Authored Featured

25 Years of American Left Opposition to Israel

When I was becoming interested in politics, the 1999 “Battle of Seattle” had recently happened and the leftwing discourse was heavily oriented towards critiques of transnational corporations, international policies and state actions that favored their interests, and the consequences of the former on the populations who got the bad end of such deals. This was sometimes called “neoliberalism,” or “neocolonialism,” or “globalization”. Israel’s role on the frontlines enforcing these things in the Middle East was widely understood, including the impact this had on Palestinians. And this was when secular, nationalist forces were more predominant in the Middle East.

With 9/11 and the Global War on Terror, things changed in some important ways, but the underlying geopolitical strategy of the United States and its allies was seen by the Left as basically the same as before. Perhaps Islamist terrorism pushed various nationalisms to the side, but the basic aim of ensuring a secure, stable region for business that favored Western transnational capital was still what left-wingers took aim at.

In other words, “Zionism” wasn’t especially important for our analyses of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. It wasn’t hard to see that without Zionism, Israel’s national interests as a civic state would likely make it even more of a Western ally… one that graduated from elementary 19th/20th Century ethno-nationalism to the latest fashion of hiding real ethnic inequalities with a facade of equitable ethnic representation and multiculturalism. Israel would still be on team USA, pushing against the nationalist and/or Islamist economic protectionism other Middle Eastern states promoted. The people who were focusing on “Zionism” were usually right-wingers who believed in conspiracy theories, like the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” or the “Zionist Occupied Government”. Generally, analyses that centered people’s beliefs instead of centering systems of political economy were understood as liberal at best and fascist at worst. That way of thinking was Idealist… it was the thinking of people who thought that beliefs were the motor of history and not material, mostly economic factors.

This kind of opposition to Idealism (or, an idea-centered reading of history) had a long tradition on the Left. Ideas or “ideologies” were tools in the service of ruling classes. They were emotionally appealing cover stories for the power politics really informing policy and the class dynamics that produced the pool of elites that were allowed to participate in those politics. The rest of us… the 99% so to speak: we were excluded from the levers of power that shaped the unfolding of historical events. We could come up with our own ideas that may or may not unify us as an effective oppositional force, but even in such scenarios there was a recognition that the collective force was the important part of the equation and the ideas – though not without importance – were realistically of secondary significance.

There are numerous narratives about what changed since then. Some of them focus on intersectionality, cancel culture, sub-disciplines of critical theory (like critical legal theory / critical race theory), cultural Marxism, etc. But actually alot of that stuff was around already in the early 00’s and it didn’t center anyone’s beliefs. As an example, fighting against swastika-clad neo-Nazis in the streets was often criticized by other Leftists as a result of mistaking mere working class idiots for the real enemy, the real fascists who were already in seats of power or the systems that encouraged ultranationalist bourgeois politics. The counter argument was that such neo-Nazis were a physical threat in the streets and their recruiting efforts had nasty consequences in subcultural spaces. But no one thought that National Socialism as a system of thought was an actual threat to anything. As far as I know, no one was concerned about the ideas themselves, their spread, their platforming. It was the person who took priority. We could care less if they adopted some other set of ideas because they would still be the same person with the same shitty proclivities. The issue wasn’t anyone’s speech or expression.

Another part of this context was that so-called “normal people” just were not very political and they most definitely didn’t think in terms of ideological affiliation. They were somewhat tribal along party lines: Democrat and Republican. But you weren’t going to get very far in a conversation with them if you tried to talk to them about any political ideology, including those that they seemed to adhere to. Most people just didn’t care about politics in a deep way, avoided them, assumed their representatives were handling things, or otherwise upheld a taboo on political discourse. When they did care, it was superficial and they relied on party affiliation or simple heuristics. By many accounts it was a period of mass political apathy.

It just wouldn’t make a lot of sense to hunt down “the Zionists” as a response to something Israel was doing to Palestinians. If you were going around yelling at Jews because you thought they were Zionists, you were delusional and probably an antisemite. If anything, the Left would criticize the influence of AIPAC and actual Zionist organizations; but the average Jew (who was often secular) wasn’t suspected of being a genocide apologist because they were assumed to be a Zionist.

