May 19, 2021

The good news from Israel is that there were just 40 new cases of Covid on Monday. The bad news is that, well… barely has one horseman of the apocalypse disappeared when a new one turns up, with The World’s Most Endless Conflict back in the news.

People might not understand why Israelis and Palestinians are firing rockets at each other, but that doesn’t stop them choosing a team. “Mark likes Israel, I’m Palestine” — as Jeremy in Peep Show pointed out, it’s much more interesting if you pick sides, and the western world is not short of People With Opinions About The Middle East.

The modern stereotype of western partisanship is, on the one hand, someone with a US flag and/or a crucifix in their Twitter avatar protesting that Israel is the only Middle Eastern country where gay pride is allowed. And on the other, you’d have someone like gender studies professor Judith Butler, who once described Hamas and Hezbollah as being “social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left”.

Yet it wasn’t always like this. As Jeet Heer wrote a while back, American conservatives were once sympathetic to the Palestinians. Right-wing publisher Regnery, for instance, “published a steady stream of books championing Arab culture and sympathetically describing the plight of the Palestinians”. In 1956 the National Review called Israel “the first racist state in modern history” while “James Burnham, the most important and influential foreign policy analyst at National Review, was very critical of Israel, constantly berating the state for inflaming Arab passions by mistreating Palestinian refugees and its internal Arab population.” The conservative science fiction writer Poul Anderson mocked the Left for ignoring the Palestinians — something you couldn’t accuse them of now.

Among certain English conservatives was a strong affinity and natural sympathy with the aristocratic Arab world, while most of the Zionists were radicals, socialists and feminists of various kinds.

So why did Left and Right swap places? After 1967, the two sides did become more aligned along Cold War lines and so to be pro-Israeli was to be pro-American, and vice versa. But Heer argued that conservatives like power, and that their perception of a weak Jewish state changed following their heroic, spectacular victory in 1967: “After that, conservatives, like nerds attracted to a strongman, decided to sidle up to Israel.” That generalisation of conservatives is not entirely untrue, of course; Right-wing views in men tend to correlate with higher upper-body-mass and after the Six Day War Israel became a gym-bro’s dreams. Its military victories, as well as its famous special forces and intelligence agencies, are genuinely impressive in a Boy’s Own sort of way. That Israel operates as a sort of modern-day Sparta while also being ultra-libertarian does push all the right buttons for conservatives.

Then there is religion. In the Seventies, Israeli politicians built relationships with Evangelical leaders, who increasingly referred to “Judeo-Christian” values and gave Israel a solid support base in the US far larger than its Jewish minority; the one tiny downside was that Israel’s victory would ultimately bring about the end of the world, but this was a mere detail.

Israel, most recently, has also become much more religious, and therefore conservative, due to its Orthodox population having higher birth rates; indeed, it has become more religious at a time when religion is in freefall not just in the United States, but in the Arab world too.

The western Left, in contrast, carries with it an overriding interest in the power of victimhood, a legacy of some obscure sect that flourished in that part of the world 2,000 years ago. They also strongly identify with what Jonathan Haidt called the Care/Harm Foundation — the desire to protect the weak — but this is often only really triggered when they can in some way identify with the person doing the harming; that is why Syrian atrocities against Palestinians get as much attention as police shootings in Jamaica or Brazil.

But another, better suggestion for the Right’s identification with Israel might simply be anti-liberalism, so that when the Left adopted the Palestinian cause after 1967, conservatives supported Israel just to oppose them. Much of the modern Right is really only defined in opposition to the Left; if progressives went back to supporting Israel tomorrow, the Right would probably all add little Palestinian flags to their Twitter profiles. As the Balfour Declaration famously put it: “a home for the Jewish people, to own the libs”.

That won’t happen, but there are lots of instances where partisan groups switch sides en masse for purely tribal reasons. Before 2016, Republicans tended to be much more free trade than Democrats, and more hostile to Russia. Post-2016 that has reversed, to such an extent you might assume it was just the natural state of things.

