Monday, August 20, 2012

Israel Left and Right

Israel Left and Right

There are a number of reasons why I tend to avoid trying to force-fit the whole Arab-Israeli conflict into a Left-Right continuum.

First off, the terms “Left” and “Right” have become so all-encompassing, which (if you include all those who insist they represent each end of the political spectrum) means everyone from the Stalin and the BDS brigade through Senator Robert Byrd must be considered “The Left” and everyone from Bill Weld through Hitler the “Right.” 

Needless to say, this makes self-serving category errors along the lines of “since the Nazis were rightists, only the Left can defend the Jews” or “no liberal can be trusted with regard to support for Israel, just look at the BDSers!” inevitable.

Secondly, our political dialog actually becomes diminished when we boil every issue down to figuring out where our tribe should fall on any political matter.  And in the manner of the “where to put your finger” argument, this usually translates to figuring out how the other tribe feels about an issue, and then choosing the opposite position out of contrariness or the need to define ourselves against our political enemies.

The Middle East is a perfect example of how our debate becomes diminished by this attitude.  For example, the most salient feature of the US-Israel relationship is that support for the Jewish state transcends partisanship like no other foreign policy issue (or domestic issue for that matter).  Not that genuine partisan issues regarding this relationship do not exist (we’ve certainly seen them with Presidents Obama, Bush I and Carter).  But by not recognizing these excesses as exceptions to the general rule of bi-partisan support, we risk creating the very partisan divide over Israel that we should be trying to avoid.

Finally, on too many occasions aspects of the Arab-Israel dispute have become surrogates for general domestic Left-Right politics (especially in the US and in Israel) which have caused leaders to make decisions based on factors other than wisdom and facts on the ground.  One could look at the entire Oslo experiment as an attempt for political parties in Israel to do end-runs around each other (and the electorate), meaning political decisions that have defined the last two decades were made based on short-term partisan intrigue.

With all that said, I think there are some interesting points worth reflecting on, especially if you are convinced that BDS and the general language of anti-Israel politics (which is mostly drawn from a progressive vocabulary) warrants a response.

Firstly, one of the great ironies of anti-Israel politics is that the two groups most interested in branding all liberals (including mainstream Democrats) as anti-Israel (or, most generously, as creating a hostile environment in which efforts like BDS can thrive) are the BDSers themselves and political conservatives.

For the boycotters, claiming to represent not a rejected fringe movement but the heart and soul of all progressive politics, helps them to punch well above their limited political weight.  You can see this in accusations that progressives who do not toe the BDS line are “PEPs” (i.e., Progressives in Everything but Palestine”), implying that every “true” progressive must adhere to the BDS message (whatever that happens to be this week) or risk being accused of betraying all of their principles.  Interestingly, the BDSers avoid the obvious counter argument that it is they who have betrayed liberal principle by supporting a reactionary Palestinian political movement (one which includes clan politics, corrupt economic monopolies, repression of women and gays and religious fanaticism) by ignoring such counter-accusations completely (regardless of their accuracy).

Naturally, this allies them with conservatives who would also like to brand liberals of any stripe as falling into the BDS camp, helping to cement their sought-after position of being the only true friends of the Jewish state. 

Since both BDSers and conservatives might object loudly to this analysis, I might as well go for broke and point out something likely to make progressives uncomfortable (meaning genuine progressives, not the Israel haters trying to exploit them).  For the fact that BDS travels under a wholly liberal banner and expresses itself almost entirely with a progressive vocabulary cannot be dismissed by just accusing the boycotters of cynically exploiting language.

For, as Ruth Wisse has pointed out (yes, I know she is both conservative and controversial, but she is also quite brilliant), the liberal world view of an unstoppable march towards progress slams into a mile-thick brick wall when confronted by an Arab-Israeli conflict where the former seems more than willing to work against its own economic interests and personal interests in order to achieve victory over the latter.  In other words, the Middle East is not just a trouble spot but exists in open defiance of the progressive world view.

When confronted by such a situation, liberals have two choices: to modify their world view (while not jettisoning their principles) or blaming the Jews for a situation that would otherwise require them to re-think their ideological assumptions.

A heroic group of liberals faced a similar conundrum when another reactionary movement (Marxism) insisted that their political cause represented the culmination of every progressive hope and dream.  And, to their credit, political conservatives (at least in the US) have put a fair amount of intellectual energy (and took some risks) by pushing religious bigots masquerading as anti-Zionists (such as Pat Buchannan) out of their “mainstream.”

Today’s progressives still have work to do creating a vocabulary that will allow them to similarly kick BDS and other practitioners of anti-Israel “disease politics” out of the tent without feeling guilty over a lack of “inclusiveness.” 

We have been fortunate that genuine progressive institutions have almost universally rejected the blandishments of the boycotters.  But there is some intellectual heavy lifting to be done to explain in ideological terms that are commonly accepted across the left-end of the political spectrum as to why BDS and liberalism have nothing in common and should have nothing to do with one another.