Five years ago, I was sitting in my office trying to figure out options for a desperate Palestinian woman. Her family had found her and her boyfriend together in his apartment in Queens, and they were threatening both of them with physical harm. I had been told that the young couple feared for their lives.
To help them, I reached out to an organization that was working to train the New York City police force about the difference between honor killings and murder (the former is often perpetrated by a close family member who would not be a suspect in a murder). While I was speaking to the liaison about the couple, I happened to notice an email update from a former classmate at Barnard with some news: A Columbia student organization formed to support victims of sexual assault, called “No Red Tape,” was aligning itself with Students for Justice in Palestine, a virulently anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian group.
The irony of the moment was powerful. Here I was, a Zionist Jewish woman trying to protect a Palestinian woman from violence, while a campus group that is supposed to be devoted to protecting women had attached itself to a group known for hateful tactics that target Jewish students, rhetoric that veers into anti-Semitism and a total refusal to engage with Zionist groups.
It’s not just ironic; it’s mysterious. How did social justice warriors, committed to liberal values, find themselves using hate speech, intolerant boycotts, and demonizing tactics towards a fellow minority group?
The answer they would no doubt give themselves — that it is Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians that drives their actions — can’t possibly account for things like the a-historical nature of their critiques, the tolerance and excuses for violent resistance against civilians, and the sheer vitriol unleashed on Jewish students. For this reason, the mystery of the social justice movement’s embrace of radical pro-Palestinian groups and their corresponding rejection of Israel is usually explained as nothing more complicated than anti-Semitism, albeit cloaked in the new language of anti-Zionism.
It’s certainly true that some of the more nefarious groups operating on college campuses are anti-Semitic. But there’s another historical explanation for how the feminists, the LGBTQ activists, the racial justice activists and the Palestinians ended up in bed together, one that is in some ways even more disturbing than the simple charge of anti-Semitism.
The relationship between left-leaning groups and anti-Israel activists can be traced back decades, to the late 1960’s, when alliances developed around a shared post-modernist, anti-colonialist understanding of the world. It was into this developing half-political, half-philosophical matrix that radical Palestinians deftly inserted themselves, despite the inherent contradictions. Anti-war activism, postmodernism, “Orientalism,” and intersectionality developed successively to complement each other, each enhancing the Left’s hatred of Israel for a new generation.
At the end of the day, anti-Semitism is just too reductive an answer to explain the Left’s hatred of Israel. The excessive demonization of Israel can only be understood in the context of the historic formation of today’s Left.
Many Americans growing up in a post-9/11 world mistakenly believe that terrorism was at an all-time high in the early 21st century. But the true heyday of terrorism in the U.S. was the 1970’s. From 2001-2013, there were 214 acts of terrorism in the U.S., in which 61 people died; compare that to the 1970’s, which saw close to 1,500 acts of terrorism. 184 people were killed — three times as many as in the early 2000s. There were assassinations, kidnappings, bombings, and hijackings.
The rise of terrorism took place against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and was framed in the language of a global political struggle against Western imperialism and colonialism. Both international and domestic terrorists united under the rubric of fighting global injustice. An unholy alliance was formed among nationalist and ethnic terrorists and anti-war militants. Terrorists like George Habash of the PFLP were lauded as liberationist heroes.
Even many left-leaning anti-war Americans who were opposed to their violent tactics, found themselves sympathetic to indigenous freedom fighters, who were struggling against unjust superior powers; literary icon Susan Sontag called Che Guavera — the Marxist rebel from Cuba responsible for hundreds of deaths — an “inspiring beautiful legend.” She was not the only one.
While America was not one of the great colonial powers, during the 1970’s, it was engaged in an “imperialist” war far from its shores. It supported dictators around the world, and justified its choices by claiming the need to protect its (Western) values, ideals and interests.
Many on the left adopted the language of opposition to colonialist powers; the world was divided into the just and unjust, with the American and European governments on the wrong side of the equation.
