Chapter 10: On the Wrong Side of the Left’s New Paradigm
Many factors contributed to turning world opinion against Israel. Most were traceable to deliberate Arab strategies. But one of the most important was not engineered by anyone. It consisted of a metamorphosis in Leftist thought that occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century as the appeal of traditional Marxism waned. This new thinking concerned the whole world, not just the Middle East, but it had profound consequences for the way the Left, and those influenced by the Left, viewed the struggle between the Arabs and Israel.
The crux of the change was this: conflict between groups continued to be seen as the engine of progress, as Marx had posited, but race and other demographic categories replaced class as the crucial axis. The seeds of this had been sown by Lenin who observed in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism that the proletariat had failed to rise up because Western capitalists had bribed the workers with colonial lucre, enabling many to “enjoy more or less petty bourgeois conditions of life.” Thus, the peoples of the colonial areas, whom Marx had described contemptuously as living an “undignified, stagnant and vegetative life,” now became necessary figures in the drama of birthing a new age.
The importance of the struggle of non-Western peoples grew geometrically after the Second World War with revolts against colonialism and protests against the terrible disadvantages faced by newly decolonized nations. Jean-Paul Sartre, once an orthodox Stalinist, gave voice to this profound rewrite of leftist canon in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. “Natives of all underdeveloped countries, unite!” he wrote. The riveting movement for civil rights of blacks in America melded with the global anti-colonial cause to create a larger image of “the rest against the West,” or the “people of color” against “the White Man.”
This transformation of the main paradigm of Leftism from class struggle to a conflict of nations and ethnicities was consequential for Israel. The traditional Leftist parties had been no friends to the Jewish state (except, for a time, the social democrats, whose sympathy had been largely reversed in the 1970s by the efforts of Socialists such as Austria’s Bruno Kreisky and Sweden’s Olaf Palme). But in the Left’s new interpretation of history, Israel became a more central target.
As with the proletariat under classical Marxism, the favored groups—blacks, browns, former colonials–were not merely objects of sympathy; they were regarded as the vessels of universal redemption. Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were seen in this light, and even, in some eyes, Ayatollah Khomeini. The famous French social theorist, Michel Foucault, wrote rapturously of the Iranian revolution in Le Nouvel Observateur in 1978, seeing in it an “attempt to open a spiritual dimension in politics,” a “possibility we [Westerners] have forgotten since the Renaissance and the great crisis of Christianity.”
The uprising led by Khomeini against the U.S.-backed shah exemplified the rebellion of “the rest,” and its triumph transformed Islamism into a vital force, just as Lenin’s seizure of Russia had done for Marxism. Ali Shariati, the intellectual guide of the Iranian revolution, who formulated the idea of “Red Shiism,” had argued that Islam offered a redemptive political model superior to Marxism. Now he seemed vindicated as Islam or Islamism took its place at the forefront of world revolution.
Ilich “Carlos the Jackal” Ramirez Sanchez, the most infamous of international terrorists, named after Lenin by his Venezuelan Communist parents, converted to Islam. So did Roger Garaudy, once the top theoretician of the French Communist Party, who was convicted by a French court in 1998 of Holocaust-denial which is against the law in that country. The late President Hugo Chavez welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Venezuela where the two “hugged, held hands, and praised each other as fellow revolutionaries,” while Chavez denounced Israel as “a murderous arm of the Yankee empire.” The daughter of Che Guevara traveled to Lebanon in 2010 to meet with leaders of the terrorist Islamist group, Hizbullah, and lay a wreath at the grave of the group’s co-founder, Abbas al-Musawi, killed by Israeli forces. And Judith Butler, the professor of “critical theory” whose books are among the most widely assigned in American universities, said, “Understanding Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important”—even though Butler’s reputation was built on her advocacy of feminism and “queer theory” for which these groups evince murderous contempt.
The Left’s ardent hostility to Israel seeps into global discourse, exerting influence in more moderate or mainstream circles where talk of “revolution” would seem out of place. For example, respected human rights organizations have singled out Israel for criticism disproportionate in quantity and tone to their treatment of other Middle Eastern governments whose depredations are of an entirely different magnitude. It is like criticizing Western democracies more vociferously than Communist or Fascist totalitarian regimes.
