From Ambivalence to Betrayal – Fini

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Left vs. Right

There are two types of problematical reaction from two different audiences when confronted with information like the history presented in Robert Wistrich’s From Ambivalence to Betrayal.

The first reaction comes from those whose political disposition is liberal or otherwise left-leaning who might acknowledge this history but relegate it to the past or to a non-mainstream fringe that has little to nothing to do with them.

For those who primarily label themselves “liberal” or “progressive,” this is a problem for “The Left.” And for Israel supporters who consider themselves “Of the Left,” the history outlined in Wistrich’s book is something you might encounter on the “Far Left,” a marginal group that they claim no one listens to or cares about.

Paired with these attitude is the suspicion that attempts to brand liberals and Leftists as anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic is really just a tactic of the real enemy of the Left: the Right (or, more frequently, the “Far Right”) which is just interested in cherry picking facts and stories from the darker side of the Leftist political tradition in order to smear progressives in front of Jewish and non-Jewish Israel-supporting audiences.

This suspicion is nurtured by genuine anti-Israel Leftists who insist that anyone who not doesn’t hew to their agenda is not just a “Progressive for Everything but Palestine” (i.e., a traitor to Progressive values), but probably a closet conservative/reactionary/Republican/Likudnik just posing as a liberal in order to make “true liberals” like themselves look bad (claims which basically accuse liberal critics of the Israel bashers as being not just hypocrites, but liars and frauds).

But while we can dismiss the self-serving positioning of the Israel haters, we cannot pretend that conservatives do not try to draw political advantage by portraying anti-Israel opinion within the Left as being more widespread than it actually is.  And then there is the phenomenon of lifelong liberals who justifiably lash out against anti-Jewish attitudes within their own tradition who, unable to get genuine Israel-haters to respond to their accusations, turn their wrath on more moderate liberal voices that should be seen as friends, rather than foes.

So where to begin to untangle such a mess of accusation, divisiveness and suspicion and is there a solution that can lead to genuine understanding (not to mention constructive interaction leading to successful action)?

Well first off, we need to acknowledge that diminishing suspicion between Left and Right involves coming to grips with the Left-Right paradigm that defines (and, in my opinion) over-defines nearly every aspect of our political discourse.  I say “coming to grips with” vs. “eliminating” since it’s unrealistic to expect a framework so widespread to be put aside after nearly two-and-a-half centuries of use.  Especially since this Left-Right framework is useful, providing as it does a meaningful way to fit positions on a range of political subjects into a belief system imbued with important human values.

But while acknowledging that the Left-Right axis we use is meaningful, we need to avoid shaping every issue in a way that focuses entirely on our most extreme differences, especially with regard to subjects containing large areas of agreement (such as support for Israel).

And even with this even-handed backdrop, I need to point out that those embracing a left-leaning worldview have the most heavy lifting to do since, for better or for worse, it is their tradition that is being co-opted and corrupted by ruthless totalitarians.

Claiming that Wistrich’s history of ambivalence and hostility towards the Jews and their state is part of the Left’s DNA (and thus unchangeable) is both inaccurate and unfair.  But denying that it has been part of the Left’s tradition since the birth of that tradition would be equally inaccurate.  And denying its relevance to the current debate (or relegating it to a marginal fringe) is not going to stop the totalitarians from continuing to use the language of the Left to continue to attack the Jewish state on the way to their real goal: The dictatorship of themselves.

These would-be totalitarians have their heroes and stories (the revolutionists of yore who used the language of progress to pave the way for their own total rule) which propels their world view and dictates their actions (which explains why they can ignore their own illiberal behavior and allies, since such questioning is of no concern to a revolutionary vanguard whose only goal is power).

But Progressive Zionists have their own heroes and stories to turn to: including those courageous liberals who stood against Communism, even while being accused of hypocrisy, class treason and every other imaginable crime.  And then there are the founders of the Jewish state itself who were as much creatures of the labor movement as they were committed Jews and Zionists, commitments that provided them the faith and courage to overcome enemies far more ruthless than the lame, faux-liberal BDSers we confront today.