In this context, it made sense to think “anti-Zionism” is a form of antisemitism since on the one hand, Jews shared in the period’s climate of political apathy; Zionism would be something too politically committed for many of them. On the other hand, a lot of people who focused on Zionism as a significant problem were using the existence of Zionist institutions as an example of Jewish control of US culture and politics. The historical Zionism opposed by anti-Zionists in Europe or Palestine or Israel, wasn’t what these people were challenging. The real mass movement in Jewish history called “Zionism” had already become specialized and institutionalized in the US in the early 2000’s. It had become a matter of lobbying and diplomatic relations. The average Jew wasn’t motivated to join such institutions, especially if they weren’t religious. To be such a passionate political ideologue would have been considered uncool, obsessive, or otherwise gross in “normal” spaces. Jewish views on Israel were passively accepted in the same way Americans passively accepted their views on the United States.

In general, people didn’t support Israel because of Zionism. They supported Israel because of “spreading democracy” in the framework of anti-Communism or the Global War on Terror. The rising Evangelical Christian shit, which some might call Christian Zionism… that was marginal in popular culture even if George W Bush may have been informed by it. Much more popular among the public was the Clash of Civilizations narrative. But even then, again when anti-war protesters took to the streets they were shouting “No Blood for Oil!” …which may have been a bit outdated at the time, but it was still a focus on geopolitical realities. Even this focus seemed conspiratorial to the average American! To suspect that anything about the GWOT was even ideological enough to be based on something like neoliberalism seemed like a brainwashed worldview. If you didn’t think that the GWOT was entirely based on responding to terrorism, a terrorism entirely based on religious fundamentalism, then you were basically considered an insane person. Forget ideological interests guiding policy, even geo-strategic interests sounded like crazy communist talk.

Let me put this another way…

In 2003, a documentary called “The Corporation” came out. For something you could rent at the video store, it was pretty radical for the time. I’m pretty sure it didn’t even use the ‘C’-word, “capitalism”. I remember in 2009 when Michael Moore’s, “Capitalism: A Love Story” came out, I thought to myself that finally a publicly accessible movie actually named the system, actually used the ‘C’-word. People like Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich, and Ron Paul were the big anti-Establishment rebels of mainstream politics and they weren’t using the ‘C’-word either. If you were using that word, you were marginalized. I wouldn’t doubt it if the hush around the ‘C’-word was actually broken by Ron Paul’s pro-Capitalism and anti-Corporatism distinction. This was indeed the time of New Atheists and anti-Corporatist Libertarian Party enthusiasm. Of 9/11 Truth and Greg Palast’s theories about stolen elections.

So over the past 10-15 years, what changed to impact all of this? Ultimately, to convince young leftists that ideas in the heads of everyday people were the thing that needed to be attacked? How did we go from revealing truths to the public in hopes they would “fight power” with us to attacking the individuals for the supposed ideologies that they believed in?

The Occupy Movement is a trail marker on the road to where we are now, especially in my own political backyard: the anarchist milieu. The younger crowd was bringing a much different worldview into our conversations, a worldview that we are all used to seeing today.

So what was so different about this worldview?

Well, first of all it took the anarchist milieu itself as one of its primary targets for criticism. For as much as “systemic” forms of inequality were foregrounded, it was the theoretical reproduction of such systemic forms of inequality through interpersonal and small group relations that became the thing to ruthlessly attack. Some anarchists later saw in this the remnants of Maoist self-crit:

One noteworthy event prior to Occupy! was the 2009 “Smack a White Boy” and “Smack a White Boy Round Two” events, where a group united as Anarchist People of Color (APOC) forcibly evicted attendees of a CrimethINC gathering held in a black-majority neighborhood. It was seen as gentrifying, but importantly framed as “colonization”:

This event wasn’t known about outside anarchist circles. It would be some years before this sort of stuff would become more common, I believe in part as a result of Occupy Oakland’s debates about whether to call their encampment the Oakland Commune or Decolonize Oakland:

What was happening was that a version of a “decolonization” framework began to grow more and more in this period. There had long been anti-colonial struggles and even other ways of understanding decolonization, but what was developing was a framework that focused on “settlers” as an individual identity. An additional problematic person added to enemies lists usually including cis-gendered men, heterosexuals, racially white people, Christians, neurotypical people, able-bodied people, and others considered inherently privileged relative to those who were historically oppressed. This was the time of “checking your privilege,” making space for “oppressed voices,” and accepting leadership of “victims of” oppression even when there were conflicting directives among such pre-approved leaders. Some anarchists have described this as “Ally Politics” and opposed it:

So how did it get so personal and why was it this particular form of oppression that became the measure of the rest?