Included among those who were on the “right” side were Che Guevara, FARC, the IRA, the Weather Underground, and the Black Panthers. Also included in this cohort were the PLO — the Palestinian Liberation Organization — and the PFLP — the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
In other words, it was decades ago that the international allegiances of the more radical left were formed, and the narrative of unjust colonial powers that need to be overthrown was adopted, with the Palestinian militant groups standing alongside all the other groups. The fact that Jews had an ancestral tie to their homeland that dated back thousands of years, or that the majority of Israeli Jews are not “white” but people of color from North Africa, or that Israeli Jews had nowhere else to go should they leave their “colonial” outpost, did nothing to dissuade the Left that this case was not like the others.
Despite the trend, the overwhelming majority of Americans rejected the violence and terrorist actions of these groups. But there was a growing number on the fringes of the left that began to see the world through this lens. For them, the terrorism that the Palestinian groups engaged with at this time was justified as necessary to throw off the yoke of western colonialism. Deep ties were forged.
Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton bragged that the Panthers were in touch with the PLO on a daily basis, despite the fact that the PLO was at the time engaged in terrorist activities. The Panthers “support the Palestinians’ just struggle,” Newton said, and the Black Panthers’ newspaper published editorials by George Habash of the PFLP and Yasser Arafat of the PLO imploring their readers to reexamine the claims that Palestinian guerillas were terrorists. And in the 1970’s, even more mainstream figures like Jesse Jackson reached out to the PLO.
But these political forces didn’t happen in a vacuum. They received a boost from a philosophical corner: Postmodernism. Postmodernism, broadly defined, is a critical movement of theory that developed in the last century around the rejection of objective truths. Postmodernist theorists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault argued that what is presented as truth or knowledge by those in power is actually only a construction, which is used as a form of social control.
The Enlightenment values that underpinned western thought up until the mid-20th century were premised on ideas like reason, and shared moral absolutes. The postmodernists suggested that everything presented as neutral fact is, in fact, subject to bias and employed for insidious — even violent — purposes. Instead of measurable, objective truths, postmodernist thinkers believed only in the power dynamics that produced them.
“The real political task in a society such as ours,” argued Foucault in 1971, “is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”
Although postmodernist theory developed in the 1950’s, it was in the context of the political and economic disillusionment of the 1970’s — the war in Vietnam combined with increased inflation and greater divisions between the rich and the poor — that the movement began to significantly permeate American academia and society. It was then that a younger generation felt alienated from the institutions that were ostensibly designed to protect and support them: the government, the police, capitalism, the military, the systems of justice. This sense of disorientation, the idea that what had been held up as the ideal and defended by the foundational truths of American society, was actually not right and just, created an opening for a rejection of all previously accepted truths.
This dovetailed with left-leaning groups’ rejection of those in power, lending their activism a patina of philosophical gravitas; in this model, it was those who had the power who constructed the truths and imposed them on the disempowered. It was the colonialists and imperialists who occupied native lands and foisted their ideas of value and justice onto the occupied, concealing the nefarious and self-interested nature of their choices under the false narrative of universal truths. And it was the liberationist freedom fighters who were the heroes exposing capitalist and imperialist lies, fighting for the rights of indigenous people to deconstruct an imposed narrative.
This didn’t always lead to defending violence; most of the left-wing groups did not excuse or support violent resistance. The rejection of what had been accepted ideas, and the assertion of more particularist narratives, was expressed in a more peaceful domestic context in the rise of feminist, gay, Black and Native American rights groups who organized around a shared identity, with shared experiences that differed from those that were being presented by the white male majority as universal, or “typical,” or just plain old American.
But they all shared the postmodernist perspective that what was defined as “knowledge” or objective truth was often employed as a means of control by those with power. And they agreed with the postmodernist conclusion that all difference is oppositional, and rejected Enlightenment liberalism’s insistence that one can overcome difference through universal truths and rights.
These groups fought to wrest power for themselves, and they fought for the inclusion of their voices and their very specific experienced truths into the mainstream narrative.
But it wasn’t until the end of the 1970s that a seminal text would fully justify the narrative of even the more radical Palestinians within the civil rights groups’ postmodernist framework.
