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ISGAP Flashpoint

Israel, Jews and the Left

By Paul Hollander | May 5, 2016 | Flashpoint 25

       According to a recent New York Times article “protesting Israel has become practically an elective for liberal college students furious about the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the ranks of left-wing Jewish groups advocating boycott of Israeli products have swelled.” [1]/

About the Author
Paul Hollander

Paul Hollander is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and an Associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

       The transformation of the image of Israel from victim to victimizer (such as the quote reflects) has been under way for decades among leftist academics, intellectuals, students, opinion-makers, and portions of public opinion. The change can be traced back to 1967 “when the national Conference on New Politics met…in Chicago and adopted a series of resolutions condemning Zionist aggression and expressing solidarity with the Arabs at a time when all Arab States were sworn to the destruction of Israel…” [2]/

       There are several possible explanations of this development. The simplest would be that it is the policies and actions of Israel which have been responsible for it. From this point of view, Israel deserves censure (as well punishment in the form of boycotts, divestment, a wide range of economic and diplomatic sanctions) because it has become an aggressive, expansionist, militaristic state that oppresses and mistreats Palestinians in the territories it occupied and refuses to make peace with its Arab neighbors.

     Diametrically opposed is the belief that the negative image of Israel is the result of the revival and intensification of antisemitism that nurtures and stimulates the hostility toward Israel (a Jewish state) and has little to do with its policies. A partial explanation of this renewed antisemitism may be the growing presence and influence of Muslim populations in Western Europe, which are both deeply antisemitic and hostile to Israel. To be sure, this would not explain the antisemitism of the non-Islamic groups and individuals here considered.

     An additional explanation of the upsurge of antisemitism has been proposed by the German author, Matthias Kuntzel. It is the global power and influence of Internet capable of disseminating antisemitic messages rapidly and on a large scale: “Overnight, the fabrication of a Jewish world conspiracy has gained widespread currency…” [3]/

     It may also be suggested that there is nothing new about present day antisemitism – only its expressions have become more acceptable and respectable as it has blended almost imperceptibly with anti-Zionism.

     In the following I will not argue that Israel’s policies and actions in the occupied territories, and in regard to the two state solution, should not be subject to any criticism. What I am going to argue is that even if the most severe critiques of Israel are well founded and fully justified (something debatable) it still remains puzzling why Israel’s misdeeds (real, exaggerated or imaginary) have received such a vast and disproportionate amount of attention, hostile criticism and hate-filled denunciation, compared to the minimal attention and indifference in regard to the policies and atrocities of many far more repressive countries. In this spirit Anthony Lewis, columnist of the New York Times “has written forty-four consecutive columns on the Arab-Israeli conflict that laid all blame for its continuance on the intransigence, brutality and oppressiveness of Jews.” [4]/ Double standards help to explain the discrepancies in moral judgment here noted. [5]/

     The disproportionate dimensions of the critiques of Israel are most spectacularly reflected in the number of resolutions condemning Israel passed by the United Nations and the volume of discussions and sessions devoted to its alleged misconduct:“…censure of Israel accounts for one-fifth to one-quarter of all motions passed by the General Assembly… [of] all General Assembly resolutions that criticize a particular country three quarters apply to Israel…” The same attitudes were even more spectacularly illustrated at the 2001 UN conference against racism held in Durban, South Africa: “when a resolution decrying bigotry was adopted, a proposal to include anti-semitism on the list of proscribed prejudices was turned aside.” [6]/

     The UN General Assembly’s designation of Zionism in 1975 as a form of racism was another reliable indicator of the institutionalized hostility of this organization, as was the appointment of Richard Falk – one of the most impassioned and unembarrassedly hostile critics of Israel – as “special rapporteur” to the UN Human Rights Council. [7]/  

     The disproportionate hostility is further reflected in the boycotts and sanctions imposed or proposed, as well as the numerous hostile demonstrations, protests and public gatherings of various kinds in different parts of the world. Most telling is the malevolent, wholly unjustified, comparison and moral equation of Israel with Nazi Germany – intended to accomplish its unconditional moral delegitimation.

     Hostility toward Israel on the part of the academic left, and especially the New Left, was also reflected in the election of Edward Said (who used to be member of the Palestine National Council, affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization) as president of the Modern Language Association. Similarly revealing of the corresponding disposition was the invitation Harvard extended to Tom Paulin, an Irish poet and lecturer at Oxford, distinguished by the suggestion that “Jews living in Judea/Samaria [that is, parts of the West Bank] ‘should be shot dead.’” [8]/  

     Following the imposition of an academic boycott on Israel by the American Studies Association, its president Curtis Martez admitted that “many nations, including many of Israel’s neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than Israel’s or comparable, but, he said, ‘we must start somewhere.’” [9]/ No light was shed in the article cited on the question, why to start with (and remain singularly preoccupied with) Israel?

