The Nagorno-Karabakh region, between Azerbaijan and Armenia, has been the source of repeated, bitter fighting since the Nineties. A few weeks ago, following nine months of Azeri blockade of the majority-Armenian civilian population, Azerbaijan launched an offensive against the region. Some 100,000 Armenian refugees fled for Armenia. It was, in effect, an ethnic cleansing of the area.
In response, around 600 people, almost all Armenians, gathered outside Downing Street to call for support for Armenia. Their faltering effort stood in sharp contrast to the pro-Palestine protests that erupted over the weekend. Across the UK, tens of thousands marched. In London alone, their presence prompted the deployment of more than 1,000 police officers to keep the peace. As dusk fell, a large crowd milled about outside the Israeli embassy, brandishing Palestinian flags and chanting “We are all Palestinian”.
Who are these people? It seems unlikely that they’re all literally Palestinian, when the total estimated Palestinian-origin population of the UK is around 3,000. Rather they seem to come from four broad groups: genuine Palestinians, those who support Palestine through ethnic affinity, those who support Palestine through religious affinity, and those on the Left who support Palestine for ideological reasons.
All of these groups wave away the core reason given by Jewish people for desiring a safe homeland: their historic persecution, up to the Nazi project of industrialised murder that cost the lives of six million Jewish men, women and children. I don’t blame the survivors for wanting somewhere safe to live. But the crowd on London’s streets disagreed. Forget some putative “two-state solution”. They chanted: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” A glance at a map should make the implication clear: the elimination of Israel.
It’s easy to understand why Palestinians competing with Israelis for the same homeland might desire this. It’s also relatively easy to see why Islamists and other Arab demographics might align with their cause. The head-scratcher here isn’t the age-old tribalism of race or religion, however incomprehensible these may be to liberals. It’s the monolithic affiliation of European Leftists with Palestine — including, as ever, former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
In some cases, the result is a coalition of pantomime-horse absurdity. The most comical instance of this phenomenon is surely “Queers for Palestine”, a movement which has been likened to “Chickens for KFC”. But there are a great many more. For the sake of brevity, let’s call this far-Left caucus “Greater Corbynism”: a kaleidoscope of fringe groups comprising everything from the placard-waving SWP, through assorted subtypes of Communist pamphleteer, to the balaclava-clad antifa. Even representatives of other seemingly unrelated Leftist causes, such as environmental “direct action” and animal liberation, regularly nail their red, green and white colours to the mast.
And elsewhere, among the far larger population of Brits who lean Left, but without sliding into the abyss of Greater Corbynism, many more are content to think harder and more empathically about the suffering of Palestinians than of Jews. This asymmetry is omnipresent: for example, on the Sunday after the Hamas attacks, the well-meaning but conventionally woke vicar at my local Anglican church managed a nod to Israel, amid a list of other international conflicts, during prayers of intercession. The following week, with Israel poised for a counterstrike, we got a mournful sermon about how terrible both sides are, and every one of the prayers for intercession was for Gazan civilians. So, too, with the BBC: an organisation that has studiously refused to employ the adjective “terrorist” in connection with Hamas, despite it being internationally designated as such.
If this was impelled by a general commitment to protecting those at risk of ethnic cleansing, these groups would have also been protesting the mass displacement of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh. But they weren’t. Is the simple and depressing explanation for this just that a lot of people really hate Jews? In some cases, perhaps. But my vicar, for one, is not an antisemite. Something else appears to be going on.
It is more, perhaps, that like many other well-meaning leftists, he has a blind spot. And the size and ubiquity of this blind spot on the Left is best explained not by hatred of Jews (or not only by such hatred), but by the outsized symbolic role Israel plays as a proxy for American geopolitical hegemony. For this association has some basis in fact, in the sense that Israel really is a creation of American imperial power.
Following the First World War, the surviving European empires divided the Middle East in a thicket of great-power bargaining, in the course of which the British secured a mandate to rule Palestine. This mandate both obliged Britain to balance the needs of Jews and Arabs, and also — under the Balfour Declaration that helped them to secure it — to create a Jewish national home.
As historian James Barr notes, Britain’s motive for issuing the Balfour Declaration was more strategic than compassionate. The hope was, as Barr puts it, to create “what it called ‘a buffer Jewish state’ to guard the eastern approaches to the Suez Canal and keep the French at bay”. But this strategic aim, and Britain’s obligations under the mandate, were already in tension before the Second World War broke out.
First, the Balfour Declaration prompted a swift rise in Jewish immigration to Palestine, which triggered an Arab uprising in 1936. Fearing all-out Arab revolt, the British responded by imposing a strict cap on Jewish immigration in 1939. But as stories of Nazi atrocities began to percolate from German-occupied Europe, this cap swiftly came to seem intolerably cold-hearted. Among those moved to understandable outrage were members of America’s growing, prosperous and increasingly influential Jewish population, many of whom were already engaged in campaigning for an independent Jewish homeland. These activists decried British immigration policy in Palestine, not without reason, as “cruel and indefensible” in the context of the Holocaust.
