Arguing with Mike – Is that all you got? ;-)

Continuing on with my back-and-forth with Mike Lumish of Israel Thrives/Times of Israel/Elder of Ziyon fame, in my last contribution I hedged a bit in my challenge to Mike’s critique of Left-wing anti-Zionism, given that his original critique was more implicit than direct.  But now that he has made that critique explicit in his most recent reply, I shall make my challenge to it more explicit as well.

His argument rests on three linked observations/premises, the first being what Mike (and many others) consider to be one of the most prominent of President Obama’s foreign policy failures: his choice to support the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt coupled with the President’s choice to wrap his hopes for a democratic Arab spring in Egypt and elsewhere in the language of America’s two most sacred struggles (the War of Independence and the Civil Rights Movement).

With this charge in place, an accusation can then be directed at “The Left” (or least the US Left) based on an objective fact: that it voted overwhelmingly for someone (twice!) who pretended the Muslim Brotherhood (which all of us know as the Ur-Jihad, out of which so much of today’s Islamist mayhem sprung) was the inheritor of Thomas Jefferson and Rosa Parks.

With those two facts in place, the indictment which follows simply points out that a US Left which chose to vote for this President two times cannot possibly be considered friendly to Jewish peoplehood, especially given the role Israel plays in Jewish identity in the 21st century.

And given the overlap between left-leaning Americans and American Jews (78% of whom voted for Obama in 2008 and 69% in 2012), Mike’s third observation is that these huge numbers were clearly voting against their most important interests – a choice which I suspect fuels his frequent condemnation that many Progressive Jews (and those who do not condemn them) suffer from having their heads “buried in the sand” (probably the nicest way of putting a sentiment that lends itself to a more scatological version).

I will agree that each of these observations has merit and the logic linking them together is likely to be convincing – even compelling – to some.  But I would like to challenge each observation/premise and the logic linking them, not to fly to the defense of the Obama administration, but to highlight how this argument actually weakens the case Mike is trying to make against Left-leaning opponents of the Jewish state.

To begin with, as much as I agree that each of us is entitled to focus on aspects of an issue (like Mike’s choice to focus on Obama’s behavior when the Brotherhood was in power in Egypt), genuine understanding can only come from focusing on more than one fact – no matter how revealing  that single fact might seem.

For even in the case of Egypt, the Obama administration provided aid to the Mubarak government before it fell, the Morsi Muslim Brotherhood government that replaced it, and the el-Sisi government that overthrew Morsi.  So in terms of action, Obama has simply been part of a continuity that goes back to the 1970s in which both Republican and Democratic administrations made the wise choice to pay Egypt to keep it out of direct military participation in the Arab war against Israel.

Now while I can split hairs regarding whether Obama was directly praising the Brotherhood when he used civil rights language to express his hopes for the Arab Spring, I think it’s safer to say that Obama’s Middle East policies in general (which included supporting Muslim Brothers Egypt wing while dropping bombs on its ISIS wing) reflect a complex reaction to a complex world.  And while one can praise those decisions, or condemn them as naïve or dangerous (I’d tend to fall between those last two), resting one’s case on just one aspect of administration policy (as Mike does) actually makes your case vulnerable to a wide variety of counter-examples (like the ones you just read).

Regarding “The Left” voting overwhelmingly for Obama in two elections, putting aside what we mean by “The Left,” there is a perfectly valid reason why such a group would vote for the Democratic candidate in 2008 and 2012: because that’s what left-leaning voters do.

In fact, most of those who voted for (or against) Obama were destined to do so even before the current President was born based entirely on partisan preferences (either inherited or chosen) that tend to overwhelm any particular issue.  And given that this same “Left” is just as likely to vote for a Democratic candidate who is not hostile to Israel over any Republican in the next election, focusing a critique on the Left for supporting a Democratic presidential candidate seems like condemning the tide for coming in and getting your beach towel wet.

I’m more sympathetic to the argument regarding Jewish voters (and Jewish organizations) that ran interference for the current President, rather than pressuring or lobbying him to stop his needless fight-picking with Israel’s government and appeasement of Middle East dictators.  But even here I make a distinction between Jewish Voice for Peace (which is the enemy of the Jewish state and its supporters) and Jewish community and defense organizations that have lost their way.

The former must be fought at all cost, but the latter have the potential of doing the right thing or, in the case of defense groups like ADL, of coming back to their roots.  And even if this is an uphill (and potentially fruitless) battle, I prefer it be waged in the context of trying to convince friends to get their priorities straight, rather than treating potential allies in the same way I treat enemies (like JVP).

Getting back to more general voting patterns, this 70-80% of Jewish voters was part of more than half the electorate that voted for the current President in two separate elections.  Which leaves us with the choice of treating the majority of Americans as foes of the Jewish state vs. treating them as what they are: a complex group with differing preferences and priorities, most of whom didn’t give Israel a second of thought when they made their choice for President.

Now keep in mind that I have picked at Mike’s argument not because we disagree that the Left is a vital battlefield over which the Middle East conflict will be fought, but because I feel that his major indictment – anchored as it is in a partisan moment that is going to change one way or another over the next few years – is both fragile and time-bound.

This is the reason I gravitate towards historic arguments (like Wistrich’s) or prophetic philosophical ones (like Wisse’s) since they are much too strong to challenge without serious engagement (which is why Israel’s foes ignore them) and are as relevant today as when these authors first started making them decades ago.

Yes, they take a little more work than does a contemporary partisan fight.  But if we are to make the right choices in the war over (not against) the Left – especially given the power and ruthlessness of our foes – we need to be armed with ideas that are as powerful as they are timeless.

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.