The Israel-Palestine conflict has led to a predictably divided response in the US. But it is the American Left in particular that has not covered itself in glory. In recent days, it has failed to distinguish between its commitment to the legitimate cause of Palestinian self-determination and a relativistic attitude of moral carte blanche for terrorist movements, provided they’re seen to be fighting for a righteous “anticolonial” cause. These pathologies, embodied by the likes of the Squad and Cornel West, have now emerged into the open, stoking division among Democrats and discrediting the Left’s claims to moral leadership.
Michigan representative Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American elected to Congress, offended both Republicans and Democrats when she released a statement on Sunday that failed to mention Hamas, while casting blame on Israel and calling for an end to American aid to the Jewish state. “The failure to recognise the violent reality of living under siege, occupation, and apartheid makes no one safer,” she said. “As long as our country provides billions in unconditional funding to support the apartheid government, this heartbreaking cycle of violence will continue.” On Wednesday evening, following criticism, she conceded that Hamas members were guilty of “war crimes”.
Tlaib has been joined by fellow Squad members Ilhan Omar, who called the Israeli response a “war crime” (with correspondingly little to say about Hamas), and Cori Bush, who echoed the harsh criticism of Israel and called for “a ceasefire and de-escalation”, as if the men who had just finished massacring and raping innocents would be amenable to such a polite suggestion.
What accounts for such wilful blindness on the part of a movement that prides itself on fighting racism and the remnants of Nazism? There are many possible answers. One is that contemporary identity politics has killed the robust moral universalism of the old Left, and Palestinian Arabs now always make for a better victim class than Israeli Jews who, in this worldview, have become the new fascists.
Another explanation is that at a time when the American Left has seemingly run out of urgent causes, its partisans have used the Hamas attacks to rally to the old, reliable trope of anti-Zionism, which has a long pedigree in Left-wing circles. It comes out of a larger current of radical chic “Third Worldism”, in which any militant movement that flies an anticolonial flag, no matter how brutal or unscrupulous, is seen as worthy of praise. Such gestures are easy ways for Leftists to distinguish themselves from establishment rivals, letting them play-act from the comfort of Western cities and campuses, armchair revolutionaries engaged in an emancipatory struggle.
In his 1975 UN speech, given just two years after the Yom Kippur War, then-US Ambassador Patrick Moynihan saw these very trends coalescing around the global anti-Zionist movement, which introduced the infamous resolution denouncing Israel as an inherently racist entity. He sounded a prescient note in saying that “there will be new forces […] new prophets and new despots, who will justify their actions with the help of just such distortions of words as we have sanctioned here today.” He added that “today we have drained the word ‘racism’ of its meaning. Tomorrow, terms like ‘national self-determination’ and ‘national honour’ will be perverted in the same way.”
Today, the Left matches Moynihan’s description, proclaiming allegiance to lofty ideals even as it debases them in practice. There are, of course, legitimate criticisms to be levelled at Israel’s policies and responses. But the refusal among significant swathes of the Left to recognise in absolute terms the singular evil that Hamas represents has all but undermined their credibility as good-faith participants in these debates. With friends like the American Left, the cause of peace hardly needs any more enemies.