     The double standards help to explain the scarcity of protests of the massacres of Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda, the silence on the campuses when China crushed Tibetan autonomy, profound indifference regarding the Russian occupation of Crimea, the recurring assassinations of Russian journalists critical of the regime, the imprisonment of opposition politicians in Venezuela – and many other outrages overlooked. Equally striking has been the absence of moral indignation (in the familiar quarters and among the familiar critics of Israel) on the numerous occasions when Jihadists cheerfully and with apparent relish, murdered large numbers of civilians designated as “infidels.” Such incidents tend to be followed not by moral indignation but a variety of explanations (“root causes”) which shift responsibility for the atrocities to the West, the United States and, Israel.

     Iran’s repressive domestic policies and its high rate of capital punishment (second after China), likewise fail to inspire moral indignation and are similarly ignored by the groups and figures prominent in international-political moralizing. “Honor killings” of women in Islamic societies (and even among Islamic groups living in the West) stimulate little moral attention and disapproval among those on the Left. Perhaps they are considered authentic multicultural practices and traditions ethnocentric Westerners have no right to criticize.

       If, as I believe, Israel is no more deserving of opprobrium than many of its detractors, and if its policies do not adequately account for the hostility generated, what other explanations of this one-sided, fierce denigration may be entertained?

     We may start with the likelihood that many Western critics and especially those of Jewish background among them (including numerous Israeli intellectuals) have higher expectations about the conduct and policies of Israel (and of Jews) than of other countries, political systems or ethnic groups. [10]/ An important component of such expectations and ideals, and an essential part of the virtuous victim conception of Jews, is that they must be powerless. Obviously, the military power and battlefield successes of Israel have not been compatible with this ideal.

     Amos Oz, the prominent Israeli author sadly observed: “Israel could have become an exemplary state…the most egalitarian and creative social democratic society in the world.” [11]/ It is a sentiment that goes a long way to account for the rebukes of well known Jewish detractors of Israel such as Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Judith Butler, Norman Finkelstein, Michael Lerner, Naomi Klein and Harold Pinter, among others. [12]/

     Higher expectations also help to understand the bitter denunciations on the part of Israel’s own “adversary culture” that closely resembles its American counterpart. As Muravchik plausibly suggests, the “death of the socialist dream created a spiritual vacuum in Israel… A prime symptom was the voluble disenchantment of Israel’s intellectual elite.” [13]/

     It is likely that the collapse of Soviet communism in the early 90s contributed to a search (among Western and Israeli leftists) for some new form of anti-capitalism, or new anti-Western ideas and ideologies, which radical Islam readily provided. Kuntzel wrote: “the collapse of the communist utopia set in motion a search for attractive ‘anti-capitalist’ ersatz ideologies. For the time being, the winner… is the anti-globalization movement… And so today’s anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism are breathing new life into the reactionary antisemitic ‘critique of capitalism,’ central to the fascist and Nazi ideologies.” [14]/

     The disappointment stimulated by high and unmet expectations concerning the nature and moral foundations of Israel is reminiscent of the corresponding indispensable stimulant of anti-Americanism: similarly high, and arguably similarly unrealistic expectations about American society, its moral potentials and unrealized ideals. In this as in other respects, the sources of the aversion to the United States and Israel are strikingly similar.

     The United States is despised by the Left as the most powerful capitalist-consumer society, principal embodiment of soulless modernity with all its defects and corruptions, supposedly riddled with injustices – a superpower supporting repressive states all over the world. In turn Israel has become a regional superpower, an outpost of modernity and Westernization similarly detested by critics of both the United States and Israel.

     Rachel Corrie, a young, idealistic American anti-Israeli activist (killed accidentally by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza whose path she was trying to obstruct), personified the leftist rejection of the United States that predisposed her to a similar aversion to Israel and a compensatory sympathy for its enemies, such as Hamas. She averred: “Coming from ‘the United States, perhaps one of the most racist countries in the world’ as she put it, she was concerned about ’healing our own racism and classism and sexism and heterosexism and ageism and ableism.’” [15]/

     Judith Butler, a well known academic critic of American society, strong supporter of the most militant anti-Israeli organizations wishfully conflated their anti-Israeli and progressive credentials, claiming that “‘understanding Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of the global left, is extremely important.” [16]/  

     It is the confluence of such fervent anti-American and anti-Israeli convictions which best explain the disproportionate animosity directed at Israel on the part of the Left and its complementary sympathy for movements inspired by radical/fundamentalist Islamic beliefs. Anti-Americanism and hostility toward Israel are inextricably intertwined and mutually supportive, most directly stimulated by the military, economic and political support the United States has been providing for Israel that has been essential for its survival.

     Anti-Americanism may also be understood as an integral part of a broader anti-Western, anti-modern disposition deriving from, or associated with, an irrational, apocalyptic anti-Western mindset memorably expressed some time ago by Susan Sontag: “The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone – its ideologies and inventions – which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.” [17]/     I am not sure that antisemitism as such is the key determinant of the attitudes here considered, although a latent, residual and possibly not fully conscious version of it is likely to contribute to, or color these attitudes. It is also plausible to discern a connection between the longstanding, negative conception of Jews as agents of destructive, soulless modernity and the similarly durable leftist, Marxist hatred of capitalism, the source of all evil, converging in leftist antisemitism.

