Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked, the magazine that wants to make history as well as report it, and is a columnist for The Big Issue in London and The Australian . He also blogs for the Daily Telegraph and has written for a variety of publications in both Europe and America. He is the author of Can I Recycle My Granny And 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas,
published by Hodder & Stoughton and described by the BBC as a
“skidmark on the gusset of environmentalism”, and he is currently
researching a book on snobbery. He has five brothers, was the first
person to complete the ZX Spectrum game Rasputin, and is the only journalist to have written for both the Catholic Herald and Abortion Review.
For me, the most striking thing about the left’s attitude to Israel is how much it has changed, how sweepingly it has been transformed over the past couple of generations. I don’t think there’s any other issue on which the left has so dramatically changed its thinking. In a nutshell, the mainstream Western left has gone from loving Israel to loathing it, from singing its praises to blaming it for all the world’s ills and accusing it of being a uniquely barbaric state.
It’s hard to believe now, in this era when being vitriolic towards Israel is such a central part of what it means to be left-wing, but not that long ago British leftists were in awe of Israel. In the 1950s and 60s, including the period of the Six Day War in 1967 and even later, you would have been hard-pressed to find a mainstream leftie who had a bad word to say about Israel. Leading Labour leftists like Michael Foot and Tony Benn were pro-Israel. They wrote what have since been called “über-Zionist” articles for a magazine called Jewish Vanguard. In the late 60s, even some radical leftists flirted with the idea of going to fight on the side of Israel in the 1967 war.
In fact, if there was a problem with the mainstream left’s attitude to Israel back then, it was that it was too uncritical, naive. The left promoted a moral narrative about Israel being a plucky, admirable young state, which failed to examine any of the problems that the emergence of Israel created for surrounding populations. It was a narrative very often bereft of empathy for the problems faced by Palestinian and Arab peoples.
Fast forward to today, and the change in the left’s view of Israel has been truly gobsmacking. Today, the left loathes Israel with a peculiar intensity. It views Israel as a shitty little country. It holds Israel responsible for all the world’s ills. It’s now commonplace to hear leftists claim that an “Israeli lobby” has Washington and London in the palm of its hands and frequently encourages them to launch wars in the Middle East, in the same way you would once have heard racist conspiracy theorists talk about a “Jewish lobby” running world affairs.
The left now uses extraordinary double standards to judge Israel. It views everything Israel does as automatically awful. So you can have a situation today where the very same leftists who cheer Barack Obama, even though he bombs militants in rural Pakistan, will accuse Israel of being evil and fascistic for bombing militants in Gaza. In recent months both Israel and Turkey have launched air strikes in Syria, but it is only Israel’s strikes that caused a commotion and led to claims about Israel stirring up global conflict once again. Most people don’t even know Turkey carried out military action in Syria, because the only thing that gets the modern mainstream left going is the behaviour of the apparently nasty and destabilising Jewish State.
The double standards in relation to Israel are now so enormous that you will often hear British and American leftists calling on their governments to condemn Israel over its militarism in Gaza and elsewhere. So, our governments, which destroyed Iraq and Afghanistan, whose wars overseas make Gaza look like a tea party in comparison, are invested by leftists with the moral authority to lecture Israel. This totally surreal situation springs from the fact that Israel is seen as different to every other state, as a lower form of life effectively, as criminal, and therefore it falls to the apparently more civilised Western nations to put it in its place. There is an ironically imperialistic streak to this left-wing agitation for the superior West to condemn stupid, backward, uncivilised Israel.
The double standards can also be seen in the campaigns to boycott Israeli academics and Israeli produce. Decent middle-class people will quite happily listen to a professor from authoritarian Belarus, or use an iPhone that was made in undemocratic China, but if you introduce them to an Israeli professor or give them an Israeli apple they will go mad and pretty much break out in hives. They have a weird allergy to all things Israeli – Israeli writing, Israeli music, Israeli food. They scream and jeer when an Israeli violinist starts to play at the Proms. Such irrational behaviour doesn’t only speak to the left’s double standards on Israel – it also has very ugly echoes indeed of earlier boycotts of Jewish shops and Jewish organisations by racists and fascists.
So why has there been this massive shift in the left’s attitude to Israel, this shift from uncritically loving it to unthinkingly loathing it? It can’t be explained by Israel’s behaviour: Israel’s militarism is of a smaller order today than it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There are some peripheral explanations for the left’s change in outlook. For example, the leftists of the 1950s and 60s will have had memories of the Holocaust and therefore will have felt greater empathy for the Jewish people. Also, socialistic Zionism was at the forefront in Israel back then, unlike today. Back then Israel was seen as a kind of socialistic experiment and not a right-wing nation, and therefore it was viewed favourably by Western leftists.
But those are only peripheral reasons. There is a bigger, key reason, I think, for the left’s change – which is that the left has stopped believing in modernity and progress, and it sees Israel as the embodiment of those things. Its vitriolic hatred for Israel is really an expression of disdain and disgust for what we might call the Western project, the Western way of life, the old ideals of nationhood, sovereignty, economic growth, human expansion, social experimentation. Israel is seen as being at the sharp edge of all those once-positive but now hated values, and thus it is intensively loathed. The left, having lost faith in modernity, has turned Israel into a kind of punchbag against which it can express its own anti-modern, anti-progress, shallowly anti-Western feelings.
In essence, Israel is very much a zeitgeist issue, where your attitudes towards it tend to reveal more about you and your worldview than they do anything about the reality of Israel. And the contemporary left’s attitudes to Israel reveal a lot about where it stands on the modern world itself. Israel is treated as a symbol of all the things that Western leftists and others once held dear, from self-possession to progressive intent, but which we now hold in trendy, postmodern disdain. This is where I think we can see that there is a very thin line, I’m afraid to say, between today’s fashionable anti-Zionism and old-style anti-Semitism.
Of course, it is possible to hate Israel without hating the Jewish people, yes. But historically, a very fine line separated anti-modernism from anti-Semitism, and that line was often breached. Jews, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were seen by some as representing disruptive change, radical modernity, deviant intellectual ideas. In those periods, some people who were thrown or battered by the spread of modernity, by the rapid pace of change in society, often visited their fury upon Jews, who they saw as the source and instigators of that modernity. This is where the idea of the “socialism of fools” comes from, where people who were made uncomfortable by the impact of capitalism and progress blamed such things on the Jews. We are seeing something similar today, where Israel rather than “the Jews” is seen as too modern, too Western, too cocky, and it is hated for that. And this hatred for Israel, because it is quite irrational and is fuelled more by Westerners’ own emotions than by reality on the ground in the Middle East, is unpredictable, changeable, often quite rash, meaning it easily crosses the line into expressions of disdain for “the Jews”. Consider that Lib Dem MP who recently chastised the cruelty of “the Jews” against Palestinians and later corrected himself and said he meant “Israel”. Such slips of the tongue suggest today’s anti-Zionism is motored by similar ugly and unfair sentiments to yesteryear’s anti-Semitism.
For young people, especially young radicals, and even for young Jewish people, it can be very tempting to join the anti-Israel juggernaut. Hating Israel is such a powerful strain in respectable left-wing circles that people feel they must follow suit to be treated seriously politically, to be thought of as left-wing. I say, “Don’t do it”. I say there is nothing positive – nothing – in contemporary hatred for Israel. In fact it is one of the most backward outlooks of our age, fuelled more by a casual, kneejerk rejection of Western values than by anti-imperialism. It should be challenged and ridiculed, ruthlessly picked apart, not indulged.
The above is the text of a talk given by Brendan O’Neill at the Jewish Free School in London on 17 July 2013
Read it here