And as the many liberal Zionists it has been my pleasure to work with (and the many more I have never met) come to this understanding and fight this fight, it is the obligation of those not holding a liberal world view to distinguish friend from foe and support progressive allies (or, at least not denigrate them), in their fight for the soul of the Left.  For it is the huge overlap between Left and Right with regard to belief in and support of the Jewish state that defines our strength, not the shrill and self-serving arguments of those who fall outside this consensus.

And to give us all some perspective (and perhaps an ounce of humility); consider other traditions that have historically grappled with their own relationship to Jews, Judaism and – most recently – Zionism.  Christianity, for example, is now split between growing Evangelical churches whose devotion to Israel is second only to that of American Jews and dying Mainline Protestantism (Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.) who maintain – at best – an ambivalent attitude towards the Jewish state which frequently descends into hostility (although not yet outright betrayal).

Or look at America’s mainstream conservatives dedicated to Israel’s safety, security and success who can win at the ballot box vs. the “Blame Israel First” Buchannanist Right that can barely manage to maintain itself as a cult of personality.

And even within the Progressive tradition, who would you rather associate with: the Israel-loving American industrial Labor movement that gave us safety and fair wages for workers (not to mention the weekend) or the self-righteous, ends-justify-the-means tradition represented today by pro-BDS “Leftists” which has spent much of the last two centuries delivering nothing but tyranny, death and despair?

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15 Responses to From Ambivalence to Betrayal – Fini

  1. fizziks December 15, 2012 at 10:20 pm #


    “And then there is the phenomenon of lifelong liberals who justifiably lash out against anti-Jewish attitudes within their own tradition who, unable to get genuine Israel-haters to respond to their accusations, turn their wrath on more moderate liberal voices that should be seen as friends, rather than foes.”

    My thoughts exactly.

    On a more meta-point, I think that US politics in general is terribly infected with people buying their politics wholesale and not thinking for themselves on any given issue. Most people are completely stumped that someone could be, for instance, a committed environmentalist and yet also pro gun-rights, because they just can’t conceive of someone evaluating each issue on its own merits rather than conforming to the party line on everything.

    This is why we really need to prevent the default opinion on the Democratic Party side of American politics from becoming anti-Israel, because once it is, it will be hard to go back. Pro-Israel Democrats like me need to fight hard for this. But one of the best ways to prevent Democrats from becoming anti-Israel is for Republicans to stop trying to use Israel as a wedge. If Democrats perceive that Republicans are really for something in a huge partisan way, they will think they need to be against it. Just like when Republicans think that Democrats are really for something in a huge partisan way they think they need to be against it, even if it is the exact thing they used to want (e.g. Obama’s health plan).

    Let’s be savvy in regard to the state of American politics. Israel should not be a partisan wedge.

  2. David Schraub December 16, 2012 at 12:05 am #

    I think the most important litmus test for respecting Jews is continuing to respect them even when they disagree. While there are of course some fringe types (left and right) who just dislike Jews tout court, for the most part it’s easy to like a group when they agree with you. It’s where there’s divergence and differentiation that hostility tends to spring. And when I think about how Jews are viewed on the left versus the right, I think for the most part it is generally that we’re liked insofar as we agree with them, and disliked insofar as we don’t. Various right-wing types who are very happy to sing the praises of certain Jews who take certain positions on Israel are quite happy to savagely attack the Jewish community writ large when they don’t fall in line (Joe Walsh or Glenn Beck, for example, both of whom have loudly claimed to be friends of the Jews and Israel while vitriolically attacking the Jewish community when we take positions that don’t cohere to their political preferences). And ditto with the left, which often does the same — piling on Jews with whom they disagree while lauding those that are ideologically amenable.

    As a left-type myself it stings more when it comes from the left, both because that’s also my tribe and also because the left at least has in its intellectual repertoire a respect for cultural pluralism that is being implicitly rejected when they don’t accept the right of Jews to disagree (whereas the right doesn’t really have a well-developed tradition of respect for cultural differentiation).

    But I agree with Fizziks that it is important not to look at this as lefties failing where righties have succeeded. The general rule in America is that Jews are respected — by the left and the right — precisely as far as Jews take amenable positions. Where we dare to deviate, to speak in our own voice, things get dicey — no matter who it is we’re challenging.

  3. Mike Lumish December 17, 2012 at 4:43 am #

    Jon, thank you for this interesting series.

    I haven’t read the book, yet, so I must limit my observations to your own claims. Given the breadth of the overall topic, there are all sorts of potential criticisms and questions and so forth, but I will limit myself to just a few that are of particular interest to me.

