Progressive Assault on Israel
By Bret Stephens
New York Times
February 8, 2019
It happened again last month in Detroit. Pro-Palestinian
demonstrators seized the stage of the National L.G.B.T.Q. Task Force’s marquee
conference, “Creating Change” and demanded a boycott of Israel. “From the
river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” they chanted — the tediously
malign, thinly veiled call to end Israel as a Jewish state.
They were met with sustained applause by the audience at
what is the largest annual conference of L.G.B.T.Q. activists in
the United States. Conference organizers did nothing to stop the disruption or
disavow the demonstrators.
For Tyler Gregory, neither the behavior of the protesters
nor the passivity of the organizers came as a surprise. Gregory is executive
director of A
Wider Bridge, a North American L.G.B.T.Q. organization that works to support
Israel and its gay community. In 2016, his group hosted a reception at the Task
Force’s conference in Chicago. The event was mobbed by some 200
aggressive demonstrators, and Gregory and his audience had to barricade
themselves in their room while those outside were harassed.
“Whether you believe in the concept of intersectionality
is beside the point,” Gregory told me recently, referring to the
idea that the oppression of one group is the oppression of all others. “If
this is your value system, you are not following it. As Jews we were denied our
safe space. We were denied our place in a movement that fights bigotry.”
Scenes of the kind that played out at the L.G.B.T.Q.
conferences — not to mention college campuses across the United States — are
familiar to anyone involved in the politics of the American Jewish community.
They have burst into wider consciousness in recent months, thanks to revelations
that Jewish organizers of the 2017 Women’s March were deliberately
sidelined, excluded and attacked by some of its founders, at least one
of whom, activist Tamika Mallory, is an unapologetic
admirer of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam’s unapologetically
Congress, largely as a result of the election of Democratic
Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Both
women support boycotts of Israel. Both have also written
tweets with distinctly anti-Semitic
undertones. Far from being reproached or condemned by their party, as
Iowa’s Steve King was by Republicans, they have become Democratic rock stars.
(Omar, to her credit, recanted her tweet; Tlaib did not.)
Progressives — including presidential hopefuls Cory
Booker, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren — also united behind Vermont’s
Bernie Sanders in a failed bid to block a Senate bill, passed on Tuesday, that
includes an anti-B.D.S. measure prohibiting federal contracts with businesses
that boycott Israel, ostensibly on free-speech grounds. One wonders how these
same Democrats feel about, say, championing First Amendment protections for
bakers who refuse to make cakes for gay couples.
All of this is profoundly unsettling to a Jewish community
that has generally seen the Democratic Party as its political home. That’s not
because American Jews are unfamiliar with the radical left’s militant
hostility toward the Jewish state. That’s been true for decades. Nor is it
because American Jews are suddenly tilting right: Some 76 percent voted for
Democrats in the midterms.
What’s unsettling is that the far-left’s hostility is
now being mainstreamed by the not-so-far left. Anti-Zionism — that is,
rejection not just of this or that Israeli policy, but also of the idea of a
Jewish state itself — is becoming a respectable position among people who
would never support the elimination of any other country in any other
circumstance. And it is churning up a new wave of nakedly anti-Jewish bigotry in
its wake, as when three women holding rainbow flags embossed with a Star of
David at the 2017 Chicago Dyke March were ejected on grounds that the star was
How did this happen?
The progressive answer is straightforward: Israel and its
supporters, they say, did this to themselves. More than a half-century of
occupation of Palestinian territories is a massive injustice that fair-minded
people can no longer ignore, especially given America’s financial support for
Israel. Continued settlement expansion in the West Bank proves Israel has no
interest in making peace on equitable terms. And endless occupation makes
Israel’s vaunted democracy less about Jewish self-determination than it is
about ethnic subjugation.
There’s more to the indictment, but that’s the nub of
it. It would be damning if it were true, or even half-true. It’s not.
A few facts ought at least to stir the thinking of those
who subscribe to the progressive narrative. Israel's enemies were committed to
its destruction long before it occupied a single inch of Gaza or the West Bank. In
proportion to its size, Israel has voluntarily relinquished more territory taken
in war than any state in the world. Israeli prime ministers offered a
Palestinian state in 2000 and 2008;
they were refused both times. The government of Ariel Sharon removed
every Israeli settlement and soldier from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The
result of Israel’s withdrawal allowed Hamas to seize power two years later and
spark three wars, causing ordinary Israelis to think twice about the wisdom of
duplicating the experience in the West Bank. Nearly 1,300 Israeli civilians have
been killed in Palestinian terrorist attacks in this century: That’s the
proportional equivalent of about 16 Sept. 11’s in the United States.
Also: If the Jewish state is really so villainous, why
doesn’t it behave more like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad or Russia’s Vladimir
Putin — both of whom, curiously, continue to have prominent sympathizers
and apologists on the anti-Israel left?
None of this is to embrace the “Likud narrative” of the
conflict, or support the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu, or reject the idea of
Palestinian statehood, or suggest that Israel is above criticism and reproach.
For the record, I support a two-state solution, just as I supported Israel’s
withdrawal from the Gaza Strip when I was the editor of The Jerusalem Post.
What it is to say is that the Israel-Palestinian
conflict is far more complicated than the black-and-white picture drawn by
Israel’s progressive critics. But the deeper flaw in progressive thinking on
Israel — the flaw that has resulted in this efflorescence of bigotry —
isn’t that it rests on a faulty factual foundation. It’s that its core
intellectual assumptions are wrong and rotten.
