On February 10, 2019, New York Times opinion writer Bret Stephens posted an article about the dangers of the Democratic Party moving sharply to the left and adopting anti-Israel positions. He used considerable ink to refute the claims of progressives that Israel is an apartheid state and generally debunked the various arguments made against Israel.
But he never touched upon WHY progressives are suddenly so ready to condemn Israel when they weren’t a decade ago. Stephens mentioned the relatively new “intersectionality” concept in which the suffering of one group is the suffering and common cause of all groups, but he offered no reasons why Israel alone was the celebrated cause of the alt-left (for example, no group attacks Iran for hanging gays in the street, Turkey for occupying northern Cyprus, Switzerland for banning minarets at mosques or Belgium banning kosher and halal meat) and why these progressives feel so comfortable cozying up to anti-Semites like Louis Farrakhan.
WHY only Israel versus other countries in the world and WHY now as opposed to ten years ago?
Underdogma is the notion that the downtrodden are always the victims. Not only is the cause of the powerless always right, but their actions must always be excused. Black progressives can easily defend Louis Farrakhan because he is considered powerless; he is punching up in society on behalf of poorly performing Black people. Similarly, Palestinian Arabs who rape and kill 19-year old Jewish girls in Israel are not cast as terrorists, as the Palestinian Arabs are stateless.
This is a point made by Bret Stephens and Matti Friedman. Israel is viewed as the bigger and more powerful party if one views the situation very narrowly, namely the State of Israel with a strong military, against the Palestinian Arabs without either a state or army. The Arab-Israel Conflict has become a narrower Palestinian-Israeli Conflict for progressives. However, if one viewed the situation more broadly, it is easy to see a single Jewish State dwarfed by dozens of Muslim countries, an Israeli Jewish population outnumbered 100-to-1 by Muslims, and Israel standing alone at the United Nations where 30 countries still refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Jewish State.
The Jewish State is very small, but it looms large and powerful for progressives.
Part of the Israeli – and Jewish – problem for progressives is specifically about proportionality. It is not only that the Jewish State appears too big in their narrow focus, it is too powerful based on the raw number of Jews globally.
Progressives want positions of power to reflect the demographics of society. With a Jewish population of less than 15 million in a global population of 7.8 billion, why should a people with 0.2% of the population have any country at all? Perhaps if there were 500 countries instead of the less than 200, progressives might be more sympathetic. Instead, this slice of the global population presents like elites, with a thriving economy and powerful military. Worse, it has these attributes abutting people who are poor and without self determination.
The Jewish State doesn’t look like an oppressed minority success story for progressives. Israel looks like “the 0.1 percent” with a disproportionate share of land and resources. Progressives attacking these (coincidentally) Jewish one-percenters is as natural as attacking the (also coincidentally) Jewish bankers and real estate owners.
Narrative of Emotions versus Facts
Adding fuel to the fire for progressives to attack the Jewish State is the evolving philosophy which has caught hold in the far left. Progressives have advanced the notion that emotions are not only real, they are perhaps more relevant than facts. Such approach allows them to shut down debate and discussion if they feel under attack from “microaggressions,” a term coined in the 1970’s which has infected college campuses and left-wing groups today.
The counter-factual Palestinian narrative now has a natural audience in the far left. Jewish history in the holy land can comfortably be erased such as the fact the Jerusalem has been majority Jewish since the 1860’s, with the charge that Jews are changing the Muslim “character” of the city using the ominous language of gentrification. Thousands of years of Jewish history evaporate as Jews are transformed into “colonialists” seeking to expel and subjugate the indigenous Arab population and continue to steal “Palestinian land.”
Falsehoods do not matter. Fighting emotional perceptions with facts as Bret Stephens did is a debate using different bases. When progressives embrace non-factual emotions of feeling wronged, is the best method of countering it using facts, fact-based emotions or non-fact based emotions? Are Israelis forced to only talk about the pain of antisemitism and the Holocaust (fact-based emotions) or conjure up something new (what can really be worse than the Holocaust to dream up? That Palestinians harvest Jewish organs like the Arabs claim Jews do?)
Progressives demand no rebuttal, just a focus on the raw emotions of those in a disadvantaged state. The tacit conclusion is that to forge a peaceful coexistence, the outrageous lies should be ignored and/or considered as though they contain morsels of truth. Pretend that Arabs did not begin to arrive in the Jewish holy land in the Muslim invasion of the seventh and eighth centuries but are descendants of biblical Canaanites. Consider that the Palestinian Arabs did not try to destroy Israel in 1948 and 1967 but were arbitrarily expelled. Honor their counter-factual emotions. Do more than shut up as the stronger party, take steps to address their pain. To do less is cruelty.
