A response to Mike

As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, some obligations in the second half of the year have left me with limited time to, among other thing, post or respond as frequently to comments as I would like.

But one of our visitors (Mike who runs the excellent site Israel Thrives) was taken enough with the debates that have been going on in the comments section (particularly debates over where BDS and anti-Zionism fit into left-leaning political culture) that he has continued that discussion on his own site and his new blog on the Times of Israel site (BTW – congrats on the new gig, Mike!).

The author’s key argument is that there is no question that BDS and anti-Zionist (and even anti-Semitic politics) has found a home on the political Left and that anyone who ignores this has his “head buried in the sand” (possibly over conflicting identities as both a supporter of Israel and of liberal causes).

Now Mike goes out of his way to not attribute those attitudes to me.  Which is just as well since with regard to his first argument (that anti-Israel politics has a home on the Left), I would not only agree with him but would go much further.  For my understanding of this issue comes from reading the works of Robert Wistrich who has not only documented the phenomena of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic themes evolving in Left-wing politics, but has traced the phenomena to its origins in the works of Marx and specific anti-Zionist Soviet propaganda programs of the 20s and 60s that still provide the foundation for most left-wing anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism today.  (BTW – Wistrich has just come out with a new book that I’ve not read yet, but I predict will be the seminal work on this subject.)

Obviously ignoring this problem would be akin to ignoring how anti-Semitism first grafted itself onto nationalist politics in the 19th century (which many of the Jews of Europe did do, with disastrous consequences).  But I differ with Mike with regard to his characterization of many left-leaning friends of Israel as having their “heads buried” (i.e., as intentionally ignoring the obvious due to partisan blindness).

My difference with Mike over this question centers on the definition of a single word.  Not the obvious ones you would think of (such as “Left,” “anti-Zionism” or “anti-Semitism”) but over the humbler word “home.”

For in talking about BDS and other anti-Israel activities and attitudes having a home on the Left, it makes a difference whether we’re talking about the home you offer a beloved family member or the home set up by a virus or other disease in a body that it was never invited into.

If we define home in the family-member sense, then we would be making the argument that anti-Zionism (and even anti-Semitism) are an intrinsic component of Left-wing ideology, much like eyes are intrinsic to human beings, which would lead us to very different conclusions than if we treated anti-Semitism on the Left as the same kind of infection that permeated nationalist and Right-leaning politics in the first half of the 20th century.

Because political ideologies (Left, Right or something else) are creations of man (not natural occurrences), I tend to discount theories that claim they have an intrinsic nature (good or bad).  And given that what we call the political Left is so broad that it includes everyone from former Klansman Robert Byrd to BDS cranks and the Occupy Wall Streeters, it seems just as obvious to me as Mike’s theories are to him that anti-Zionism is one of many political sub-movements vying for position within a huge coalition that roughly falls into the Left end of a Left-Right axis that I already find too broad and dualistic (a dualism we reach for far too hastily in order to explain a world that may not fall into two easily-defined camps).

But the disease definition of “home” helps explain many of the phenomena I’ve encountered in my anti-BDS work, especially with regard to the continuing broad coalition of Left-Right support for Israel in mainstream political organizations (like the Democratic and Republican parties), as well as the fact that most of the people I have fought alongside in major BDS battles have been progressive Jews and non-Jews who reject the notion that BDS be allowed to speak in their name.

We fortunately have an historic analogy we can use to understand this question: the relationship between “The Left” writ large and 20th century left-wing totalitarianism in the form of Marxist-Leninist Communism.

As with Mike’s original assertion regarding anti-Zionism, it would be folly to claim that Marxism had not found a significant home on the Left end of the political spectrum throughout the West.  But it would be just as fallacious to claim that this meant all left-leaning and progressive politics of any stripe were a front, or at least permanently tainted due to the inability of progressives to fully remove Marxists from their big tent.

This inability did not prevent Democratic Presidents (such as Truman and Kennedy) from taking just as strong a stand against Communist expansion as Right-leaning politicians (such as Eisenhower and Reagan).  Nor did it prevent thoughtful liberals from creating the intellectual antibodies needed to help institutions like the Democratic Party and US labor movement from becoming Marxist front groups (the fate of many unions and political parties in Europe).

Just as claiming Marxism to be the true face of the Left (which would leave thoughtful liberals with no choice but to abandon the movement or face charges of “burying their heads in the sand”), claiming anti-Israel politics to be the true face of today’s Left would mean that progressives (including progressive, Israel-loving Jews) are wasting their time trying to challenge anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, fight against BDS, and generally battle the infection of anti-Semitism from within.

Now it could be that Jews are deluded regarding who their true friends and enemies are, and that their only sensible choice is to abandon liberalism/progressivism/”the left” entirely and join a different political movement (conservativism/”the right”) where their only genuine supporters allegedly dwell.

But just as I tend to be suspicious of any analysis that divides the world into just two categories of Left and Right, I also prefer to think about these types of choices during a period when they will not be clouded by other political agendas (such as the play for Jewish votes during a US election).

