No other nationalist cause commands as much passionate attention and furious indignation on the Western Left as that of the Palestinians. If any international issue unites liberal centrists, democratic socialists, radical Marxists and Greens, then it is the campaign for Palestinian statehood, an issue which has become a badge and litmus test of leftwing commitment to internationalist justice.
It is curious then that so few of these activists, writers, and thinkers are prepared to listen to what Palestinians actually have to say about Israelis, Jews, the peace process, or anything else for that matter. Israeli politics is pored over and obsessively combed for evidence that the Jews’ commitment to peace is anything less than total, but Palestinian attitudes seem to be of almost no interest, no matter the clarity and frequency with which they are expressed.
The reasons for this are complex and various. What follows is a brief discussion of four of the most important, which are by no means mutually exclusive.
- Righteousness in Victimhood
The Palestinians’ status in the Western Left’s moral universe as the world’s most righteous victims is in part a consequence of a generational shift that has accompanied the changing nature of the conflict.
Since 1967, Israel has been an occupying power, and since peace treaties were signed with Egypt and Jordan (in 1979 and 1994, respectively), the roles of David and Goliath are perceived to have reversed. This is no longer an Arab-Israeli conflict in which despotisms encircle and menace a tiny democracy, but an Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which an irredentist nuclear state rules over an impoverished and homeless people.
The Holocaust, the Six Day War, and the PLO terror campaign of the 1970s are receding in living memory. Subsequent generations grew up watching television news reports of Israeli tanks pounding Beirut in the early 80s and stone-throwers confronting armed soldiers during the first intifada. The Left has tended to understand these images and events using an anti-imperialist and post-colonial lens that ennobles victimhood and romanticizes violent struggle.
The upshot has been the infantilization of a people whose suffering is perceived to be somehow apolitical. What Palestinians do or say is simply an expression of enraged frustration and an inevitable consequence of oppression. If Palestinian public figures incite the murder of Jews in unequivocal terms, it is to be expected, if not exactly justified. If Palestinian politics and society are dysfunctional, it is because they are laboring under occupation. If Palestinians denounce the peace process, it is because they are tired of Israeli intransigence.
It is seldom allowed that Palestinians are thinking, speaking, and acting of their own volition or in pursuit of a counter-productive and racist agenda, which does not align with the Left’s expectations and assumptions. Behind the Left’s generalities, the specifics of what this-or-that Palestinian official, newspaper, or terrorist said are therefore irrelevant. Israel is the occupying power, ergo only Israel and Israelis are capable of moral responsibility and deserving of censure.
- Fear of the Irrational
The failure to reach a conflict-ending agreement at Camp David in 2000 and the subsequent Palestinian campaign of terror were not a great surprise to those who had been paying attention. On May 10 1994, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat gave a speech at a mosque in Johannesburg. After some preparatory rambling about a global conspiracy “to completely demolish the Palestinian issue from the agenda of the new international order”, he promised ongoing jihad for Jerusalem on behalf of the Muslim Ummah, and reassured his audience that peace talks were simply a tactical ruse, comparable to those used by Muhammad to deceive his enemies.
But the Second Intifada also confirmed Hamas as an important and lethal actor in the conflict. Unlike the secular and often explicitly Marxist PLO-affiliated terror groups of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Hamas spoke the language of Islamic supremacism, and its foundational charter was – and remains – unequivocally antisemitic, rejectionist, and genocidal. Western liberals were slow to understand this development and tended to see jihadist groups as the bearers of a kind of liberation theology, not materially different in its strategies and aims to the secular variant of their anti-imperialist forebears.
In 2003, the liberal American critic Paul Berman theorized that the rise of Islamic fanaticism had produced what he called “a philosophical crisis” among those “who wanted to believe that a rational logic governs the world”. To such people, talk of martyrdom and indiscriminate murder made no sense, and he observed that Western protests against Israel correlated, not with reports of alleged Israeli brutality, but with the murder of Israeli citizens by Palestinian suicide squads. This looked suspiciously like an attempt to explain Islamist terrorism as a consequence of oppression rather than doctrine.
Six years later, the conservative American writer Christopher Caldwell returned to Berman’s theory and found he concurred. “Without quite realizing what they were doing,“ Caldwell wrote, „Europeans tended to blame Israel for the terrorist violence committed against it“:
Suicide bombing had to be about an unbearable injustice. If it was not, it was a mere homicidal death cult. For a continent scarred by the homicidal cults of the twentieth century that was an unbearable thought. Europeans became more interested in the causes of terror than in terrorism itself. The more Israelis the bombers killed and the more ruthlessly they did it, the more public opinion shifted against Israel . . . Berman’s view sounded eccentric when he advanced it, but he has been vindicated.
Illusions about jihadism in Europe have been collapsing rather fast of late. The bloodletting by jihadist groups like the Taliban, Boko Haram, and ISIS has become so pitiless, cruel, and extravagant that it is no longer comprehensible as resistance to Western imperialism or hegemony. Recent mass-murders of civilians on the European continent have made all but the most deluded understand that it is dealing with an insurgency that is aggressive not reactive.
But Israel remains an exception to this understanding. The ongoing occupation of the West Bank provides an apparently satisfactory explanation for Palestinian violence, and for much wider Muslim antisemitism besides. When Israel went to war against Hamas in the summer of 2014 to re-establish deterrence and dismantle the organization’s cross-border tunnel network, the European Left howled with outrage. Hamas’s refusal to end its rocket attacks on Israeli cities despite repeated calls for calm from Jerusalem were passed over by almost every leftwing commentator. Palestinian calls for Gaza’s civilians to defend their military targets using their own bodies were hardly reported, nor was the Hamas tactic of using mosques, hospitals, and schools to store arms and fire rockets.