The Left’s fondness for the underdog has often led intellectuals to side with “social movements that are progressive” who were also bloodthirsty maniacs. During the Cold War, many went off to support Leftist guerrillas in Cuba, Vietnam and various parts of Africa, but as Communism faded they found other underdog-murderers to support, and stumbled on Islamic radicals and revolutionaries. Michel Foucault famously had a weird infatuation with the Ayatollah Khomeini, calling him an “old saint” and referring to the Iranian revolution as “the most modern and the most insane” event. He meant “insane” in a good sense because Khomeinism transgressed western notions of rationality, which indeed hanging gay people from cranes certainly does.

Islamic fundamentalists, unlike communists, have little in common with western progressives, but that didn’t necessarily matter. While there are lots of different factors that determine a person’s political stance — personality type, moral flavour, our view of gender roles — the real primary motive is: who hates whom. Who is on your side?

Butler’s argument was that, since the likes of Hamas define themselves as anti-imperialist, and are opposed to US dominance, then they are on the Left. Of course, many on the Left get furious at this argument, since if Hamas were white, they would be defined as so right-wing as to be off the spectrum. Indeed the Right-Wing Authoritarian test has been done on Palestinian subjects and, unsurprisingly, Hamas supporters turned out to be pretty Right-wing and authoritarian.

And yet if they were white reactionaries, they would not be anti-western, nor therefore “anti-imperialistic”, so it is not an illogical rationale. If the Left defines itself as being against the United States’ global hegemony, then Hamas are indeed on the Left.

This is also the logic of the Right on Israel — that not only is it a liberal democracy, but it is somehow on their side in a civilisational sense. In some ways that’s true; visiting Israel, it does feel western in many respects. But neither is that wholly true, and it is certainly not helpful for a country which needs the acceptance of its neighbours for long-term survival. Indeed, it only vouches for the narrative that Israel is a colonial state.

In From Fatwa to Jihad, Kenan Malik interviewed some British-born Muslims fuming at the Zionist entity, and observed that none of them could point to Palestine on a map or mention a single fact about it. But the same is true of most culture warriors on the issue, who all see it as a proxy for a debate closer to home.

The Right is just as bad: during the 2016 presidential race, Ted Cruz was addressing a group of Arab Christians when he proceeded to tell them that they have no greater ally than Israel. Perhaps as a great surprise to him, they didn’t agree and he was booed off stage. But then Arab Christians don’t tend to be especially Zionist, funnily enough. And why should they be? It’s not a civilisational battle between West and East.

A century ago, up to a third of Palestinians were Christian, a group whose existence was famously summed up by the story of an Anglican visitor who asked a local which missionary had converted his family: “Paul”. Many of the leading PLO activists in the 1970s were Christians, as were the founders of Ba’athism. Indeed, rather than Israel being part of the West, the majority of Israelis don’t come from a European Ashkenazi background; over three million are Mizrahim and have always lived in the Middle East; to Europeans many if not most Israelis appear indistinguishable from other Middle Easterners.

But then many people who take an interest in the conflict see it as representative of something bigger. For conservatives, Zionism long ago became a way of signalling civilisational patriotism, opposition to Islam and Muslim immigration in the West, as well as a way of isolating the anti-Semites who have often dogged the Right and toxified the brand. On the other side, Palestinianism is part of a broader struggle; today America’s young progressives are as pro-Palestinian as their European equivalents, conflating it with America’s racial dynamic in a way that displays almost world-beating levels of solipsism.

Yet I wonder how this will last. The region will always have explosive potential, but it might not hold the same symbolic importance it once did. The Religious Right is in serious decline in the US, and the conservatism replacing it is more secular and more nationalist; it is less keen on foreign adventures and less invested in Israel or the Middle East. Americans as a whole have largely given up on the idea that they are in some existential, civilisational clash with radical Islam because they’ve realised that, whatever their issues with the Muslim world, they hate each other more.

Most of all, the whole narrative around the Holy Land was in many ways a proxy for our view on the United States in a brief unipolar moment — and the rise of China will once again flip political alliances in ways we can’t entirely predict. The one thing we can be sure of is that, whatever horrors the Beijing regime inflicts on the world, some western intellectuals will be on hand to justify it as part of the global struggle against western oppression and colonialism. Some things are even more timeless and unending than war in the Middle East.