     The hostility of the Jewish critics of Israel may be a special case associated with identity problems and ambivalence about Jewishness that gives rise to the rejection of Israel. Sander Gilman suggested (in his 1986 book on Jewish self-hatred) that “‘one of the most recent forms of Jewish self-hatred is the virulent Jewish opposition to the existence of the State of Israel.’” [18]/

     If indeed there is a species of Jewish antisemitism, it is doubtless also nurtured by high expectations and ideals of a superior Jewish morality, and by extension, that of Israel.

     Anti-Israeli attitudes on the part of Western, and especially American Jews may also be influenced by a determination to remain part of the leftist pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian community by transcending “parochial” ethnic or religious loyalties.

     A counterpart to antisemitism is a new form of “third worldism,” focused on the idealization of Palestinians, as the most authentic and deserving victim group that exerts a powerful influence on the attitudes here considered. As Ian Buruma observed, “The Palestinian cause has become the universal litmus of liberal credentials…” By 1986, Alexander wrote, “the Palestinian Arabs had surely become the most publicized claimants to victim status of any national or ethnic group in the world.” [19]/ It has also been proposed that the idealized Palestinians have become a substitute for the idealized proletariat of earlier times, and in more recent times, of “people of color,” in particular the Black population of the United States. [20]/

     It is hardly surprising that the discontents of the Arab-Islamic world, and its ambivalence toward, or outright rejection of modernity, found a plausible scapegoat in Israel, in addition to the discontents and frustrations created by the humiliations suffered by losing several wars with Israel. It remains more difficult to fully understand the hostility toward Israel on the part of Jews who used to be and still are, in the forefront of leftists movements, guardians of leftist sensibilities and progressive Western values. [21]/ But perhaps we should not expect human beings, including academic intellectuals, to take consistent and rational positions on matters political and moral. For the same reason, I believe that, while not easy, it may be possible to separate attitudes toward Jews from attitudes toward Israel – that is to say, it may be possible to hate Israel without detesting Jews. It is far more difficult, and unusual, to despise Jews without loathing Israel.

[1] “With Criticism of Israel, Sanders Highlights a Split Among Jewish Democrats” New York Times, April 16, 2016, p.13.

[2] Norman Podhoretz: Breaking Ranks, New York: Harper @ Row, 1979, p. 335.

[3] Matthias Kuntzel: Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11, New York 2007, p. 137.

[4] Edward Alexander: Jews Against Themselves, New Brunswick NJ 2015, p. 34.

[5] Such double standards were illustrated by the withdrawal of the famous physicist Stephen Hawking from a conference in Jerusalem in 2013 to participate in the academic boycott of Israel. By contrast in 2006 was he was keynote speaker at an international physics conference in China and a year later participated in a conference in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Evidently he had no reservations about lending legitimacy by his presence to two repressive states intolerant of free expression and academic freedom. See Joshua Muravchik, Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel, New York, 2014, pp. 208-209.

[6], Ibid., pp. 74, 77.

[7] Falk’s extreme anti-Israeli attitudes eventually led to a rebuke by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon issued through his spokesman who said that “Falk’s statements ‘can undermine the credibility and the work of the United Nations’” (quoted in Muravchik cited, p. 198).

Falk’s uncontrollable venom toward Israel (or Jews?) has been further highlighted by his posting on his blog “a cartoon of a dog wearing a yarmulke urinating on a blindfolded female figure of justice” (see Alexander cited, p. 134).

[8] Quoted in Alexander cited, p. 137. According to Wikepedia he “compared American Jewish settlers in the Palestinian territories to Nazis who should be ‘shot dead’” (accessed April 27, 2016).

[9] Richard Perez-Pena: “Scholar’s Group to Disclose Result of Vote on Academic Boycott of Israel,” New York Times, December 16, 2013.

[10] See also “Why Jews Must Behave Better Than Everybody Else: The

Theory and Practice of the Double Standard,” chapter title in Alexander cited, p. 31.

[11] Quoted in Muravchik cited, p.144.

[12] At a meeting in London Harold Pinter (another fierce detractor of both Israel and the United States) introduced Chomsky “‘as the leading critical voice against the criminal regime now running the United States” (quoted in Alexander cited, 132).

[13] Ibid., p. 145.

[14] Kuntzel cited, pp. 143, 149.

[15] Quoted in Muravchik cited p.179.

[16] Quoted in Ibid., p. 180.

[17] Quoted in Podhoretz cited, p.341.

[18] Quoted in Alexander, p. 132.

[19] Buruma quoted in Edward Alexander: Jews Against Themselves, New Brunswick NJ, 2015, p. XXII and p. 33 in Ibid.

[20] Muravchik suggests that Edward Said made a major contribution to “redefining Arabs and Muslims as the moral equivalent of blacks.” Likewise, Falk “like other radical Leftists…sought in Islam what they could no longer find in the proletariat.” See Muravchik cited, pp. 118, 197.

[21] For example one may wonder how professor Butler handles the irrepressible cognitive dissonance between her feminism and her support for Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations which adhere to the most retrograde fundamentalist ideas about women and treat them accordingly.    


Paul Hollander is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and an Associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

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