How the contemporary left can reclaim its moral authority

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JERUSALEM (JTA) — After the 1967 Six-Day War, much of the radical left in the West predicated its militant anti-Zionism on the illusory notion that the Palestinians represented a revolutionary and “progressive” vanguard that could one day mobilize the Arab masses in the cause of social revolution. 

But in 2011, when revolution really spread to the Middle East, Palestine was scarcely on the agenda. Not only that, but the Palestinian national movement, far from representing social revolution, has been increasingly dominated by religious fundamentalist terrorism, whose values are completely antithetical in all respects to those of Western liberalism. 

Yet, the Palestinian “myth” of liberation still lives on as if nothing has changed. 

Significantly, Israeli society continues to move forward as an increasingly successful, economically liberalized and modern “start-up” nation. Yet, its very tangible achievements are simply shrugged off by those left-liberals who either ignore the moral and political bankruptcy of Palestinian nationalism or blame its abject failure on Israel and the United States. 

In my recent book “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, The Jews and Israel,” I addressed this Manichean stance at some length, examining the refusal of the left to engage in any substantive critique of radical Islam even as it indulges in the most hyperbolic clichés about Israel.

Moreover, whenever the subject of contemporary anti-Semitism also is thrown into this boiling pot, an infantile counter-accusation is usually evoked — that one is cynically “stifling criticism” of Israel or dishonestly playing the “Zionist card.” In other words, any critic who detects even a hint of anti-Jewish bias in the venomous demonization of Israel as “Nazi,” “fascist” or a “racist apartheid state” par excellence is assumed to be protesting in bad faith or acting as a venal apologist for Israel. 

If anything can stifle genuine debate, it is surely such unjust accusations. They invariably shut down any serious discussion of the very real anti-Semitic legacies, the stigmatizing vocabulary and paranoid conspiracy theories so widely prevalent today among many Islamists, Marxists and supposedly “liberal” adversaries of modern Zionism.

There is something profoundly dishonest about reducing anti-Semitism to a discourse about “immunizing” Israel from legitimate criticism. Among other things, it assumes that Jews actually have the power to silence critics of Israel. Yet, it should be obvious that such “criticism,” far from being silenced, is in fact rampant in the Western media. The appalling fact is that obvious falsehoods such as branding Israel as an “apartheid state” or trying to demonize it through the “Nazi” analogy have become rather fashionable in much contemporary Western discourse.

Equally, when self-proclaimed “progressives” work overtime to turn Israel into a pariah state or to dismantle it, they are hardly being “progressive,” let alone original. Worse still, they echo in a sometimes ominous manner the brutal language of the Nazi campaign in the 1930s to make Europe judenrein (Jew-free). 

As for the Islamists (whether in Iran or those currently riding high in the Arab world), they have never disguised their relentless pursuit of the “eliminationist” option — to “cleanse” the Middle East definitively of the “Jewish cancer” — which is exactly how Israel is currently described by the ayatollahs in Tehran. 

Yet, incredibly, there are leftists — including so-called Jewish “progressives” — who either remain silent about the enormity of this genocidal language or malevolently suggest that Israel is deliberately exaggerating the Iranian threat to justify future aggressions of its own.

As I showed in my recent book, the prevailing defamation of Zionism has its roots in the campaign of the Soviet Union and its Third World allies that cynically manipulated “anti-racist” catchwords to stigmatize and morally discredit Zionism in the international arena. 

It was the totalitarian Soviet propaganda apparatus that first invented the myth of an essential ideological unity between Zionism and racism — a canard eagerly embraced in the 1970s by Yasser Arafat, many Arab states, nonaligned Third World countries, black radicals and much of the Western New Left. Already at that time, Zionist Jews came to be seen by communists, leftists and Islamists as embodying an immensely powerful, intangible, occult form of global power threatening to dominate the whole world. This pseudo-Marxist and anti-American variation on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” produced a particularly vicious mutation of fascist conspiracy theories, which during the past decade have experienced a spectacular revival on the anti-Zionist left.

Such mythologizing of Jewish power lies at the heart of the so-called “new anti-Semitism,” which is ultimately not so different from the old. Already in the mid-19th century, socialists as diverse as Karl Marx, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin had postulated the existence of a universal, anti-social Jewish mercantile “essence” that had supposedly seized control of the capitalist world and would therefore have to be destroyed. Their heirs today have embraced the phantasmagoric view that humanity can be redeemed (and peace finally achieved in the Middle East) only if the world is physically liberated from the new “Jewish” yoke — that of a demonic American-Zionist-Israeli conspiracy.

If the contemporary left seriously wishes to reclaim its own moral credibility and political relevance, it will have to engage in some serious soul-searching and definitively free itself from the incubus of such perverse fantasies. Only in this way can it hope to reconnect to an authentic emancipatory vision of human liberation.

(Robert S. Wistrich is the director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of the newly published “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, The Jews and Israel,” University of Nebraska Press, 2012.)

How the contemporary left can reclaim its moral authority

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Robert S. Wistrich

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