I think there’s an obvious reason this form of oppression became so fundamental to this worldview. Historically, although not necessarily logically, colonialism (especially settler-colonialism) brought the other listed oppressions with it: Christianity, White Supremacy, Slavery, Capitalism… some might even argue Patriarchy, Heteronormativity, and Ablism. Perhaps if you kick out the legs of European colonialism, the rest of the system collapses. But why did we start kicking each others legs? Why did all this become about personal beliefs and not the systems of power that those beliefs rationalize away?

That’s where I think the Smart Phones come into this…

One reason I come to them things is because they’re an easy way to periodize these changes. That isn’t the only reason though. Smart Phones brought a vast number of people online …and online in an always-online way. They flooded into Facebook and other social media spaces that were predominant and they brought all of their baggage with them.

Consequently, this massively incentivized the transformation of the media landscape itself as business followed the public and politicians followed business. Money, my honeys, found a vulnerability in this new world where the audience became part of the show.

Before Smart Phones, you knew the Media but the Media didn’t really know you. Before the Smart Phone, if you wanted to become an entertainer, an activist, a public intellectual… it was an intentional grind into the public’s view. After the Smart Phone, you could unintentionally become someone’s entertainment, an icon of political activity, or a viral commentator if you struck the right chord at the right time. Without even getting into the algorithms, the multidirectional, synchronic communication system that the masses became part of had this consequence. And the people who were best positioned to take advantage of knowing all about everyone else were those who could benefit first from catering to their audiences and then by slowly shaping their audiences.

Immediately, this had nothing to do with the Left or what was going on with the anarchist milieu. But over time as conflicts between opposed political forces were captured in this new media landscape, political oppositions became evermore personalized. With Gamer Gate, MeToo, BLM, Antifa, and the alt-Right (among other things), opposing political forces got to know each other in a way they couldn’t before and individual, independent actors had more impact on outcomes. Amateurs gained the type of information that only insiders used to have. And sometimes it was discovered that noteworthy figures in political movements were informants of one form or another: cops, neo-nazis, whatever.

The polarization within the political landscape also increased. This is a topic that has been covered to death, so it isn’t worth spending much time on. However, this polarization combined with the above consequences of Smart Phones exposed more people to political theories of decolonization because that happened – almost by coincidence – to be topical on the Left at the time. And in this context, those theories were put to use in an interpersonal way like other political theories from other sectors were, including right-wing sectors. Purity testing, or litmus testing, or whatever you want to call it wasn’t something that only impacted mainstream political parties. If you wanted to be politically engaged, you were from now on going to be subject to this new discipline.

This is how the general public not only became more politicized compared with how I described “normal people” earlier, but how they became more polarized and finally, how some of them found their way into left-wing social spaces, carrying with them the gameplay rules of society at large. To return to the starting point, we see supposed lefties focusing on the potentially Zionist beliefs of their own comrades more than they are focusing on neoliberal policy and the like because of these more widespread shifts. While rumblings of this kind of thing could be felt earlier in the political margins, in anarchist social spaces, it wasn’t a straight line from those spaces to the wider Left. At some point parallel developments converged. An extensive amount of public life needed to change first. The boundaries between private and public opinion needed to blur or collapse entirely for this mode of political action to become as common as it is today.

Before I conclude, this is not a matter of “the personal is political,” nor is this merely the logical outcome of critiquing settler-colonialism. It is true that most everyone is problematized as members of a settler-colonial society, but it takes more argument to conclude that most every settler is complicit based on their beliefs, on what they denounce or praise publicly on social media. If you’re a settler in a territory ruled by a colonial power or not, you can still be a collaborator with that power. You can also be a resistor, at least to some extent. But the average person, settler or not, isn’t so much complicit as they are unaligned. They get out of the way when there’s a fight, but otherwise fill up space as a buffer.