The first assumption is that Israel’s choices toward the
Palestinians aren’t agonizingly hard (as they are for some of the reasons
mentioned above), but actually are quite easy — just a matter of stopping
settlement construction, reaching a reasonable settlement with the Palestinians,
making peace, and living relatively happily ever after. But this is a
caricature, and it’s one that quickly descends to calumny: That is, the idea
that Israel’s failure to make the “right” choice is proof of its boundless
greed for Palestinian land and wicked indifference to their plight.
Next is the belief that anti-Zionism is a legitimate
political position, and not another form of prejudice.
It is one thing to argue, in the moot court of historical
what-ifs, that Israel should not have come into being, at least not where it is
now. It is also fair to say that there is much to dislike about Israel’s
current leadership, just as there’s much not to like about America’s. But
nobody claims the election of Donald Trump makes America an illegitimate state.
Israel is now the home of nearly nine million citizens,
with an identity that is as distinctively and proudly Israeli as the Dutch are
Dutch or the Danes Danish. Anti-Zionism proposes nothing less than the
elimination of that identity and the political dispossession of those who
cherish it, with no real thought of what would likely happen to the
dispossessed. Do progressives expect the rights of Jews to be protected should
Hamas someday assume the leadership of a reconstituted “Palestine”?
Then there’s the astounding view that anti-Zionism bears
only a tangential relationship to anti-Semitism. Hatred of Jews is a
shape-shifting phenomenon that historically has melded with the prejudices of
the time in order to gain greater political currency. Jews have been hated for
reasons of religion, race, lack of national attachments, and now an excess of
national attachment. The arguments for hating Jews vary; the target of the
hatred tragically remains the same.
Of course it’s theoretically possible to distinguish
anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism, just as it’s theoretically possible to
distinguish segregationism from racism. But the striking feature of anti-Zionist
rhetoric is how broadly it overlaps with traditionally anti-Semitic tropes.
To say, as progressives sometimes do, that Jews are “colonizers” in
Israel is anti-Semitic because it advances the lie that there is no ancestral or
historic Jewish tie to the land. To claim that Israel is committing
genocide in Gaza, when manifestly it is not, is anti-Semitic because
it’s an attempt to Nazify the Jewish state. To insist that the only state
in the world that has forfeited
the moral right to exist just happens to be the Jewish state is
anti-Semitic, too: Are Israel’s purported crimes really worse than those of,
say, Zimbabwe or China, whose rights to exist are never called into question?
But the most toxic assumption is that Jews, whether in
Israel or the U.S., can never really be thought of as victims or even as a
minority because they are white, wealthy, powerful and “privileged.” This
relies on a simplistic concept of power that collapses on a moment’s
Jews in Germany were economically and even politically
powerful in the 1920s. And then they were in Buchenwald. Israel appears powerful
vis-à-vis the Palestinians, but considerably less so in the context of a
broader Middle East saturated with genocidal anti-Semitism. American Jews
are comparatively wealthy. But wealth without political power, as Hannah
Arendt understood, is a recipe for hatred. The Jews of the Squirrel Hill
neighborhood of Pittsburgh are almost surely “privileged” according to
various socio-economic measures. But privilege didn’t save the congregants of
the Tree of Life synagogue last year.
Nor can the racial politics of the United States or any
other country be projected onto the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as some have
desperately sought to do. Nearly half of all Jewish Israelis have Middle
Eastern roots; some, in fact, are black. Martin Luther King Jr. preached
nonviolent resistance; Yasir Arafat practiced terrorism. The civil rights
movement was about getting America to live up its founding ideals; anti-Zionism
is about destroying Israel’s founding ideals.
As for the oft-cited apartheid analogy, black South
Africans did not have a place in the old regime’s Parliament, as Israeli Arabs
have in the Knesset; nor were they admitted to white universities, as Israeli
Arabs are to Israeli universities. Israel can do more to advance the rights of
its Arab citizens (just as the United States, France, Britain and other
countries can for their own minorities). And Israel can also do more to ease the
lives of Palestinians who are not citizens. But the comparison of Israel to
apartheid South Africa is unfair to the former and an insult to the victims of
None of this should be hard for most progressives to
understand. Indeed, progressives have no trouble spotting anti-Semitism when it
emanates from the political right — the effigies of George Soros, the attacks
on “globalists” with names like Blankfein and Yellen, the social media memes
borrowed from neo-Nazis. Yet it seems that a movement that can detect a racist
dog-whistle from miles away is strangely deaf when it comes to some of the
barking on its own side of the fence. And even when it does hear it, it
doesn’t have the sense to banish it.
This is dangerous, and not just to Israeli and American
Jews. In Britain, the Labour Party is now led by a militant anti-Zionist whose
deep-seated anti-Semitism occasionally
slips out. And yet Jeremy Corbyn remains in firm control of his party,
is reshaping it in his image and may yet become Britain’s next prime minister.
The Labour Party in Britain is led by Jeremy Corbyn, who
has expressed anti-Zionist views.CreditAndy Rain/European Pressphoto Agency, via
The prospect of Corbynism coming to America may still seem
remote. But that can’t be counted on in an era of sharp and rapid
polarization. When New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted recently
about the “honor” of her “lovely and wide-reaching conversation” with
Corbyn, it was a sign either of indifference or purposeful alliance that ought
to profoundly alarm every sensible Democrat worried about the ideological
direction and moral health of the party. Now is the time for party leaders to
make sure that doesn’t happen by insisting that anti-Zionism has no more a
place in the Democratic fold than any form of prejudice.
American democracy is already in jeopardy for having one
party that has surrendered to the politics of ethnic bigotry disguised as social
concern. To have two such parties would be fatal.