And now to get back to some of my allies and correspondents (both Left and Right leaning) who I still owe thanks to for making 2012 the least successful year in BDS history.

17 thoughts on “A response to Mike”

  1. Jon –

    Great piece. I want to comment more later, but you have 3 quick corrections:

    The author's name is Robert Wistrich, not Paul. He had a number of good essays around these days, promoting the new book.

    The anti-Semitic parties are in the 19th century or 1800's not the 18th Century.

    They were already influential by the end of last decades of the 19th century – hence Dreyfuss' accusation and conviction.


  2. Jon-

    First of all, I love the virus metaphor. Extending the metaphor, we can definitely talk about some people as being more susceptible to infection, and others as being more resistant.

    Interestingly, I was privileged to listen to Yaakov (Dry Bones) Kirschen give a talk last year. He also talked about anti-Semitism as a virus, and the need to inoculate people against it.

    If I understand Mike's position, he is saying that the Democratic party has become so infected with this virus, that it is incurable and insurmountable, therefore Jews should reject that party. And any Jew who does not recognize that the Democratic party is totally infected has “his head in the sand.”

    While I agree that party has been infected, I don't agree with the diagnosis that the case is hopeless. But I do think strong medicine and therapy is necessary.

    Enough with the metaphor!

    Criticize the BDSers and anti-Israelites long and hard. Reject the Democratic party if you truly believe disagree with their policies. But don't let the BDSers determine your politics for you.

    I reject this notion of bundling. If a person holds that abortion is the only issue important to him, and he will base his vote solely on the candidate's position on abortion, well that can be how it works in a democracy. If he has no opinion on any other issue, so be it. But if he decides his position on climate change will be based on whatever says the guy whose position on abortion he likes, and not on doing his own investigation, then he shirks his responsibility as a thinking citizen.


    1. Do you really think the Democratic Party has been infected with the virus? I'm asking this seriously, because while there are random, low ranking Democratic officials here and there who are, such as this woman in Florida recently or that Attorney General candidate in Missouri who lost his primary by an epic margin, I don't see any evidence that the party itself is infected in any real way. As I keep saying, one could take anecdotes of individual Republicans, like Ron Paul and Pat Buchannon, and reach the same conclusion about the Republican party as a whole, if the same guilt by fringe argument is applied. I think the guilt by fringe argument is not really a realistic assessment of this or any other situation.

    2. Fizziks –

      And don't read this until you are back stateside.

      Continuing with the metaphor, I don't regard the Democratic Party as an organism, but rather a population. And I would say there are many carriers.

      About an hour ago, the Dems amended their platform to include language acknowledging the Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (to my great relief). The vote was by voice, and you can find a video on youtube. The vote sounded like more in favor than against. But it also sounded close.

      Now watch the twitter feed of this guy: @AlexYudelson. I know he is one guy. But I don't think he is a radical and I don't think he is a lone voice.

      And for now, Jerusalem is a more symbolic than substantive issue. Nonetheless, I think this indicative of an Israel-as-paraiah meme becoming more acceptable.


    3. And Abe Greenwald at Commentary (http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2012/09/05/re-democratic-delegates-boo-jerusalem/) agrees:

      Today, America got an unvarnished look at the Democratic Party’s internal conflict on Israel. Half of the Party represents the pro-Israel consensus in America. The other half? Not so much. For all the talk about the unrecognizably extreme new Republican Party, it’s the Democrats whose fringe has quietly made deep inroads into the center—especially when it concerns Israel—and fundamentally altered the nature of the Party.

      It doesn't mean anyone should abandon government investment, health care, progressive taxes and the environment – if that is what you believe. It means the other side is doing a better job at getting its message out than we are.


    4. Aside from the split position, I'd also ask why we should ever even be surprised at all that Democrats are shifting their positions all over the place.

      Hello, that's what they always do… haven't any of us paid any attention for the last three or four decades?

      (Don't smirk Republicans, this goes for you all at least as much, too…)

      Domestically, I'd note that the odious crook Jon Corzine is still at large, and neither party seems interested in making it clear that the rule of law still matters in America.

      But anyway.

      Me? I've hooked up with a gang of urban gardeners and socialist bike guerillas here in North Philadelphia. Though some folks I know will still insist that I'm now a Republican, simply because I don't dream, shriek about and / or want to hug President Obama. Eye roll.


      It's possible to not love the Democrats from the other side, too, ya know. Let me know when they wake up to seriously considering and supporting a national movement toward walkable towns, sustainable agriculture, building attractive things in communities on a human scale which are meant to last more than just a few years, etc etc…

      Perhaps I'd be able to cut Democrats a bit more slack if they'd stop wasting innumerable resources on littering my city with crap like this, and would spend a bit more time on preserving our architectural treasures, rather than tearing them down for any given councilwoman's pet project (or parking lot).

      Just saying. Since you brought up that last paragraph, I'd note that Big-D Party Democrats don't necessarily stand for “government investment, health care, progressive taxes and the environment,” either.

