Sunday, February 20, 2005


The Left and Palestine

by Mary Rizzo

gradually, the Left has sold-out on Palestinians

With professional politicians, nothing is left to chance. There is a message in the statements that the leaders of the left make. What is this important message that lies in the shift that the left has consciously made? What point is there for those who consider themselves a part of the left to acknowledge the shift that their leaders have imposed? It is quite clear that mainstream political thought of the left has taken its traditional standard of support for human rights and shifted it to the margins of discourse. Those who sustain human rights unconditionally are lately considered “the radical left”. What is behind the differentiation of the "left" from the "radical left"? The former is of course the left that has the economic and organisational force behind it allowing it to participate in democratic elections, while the radical left is entirely capillary, located in thousands of movements who do not have candidates running for any office, but work on mobilising the masses for demonstrations and organising grass roots activism. The radical left is not focussed on elections, and therefore, its energies are directed the issues more often than the traditional left can possibly be, occupied as it is with political considerations. The radical left is anchored in discourse and action that compel the public to think about issues such as legality, equal rights, democracy. In effect, there is nothing radical at all about them. Their values are basically ones that have long entered into mainstream thought: multiculturalism, ecology, civil liberties, human rights, demilitarisation, the exercise of democracy.

In a certain sense, when the Vatican begins to express the same ideas as the Social Forum, we realise just how grounded in mainstream values the radical left is. It is no longer frightening, nor does it threaten democracy by condoning or approving terrorism. It isn't even a threat to capitalism anymore.

Traditionally, the mainstream left has embraced the causes of the oppressed and of minority groups. It has made these causes part of their platform and core values. And, the closer that these oppressed or minority groups come to mainstream American and European values, the more their cause has been defended. When it comes down to it, we really don't know that much about Asian or Latin American minority groups who are victims of oppression by regimes in power. Our interest in Central African inter-ethnic wars hit its peak in Burundi, but then faded back into oblivion.

The campaign against South African Apartheid has been a little more successful, perhaps because it echoed many of the civil rights battles in the United States, and as such blatant racism, there were few ragged edges to the discourse. The problem was literally black and white. There was no difficulty identifying the oppressor and the victim. Even though it did take many years for the regime to fall, and incredibly enough, there are those who had claimed to always have been opponents to it, despite documentary evidence to the contrary (, once it was brought to the attention of the masses beyond that area, there was great activism directed at pressuring South Africa to cease to exist as an Apartheid State.

Women's rights issues have been relatively successful as well, perhaps because they had found fertile terrain in societies where the mainstream consensus was already entrenched in this direction, even in more moderate circles.

In Europe and the United States, the traditional left has always been connected with Jewish organisations and vice versa. Yet, in recent years, this alliance has become less solid. Of course, there is no other reason for this than the clear support that Jewish organisations give to Israel, which is naturally, a watershed issue. Like gun control or abortion in conservative platforms, it is an issue which by itself moves votes and sympathies. Fiamma Nirenstein, in her book "L'Abbandono" (The Abandonment), laments of the traditional left's abandonment of Jewish interests. Her emphasis is not on issues concerning Jewish individuals and their civil liberties, which would be the free exercise of the Jewish faith and the valorisation of Jewish culture. In fact, at least in Italy, and I would venture to guess the rest of the Western world without exception, these are rights which are acquired and are no longer "minority issues" where discrimination can be demonstrated. I don't think there is a single example of the obstruction of an individual to live his Jewish identity in multicultural societies of the West. No, Nirenstein complains that the left has abandoned Jews because it no longer supports Israel the way she believes it should.

