How American progressives have gone astray

November 19, 2023 • 11:30 am

Speaking of the moral weakness of the Western Left when it comes to the war between Israel and Hamas, Susie Linfield, a professor at NYU, has written in Quillette a thoughtful, thorough, and trenchant analysis of the situation.   She’s no unalloyed cheerleader for Israel, recognizing that any lasting peace will require the removal of Netanyahu, and she deplores the violence (and perhaps the presence) of West Bank settlers. But overall, she calls out the Western Left strongly for not adhering to the traditional values and tactics of their philosophy—features that brought them success with things like the civil rights movement. Throwing in your lot with the Palestinian cause and adopting a laissez-faire attitude towards violence, Linfield says, is the road to perdition.

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I’m just going to give a few quotes as my insomnia hit me with a vengeance last night, I’ve been awake since 2 a.m. and I can’t brain. Fortunately, Dr. Linfield can.  Here she talks about true progressivism and how it was betrayed by its adherents’ response to the October 7 massacre:

The events of October 7th have clarified to Israelis from across the political spectrum—and should to everyone else—just what it means to make Palestine judenrein, as Hamas’s founding document and its current leaders promise. Indeed, the only way to “free Palestine from the river to sea,” as thousands of demonstrators worldwide are chanting, is to kill (or at best expel) all the Jews who live there, which is precisely what Hamas openly states is its primary goal. (Rep. Rashida Tlaib recently released a video in which she endorsed this demand, which she then ludicrously tried to spin as “an aspirational call for … peaceful coexistence.” Perhaps she imagines that the millions of Israelis expelled from Yemen, Morocco, Iraq, Syria, and a host of other Arab countries will be offered the “right of return.”) Hamas specifies that every Muslim, including women and “the slave,” is duty-bound to join in the eschatological struggle to cleanse Palestine of “the Jews,” whom it identifies as the world’s most powerful force and mankind’s greatest enemy. October 7th was the practice of that principle.

The determination of many on the Western Left to either ignore this program or refuse to believe it—despite Hamas’s consistent candor about its aims and means—is a sign of intellectual Orientalism: Palestinians are viewed only as helpless, reactive victims rather than people who generate ideas and actions for which they can be held accountable. But of course they do create political worldviews and programs, and Hamas has been especially voluble of late in explaining its future plans. Just last week, Hamas leader Ghazi Hamad affirmed that his organization planned many more October 7th-type attacks until it “annihilates” Israel; a week later, Hamas spokesman Taher El-Nounou told the New York Times, “I hope that the state of war with Israel will become permanent on all the borders.” This makes calls for a “mutual ceasefire,” in Tlaib’s words, nonsensical.

What calls for a ceasefire are really demanding is for Israel to stop defending itself, stop trying to eliminate Hamas, withdraw to its previous borders, and probably = make reparations to Gaza for the destruction of the war.  (The calls never seem to mention the continuing firing of rockets at Israel by terrorists trying to kill civilians.) It is a call to return to the status quo, in which Israel will perpetually be attacked by terrorists—certainly more often than before—but will not be allowed to defend itself. Humanitarian pauses? Yes, of course.  Corridors that are truly safe to protect as many civilians as possible? Certainly. But a ceasefire? That’s only one step from the “river to the sea” mentality the mentality that chides Israel for defending itself against the most brutal of attacks. As Cary Nelson wrote in Fathom, in an article called “A ceasefire would normalise the pogrom,”

Those urging a ceasefire stand behind what appears to be the most basic humanitarian motive: prevent further loss of life; end the massacre of innocent civilians. And then the coup de grace is delivered in hypocritical feel good rhetoric: everyone should respect international humanitarian law. Except that Hamas never has and never will honour international humanitarian law.

Meanwhile, no reprisals for murdering men, women, and children are to follow. No sanctions. No punishments. No accountability. The barbaric intimacy of so many of the killings is to be met with stability, frozen in time. We are all to accept what happened and move on.

Fools, hypocrites, dreamers, and antisemites alike stand in solidarity. Except that if the crimes are allowed to stand unanswered they will be repeated or more likely horrifically reinvented within a few years at most. A new standard for monstrous assault on Israelis will be in place.