Finally, when it comes to Israel and Palestine – which wasn’t entirely what all this was about – I think the decolonization discourse requires some fairly significant modifications to match the realities. There were already 40,000 Jews living in Palestine in 1880, before Zionism existed. They were of mixed Jewish ethnicity, including some Ashkenazim. These Jews made up around 4% of the total population. Zionism lead to mass migrations that increased the total Jewish population, but it did not introduce, or even re-introduce Jews into Palestine. However, it also wasn’t only Zionism that lead to mass migrations. Refugees from Europe were not all Zionist and even organized themselves against Zionists in Palestine, within and outside of Jewish governing institutions like the Yishuv. Working class Jews collaborated with working class Arabs in Palestine, often against the wishes of Jewish and Arab elites:

Only part of the problem with Zionism was its collaboration with colonial powers. It’s fundamental problem was that like other nationalist movements, it was separatist and saw the only resolution to the historical problems Jews faced in Jewish national sovereignty, protected militarily by a state. Jewish mass migration and the creation of “colonies” (collective agricultural settlements) wouldn’t itself be a problem if it wasn’t subordinated to the project of creating this nation-state. And importantly, sometimes it wasn’t.

The decision to look at this history and see these Jews as foreigners stealing another people’s land rather than seeing a relatively small population of Jews rapidly grow as a result of mass migration is an ideological decision. Leftists don’t often condemn a minority group for growing as a result of mass migrations. Quite the opposite – and this is from first hand experience – we fight against borders and their militarization, restrictions on free movement, xenophobic attitudes, and division of the working class. When there are nationalist elements among those minorities or migrants, we don’t withhold our criticisms and we don’t assume they speak for everyone. We find our allies and we work together towards liberation.

These are things that should be kept in mind when critiquing Israel through a decolonization framework. But even when done well, the real politick of Israel-United States relations should be understood on its own at times, without reference to colonial history, based on the way each sees its own project as a liberal democratic one, opposed to nationalist, communist, and/or Islamist forms of political economy. We should recover the valuable critiques of neoliberalism that were popular on the Left in the 90’s and 2000’s. And we should challenge ourselves to find better ways of fighting together in this current, chaotic time.

Criticisms of my own writing…

What are my issues with the above? I think it needs a lot more to substantiate the claims I’m making, but that would mean a lot more space. There is a fair amount of research into the claims I’m making about the political apathy and superficial engagement of Americans in the 90’s and 2000’s, but I don’t cite any of it because I don’t feel like reviewing it. It would be helpful if I provided a more nuanced view of how different leftwing factions thought about Zionism at the time, but that would require a fairly deep review of leftwing organizations and individuals to arrive at how Zionism is assessed by each. This would be more appropriate for a book, but if such a book exists already it should be cited in this essay. The history of Zionism in the United States should be reviewed and the claim that it wasn’t a priority for much of the Jewish population at the time should be supported with things like organizational membership counts, subscriptions to Zionist publications, opinion polls about the Jewish character if Israel (not just support for Israel), etc. etc. It’s a flimsy assumption that just because of the general political apathy at the time, Jews shared that apathy – though, I do believe this. I think it would also be good to provide the figures for secular vs religious Jews, voting patterns, and other such things that would support the suggestion that secular Jews were less Zionist than religious Jews, or less likely to join Zionist organizations. It could be the opposite and I base that assumption on Zionist views coming predominantly through Jewish religious institutions and not through other, secular sources.

There is also a lot that could be added to support views about the history of Zionism in Palestine, the relationship between Zionists and the British, League of Nations, and United Nations. Also, it would be good to provide stronger evidence for the claim that Jews migrating to Palestine after the 1880’s were not all Zionists… even if Zionists were instrumental in aiding that migration. There are also some figures that would be important to conclude: how much land was privately owned by Jews vs how much land was privately owned by Palestinian Arabs… and how the sum total of both groups compared with the amount of land claimed by the Ottoman State, then the British Mandate. The issue here is that people seem to assume that because Palestinian Arabs were the majority, somehow that indicates how much land was ever theirs. From my research, it was something like 20% compared with a much smaller portion of land privately owned by Jews. This is why my focus is on the formation of the State of Israel and not on Jewish land ownership. What the British and UN were trying to figure out was how to take a lot of land that was owned by the Ottoman state and hand it off in a fair way. It’s really through the device of state sovereignty that most of the land that became Israel, or Palestine, or could have become something else was claimed. If private ownership (or collective ownership) was the strict measure of who could lay claim to how much land, there would be vast amounts of unclaimed land. Since both Zionists and Arab Nationalists wanted their own sovereign states, the argument was over how much land each state should get through the process of establishing states.

