For most of the left, both in Europe and the United States, support for the Palestinian cause is something of a shibboleth. As Israel moved away from the politics of the 1960s, when the left was often in power and kibbutzim were a national symbol, to the right-wing nationalism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the U.S. and European left’s support for Palestine has solidified. Palestine has been brutalized by decades of occupation, and the suffering of Palestinians raises natural sympathy. Many left-wing Jews share this justified anger at Israel’s policies.
Yet both before the establishment of the state of Israel and since, it has been clear that some of the criticism was not driven by policy disputes or by humanitarian concerns, but quite simply by anti-Semitic attitudes. This has become more widespread as many on the extreme left see Israel as a classic imperialist state, acting as an agent of the United States in the Middle East and imposed on the region by outside powers. This is an interpretation that is not only mistaken, but also dangerous to the Palestinian cause itself.
This interpretation has had a pernicious effect both on attitudes toward Israel and in how support for the Palestinians is framed. Zionism and imperialism are conflated, as in the infamous United Nations resolution of 1975 that “Zionism is a form of racism.” Israel is painted as a unique and irredeemable monster. The settler colonialism of the United States, Canada, Australia, or many other countries is not depicted as requiring their destruction—only Israel’s history demands its end.
This hardening has led parts of the left to deny how the deeply painful history of Judaism in Europe led to the establishment of the state of Israel in the first place. An understandable desire for Palestinians to enjoy the protection of nationhood leads to some forgetting that Jews once lacked those safeguards themselves. For the generation that saw their cousins murdered in Europe or turned away from the United States, a border controlled by Jews was a miracle, even as it became, in turn, a tragic source of suffering for Palestinians.
This lack of any sympathy or understanding of Zionist history makes it very hard for the European left to form meaningful links with Israel’s own beleaguered, but still significant, leftists. That means advocates cannot use that internal avenue to push the Israeli government on the plight of the Palestinians. Anyone who engages with the Israelis over a particular issue is accused of collaborating with a fundamental enemy. On the far-left, the only acceptable position is a complete rejection of the state of Israel. That, in turn, fuels convictions among members of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party that any criticism of Israeli policy indicates a desire to see Israel itself destroyed.
This has produced a model in which total rejection of Israel is demanded of any Jew, lest they been seen as complicit in all the misdeeds of the current Israeli government. This “Zio-centric” model is one reason why the British Labour Party, under current leader Jeremy Corbyn, has become riddled with anti-Semitism. The serious qualms about the government’s actions that otherwise pro-Israeli Jews have are brushed away unless they condemn the very existence of Israel.
Anti-Semitism, the “socialism of fools” as the German socialist August Bebel is said to have termed the substitution of conspiracy theory for political analysis, is not new on the left—nor, of course, in any way unique to it. A simplistic reading of Karl Marx has meant that finance capital is seen as particularly evil, which in the extreme leads to conspiracy theories about shadowy cabals prepared to sacrifice men and economies in their search for money and power. Since, for historical reasons, many financiers have been Jewish, this easily spills over into sharing the anti-Semitic tropes more readily associated with the nationalist right.
And this, in turn, has implications for what it means to support the Palestinians. If Israel is so bad, then there can be no compromise with it—and solutions that might aid Palestine are neglected in favor of the real focus: attacking Israel.
An example from the United Kingdom this year exemplifies this. The Labour Party Member of Parliament Rosena Allin-Khan, who worked as a medical doctor, visited some hospitals in Jerusalem and the West Bank in early 2019 and was shocked to see so many sick and dying children on their own, separated from their parents. One reason for this is the collapse of the Palestinian medical system under the pressure of Israeli sanctions and the extent to which it has become focused on dealing with trauma injuries, in response to urgent needs among Palestinian patients. Palestinian hospitals are unable to deal with sick children, so they are often transferred to hospitals in Israel. However, Israeli policy then leads to the separation of children and parents, as the government choose to issue 7,000 travel permits for children from Gaza in 2018 but less than 2,000 for accompanying parents.
However, Allin-Khan made the mistake of trying to do something about the problem. She lobbied the British Conservative Party foreign secretary and spoke to the Israeli deputy ambassador to the U.K. about increasing the number of parental visas. This should be seen as a sensible humanitarian response to a cruelty created by state policy. Instead, she was abused by far-left Twitter users for being a “collaborator in apartheid” and “with occupiers,” having been “bought by the Zionists.” The far-left appeared to be more interested in using the suffering of Palestinian children as a means to attack Israel than in doing anything to mitigate the situation.
The far-left only cares about the suffering of the Palestinians when Israel is to blame. They do not offer a critique of specific Israeli policies or seek a means to engage with Israel to mitigate harm in the short term—all the while insisting that they support the Palestinians above all else.