This provoked Robert L. Bernstein, the head of Random House publishers who had been the original founder of Human Rights Watch and served as its chairman for twenty years, to take to the op ed pages of the New York Times in 2009 to castigate his own creation, having abandoned hope of influencing it from within. He wrote:
the Arab and Iranian regimes…most[ly] remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent. The plight of their citizens who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.
In designing the organization, Bernstein recalled, “we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds,” elaborating: “We always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we say that they have the ability to correct them through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms.”
Bernstein would have been less perplexed at the direction Human Rights Watch had taken had he borne more carefully in mind the tortuous history of the human rights issue in U.S. politics. He, himself, was embedded in the wing of the U.S. human rights movement that focused primarily on the abuses of Communist regimes. But there was another wing which grew out of the Vietnam antiwar movement, and it targeted anti-Communist regimes with which the U.S. allied in the Cold War. These activists hoped that withdrawal of Washington’s backing and U.S. aid would make those regimes more vulnerable to insurrection. As Bruce Cameron, co-chair of the Human Rights Working Group which was at the center of this movement, put it: “The motive was that if you cut the link…then you create more space for the revolutionary Third World people to assert their right of self-determination.”
Human Rights Watch comprised both wings, thus co-mingling genuine human rights advocacy with an ideological agenda. In Cold War days, that agenda was anti-anti-Communism. In more recent years it has been fervent anti-Israelism.
Human rights NGOs constitute but one sector where the anti-Israel slant of the Left makes itself felt in larger, more influential institutions. A similar effect is evident in the labor movement, mainline Protestant churches, the news media, and academia.
But perhaps the most interesting reflection, and potentially the most consequential in the long run, of the Left’s turn against Israel is its impact among Jews themselves. For reasons about which many have speculated, Jews have been disproportionately represented in the radical Left in all its shades, from Karl Marx to the leading Bolsheviks surrounding Lenin, to the more moderate Mensheviks whose leadership was even more uniformly Jewish, to the U.S.A. in the 1960s where “Americans of Jewish backgrounds dominated the New Left in its early years,” according to the detailed study of scholars Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter.
Thus, as the left turned against Israel, it was inevitable that Jews would appear in growing numbers among Israel’s fiercest critics. Several found places of honor on John Mearsheimer’s roster of “righteous Jews.” Mearsheimer achieved fame as co-author of the 2007 book, The Israel Lobby, which created a sensation by positing that a well-financed political network of Jews and some others had successfully deployed a mix of inducements and threats to channel U.S. policy toward unjust support for Israel at the expense of America’s own interests.
The authors protested that they were no anti-Semites, but Mearsheimer dropped the other shoe in a 2010 speech at Washington D.C.’s Palestine Center in which he divided American Jewry into “Afrikaner Jews” and “righteous Jews.” “Afrikaner” is a code word from South Africa’s apartheid days for brutal racist, and in this category Mearsheimer included the leaders of the major Jewish organizations. “Righteous Jews” was a play on the term “righteous gentiles” that Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, bestows on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis. By calling anti-Israel Jews “righteous Jews” Mearsheimer was smirking at the special feelings Jews have about the Holocaust, and he was analogizing Israel to Nazi Germany. No one would choose such language except for the purpose of Jew-baiting.
In addition to Human Rights Watch chief, Ken Roth, Mearsheimer’s “righteous” included Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Roger Cohen, Tony Judt, Tony Karon, Naomi Klein, M.J. Rosenberg, Sara Roy, and “Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss fame,” as well as “many of the individuals associated with J Street and everyone associated with Jewish Voice for Peace.” He also mentioned Judge Richard Goldstone, but this was before Goldstone had largely repudiated the UN report that bore his name.
