Continuing my conversation with Mike Lumish regarding the Left’s relationship to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, those who were hoping to see sparks fly have probably been disappointed so far since that debate began in agreement that “The Left” is not the enemy, but the battleground over which much of the current anti-Israel battles are being fought.
But now that we’ve established the basis for our argument (with “argument” defined as a constructive engagement where people differ over important matters vs. a fight where people just yell at one another while never giving an inch), I’d like to take issue with a couple of points in Mike’s most recent response.
First, pointing out President Obama’s 2011 statement equating the Arab Spring with the struggle for civil rights in the US is a perfectly reasonable way to criticize the President’s lack of perception (as well as history, given how revolutions have historically gone when the ruthless are around to seize them). But I’m not sure it can be used to clinch an argument over the Left’s conflicted relationship with the Jewish state.
After all, this was just one of many daft things said during the heyday of Arab Spring fantasies. And while I admit that the invocation of a sacred civil rights icon to describe what was happening in the Middle East seemed inappropriate even then, I’m hesitant to use such a statement as the basis of a critique of even the Obama administration, much less “The Left” that the Obama administration is supposed to be representing in Mike’s argument.
For there are all kinds of indictments one can bring to the current President’s foreign policy, from alienating friends (including Israel) while engaging in futile attempts to cultivate foes. And any number of attributes of the current President can be cited to build that indictment (discomfort with the use of power, isolation enabling group-think that leads to poor decision-making, lack of experience in world affairs, etc.).
If this critique (which I will admit has not been a big part of my own writing) seems a bit subdued, keep in mind that I turn to (as always) Lee Harris to understand how to best criticize the person who holds the most difficult job in the world. And for purposes of this discussion, while the President’s world view (which has been shaped by his emergence from the academic Left) certainly has a place in that critique, it would be a fallacy to lay all of President Obama’s failings at the feet of all holders of that world view (especially since the biggest brake on the President’s excesses – especially during his first two years – was the strong support for Israel among important left-leaning constituencies, notably organized Labor and Democrats in Congress).
The other point Mike made that I take issue with is the notion that we must decide between criticizing the Left for the fact that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism dwells within its ranks (which it obviously does) or staying mum out of fear of offending potential allies within that end of the spectrum.
The reason I see this as a false choice is that there is no shortage of criticism of Left anti-Zionism/Semitism within the Left itself (which I have seen first-hand in every BDS battle I’ve been directly involved with where direct combatants on both sides considered themselves left-leaning).
Now I’d be the first to say I wish Israel’s leftist allies were as fired up and organized as her enemies. But the inability to act as ruthlessly as the BDSers (and the rest of the odious project BDS represents) is something all of Israel’s friends lack (for reasons I’ve talked about many times).
More importantly, we must consider criticism of something as broad and diverse as what we call “The Left” in the same way we think about criticism of Israel.
As many people have articulated better than I, there are all kinds of things one can criticize Israel and its leaders for, and many people (including many Israelis) exercise their democratic privilege to make these criticisms all the time. But as others have also pointed out, another group often travels under the banner of “critics of Israel”: those who are at war with the Jewish state who want to use its failings (which are shared by all democratic states) as a weapon to de-legitimize and weaken the nation in hope that this will lead to its eventual destruction.
Along the same lines, there are many people (Left and Right) who sincerely want to see those ugly elements of the Left jettisoned from respectable company (as the Right did when they drummed Pat Buchannan out of “the movement”). But there are also people whose primary political goal is to defeat the Left politically.
Now there is nothing wrong at all with such partisan politics (or making this form of partisanship one’s political priority). In fact, most people use general political alignment to define many, if not all, of their political choices. But I would be hesitant to say that since anti-Zionism/Semitism has been fighting for control of more and more of the Left agenda that the Left as a whole cannot be trusted (which leaves as the only option abandoning it and embracing the Right).
The reason this is a poor political choice is that anti-Semitism (as we have seen over the last two Millennia) is a highly opportunistic virus. Today, for whatever reason, being associated with left-leaning principles and causes is considered a sign of virtue (which is why even the most ruthless dictators use a progressive vocabulary when they lie about their true nature or – more innocently – why profit-minded corporations constantly tout their Green and communitarian values). But that could change in an instant and as history has shown us, no end of the political spectrum (or any political ideology save Zionism) has been able to keep the forces of anti-Semitism at bay long term.
Perhaps this is why when I look for critics of the Left, I tend to find the works of historians (like Robert Wistrich) and philosophers (like Ruth Wisse) more satisfying than the latest broadside against Obama and the Left over this or that outrage on Fox News (or even my beloved daily Commentary). For their view is a long one, and I suspect that our survival depends on thinking past the next election (American or Israeli) as well as thinking about how our present situation is anchored in both the past and the human condition.