    5. ” I've hooked up with a gang of urban gardeners and socialist bike guerillas here in North Philadelphia.”

      Do you mean “Food Coop” types?

      Are you going to use drip irrigation?



    6. Absolutely, those are my people! I was mainly known as a food activist before I jumped into I-P at a certain Big Orange blog, and of course the BDS stuff quickly became my major focus since I really hate those [expletive deleted – I'm trying to be nice these days :)] using my issues to support their hateful cause.

      From time to time I work on a few temporary plots growing in our all-too-numerous vacant lots, sizes ranging from one typical North Philly row house lot up to entire city blocks where textile mills once stood. Until they were burned down.

      Being the poorest large city in the US has at least some advantages, in that we can use these lots to grow and bring healthy food to neighborhoods (like mine, Kensington) that desperately need and lack same, without worrying that the lots will immediately be turned into giant condos or something…

      Drip irrigation rocks, and is yet one more thing Israel has helped the world with!

      And btw, I wonder how many BDSers help grow kale for folks in our inner city neighborhoods? Or are these self-proclaimed 'progressive activists' otherwise too busy raging against Jews on the internet?

      Fun note, now that I think of it – Emerald Street Urban Garden, just down the street from me, is in a neighborhood with a significant (and poor-ish) Arab population. So I think I can safely say that I've done more work with and for Arab Muslims than any given keyboard warrior BDSer has, too…

    7. Oh, and! I still haven't been able to find anything else about that Boston coop which was mentioned recently as a BDS target.

      The coop I'm soon going to become a member of, Weavers Way here in Philadelphia, was apparently a BDS target in 2004 (hey, wasn't that before they claim their 'movement' was born, btw? heh), and the story I hear is that the leadership ultimately chose not to allow them to force a vote upon the community.

      Unfortunately, nobody I know remembers anything else about it beyond those basics, and once again, I also can't find anything specific on the web about it.

      If nothing else, this just goes to show yet another BDS failure. Even their losses in the fifth-largest city in the country don't even exist in the official record, or public memory, just a few years later…

  3. If we're talking about homes it seems important to distinguish between the far left and the Democratic party. Indeed the far left identifies the Democrats as centrists or complicit fascists in a failed system depending on degree of loonytoons. The far left? The people who protest and think America is a fascist dictatorship that needs direct action and debates what “violence” is? Yeah, I'd say anti-Semitism is well ingrained in that movement, and won't be going anywhere.

    But Democrats? It seems that their flirting with the faction of the left that will never be voting for them anyway comes from a place of ignorance–that perhaps a little lip service will get votes. And the Republicans are clearly no different–just look at the number who propose a “one state solution” and don't realize what that entails.

    As for the rest of us, aren't domestic issues consistently more pertinent than any question of foreign policy? Are Jews to be the only people held to a different set of priorities? And it certainly does no one any favors by claiming we're all simply ignorant of the facts and positions. No, the head in the sand argument is laughable and assumes we all have only single peaked preferences.

  4. You know what I am sick of? People who favor Republicans because that is simply their preferred political philosophy, but pretend that they are really disaffected liberals who have to favor Republicans because of Israel.

    This is what is behind a lot of this back and forth about where the “home” of BDS is.

    Look, if one favors tax cuts for the rich, cutting federal programs, and removing environmental regulations, just be up front about it. That is a perfectly valid political philosophy, one with a long and distinguished pedigree in fact. Why do those people feel the need to 'hide' behind Israel – and pretend that the reason they support Republicans is that the Democrats are the “home” of anti-Israel people? People should just be up front about their beliefs.

  5. Smashing defeat for BDS:
    The Red Hot Chili Pepper Band landed in Tel Aviv in their private plane this afternoon, and will be traveling throughout the country after the concert, despite intense pressure from the BDSers.

    Meanwhile, on Mondoweiss, they're still hoping as-we-speak:

    “The Red Hot Chili Peppers are due to give a concert in Tel Aviv tomorrow night, but boycott advocates still hope that the band, last seen in Beirut, will change its mind.”

  6. I am not going but I know a lot of people are.

    I don't think it increases their ticket sales but I do think that those who come despite the pressure are those who feel secure and confident in their trade – in other words, those at the top and therefore they'll get a full house. – while the lesser artists or those who once were great are afraid of the repercussions on their career's future and therefore cave in.

    Conversely, an artist who doesn't sell many tickets in Israel usually invokes BDS pressure to cancel.

    In that sense, Israel is a barometer of sorts because culture is very important here.

    So it is the Israeli public who at the end determines who comes and who doesn't, not the boycotters.

    Of course there are those times when security problems erupt on the day of a concert but they usually take that into consideration.

  7. Mondoweiss is celebrating the conversion of Kovel (Overcoming Zionism) from nominal Judaism to nominal Presbyterianism.

    I couldn't think of a better place to pass our warts than the Presbyterian Church. Could you?

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