Their campaigning drew the attention of politicians. The statesman and presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, steeped in America’s national story of self-determination in the Declaration of Independence, was both moved by Jewish suffering and perhaps, as Barr suggests, also mindful of the presence of large Jewish voting minorities in key swing states required for his planned 1944 presidential campaign. He became a key figure in pursuing an end to the immigration cap, and, as time went on, in shaping American perceptions that British control of Palestine was less a buffer between hostile ethnic groups than the main obstacle to these groups’ reconciliation.
Albert Einstein was one of many who encouraged this view. According to one American diplomat, in 1946 the theoretical physicist assured a joint British-American committee exploring Jewish refugee resettlement that all Palestine needed was “really honest government for the people there which would get the Arabs and Jews together”. Two years later, with Britain exhausted and dependent on American funds and goodwill, the US set out to make such a government a reality. The rest, as they say, is history.
None of this is to impute some special status or cunning to a “Zionist lobby”, as conspiracy-mongers are wont to do. Modern America is a nation of immigrants, and it’s common for expats to retain an interest in the old country. In 1918, for example, with the Habsburg Empire on the brink of disintegration, a delegation of Central European diplomats met in Pittsburgh seeking international recognition for a proposed Czechoslovakian breakaway state. A.J.P. Taylor also describes how emigrants were instrumental in securing American recognition for this new nation — even before the monarchy that nominally still governed those territories was formally dissolved. Similarly, the painful history of Northern Ireland’s Troubles includes a distinctive and sometimes controversial American contribution, impelled by that country’s Irish-heritage diaspora.
And if an expat-inflected international politics is characteristically American, so too is the governing theme of many of its overseas interventions: a sometimes painfully idealistic effort to reconfigure foreign cultures and political landscapes in line with the American melting-pot ideal. Indeed, if your everyday reference-point is the relative cultural “blank canvas” of modern America, and you’ve decided not to think about the Native Americans, perhaps this looks as possible as it sounded from the lips of Albert Einstein.
Amid Europe’s centuries (or the Holy Land’s millennia) of history and grievance, such a policy seems optimistic to say the least. Accordingly, many such efforts to foster America’s “self-determination” have had, at best, mixed results. Among the failures, perhaps the least disastrous was Czechoslovakia: it didn’t succeed as a post-Habsburg state, but at least managed to divide peacefully in the 1992 “Velvet Divorce”. There have been many others since — some impelled by expat activism within America; others, as for example the “nation-building” catastrophes of Iraq and Afghanistan, seemingly by sheer conviction.
And when the attempt to remake the world in America’s image tilts the international landscape towards American interests, so much the better for America. When Britain’s strategic Middle East foothold, the Palestine mandate, was replaced in 1948, for example, the loss signalled the beginning of the end for British control of oil in the region — and the beginning of its relative domination by America.
This double game enrages many. Charitably, we might read at least some of the resulting hatred of the American hegemon as a kind of furious disappointment at how often the high words about freedom and democracy operate in practice as delivery mechanisms for the far grubbier pursuit of power and money. Regardless, the states created in the process stand for America’s strange cocktail of high idealism, reach and ruthlessness — and its ability to reshape the world in its own image and ignore the casualties. Of these, none is a more potent symbol of than Israel: the state that offered sanctuary to Europe’s brutalised Jews, scuppered a key geopolitical rival, and has endured ever since despite near-total encirclement by hostile powers largely thanks to American support.
When the crowd bellows “From the river to the sea”, then, relatively few are saying this because they have a material interest in obliterating the real Israel. I dare say many more have no particular animus toward Jewish people. They just don’t care about them. Rather, most are moved by a desire to weaken what Israel symbolises: Pax Americana. Whenever the denizens of greater Corbynism denounce “settler colonialism”, “capitalism”, “white supremacy”, or some other formulation meaning “the reigning order, which I don’t like”, this is what they’re referring to. A defeat for Israel is a defeat for America; and implicitly, a great many Jews may be sacrificed in pursuit of that noble goal. By contrast, there’s no obvious way to turn the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict into a bloody nose for the American empire. So no one gives a stuff.
But only a fool would take these bleak realities as licence to equivocate about the conflict now unfolding. “Both-sides-ing” is itself a peacetime luxury, made possible by Pax Americana. The American empire may be amoral, extractive, asymmetrical and at times infuriatingly hypocritical. But every empire, throughout recorded history, has had feet of clay as well as high ideals. And with all its faults, America remains the principal guarantor of relative peace and order across a colossal sphere of influence that spans half the planet and includes my own nation.
Just today, Biden will step up to that project again with a visit to Tel Aviv. Do we want him to succeed or not? Those who dream of America’s downfall, literally or by symbolic proxy, offer no better alternative, and a great many worse ones. In reality, there are no blank-slate beginnings, and no happy endings either. We can only ever pick a place, and take a stand. I stand with peace and order, however flawed. I stand with Israel.