One of the left’s most significant ideological failings in recent years has been its habit of issuing shrill and hostile rhetorical assaults against the State of Israel.
Before going any further, let me first establish my left-wing bona fides.
I believe the Palestinian people have the right to an independent, viable and contiguous state of their own that includes the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem as its capital.
I have long been opposed to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. I believe that Israel should have never imposed an economic blockade on the 1.5 million Palestinians who live in Gaza. And I strongly opposed the Israeli military’s inhumane targeting policies employed during its recent offensive against Hamas in Gaza.
So why do I feel so strongly that most sectors of the left have been so inexcusably wrong when it comes to evaluating Israeli policies?
Let’s begin by looking at the left’s reaction to Israel’s assault against Hamas. One way to get a representative sample of left opinions is to look at what appears on Alternet, as it is one of the left’s most popular online magazines and posts a large cross section of both prominent and not-so-prominent voices on the left.
By my count, Alternet published 49 articles dealing either directly or indirectly with the situation in Gaza during Israel’s war against Hamas between Dec. 27 and Jan. 20. Yet only a handful of these articles even came close to fairly conveying Israel’s point of view.
By “Israel’s point of view,” I am referring to Israel’s overall political goals in its conflict with the Palestinians. Most of the writers published on Alternet were unwilling or unable to combine their justifiable outrage at Israel’s brutal bombardment of Gaza with a recognition of the fact that the current Israeli government has demonstrated a clear desire to reach a two-state settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Do I think that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have been as flexible in their talks with Palestinian negotiators as they should have been since the Annapolis summit meeting in November 2007? No, I do not. But even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has indicated that he believes that the Israelis have been negotiating in good faith and that both sides are serious about reaching a peace agreement.
But if someone only relied on Alternet’s 49 articles to provide them with a context for the motives behind Israel’s offensive, they would be unable to grasp the complexities involved. For example, some of Israel’s motives are indeed justifiable — such as trying to weaken, both militarily and politically, an organization that not only represents a major stumbling block to a peaceful, two-state settlement to the conflict, but one that is committed to Israel’s destruction and has been launching attacks against Israeli civilians in one form or another on and off for the past 20 years.
Yet rather than receiving nuanced and measured analyses, readers of Alternet (as well as many other progressive news outlets) have in many instances been fed heavy-handed propaganda that demonizes practically every aspect of Israeli politics and history. For people who do not have an extensive knowledge of the Middle East but who tend to trust the progressive media to give them the “truth,” they are bound to come away from such a constant barrage of one-sided polemics with a skewed understanding of the current situation.
And then there are the screaming headlines. To cite just a few that appeared on Alternet: “Gaza Is a Concentration Camp” (which has the libelous subtext that Jews are just like the Nazis or that conditions in Gaza even come close to resembling what we associate with the term “concentration camp”); “Is the Gaza Catastrophe Really About Natural Resources?” (there’s always one knee-jerk Marxist in every crowd); “Israeli Assault Injures 1.5 million Palestinians” (even though the actual number of wounded was bad enough — about 5,000 — this writer had to raise the stakes).
There were also a number of articles with headlines that include the charge of “war crimes” against Israel, including the impressively subtle: “‘We Are Very Violent’: Israel War Crimes Mount.”
While one can make a reasonable case that Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza, it’s notable that the progressive media rarely accuses other nations of war crimes, despite all of the other brutal wars being waged around the world that involve far larger atrocities than those that Israel is responsible for in Gaza.
There are so many progressives in the United States, Israel and the Palestinian territories who could have offered Alternet’s readers a more balanced assessment of what is actually happening in the Middle East. To cite just a few examples: Web sites such as J Street, Americans for Peace Now and Meretz USA; writers like Gershon Gorenberg, Yossi Alpher and other Palestinians and Israelis who write at BitterLemons.org.
The left is supposed to — according to our most cherished values — have a compassionate understanding of the root causes of human conflict and oppression. With this in mind, progressives would do well to heed the words of the Johann Hari, who on Feb. 6 wrote in The Independent of London:
“It is essential to remember that the Israelis didn’t end up in the Middle East out of a wicked desire to colonize and kill, as some people now gleefully claim. They are there because they were fleeing genocidal Jew-hatred. That doesn’t justify a single crime against a single Palestinian, but if we forget this, and the unimaginably vast trauma that lies behind it, we cannot understand what is happening now.”
Ken Brociner’s essays and book reviews have appeared in Dissent In These Times and Israel Horizons.