To understand the centrality of Israel to Jewish people who are part of organised Jewish communities (In Italy, 22 communities, numbering approximately 30,000 people are represented by the UCEI), it is interesting to read what a site commenting the Fifth Congress had to say about the concluding document:
"The Fifth Congress of the Union of the Jewish Italian Communities (UCEI) was held in Rome from 23 to 25 June 2002. The published document is very heartfelt, very balanced, in the attempt to find a strong bond between the various components of Italian Jewish society, and in particular, between the two majority lists: that of the centre-right "For Israel" (leader Fiamma Nirenstein) and that of the centre-left, "Keillah" (leader Gad Lerner).-Israel represents for us the essence of our Jewish identity that had already taken new and strong motivations with the development of the Zionist Movement, but it had radically changed in 1948, when it became that of an independent people, with its language, its culture, its institutions. A new patrimony that can not be renounced, that has gathered the Diaspora together in a greater way, that has given the will to exist and resist even to Jewish Communities in difficulty or in danger. It is our job to make it so that the public opinion understands that the existence of Israel is not only a value for us Jews, but for the entire civilized world."-

Since a fundamental Jewish issue and the essence of Jewish identity for Italian Jews is the support of Israel, the Italian left, in order to continue to ally itself with the Jewish community, would be obligated to make a positive stand on Israel. In most cases, it has done so. The left would have to (and does) demonstrate commitment to Israel as a Jewish State. Yet, in doing so, it would (and does) alienate those in the left who condemn the war crimes, human rights abuses and the illegality which is part of the Israeli modus operandi, having its origin from the very foundation of Israel and being evident in the most extreme and obscene way in the horrors of the occupation and the human rights violations which are part and parcel of it.

What seems so obviously, patently illegal and immoral to the common man, to those with political savvy, is a non-issue. Without ever entering into the debate as to the legitimacy of Israel, from its foundation throughout its history, seeing as how the creation of this State is a fait accompli and had as its pillar the expulsion of the original population, the left even ignores current events that do not support the image Israel has of itself. The refusal to permit their return of even one refugee is the continuation of this foundational paradigm that is a violation of international conventions such as the IV Geneva and the Convention of Hague. To avoid making a statement on this argument, because doing so would expose the cruel nature of Israel, and open a discourse that would constitute the alienation of the Jewish constituents, if they are indeed remotely similar to those in Italy who accept Israel as their essential point of reference, the mainstream left has adopted the 2S42P Paradigm.

2S42P = "Two States For Two People"
This claim might seem progressive if one looks at it from the perspective of Israel's history. Only recently have they acknowledged that the Palestinians even "are" a people. With the recognition of a national identity, Palestinians are seen to be allowed the self-determination that is guaranteed by international law treaties. Israel, since Oslo, at any rate, has declared that it is interested in accepting, or more correctly, permitting the existence of a sort of Palestinian State alongside a Jewish one. The Palestinian right to self-determination is mutually dependent on that of the Jewish right to self-determination in Israel. It is a result of it, in other words, it is subservient to this preliminary recognition by the Palestinian’s (government and people) of Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish State. It is very difficult to grant legitimacy to something which obviously is not, and therefore, the discourse must never get too near this unavoidable dilemma.

Because of matters of self-determination of populations, most of the mainstream left in Europe and in the United States have accepted the two States principle without any argument. It almost seems logical and fair. Almost.

Yet, behind this principle, another one hides, and that is the principle of the supremacy of group rights. While groups themselves are granted a right to self-determination, (Article I of the Charter of the United Nations and other laws), individuals have rights which are also guaranteed and most jurists, and not exclusively those of the principle of "individualism", consider them to outweigh group rights, otherwise known as "identity rights". In a society where there is a dominant culture, or a dominant identity, laws need to be created to protect minorities from discrimination. Equal rights and human rights are exquisitely individual in nature. When a State, which is the organ whose constitution or laws serve to validate the supremacy of one group over the others, institutionalising the idea of the supremacy of the majority, by the sanctioning of such national laws, we have what can be quite plainly called an Apartheid State. Issues such as freedom of movement, freedom of thought (including political thought - Israel permits no party to run if it does not subscribe to the character of Israel as a Jewish State), access to services, civic and family law concerning such issues as marriage, divorce and residency, military obligations and so forth, are determined in Israel on an ethnic basis. For a secular State, not being Jewish is indeed cause for discrimination. Palestinians in Israel are plainly discriminated. Palestinians under Israeli control in the Occupied Territories are oppressed and discriminated. It’s not a pretty picture, and quite simple to condemn as the evidence is macroscopic.