    While I very much appreciate the overview of the political and intellectual history of the left’s move from ambivalence on the Jewish Question to current betrayal, I do have a question about a seeming contradiction in the heart of what you have written.

    In the beginning of your first part you tell your readers that “there is general consensus with regard to support for the Jewish state and near universal revulsion at everything BDS is, does and stands for” in the United States. One of the primary messages that you present in Divestthis! is that BDS fails and fails and fails.

    Yet in your conclusion you say, “I need to point out that those embracing a left-leaning worldview have the most heavy lifting to do since, for better or for worse, it is their tradition that is being co-opted and corrupted by ruthless totalitarians.”

    If this is not a contradiction it is certainly a point of uncertainty in the argument. That is, either BDS is weak or it is not. If it is weak, as you very often imply, filled with perpetual failures, this suggests that it is, for most of us, nothing to be particularly concerned with.

    But if this is the case, how is it possible that the left-leaning worldview is being co-opted and corrupted by ruthless totalitarians?

    • DivestThis December 17, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

      Hi Mike – Good question, but I think we can separate my points about the general failings of BDS and the need for people with a left-leaning worldview to engage with more challenging aspects of their ideological history.

      Regarding BDS, the ongoing failure of this “movement” does not mean the forces behind it are powerless. In fact, since those forces are able to enact their will in places like the UN (by voting in Palestinian statehood and condemnation of Israel, while keeping the butchery in Syria off limits, for example), by definition there are powerful state actors behind the global anti-Israel campaign. And even if these actors do not write checks to the BDSers, they have provided them the megaphone they need to raise their issue above all the genuine human rights issues on the planet. The failure of BDS demonstrates that it has been an unsuccessful tactic and that the people it targets (progressive institutions) are not interested in participating, but again this doesn’t mean that the people propelling the BDS message forward do not do so with powerful forces at their back.

      The tendency of these forces to wrap their program (and other anti-Israel activity) in a Leftist vocabulary is a distinct issue that all of us need to grapple with. And those who identify with the left end of the political spectrum have the unenviable task of having to rescue that language from the haters. This is no small project, but just as Christians and Conservatives have had to struggle with their own histories of anti-Semitism in the ranks, Progressives need to do the same and should be supported in their efforts, even by those who do not agree with them on a whole host of other issues.

      • Mike Lumish December 19, 2012 at 6:39 am #

        Jon, I agree that as Christians and conservatives struggled with their own histories of anti-Semitism, so progressives need to, as well.

        And, if progressives decide to make any such effort, I certainly think that we should support them. The problem is that there is precious little evidence to suggest that progressives are, in fact, countering anti-Semitism. On the contrary, what we are seeing is a progressive movement that not only accepts anti-Semitic anti-Zionism within its larger coalition, but that is promoting humanitarian racism, as well.

        Leaving that aside for the moment, it seems to me that one of our primary differences is in our perceptions of the relationship between the left and BDS. You argue that BDS has co-opted the language of the left, i.e., the language of social justice and human rights, but that BDS does not really represent such values. While I agree with you that BDS represents a corruption of the alleged values of the progressive left, I would argue that anti-Semitic anti-Zionism is, in fact, a welcome part of that movement and the real problem, therefore, is the progressive-left betrayal of their Jewish friends and allies.

        Progressive-left anti-Zionism uses the language of social justice and human rights because it comes out of the progressive movement. The larger progressive movement thinks so, as well, which explains why it provides all sorts of venues for anti-Semitic anti-Zionists to get across their message. Whether we’re talking about progressive-left blogs and newspapers, or the progressive-left NGOs, or Yale University, Harvard University, or the University of Pennsylvania, it is out of the left that anti-Semitic anti-Zionism is coming and from within the left that they do their work. BDS may fail in its individual efforts to influence various universities and co-ops, but the larger anti-Zionist movement, from which BDS derives, is very much welcome on the left and has a tremendous influence in how progressives view the conflict.

        In truth, they set the very terms of the debate.

        This is not to suggest that there is no anti-Zionist presence on the right, but merely that its incarnation on the left is the primary obstacle. Everyone knows that David Duke is a racist, but how many would say the same thing about Alice Walker?