But I digress. Here’s long except from Linfield’s piece—in effect, a lecture to those on the Left who can’t be bothered by what Hamas did on October 7 or what it is doing now. I’ve inserted some links into the powerful last paragraph so you can look up the cited writers.

There is, and always has been, another tradition, another sense, of what it means to be “progressive” and to stand with the oppressed. In 2011, Fred Halliday wrote an essay titled “Terrorism in Historical Perspective.” It is the most intellectually and morally lucid work on the subject that I know. Halliday addressed himself to his comrades on the Left and made a crucial argument: Any movement that claims to represent an oppressed people must act in an ethical way even if it is not in power and perceives itself as weak. 

Oppression is not a carte blanche for severing heads from bodies, shooting hundreds of young festival-goers, bludgeoning people to death, murdering children in front of parents and vice versa, killing naked women point-blank, and kidnapping babies and the elderly; there is no universe in which these are revolutionary, emancipatory, or anticolonialist acts, much less “beautiful” ones. Sadism and violence are not synonyms. Sexual torture cannot be anti-imperialist—nor is it an understandable, much less inevitable, response to oppression. An eliminationist program is not a freedom charter. History has proved, again and again, that terrorists and freedom fighters aren’t the same, which is why the former never achieve anything approaching either liberation or justice. There is no room for “yes, but.” Why, when it comes to the deaths of Israelis, is this so hard to understand?

The Western Left’s response to October 7th will, I believe, be viewed as a moment of moral corruption on a par with the defense of Stalin’s purges, Czechoslovakia’s antisemitic show trials of 1952, the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and Poland’s antisemitic expulsions of 1968, along with the denial of the Khmer Rouge genocide (see under: Chomsky, Noam) and the adulation of China’s vicious Cultural Revolution. Since October 7th, there have been a handful of liberal and Left writers who have written bravely and honestly: Jonathan Freedland and Howard Jacobson in the Guardian, Michael Walzer in the Atlantic; Michelle Goldberg at the New York Times, Alan Johnson and Cary Nelson in Fathom, Seyla Benhabib on Medium. They are, alas, exceptions. Halliday’s leftism—the leftism of humane universalism rather than anti-imperialism—is in eclipse, as was Memmi’s.

Here’s why the Israeli Left outshines the American Left, a bit that immediately follows the paragraph above:

Except in Israel. Somehow, that nation of genocidal-white supremacist-fascist-settler-colonials has produced a Left that still adheres to the traditional principles of universalist dignity and equality, and that isn’t too squeamish to recognize terrorism for what it is. It rejects Manichean reductionism—something it can ill afford—and can therefore hold more than one thought at a time. It understands that Israel is a powerful country and that it is existentially threatened by its enemies. It understands that it is a perpetrator of the occupation and a victim of terrorism. It knows that one can oppose the way in which Netanyahu’s government is conducting the war while also avowing that a war must be fought. It understands that vanquishing Hamas and defeating the fanatical ultra-nationalists in its midst—and in its government—are not only related but utterly interdependent. It rejects the concept of collective guilt, whether of Israelis or Palestinians. It has a pretty good understanding of what antisemitism is. Of necessity, it comprehends tragedy. Its tone is sober rather than histrionic. These are the people who have done more to defend Palestinian rights and promote Palestinian sovereignty than all the West’s self-aggrandizing decolonialists, boycotters, and anti-imperialists combined.

More opprobrium for the Western Left:

The Western Left, basking in the safe, prosperous cities of the liberal democracies, lives in a very different world from the one Michael Sfard inhabits. Its moral rot may have suddenly become clear, but an ethical collapse takes time to develop. October 7th reveals the long-simmering theoretical confusions, and the moral void, that dominates many of today’s “progressive” movements. A Left that is fixated on “decolonization” mistakes a death cult for a liberation movement and is unable to recognize a bloodbath, even one that was filmed, and publicized worldwide, by the killers themselves. A Left that, rightly, demands absolute condemnation of white-nationalist supremacy refuses to disassociate itself from Islamist supremacy. A Left that divides the world between racists and antiracists and is obsessed with “people who look like me” can’t understand that the clash of two national movements has nothing to do with color or race.