In the era of South African Apartheid, denouncing the ethnic discrimination was a moral imperative of the left. I don't think there has ever been a progressive conference which presented the views of the pro-Apartheid activists. It just seemed natural that there were serious human rights violations, and as such, they could not be defended, and there was no call for "balance", no imposition of “the pro-Boer” side in debate.

Not so with Israel. If you have a person denouncing targeted assassinations, house demolitions and raids which imprison the entire male population of a town, you are still required to have "equal time" given to the Israeli side of the story. It is simply required. "Of course!" they must have very good reasons to use collective punishment and arbitrary violence. "Why, there are important reasons" to violate international law so brazenly, and to discriminate persons on an ethnic basis. The general public is forced to listen to their reasons. It's not enough that the atrocities rarely find space in public discourse and are denounced with a whisper, hidden on some internal page of the most progressive newspapers, but we have to witness the justification of it, "equal time", as if these actions are legitimate. I find this outrageous.

Apparently, the left doesn't. Apparently, this is called fair and unbiased reporting. At times, some of the left's only voices in the mass media fall so far into the trap that they are dangerous to the very cause they might support.

Some time ago, Michele Santoro, a dovish journalist of the Italian national network RAI whose positions were often at the antipodes to even the mainstream left (he was critical of the NATO bombing of Serbia, for instance), causing him to be distanced from Italian television, discussed Palestine in one of his evening news shows. Representing the Israeli point of view was Fiamma Nirenstein. Representing the Palestinian point of view was...... get ready for it...... a twelve year old boy. Of course, a professional journalist, writer, politician, person well informed of Israeli matters given that she is married to an Israeli colonel, knows all of the tricks of the trade to present a convincing argument. She even demonstrated maternal warmth to the boy, and it was clear that her usually condescending manner was kept well under wraps. She demonstrated that not only was she head, she was also full of heart. The young boy, in a dramatic way, demonstrated his anger, but he couldn’t speak our language, didn’t have the “historical” background to back up his claims and in the end, was merely an emotional representation of his side, an extraneous element hard to relate to. How's that for balance?

There is a big difference between information and communication. What information is supposed to do is present facts and data without veering towards emotion. Since we are human, though, we relate much more intimately and deeply to sentiment. It is through communication that we seek to consolidate consensus, and to be an effective communicator, one makes use of all the tricks in the bag.

When the facts are so obvious, the pure information is so clear and so evidently on the side of the Palestinians, as it is THEIR rights which are systematically violated, and not those of the Jews, the world of communication goes into overdrive.

For some reason, we are expected to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as two equal contenders with equally valid reasons and equally legitimate claims. We are somehow just supposed to accept the violation of UN Resolutions 181, 194 and 242, along with the other seventy-one that Israel continues to violate, unchecked by the powers that be, as if it is acceptable behaviour that will have no consequences. It is evident and natural that there are only consequences when an Arab nation violates even one, such as Iraq and the UN Resolution 1441, but to Israel, this luxury is permitted and more. It is OUR consensus which has given it this right. The double standard doesn’t worry us, but it should.

And here is where the mainstream left comes into play. To avoid a confrontation between its traditional base and the "social base" which is basically the area which has kept issues such as Colombia, Palestine, Afghanistan to name but a few areas, in the public sphere, where it would otherwise return to oblivion (anyone remember East Timor?) it has concentrated it energies in getting activists to start to make requests of the Palestinian people.