        Thus the task here is not merely rescuing progressive-left language from “the haters,” but reforming the left as a whole so that it no longer provides support for those haters. The problem is not merely that anti-Semitic anti-Zionism doesn’t represent progressive-left values, but that the progressive-left no longer represents its own values, if it ever did. And I say this as someone who comes out of that political tradition.

        You write:

        just as Christians and Conservatives have had to struggle with their own histories of anti-Semitism in the ranks, Progressives need to do the same and should be supported in their efforts, even by those who do not agree with them on a whole host of other issues.

        How about those of us who do, in fact, agree with them on a whole host of other issues, yet disagree with them in terms of their understanding of the Arab-Israel conflict because that understanding is hobbled by the ideological and discursive restraints policed by the left, itself?

        Progressive-left diaspora Jewry can never wrest the terms of the discussion from anti-Semitic anti-Zionists so long as they insist on discussing the conflict within the very terms set by the anti-Zionists, themselves. Furthermore, unless they wish to be drummed out of the left, so to speak, they are compelled to use that language because it is considered politically unacceptable, even racist, not to do so within progressive-left venues. (For example, just try referring to the “West Bank” as Judea and Samaria among progressives and see how they respond.)

        So long as progressive-left Zionists are reluctant to place the conflict within the context of the long history of Jewish dhimmitude under Arab-Muslim imperial rule, or cannot bring themselves to discuss progressive-left sympathies for the rise of political Islam throughout the Middle East, or refuse to discuss the fact that Palestinian nationalism, and the Muslim Brotherhood, owes an ideological debt to Nazi Germany, then they have no chance of doing what you and I agree that they need to do. However, if they honestly do wish to rescue the terms of the conversation from the anti-Zionists, they might start by recognizing that the conflict is not merely between Palestinian “Davids” and Israeli “Goliaths,” but between the larger Arab-Muslim world and the Jews of the Middle East. It’s not an “Israel-Palestine” conflict, but an Arab-Israel conflict or, more accurately, the long Arab-Muslim war against the Jews in the Middle East.

        Until progressive diaspora Jewry makes the necessary conceptual switch they can never wrest the language back from the haters, precisely because they are using the language developed by the haters, themselves.

        • DivestThis December 20, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

          I’m struggling to see exactly where we disagree, even if we are each using different language to describe the same phenomenon.

          We both agree that BDS (and other anti-Israel movements) are primarily coming at us from the Left, which has not yet made the kind of transition we have seen amongst other traditions (notably important segments of Christianity and the American political right) to purge such bigotry from their ranks.

          You have pointed out the great difficulty such a change would be for the Left, given the number of people dedicated to an anti-Israel agenda within its ranks and the challenges faced by those trying to support Israel within such an environment (including the enforcement of language that places Israel’s friends at a disadvantage). And I agree that friends of Israel taking on this task face enormous challenges.

          But in every generation, we have seen people ready to step up to the plate and fight against overwhelming odds to ensure their tradition does not get corrupted by the forces of hatred and tyranny. Those progressives and labor leaders who stood fast against Marxist totalitarianism come to mind as a model for this current struggle. And in most of the BDS battles I have been involved with, progressives with this same level of courage and understanding have led the fight.

          From what you describe about your own political trajectory, you seem to be part of this tradition, even if you can’t understand why other Progressives don’t adopt the vocabulary you use to describe the Middle East (one that would allow sane moral decisions based on accurate facts). To which I would say that most of the allies I have worked with in the past understand (or are on their way to understanding) these matters, even if they are creating their own vocabulary and tactics to fight against the bigots making a claim to their political tradition.

          There is, of course, another alternative for progressive friends of Israel: to abandon the Left entirely and join the Right (which claims to be the only true friend of the Jewish state) or drop out of political life entirely. But I think we both agree that such an argument is likely to fail, assuming as it does that Israel and Israel alone must determine one’s overall political orientation.

          Given the hand we’ve been dealt, we can either abandon or marginalize the Left for the behavior of too many people in its ranks, or empower (or become) those willing to stand up to anti-Israel forces and make the arguments and fight the battles needed to drive the haters back to their bunkers.

        • fizziks December 20, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

          Those of us within the left (center-center-left in my case, BTW) are quite willing to take on the massive task of reversing the tide of Israel de-legitimization that has been in from the far left. It is going to be a huge struggle.

