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

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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. Continue reading

Democracy and the Left

Alan AkrivosDick Howard 
Alan MilchmanJoseph Schwartz

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On February 5, 2014, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a conversation titled ‘Democracy and the Left’ at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The participants were Alan Akrivos (Socialist Alternative), Dick Howard (Stony Brook University), Alan Milchman (Internationalist Perspective), and Joseph Schwartz (Democratic Socialists of America). The description of the event reads as follows:

From the financial crisis and the bank bail-outs to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little — the need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself: political revolution is in the air, again. The elections in the U.S. and Germany seem, by comparison, to be non-events, despite having potentially far-reaching consequences. Today, the people — the demos — seem resigned to their political powerlessness, even as they rage against the corruption of politics. Demands for democracy “from below” end up being expressed “from above”: The 99%, in its obscure and unorganized character, didn’t express itself as such in the various recent elections but was instead split in various tendencies, many of them very reactionary. Democracy retains an enigmatic character, since it always slips any fixed form and content, since people under the dynamic of capital keep demanding at times “more” democracy and “real” democracy. But democracy can be like Janus: it often expresses both emancipatory social demands as well as their defeat, their hijacking by an elected “Bonaparte.” What history informs demands for greater democracy today, and how does the Left adequately promote — or not — the cause of popular empowerment? What are the potential futures for “democratic” revolution as understood by the Left?

What follows is an edited transcript of the event. A full recording can be found online. Once again, I’m not in Platypus. Indeed, I’m apparently not even welcome at their events, despite it having been over a year since I quit. Still, I think this is a worthwhile exchange and am reposting it here in the hope that someone might actually read it.
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Opening remarks

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Dick Howard:
 There is a fundamental difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution, which leads to a vision of democracy that is radically different in the two contexts.

The American Revolution was an anti-colonial revolution against the state that wanted to get the British off of the backs of Americans and leave society to go on in its own way. There’s an anti-statist tradition in the United States. The American Revolution went through three distinct phases: declaring independence, winning the war, and then the problem that Ukrainians are going have to face, namely, how do you give society a political framework such that it can hold together? That’s the period of the failure of that kind of direct democracy found in the Articles of Confederation. Finally, a nation-state was created.

America became a nation-state and a democratic state insofar as you had the “Revolution of 1803.” That was not only when the Jeffersonians (the opposition) won the presidency, but also when the decision in Marbury v. Madison recognized that the society was one, held together by its constitution despite the diversity of the society that was framed by the constitution. That gave America a republican democracy: the constitution which frames the republic holds priority and gives the unity within which a diversity can flourish.

During the French Revolution, insofar as the society was based on status rather than equality of opportunity, the power of the state was used in order to transform society. That process of using the state power to transform society went through phases, and you can list the canonical dates: the high point of the Jacobin period in 1793, the reaction against it, the empire, the return of the monarchy, then 1830, 1848, 1870, and finally — even Platypus puts it into its name — 1917, which, apparently, is the realization of that dream that begins with the French Revolution. That dream is that the gap between society and the state be overcome, but it is overcome by the action of the state. Instead of a republican democracy in the American sense, you had a democratic republic — the idea is that democracy and the state come together, and this is the elimination of the state.

I came to realize the importance of this distinction in 1990 or 1991 when I was giving a lecture in Greifswald, in the former German Democratic Republic, about the American Revolution and how the Americans created a “democratic republic.” The audience was not particularly happy because they had just gotten out of a democratic republic! What is that democratic republic? What is that republican democracy? There was awareness of this distinction well before a left-wing critique of totalitarianism developed.

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