We are suggested to encourage them to view "moderate" solutions as progressive and fair, such as the "Geneva Accord" which didn’t guarantee water rights, border rights or defence rights to Palestinians, but had as its central point the sell-out of individual rights, including the Right of Return, in exchange for some nebulous acts of goodwill. We are encouraged to forget that these rights are not arbitrary and are guaranteed by international law. They are inalienable and not subject to exchange for other, lesser rights. Arafat was aware of this, and that is why he could not sign the proposal of Barak, which was given the moniker of “Generous Offer”. As leader of his people and the one signing the accord, he had no mandate to surrender acquired rights, and no one ever will thanks to international law. We are encouraged by the left to convince our Palestinian friends into the endorsement and acceptance of agreements of this sort. The hoopla that the left has made of the Geneva Accord, presenting it as somehow antagonistic to Sharon and the projects of the right was accompanied by a campaign of leaders of the left, together with the ever popular Hollywood contingent, promoting that we suggest that the Palestinians aim for a more "pragmatic solution" to their problem. They are supposed to see that the renunciation of their rights is in their best interests, seeing as how no one will force Israel into obliging to fulfil its duty and obey the law. Even the United States has vetoed a Resolution calling on States to respect international law, so it is at any rate a reasonable political assessment that Israel will never adhere to the UN Resolutions, and therefore, something is still better than nothing. We are encouraged to find moderate voices, ones that encourage "dialogue", where both sides are given equal legitimacy a priori. A settler who destroys Palestinian property, is to be ideally equated with a child who defends his street in the only way he knows how, by throwing a rock at an armoured tank rolling into his village, the very arrival of which promises some terrible destruction we can only imagine. A State that builds a wall on Palestinian property, and forces a man to ask permission (often denied) just to support his own family with his labour and his own crops, is to be equated with political leaders who, when not arrested, must live clandestinely in order to prevent being assassinated together with their families.

The difference is: one group is treated as legitimate, and the other is illegal. And, against all logic, it is the first group that is granted legitimacy. The settlers and all of the infra-structures that their presence in occupied land requires, render the lives of the Palestinians living under occupation a hell on earth. Yet, these illegal (under international law, but not for Israel) residents are considered to have rights to self-defence that the occupied people are denied. A boy who throws an innocuous rock at a tank as it invades Nablus is considered an aggressor. The Israeli State which violates human rights so outrageously with its raids, checkpoints, shooting into crowds of demonstrators and more, is supposed to be equated with small resistance groups whose operations are limited.

It is interesting to see how most progressive Jewish groups handle this dilemma. On the one hand, they place the blame on the settlers themselves and on the area of Israeli administration that has supported these numerous settlements. To them, the core of the problem lies here, and not in the very real discrimination inherent in Israeli society. It is somehow still important for them that Jewish supremacy remains intact, that is, that the State of Israel maintains its Jewish Character despite 20% or more (statistics on the presence of non-Jewish yet non-Arab workers in Israel give no clue as to their numerical basis in Israeli society, as many of them are “illegal”) of the people living there, citizen or not, are not Jewish. A very large majority has to suffer the institutionalised discrimination of Israel. Some of them have chosen to go there to live, but by no means all of them. The families of many of them date back innumerable generations, long before the Jewish Character of the State became law of the land.

On the other hand, the progressive Jewish groups seek a pragmatic solution that can be achieved rapidly. Rapidity to put an end to Palestinian suffering, but also to the image of Israel as a pariah State. If giving up (Palestinian) rights, if renouncing a (Palestinian) national armed force, as well as complete (Palestinian) control of (Palestinian) borders is the means of achieving this, it is seen as a positive development. There is no talk on the table of Israel renouncing any such thing, at least nothing more than the illegal occupation, which has long been seen in Israel as a risky investment. With an accord like the Geneva one, Israel will still call the shots, so there’s little to lose.

On the site of Tikkun, a California Progressive Jewish faith organisation, there is a forum which asks its members to discuss if the Palestinian Right of Return should be in their core platform – the Jewish Right of Return is considered legitimate by them. The Palestinian Right of Return has never has been on the platform of any progressive Jewish organisation, not even Gush Shalom. What an amazing question for a progressive group to ask itself. Aren’t human rights supposed to now have been accepted as a given, an acquisition of progressive activism? It is evident to anyone that human rights are the core issue and not a side issue which can be added or subtracted depending on its convenience.

