A few weeks ago, Mike Lumish (of Israel Thrives and Times of Israel fame) and I began a dialog over that perennial issue that comes up here and at all sites (or any other locations) where debate over the Middle East takes place: the role of the global Left in supporting an anti-Zionist (and, sometimes, anti-Semitic) agenda on the world stage.
The question that kicked off this debate (whether the Left abandons its principles when it embraces anti-Zionism) turned out to be a simple one to answer. For the double-standards, ignoring of context (historical and geopolitical), and abuse of the language of human rights that are the sin qua non of the BDS agenda (and the wider anti-Israel ideology from which BDS springs) is an affront not just to what the Left would consider to be its cornerstone principles (fairness and justice), but antithetical to any moral view embraced by people located anywhere on the spectrum (political, that is).
My response to his question (which asked whether we should consider the Left not as friend or enemy but the battlefield upon which the Arab-Israel conflict is currently being fought) brought forth an important (and potentially fruitful) response from Mike, namely: if the soul of the Left is an important plain upon which this battle is continuing, are supporters of Israel in the process of losing that battle?
One obvious way to try to answer this question is through the use of statistical evidence. In fact, Mike provides a link to such evidence in the form of a survey demonstrating that while US support for Israel is still high in general, it is much higher among Republicans (68-77%) vs. Democrats (39-46%).
While I respect the use of survey studies (which have successfully supported a century of social-science research, after all), those ranges illustrate a couple of problems I have with the use of statistical information to answer important questions regarding political belief.
The first is the nature of the sample. Taking just the Democratic side of the spectrum, this number would include everyone from the late Robert Byrd to the nastiest Che-Guevara-t-shirt-wearing BDSer who also happens to be registered Democrat.
But then you also have the issue of what kind of question is being translated into “support for Israel.” Were respondents asked their support for Israel over Hamas in the latest Gaza conflict (which seems be part of the Post story linked above)? And is data from this poll being conflated with previous polls asking different questions? If so, what was the subject of those polls? Was “support for Israel” framed around favoring its continued existence (to which more people Left or Right would probably say “Yes”) vs. splitting levels of responsibility the peace-process stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians (which would probably give you different results)?
Our deep and abiding faith in numbers tends to prejudice statistical information (which supposedly reflects the view of the many) over anecdotal data. But hang in with me for a minute while I make the case for a specific set of anecdotal information that I think provides a valuable context which might propel this debate forward.
Clearly raw anecdote is not that valuable (since for every left-leaning supporter if Israel one can name, a critic could provide as many counter-examples as they like). But I’d like to assign importance to the fact that in every BDS battle I’ve been involved over the last decade, the majority of allies I’ve worked would characterize themselves as progressive or Left-leaning.
This fact should not be used to support an assertion that liberals are more likely than conservatives to participate on the right side of a BDS fight. Rather, it demonstrates that because BDS only tends to try to insert itself into liberal communities (colleges and universities, liberal Mainline churches, municipalities with big Democratic majorities, food coops – including the ultimate example of Park Slope), those trying to stop them are likely to spring from those communities and thus be more liberal than the population as a whole.
Under these circumstances, what we’re talking about is one group of self-identified progressives (those who fight against BDS) resisting another group of self-identified progressives (those pushing BDS), with this latter group insisting that anyone who considers themselves liberal/progressive/left-leaning must fully support the boycotters’ agenda.
And here, this anecdotal information supports not a statistical or anthropological argument, but an historic one. For where have we seen fights that involve ideological extremists insisting that everyone who believes in a certain wide-ranging set of political principles must submit themselves to the extremists or be considered traitors to their own beliefs?
We saw this in the last century where one branch of the Left (call it Marxist, Marxist-Leninist, “Hard-Left” of whatever you like), made it very clear that any support for progressive causes required you to embrace their revolutionary agenda (and leadership) or be condemned as wishy-washy and hypocritical at best, treacherous and reactionary at worst. And, in a dynamic that will sound familiar, while these revolutionaries demanded that everyone else submit to judgment, they were impervious to any critique of their own hermetically sealed world view (up to and even after Europe threw off the yoke of Communism).
Today, it is this same attitude (practiced by many of the same organizations and even individuals) that propels debates over whether someone is a PEP (i.e., “Progressive in Everything but Palestine”) implying that a “true” progressive can only have one attitude towards the Arab-Israeli conflict – the Palestinian one. And just as last-centuries Marxists were impervious to criticism of their own beliefs (while busily condemning everyone else’s), so today’s BDSers cannot be swayed by argument over things like the state of human rights outside the Jewish state since their fanaticism can only see such arguments as “distractions” from the only topic they want to discuss (Israel’s guilt).
But let’s not forget that last-century’s Marxists lost the Cold War (better termed World War III). And, as much as I admire those conservatives who stood fast against Marxism for a century (which does not include opportunists like Joseph McCarthy who, among other crimes, provided Communists with ideological ammunition they have still not depleted), part of the front against Marxism included progressives, liberals, Leftists (whatever you want to call them) who stood fast against the bullying and blackmail that played such a large part in the revolutionists’ agenda of subversion.
So if this is the nature of the battle being fought, are we doing ourselves a disservice for condemning a Left that might include the inheritors of an anti-Communist tradition that is trying to find a way to apply lessons learned in the 20th century fight against Marxism to our current conflict (best thought of as World War IV)?
Back over to you, Michael…