          Do you guys want us to succeed in that? I hope you do.

          If your answer is yes, then the number one most important thing you can do to help us is to refrain from trying to make Israel a partisan wedge political issue in US politics.

          As you know, most Americans – left and right – are not very politically aware on most issues and largely let group affiliations guide their opinions. If support for Israel is seen as a “Republican” thing, then many Democrats will decide that they have to be against it. Whereas if it is just seen as a bi-partisan thing, then Democrats will largely remain pro-Israel. It’s that simple.

          It is just like the way that gun rights used to be roughly bi-partisan, as recently as the 80s both parties were split on the issue, but then got too associated with Republicans so many Democrats decided that they had to be against it, and now the issue is entirely polarized into one party. It is also just like the way that for years Republicans loved health insurance mandates, but as soon as Democrats declared they were for them, Republicans decided they had to be against them.

          Israel has been the rare case of something that is more or less bipartisan in American politics. But if it becomes seen as partisan, then those days will be over.

          • Stop BDS Park Slope December 20, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

            Fizziks –

            “If support for Israel is seen as a “Republican” thing, then many Democrats will decide that they have to be against it.”

            This is a so on the money. I would also add to it the corralary statement:

            If supporters of Israel are seen as being irrationally anti-Democrat party or anti-Obama, then Democrats will be against supporting Israel.


  4. JayinPhiladelphia December 21, 2012 at 6:40 am #

    It would be nice if statements like this

    There’s a common misconception that the administration worries most about “the Jews.” The latest polls, however, show 73% of U.S. Jews supporting Obama’s policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nearly as many want him to propose a specific plan for a two-state solution, even if it means publicly disagreeing with Israel. Nor is there too much reason to worry about Jewish money, since most Jewish contributors to the Democrats are liberals who are pro-Israel but also pro-peace.

    …weren’t considered uncontroversial on progressive-left websites these days.

    I got kicked off of that site a year ago for not being nice to antisemites, though.

    I’m not necessarily proud of it, but I also voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 (in NJ – if I was in PA or OR then, I would have voted for Gore). Voted and worked for Kerry in 04; ditto for Obama in 08, and voted (but not worked) for the latter last month, too. If people like me (who in America can be leftier than a 2000 Nader voter?!) are getting this vinegar’ed off, there’s a problem.

    My problem isn’t with the Democrats (I’m one myself), it IS with the folks like that I quoted above.

    I’m not leaving the Left, and I never will. But it’s getting tiring being kicked in my ass every time I take them on, too…

    • JayinPhiladelphia December 21, 2012 at 7:16 am #

      And that is not to even mention my work in 2002 for Tim Carden for Congress, Steve Brozak in 2004, Linda Stender in 2006, my work for like 100 different Democratic candidates in Portland in the latter half of the last decade; my fantastic voyage for a doomed Democratic candidate who at one point a few weeks before the election this year physically assaulted his office staff here in Kensington (welcome back to Philadelphia!), which was all kinds of fun, etc etc…

      Anyway, yeah.

      It’s time for progressive-left websites to do some more banning of antisemites, and some less banning of those of us who tried to clean things up and expose them (before we were kicked out, ourselves, of course).

  5. Jon December 21, 2012 at 11:48 am #

    One of the reasons why I wrote this series after the election was that it at least gave me time to reflect on important Left vs. Right issues specifically as they relate to Israel, without another agenda (presidential campaigns that benefit from highlighting differences between the parties on this issue for reasons other than what’s best for the Jewish state).

    But just as those who are today serving the same role as the courageous anti-Marxist leftists who saved American liberalism from totalitarian Communism had to contend with condemnations from both the Marxists and political enemies on the Right (who would like to associate the entire Left end of the spectrum with the worst aspects of Marxism, either out of sincere belief that totalitarianism is in the Left’s DNA, or for simple partisan advantage), so too will those fighting bigotry within Progressive organizations today will need to contend with attacks coming from both Left and Right.

    It may not seem fair, but politics ain’t beanbag. And as I’m writing in a post that should go up later today, the issues we are all contending with go so far beyond today’s partisan concerns that we may want to keep the entire Left-Right spectrum thing in perspective as we try to build a paradigm that will help us navigate through crises that are sure to come.

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