What conclusions can be made of all of this? If the emotional aspect is indeed the preferred one for Israel supporters, because the presentation of cold, hard facts can't possibly demonstrate favourably for Israel, then, as pro-Palestinian activists, let us start to use that very device ourselves.

What the pro-Israel faction has used for years, and which can also be called manipulation or emotional blackmail, has been the element of guilt that the West has felt for either being responsible for the persecution of the Jews in Europe or for not having done enough to prevent it. This has often been a pretext for associating Israel with something close to a humanitarian enterprise. A mythology has grown out of this and in the minds of the greater part of the Western population, Israel has been an idealised State. One small (the only, they say) democracy stuck in the middle of millions of aggressive Arabs in nearby hostile States that seek to its destruction out of some natural anti-Semitism inherent to them as non-Western nations and peoples. This campaign serves to induce one to feel protective towards Israel, encouraging in this way the massive "aid" which Israel has been getting. Imagine that, a tiny Western Democracy, with a thriving economy that needs more aid than an immense third world nation with ecological, sanitary and humanitarian problems. Israel has enjoyed this privileged status for decades, and it seemed that nothing more could endanger that acquired status.

That is, until the First Intifada, when some cracks in the veneer started to show through. The world for the first time started to see the living conditions of the Arabs living under Jewish control, especially those confined in the refugee camps not far from where these people had lived for generations, and it was a shock to many. It was certainly a public relations blow of the worst sort. Jews have always been regarded as being pacific, and seeing the violence that was no longer defence, but was naked aggression directed against children destroyed that image in a way that remains indelible. What was evident to the entire Arab world and only to a sliver of Western eyes was now apparent to one and all. Efforts to censor it were of course made, but by now, the Palestinian cause had become a mainstream human rights cause mobilising the West.

What was needed was to recoup a virginity and this was the campaign to present Palestinians as dangerous, as a threat to security, and what better emblem than a wall. "They are so dangerous, we have to wall ourselves in" is the message. "We are damaging ourselves for the safety of our citizens". Rather than the outrage that should have been provoked, the West has listened to the reasons behind this aberration which Israel calls a "Security Fence". It has been granted legitimacy. Even progressives such as Uri Avnery have said that it would cease to be a problem if it were within the Israeli side of the Green Line (which of course, it is not even remotely near to, encroaching on Palestinian land at every twist and turn). Legitimacy to the device has been given "in principle" even by friends of the 2S42P faction. Never mind how a viable Palestinian State could now be achieved with the fait accompli of the wall.

If guilt has been effective in keeping the people silent over human rights abuses and war crimes which are part of the illegality of Israel policy, we progressives have the task of manipulating the accessory sentiment to guilt: shame. If the policies of Israel are discriminatory, if they violate the individual rights of anyone especially those whom they are obligated by law to protect, these policies must be exposed for what they are, and it is a just practice to shame Israel until it complies with law and begins to act decently.

It has often been said that Israel is more concerned about its public image than about what it actually does. If this is true, perhaps the only way of affecting change is for the world’s public to vocally withdraw consent and to shame Israel.

Another problem in exposing the misdeeds of Israel, and what prevents otherwise caring people from doing so, is the accusation of anti-Semitism railed against anyone who dares criticise Israel. Some of the arguments progressive pro-Israel supporters use include the accusation that people hold Israel up to higher standards than others. Leaving aside the Israeli notion that it is a “Light unto Nations”, this accusation is frankly ridiculous. People expect that a nation which considers itself to be a democracy to at least act like one. That it is a Jewish State is positively irrelevant, and progressive Jewish groups should stop supporting Israel by turning a blind eye to legitimate criticism or finding justifications based on tribal or ethnic affiliation.

In fact, it is their knee-jerk defence which smacks of racism. If human rights are important, they shouldn’t be applied on a selective basis. If restrictions on the liberties of persons based on religion, race or political affiliation is wrong, the States which systematically violate human rights in this way must be condemned and openly criticised. In essence, Israel must be held accountable and shamed into conforming to standards which are acceptable for a democracy. The progressives should adopt this as their platform without any exceptions.


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