A Left that celebrates diversity vilifies one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse countries in the world. A Left that prizes itself on defending refugees castigates a nation founded almost entirely by refugees—among the most immiserated and persecuted in history—as “settler-colonial.” A Left that divides the world between noble “native” peoples and the aliens who pollute them reproduces the neo-fascist worldview of the far-Right, from Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen. A Left that lauds intersectionality hasn’t noticed that Hamas’s axis of support consists of Iran, famous most recently for killing hundreds of protestors demanding women’s freedom; the homicidal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad; and Hezbollah, another fundamentalist Islamic group that is dedicated to Israel’s destruction and that terrorizes, and sometimes assassinates, fellow Lebanese who oppose it. What kind of Left gets into bed with such forces? Nor has it noticed that, since October 7th, ISIS and al-Qaeda have urged Muslims to step up worldwide “operations against the Jews” in solidarity with Hamas.

. . . The Left in Israel, unlike the global Left, recognizes that Hamas must be eliminated, not appeased. “A country that doesn’t kill the people who tried to murder my daughters, and those who sent them, has lost its right to exist,” Tibon wrote. Civilians in Gaza must be protected whenever possible, but Hamas’s concealment of fighters and weapons within the civilian population and civilian sites guarantees that the war will be extremely ugly. Postwar, new political landscapes will emerge, though only a fool would predict what they’ll be. (One thing is clear: the political leaderships of both peoples have led them, and each other, to ruin.) October 7th, Tibon wrote, “hasn’t changed my belief, based on a cold, calculated reading of reality, that in the long run we must find ways to share this land. … But first we must survive.” It has become obvious that there are many on the Left who dispute that last sentence.

If you’re ashamed of how “progressives” have behaved in America, failing to adhere to the principles of classical liberalism, you should be even more ashamed now that they’re getting into bed with terrorism. Those who call for a ceasefire are simply blackguards who doesn’t know what a ceasefire means or, if they do, know it means Israel will be forever menaced by terrorists, but even worse than before.

Note that the whole “squad” is in this list.  I can only wonder what these people think a ceasefire means. And the proportion of Americans who want a ceasefire means little to me, for I don’t think they know what they’re calling for. The Biden administration does, and that’s why we don’t have one.

The ignorance is metastasizing:

And what about the death of Gazan civilians? Here’s her take, which is mournful but alert to the fact that those deaths would be much fewer if Hamas didn’t use people as human shields.  It’s hard to argue with the proposition that, indeed, Hamas wants and needs dead Palestinians to carry out its program, which is to get the world to allow them to kill Jews. Linfield’s take:

The Left in Israel, unlike the global Left, recognizes that Hamas must be eliminated, not appeased. “A country that doesn’t kill the people who tried to murder my daughters, and those who sent them, has lost its right to exist,” Tibon wrote. Civilians in Gaza must be protected whenever possible, but Hamas’s concealment of fighters and weapons within the civilian population and civilian sites guarantees that the war will be extremely ugly. Postwar, new political landscapes will emerge, though only a fool would predict what they’ll be. (One thing is clear: the political leaderships of both peoples have led them, and each other, to ruin.) October 7th, Tibon wrote, “hasn’t changed my belief, based on a cold, calculated reading of reality, that in the long run we must find ways to share this land. … But first we must survive.” It has become obvious that there are many on the Left who dispute that last sentence.

13 thoughts on “How American progressives have gone astray

  1. Thanks for this, Jerry. I within the past year read Linfield’s excellent book “The Lion’s Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky”. Eight chapters analyzing the works of eight thinkers, followed by her concluding synthesis of what she gleaned from close examination of their writings. I benefited greatly even from chapters devoted to those I thought I knew fairly well. Others, especially Maxime Rodinson and Albert Memmi, were almost unknown to me. I highly recommend her work to all.