In 1978, Edward Said, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, published his seminal work “Orientalism.” The book layered the postmodernist ideas of constructed narratives in the framework of colonialism onto the Middle East. According to Said, Orientalism is a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” In order to justify its imperialism of the Middle East, the Western powers designed a frame about the inferiority of the native people of that region. The West then bolstered its fantastical creation of the people of the Orient with the language of science and knowledge, bringing scientists to record and classify as they conquered native peoples.
Said pulled examples from Western literature and the arts to highlight how people of the Orient were portrayed as dangerous “others,” and suggested that this is always what is done with those who are different, especially to people of color. And although America was not involved in the original sin of colonization or Orientalism, Americans adopted many of the false tropes because of the biased lens through which they viewed Arabs, wrote Said. And this bias was due to their relationship with Israel.
Said’s “Orientalism” was embraced by academics across disciplines (ironically, Said’s position as a university professor at an esteemed university legitimized his deconstruction of the West’s authority). His work tapped into so many of the ideological strains that were pervasive at the end of the 1970’s and gave them an academic overlay of respectability.
For Said and those he spoke for, those in power were Western colonialists, justifying their current conquests, imperialist desires and subjugation of the natives through false narratives presented as truth. While interaction with the other was really about control and exploitation, it was presented as bringing enlightenment and improvement.
Ultimately, Said presented the Palestinians as victims of a biased colonialist power, a power that was influenced by its own unjust motivations and which needed to be deconstructed and defied. Even the broad construal of Palestinians as terrorists, Said argued in later interviews, was colored by American bias masquerading as truth, accepted because those in power had the ability to impose this interpretation on the masses.
Of course, it’s true that Israel has exerted military control over the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. But Said gave no context to Israel’s take-over of the West Bank. That crucial context includes the Arab countries’ refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist, Israel’s multiple offers to return the West Bank to Jordan, or Israel’s legitimate security concerns — all of which compromise the easy narrative of colonialism and Orientalism. Neither was he interested in the fact that Israel’s Jews are mostly not white but Mizrahi Jews.
Despite this overreach, Said’s treatise resonated not only with the left in general, but with newly awakened people of color and other marginalized groups who shared this perspective on how white American men engaged with African Americans and other minorities. And it became a required text across college campuses.
Said’s influence was so deep that when terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, the U.S.’s response would become part of this culture war on college campuses.
In response to four coordinated terrorist attacks on the United States which killed almost 3,000 people and injured 6,000 others, President George W Bush initiated the War on Terror. He gave the world a choice: “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”
Britain stood shoulder to shoulder with the US, and NATO said that an attack on the US is an attack on all of us. But this war of the western powers against terrorism was aimed almost exclusively at the Middle East, while the terrorist enemies against “us” were all Arabs. The conflict gave oxygen to the low flame of the university elite and left’s opposition to America’s “imperialist” tendencies, and the perceived injustice of how it engages with the Middle East, helping these ideas grow, develop and expand.
A few months after the invasion of Iraq, President Bush laid out his strategy for the Middle East: Engendering democracy across the Middle East “must be a focus of American policy for decades to come,” he said. Within a short while, though, it became increasingly clear that although the initial attacks to take down the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq were a resounding success for the West, the building democracy part was not working. The people of these countries were not feeling liberated and protected. Instead, they were dying in the tens of thousands, their cultural history had been destroyed and many were fighting against the American forces who they felt were, in fact, occupiers.
Although over 90% of Americans approved of President Bush immediately after September 11th, criticism quickly developed. As more people died on both sides, more and more Americans began to question the legitimacy and justness of the continuing war. An extrajudicial Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp had been set up to hold “illegal enemy combatants” without due process, and images of American soldiers torturing Arabs in Abu Ghraib shocked the populace. In addition, there was an increase in hate crimes against Muslims and Arab-looking people in the US.
To the left, America’s choices seemed like a very clear example of another instance of Orientalism. The imperialist United States was unjustifiably occupying Middle Eastern countries, using its power to murder, torture and impose control on the natives, and justify its choices in the language of western values and ideals. America was hypocritically calling for the spread of democracy while ignoring its precepts on its own soil. The British, who were clearly influenced by their colonialist tendencies, stood with the US in this war, both countries biased because of their historic fetishism of the Middle East and people of color.