The first on Mearsheimer’s list, the linguist Noam Chomsky, long advocated the replacement of Israel with a bi-national socialist state patterned after what he called the “successful social revolution” of Communist Yugoslavia. The bloody disintegration of that Communist tyranny along lines of nationality in the 1990s made this a less attractive model, leaving Chomsky to focus more on lacerating Israel and less on proposing alternatives. Embracing anti-Israel advocates, one and all, Chomsky even penned a preface to a book by convicted French Holocaust-denier Robert Faurisson.
A still more active personification of the anti-Israel Jew was the third name on Mearsheimer’s list, Princeton University’s Professor Emeritus of LawRichard Falk, who served as the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on “Israel’s violations . . . in the Palestinian territories.” Of his lineage, Falk writes: “I am Jewish, and proud of it, but I am equally indigenous, Sufi, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian.” Yet, despite his proclaimed remoteness from any aspect of his heritage, Falk does not hesitate to invoke it to add poignancy to the analogy he makes between Israel and Nazi Germany. “It is especially painful for me, as an American Jew, to feel compelled to portray the ongoing and intensifying abuse of the Palestinian people by Israel through a reliance on such an inflammatory metaphor as ‘holocaust,’” he writes. “Is it an irresponsible overstatement to associate the treatment of Palestinians with this criminalized Nazi record of collective atrocity? I think not.”
Like other radical Leftists who sought in Islam what they could no longer find in the proletariat, Falk embraced the 1979 Iranian revolution and its apotheosis, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Quoting the clerical leader’s promises of enlightened rule, Falk declaimed, “To suppose that Ayatollah Khomeini is dissembling seems almost beyond belief.” He added, “Having created a new model of popular revolution based, for the most part, on nonviolent tactics, Iran may yet provide us with a desperately-needed model of humane governance for a third-world country.”
His hopes for the Iranian revolution apparently disappointed, Falk grew invested instead in the Palestinian cause. In a 2011 blog titled “A Few Notes on WHAT IS LEFT (or Toward a Manifesto for Revolutionary Emancipation),” Falk came up with a three-point agenda. Its first point was: “support for the Palestinian Solidarity Movement,”
The distinguishing characteristic of Falk, Chomsky, Butler and the other “righteous Jews” is an identity as Leftists far stronger than any they might feel as Jews. Although they are immensely influential in the world at large, the thinness of their Jewish ties has limited their impact within the Jewish community. Their radicalism creates a gulf because while many radicals have been Jews, most Jews are liberals, not radicals. In the hopes of changing this, an organization was formed in 2008 that aimed, in the words its vice president, at “moving Jews” further to the left and especially to a position more critical of Israel, but it takes pains to speak in tones that do not sound so radical. The group calls itself J Street, and instead of being overtly anti-Israel it says is pro-Israel but wants to “redefin[e] what it means to be pro-Israel.”
If some Jews, like those who were “proud to be ashamed” of Israel in Howard Jacobson’s novel, TheFinkler Question, are moved to repudiate Israel out of ethnic self-consciousness, others, exemplified by Falk, opportunistically flaunt a Jewish lineage that is otherwise meaningless to them to lend weight to their anti-Israel pronouncements. Some, like Tikkun magazine’s Michael Lerner, who calls himself “rabbi” without having attended seminary, shamelessly cloak their invective against Israel in invocations of the Jewish prophetic tradition. For the Falks and the Lerners and their ilk, the true motive is ideology, and Jewishness is merely brandished as a shield for their Israel-bashing while lending cover to non-Jewish Israel-bashers, helping to protect them against the taint of anti-Semitism. The big prize of all this activity, however, is the one aimed at by J Street, namely, to divide the American Jewish community on the subject of Israel. The intended result is to overhaul America’s Middle East policy by making gentiles wonder why they should support Israel when the Jews, themselves, are of two minds.
“Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel” by Joshua Muravchik
Published by Encounter Books
Joshua Muravchik, a Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of hundreds of articles appearing in all major U.S. newspapers and intellectual magazines and is the author of nine previous books including Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism, Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America’s Destiny, and Trailblazers of the Arab Spring: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East.
Read an op-ed by Joshua Muravchik: Elizabeth Warren stumbles on Israel