd.

    *This also holds 100% true for the Palestinians’ fan section as well, so there’s no need to be all like But they do it too, thus blah blah blah but do I notice that James isn’t much bothered by those people, for some mysterious reason.

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