While this analysis ignored the terrorist training bases in these countries with their sights set directly on the US and Europe, America’s failures in the Middle East certainly lent credence to the colonialist interpretation.
But they didn’t stick with the facts. Although Israel played no role in war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was held culpable. Politicians like Senator Ernest Hollings and Congressman Jim Moran, academics like Anthony Cordesman, and retired General Anthony Zinni accused Israel and even US Jews for the war in Iraq. Hollings blamed the decision to go to war on “President Bush’s policy to secure Israel.” Zinni blamed it on “strengthening the position of Israel.” “”The road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad,” he told the Nw York Times.
A U.S. senator is not a Berkeley protestor. These ideas have clearly filtered into the mainstream, just like talk of Israel as a colonial force — or even a genocidal one. In this context, it’s not at all surprising that the platform of the Black Lives Matter movement famously declared, “The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”
The 1970’s alliances, forged around a rejection of imperialist leaders and individuals, have been updated and modernized for the 21st century.
The updated version of centering and demonizing of Israel is most clearly reflected in a new community of progressive social justice warriors who organize around the principle of intersectionality.
The term intersectionality was originally introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Crenshaw, a professor at Columbia Law School, argued that focusing exclusively on one identity misses the critical interactions among them. Crenshaw noted that gender and race intersect with each other to multiply the negative effects of systems of power on women of color. Over the years, Crenshaw’s ideas on the complexity of identity have been mapped onto queer theory, feminist legal theories, and theories on sexuality, race, and gender.
And as marginalized groups embraced the idea of intersectionality, they also accepted the idea that one cannot confront the inequality or oppression of one group without fighting for all marginalized groups. “We believe Women’s Justice is Racial Justice is Economic Justice,” states the Women’s March platform — or, as its leader Linda Sarsour said on a panel about anti-Semitism, “Intersectionality is not about black and white people organizing together or Jews and Muslims organizing together. It is all of us organizing at the intersections of oppression and seeing oppression [as] connected. Anti-Semitism is one branch on a larger tree of racism. You can’t just address one branch, you need to address all branches together so we can get to the root of the problem.”
This is how you get to a situation where Israel, with its rights for women and for LGBTQ communities and religious minorities, is the great evil of our time. Intersectionality’s focus on victimhood leads to the exclusion of pro-Israel groups broadly within the social justice alliance, who, post 1967, are no longer viewed as victims; and the left’s historic connection to Palestinians as victims of Western imperialism explains the widespread illogical mapping of the language of colonialism and occupation onto the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
And postmodernism’s insistence on the complete subjectivity of narrative renders unimportant whether women or LGBTQ rights are protected more by Israel or by the Palestinian Authority, or even by radical American Palestinians like the ones who threatened the young couple who turned to me for help. It elevates only the shared status of Palestinians as victims of oppressing Western powers who are justified in their struggle — whatever form that takes — as modern day freedom fighters.
This is why as I was working to protect a young Palestinian woman, a women’s rights group on Columbia’s campus could align itself with a pro-Palestinian group that targets Jews.
It’s not anti-Semitism but ignorance that has placed Israel at the pinnacle of the world’s evils for most the Left. This doesn’t exonerate its members from responsibility for the unintentional increase in anti-Semitism across college campuses. But it does mean that we cannot fight these truly disturbing trends on the left by calling its leaders out as anti-Semites.
The permeation of postmodernism and radical ideas of colonialism as the only framework for understanding the world, the labeling of terrorists as freedom fighters, and the academic embrace of Edward Said’s “Orientalism” are dangerous not just for Zionists and Jews on campus, but for the entire project of Western academia and society.
The shame is that the historic embrace of postmodernist deconstruction has created a situation where there is no longer a framework to argue against false narratives, let alone deconstruct them. How ironic that those who are ostensibly fighting against unjust power are now themselves using their campaigns of anti-normalization and exclusion to act in powerfully unjust ways and dangerous ways.
Dr. Sharon Goldman is Vice President and Director of the Israel-America Studies Program at Shalem College in Jerusalem. She was an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ramapo College in NJ, and has served as the Regional Political Director of Northeast AIPAC.