The Masses Make History
One upon a time, history was written by the victor. In modern times it is re-written by the 99.8% with smartphones and social media accounts.
Jews have succumbed to raw power for thousands of years. Judaism was crushed by the power of the Catholic church which replaced the chosen people spiritually, and by the Moslems who replaced the Jews physically by taking over the Jewish holy land and building the Dome of the Rock atop their Jewish Temples. Both religions used the sword for execution and conversion, leaving Jews a paltry sum.
Today, Jews are falling to a new power: the stories, emotional narratives written by the masses. When feelings trump facts, billions of people will be drawn to compelling narratives such as a modern day David-versus-Goliath story and will love the irony of the Jew now being slayed as the Giant. Israelis are called Nazis without consideration of the deep antisemitism of the charge. Why pause to ponder, when it completes the chapter with a curious twist, and absolves the world from its role in the Jewish genocide as it shows that all people are just as evil when they obtain too much power.
Rip power from the elites, flatten society and distribute power equally is the logical conclusion say today’s socialists / Democratic Socialists. The stories secure alt-left converts with absolution, reward and righteous smugness. Empathy can be contagious: post it online and share it with friends. Take it to the streets. It doesn’t matter that the original whisperers came from Iran or Russia, when the emotions feel so real.
Why Progressives Attack Israel Today
In short, why now and why Israel:
- It is laudable to attack the powerful. In the past, progressives wanted to empower the weak with programs like affirmative action. Now they want to pull down the powerful. It is no longer about making sure people do not live in poverty but to focus on the “gaps” in society including wealth and income. It is much easier to strip the elites than to build a long-term sustainable economy.
- The alt-left believes Jews and the Jewish State are disproportionately powerful. Israel’s recent battles of 2008, 2012 and 2014 were with Gaza, a small impoverished strip of land, and not with the broader Arab world as in the early days of the state. Israel’s economy sailed through the global financial meltdown of 2008-9 and continues to have multi-billion dollar IPOs and sales of its flourishing technology and biotech industries. Progressives see elitists, not a minority success story.
- Israel abandoned early socialism in favor of capitalism. Israel’s early days were scrappy and agrarian, working the land in collective kibbutzes. The left-wing Labor party dominated the political landscape for decades from its founding days. But the country pivoted to the right and the champion of privatizing the Israeli economy, Benjamin Netanyahu, has become the longest serving prime minister in Israeli history. For the alt-left, the right cannot be right: Israel’s success must have come from theft, corruption and abuse. The fact that Netanyahu is being charged with the same is too rich for the left to ignore.
- Perception of White European Colonial Patriarchy. Israel has long had white Ashkenazi male leaders with the exception of Golda Meir in the 1970’s, so Netanyahu is not a new phenomenon. But the objection to his background in the middle of a Middle East with Arab leaders is suddenly more offensive to Americans who had a Black president for eight years. The fact that the majority of Israeli Jews are Brown and Black from Arab and African countries is ignored or not known. The face of Israel is portrayed as one of colonialism, white privilege and the patriarchy, all unforgivable sins to the newly woke.
- Jewish liberals give them cover. Democrats once had champions for the Jewish State like Scoop Jackson, Patrick Moynihan and Joe Lieberman and a strong Israel advocacy group like AIPAC. Today, new alt-left wing Jewish groups like J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace loudly lobby for policies against the Jewish State and donate and back politicians with anti-Israel views. They supported the Iran deal, the declaration of Jewish homes east of the Green Line as illegal, boycotting Jewish Israeli businesses, and were upset with the US moving its embassy to Jerusalem. When Jewish groups which claim to be “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace” aggressively push the US and UN to take actions against the Jewish State, it becomes easy for all progressives to endorse anti-Zionist views without appearing antisemitic.
Among Progressives, the past dozen years has seen the Arab-Israel Conflict shrink into the Besieged and Impoverished Gaza Strip-Israeli Army Conflict. There is no longer an antisemitic Hamas or Palestinian terrorists, just poor Arabs seeking self-determination in the face of a powerful and rich alt-right foreign entity. It is a story recast to elicit empathy.
Israel’s supporters on the right may get excellent scores on Middle Eastern history but fail to connect with the masses who are craving a story of empathy. Tyrion Lannister summed it up in the finale of Game of Thrones: “What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.” The alt-left gets it and has spun a tale which is being mainstreamed and going viral.
Israel is in a new war with progressives and it is clueless about how to confront it.