Following his suspension from the Labour Party for remarks about Hitler and Zionism, the former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone gave a lengthy interview to Alan Mendoza on JTV in which he defended Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s reference to Hamas as “our friends”. Over the course of a lifetime in politics, Livingstone declared, “I have always been a critic of Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians.” He went on to insist that Hamas were no different to the IRA and that peace would only be achieved in Gaza when Israel renounced its own intransigence and agreed to talk to Hamas.
Article 13 of the Hamas Charter, however, is clear and unambiguous: “Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement . . . There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.”
“Have you read the Hamas Charter?” Mendoza inquired of his distinguished guest. “No, I haven’t read the Hamas Charter,” came the impatient reply.
- The Desperate Will To Peace
A Leftwing understanding of the conflict tends to be at its clearest and most rational near the political center. There is at least support for a just two-state settlement and sometimes even sincere concern for Israel’s security. For many this is simply a matter of Palestinian national rights. But for others, particularly center-Left Jews, it is primarily concern for Israel that animates calls for the creation of a Palestinian State, which it is hoped will end the conflict. Other well-meaning if maddeningly uninformed people persist in believing the myth of ‘linkage’ – the oddly resilient notion that a solution to the Palestinian question will somehow resolve most of the region’s other problems.
Whatever the reasoning, the conclusion is that a two-state solution must be pursued as an urgent moral imperative. This view recognises Hamas rejectionism and antisemitism, but continued support for a two-state solution of some kind requires denial of abundant PA rejectionism and antisemitism.
Ignoring or dismissing the PA’s conspiracist rhetoric, irredentist indoctrination, and blood-curdling incitement and racism allows for the pretense that once an independent Palestinian state is established on the West Bank (and possibly Gaza), violence will desist, or at least hugely diminish, and Palestinians will set about minding their own business. Ignoring PA corruption and internecine rivalries allows for the pretense that this new state will be stable and secure. Ignoring the treatment of women, minorities, and gays, the closure of newspapers, and the arrest of dissidents allows for an assumption that Palestinians will be liberated once their land is cleared of Jewish soldiers and settlers, rather than oppressed by their own authoritarian leadership. Ignoring all the above, in short, creates space for the claim that Palestinian independence will lead to emancipation and not another failed polity or chaotic jihadist enclave on Israel’s Eastern border.
Ask the most vociferous advocates of an independent Palestine what they expect such a Palestinian state to look like and one tends to get blank looks, mumbled predictions of a free and secular democracy, or defiance. The PA has to be a viable partner for peace, or else there is no peace to be had. And since wish-thinking is preferable to an open-ended status quo, PA statements incompatible with this belief are shrugged off as unimportant or – where necessary – painstakingly ‘decoded’ to reveal a benign meaning beneath the surface.
- Distracted by the Pleasures of Hatred
Fundamental misreadings of the conflict like those described above are only deepened by the consequent failure or refusal to listen to what Palestinians are saying. After all, how is Israel’s behavior to be properly understood when half the narrative is redacted? But a lack of interest in Palestinian beliefs, ideologies, and aims can have even uglier consequences.
To be persuaded that Palestinians are too powerless to be held responsible for their own ideas and actions is to lay total responsibility for the conflict and its resolution on Israel’s shoulders. And once it has been established that Israelis are electing leaders committed to a denial of Palestinians‘ national rights, Israel’s own interests and concerns effectively become redundant. Over time, support for Palestinian self-determination may thereby be transformed into an obsessive hatred of Israel, anti-Zionism, and finally conspiratorial antisemitism, stoked by an immersion in inflammatory websites and literature. Under such circumstances, hatred can become its own reward.
In a 2013 essay entitled The Pleasures of Antisemitism, the British scholar Eve Garrard argued that antisemitism is not simply a result of error but a pathology that provides its own self-sustaining dividends that have made it extremely resistant to reason. Hatred offers the satisfaction of sanctimony and of demanding and administering punishment. Tradition offers the pleasures of familiarity and a spurious authority and wisdom bestowed by history. Moral purity offers the pleasures of a simplified worldview. It should not be surprising, Garrard concludes, that hatred of Israel and Jews should be so appealing or that its easy rewards are so hard to relinquish.
But once someone surrenders themselves to the pleasures of hatred, the object of their initial concern gets forgotten. The late English Cold War historian Robert Conquest sought to explain how those who had been drawn to Communism in search of a better world ended up devoting themselves to apologetics on behalf of genocidal dictatorships. There came a point, he argued, at which hatred of capitalism and the West so devoured their attentions and sense of perspective that they forgot what they were supposed to be fighting for.
By way of illustration, Conquest referred to a short story by H. G. Wells that is pertinent here. It is about a bereaved Eastern prince who resolves to build a magnificent mausoleum to house the tomb of his dead wife. The prince immerses himself in the project, planning and building obsessively, and as the months and years pass, the undertaking becomes ever more ambitious and complex as he strives for perfection. When at last the mausoleum is complete he inspects it with his architects, but he is bothered by some remaining flaw. Casting his critical eye around the interior of the monument, his gaze finally alights on his late wife’s tomb. “Take that thing away,” he instructs.
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The failure to listen to Palestinians and to hold them accountable for their words and actions makes casualties of truth and understanding. But those most adversely affected are the Palestinians themselves who bear the consequences of their leadership’s misgovernance most heavily. Unless and until they are made to understand that they too must be held morally responsible for the choices they make, the irredentist dreams they refuse to disavow, and the hatreds they nurture, they will continue to be denied the statehood for which they strive.