Anyway, following from the above it would be great to clarify what exactly was colonial about the relationships between Zionists, Palestinian Arabs, the Ottomans, the British, the UN, the Soviet Union, the Arab League, the United States, and other parties to the shit show. In my opinion, what the Zionists are really guilty of is collaboration with colonial forces. Like others who came out of the Ottoman collapse, they usually (but not always) collaborated with the Mandate authorities and benefited from it. And they continue to collaborate with the United States, who have acted in colonial ways towards the Middle East in general. As Israel developed, it also began to practice its own forms of colonial expansion that I think should be distinguished from Zionism… or maybe just a different phase of Zionism after statehood became the fact of its existence and not an contested aspiration of its advocates. The way that Zionism was “colonial” before the State of Israel was established is different from the way that Zionism became “colonial” after the State of Israel was established. The claims about the latter are much stronger, in my opinion, since they’re based on more than just collaboration with a colonial power and instead can show that Israel itself became a colonial power with a immediate relation of domination towards the Palestinians… not a mediated, collaborationist relationship.

In either case, solidarity and joint Jewish-Arab institution building existed and should be the history that current opposition to Israel is grounded in. The claims to sovereignty in the region from Arab Nationalists and Islamists are not better than the claims from Zionists. They both rely on racist stereotypes about who this part of the world is a legitimate homeland to. The area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea can be thought of as the Levant, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Arab World, or Islam depending on your ideological framework. It is located between three continents (Europe, Asia, Africa) and it has been ruled by empires originating in all three. Its ethnic composition has been diverse for as long as history knows. It is a Jewish homeland because that is where Jews became Jews. It was a historic home to Arab tribes long before Islam. It has been ruled by Christian Crusaders, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, Turks, etc. For any nationality to claim the region on the basis of nationality, it would need to exclude others who also have decent historical claims to the region. It should be governed by its residents on the basis of equality. Such an equality can’t just be declared politically. There has already been extensive accumulations of wealth and inequalities of wealth that would perpetuate power dynamics that would make political equality a formality without great substance.

Now to support all of that argumentation would be an even greater task and one I don’t think I’m capable of at this point. As an American anarchist, that’s an impossible goal anyway…

Speaking of which, there is a big gap in the essay. New communications technologies and some trends in academia can explain a lot about the politicization and polarization and personalization of society and how that happened at a time when this or that discourse on the Left was popular, but October 7th and the war it initiated isn’t anywhere to be found in what I wrote. That was obviously a big example of the catalyzing conflicts over the years that have drawn the attention of the Left to Palestinian issues. Not to mention the opening of Israels archives, the accounts of the New Historians that this lead to, the history of the Left (and anarchists) support for anti-colonial struggles, how the Soviet Union and Cold War tied into that, how Islamic nationalism grew in the Middle East and how the Left has dealt with the way that growth challenged its motives for supporting national liberation struggles of the past. And then there’s the framework of the Global North vs. Global South and similar geopolitical perspectives that the Left has adopted, especially when thinking about Russia and China over the past few years.

I think that without all that though, it can be shown how decolonization frameworks are informing the specific forms of anti-Zionism on the Left right now. Perhaps that is the central point that needs the most support from references. An overview of the primary organizations and individuals promoting this sort of anti-Zionism would be helpful, especially in distinguishing those promoters who are actually leftwing from those who are Palestinian nationalists or Islamists. It would help to demonstrate where those views intersect on the question of colonialism. And then there’s the far-Right who are also in on this game. They shouldn’t be left out. An attempt should be made to measure their influence and describe how their views on Zionism are distinct from other forms of anti-Zionism that are around. But I guess that wouldn’t really fit into this as a critique of the American Left’s opposition to Israel over the past 25 years.

Last thoughts… it would really help to cite sources of alternative decolonization views. Those that understand decolonization as a psychological or spiritual matter, along with those that would see it as a matter of abolishing the political systems that were inherited from the colonial power(s), not to mention those that make no apology about advocating the ethnic cleansing of residents who are not considered indigenous.

How many fucking books would it take to do all of the above? How many scholars? How many statisticians? Oy vey.