  2. From the pictures of pro-Palestinian mobs that I have seen and almost everything I have read by pro-Palestinian writers is by younger people (I am 86). Most were born after 1990 and a majority on campuses after 2000. They do not remember WW II because they were not even conceived for an almost half a century. They do not remember the Korean War, the Viet Nam war or any other war in which the United States was involved. I was 8 years old at the end of WW II and remember Mother coming out to my friend and I who were playing “Germans and Japs” without a clue as to what that might be and despite Mother taking me in to New York City to News-reel theaters to see the scrubbed scenes of war and not the David Douglas Duncan pictures in Life of a dead soldier washed up on the beach at Normandy or the picture of Dresden completely obliterated, civilians and all. The atomic bombs made a significant impression, and I often dreamed that the view from my window (now on a farm in Maryland) was ringed by rising mushroom clouds (Washington D.C. being only 80 miles away). My drill instructors at Parris Island were all Korean war veterans although they never spoke of it, but when I had completed my 4 year hitch the guy behind the desk tried to get me to re-enlist by telling me that we were soon going to be at war again and rank (I was a corporal) was easier to achieve during war time. I just wanted out. I taught the Viet Nam vets and one of them, a combat medic, became a best friend and although he never talked about it convinced me that all combat medics should receive the Medal of Honor.
    The current protesters have no experience or even memory of war and, for some lack of reason, are haters of Jews. Part of it is that it’s fun and part of it because (for reasons unknown) the are antisemitic. Chicago handled it poorly as did many other institutions. PBS news devotes a great deal of its time to coverage because they can get access to “the front.” College students are young, naive and everyone want to be “macho” including females who participate. It’s stupid because they are stupid about war. Naive is not the word to use. College staff are always reluctant to be authority figures. Having been a professor for 35 years – I know very well.

  3. Hysterical opposition to the very existence of Israel has been “global Left” doctrine for decades, so the Left alliance with Islamist theocracy is no surprise. A curious migration of the global Left was already obvious when Nick Cohen published “What’s Left” in 2007. Examples date back to the 1990s. (1) Apologetics (from Chomsky, Counterpunch, etc.) for the Serb fascist militias in Bosnia. (2) Denunciation (from the same quarters) of NATO for forcing the Serbs to stop using Sarajevo for target practice. (3) The hectic 1999 Seattle demonstrations against the WTO for the offense of supervising rule-based international trade.

    It is appropriate that Donald Trump later joined the global Left in his rejection of both the WTO and NATO. So, now we have Trump on the global Left in some ways; the latter siding with the Party of God (Hizballah); and feminists and LGBTites allying with Hamas and thus implicitly with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the next development of global Leftism, we will no doubt see Medea Benjamin and George Galloway organize a convoy of motorbikes, paragliders, and tunneling equipment to Gaza, while Linda Sarsour will do a hijab fashion show in Iran, and, of course, chickens will stage a demonstration in support of KFC.

  4. “The colonized subject discovers reality and transforms it through his praxis, his deployment of violence and his agenda for liberation.”

    (Fanon, Frantz. /The Wretched of the Earth./ [1961.] Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2004. p. 21)

    Thus spoke one of the godfathers of the ideology of de-/postcolonialism. According to the narrative of the Woke Left (and their Islamist comrades), the Jews in Palestine are white colonizers and oppressors, and the establishment of the state of Israel is an original sin that can only be redeemed by the violent elimination of Israel.
    During a forum discussion I recently had someone likened the situation of the Palestinians in Gaza to the one of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. That’s the moral logic of the perversive left (formerly known as the progressive left): The Palestinians are the new Jews, and the Jews are the new Nazis. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 was a heroic act of resistance, and so is the Gaza Ghetto Uprising in 2023.

    1. “During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the American far left repeatedly denounced Israel as a criminal regime resembling Nazi Germany and enthusiastically endorsed the Arab guerilla movement’s terrorist campaign to eradicate the Jewish state. This was a period, bounded by two wars that threatened Israel with destruction, in which the far left devoted particular attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Leading far left publications joined the Arab guerillas in charging that Israel was aggressively racist and expansionist.
      To support these claims, the far left often invoked long-standing antisemitic stereotypes, both economic and theological. It attributed to Jews enormous financial power and an arrogance and sense of superiority that drove them to exploit and dominate other peoples. In a three-part series published in 1969 on what it called the “History of Middle East Liberation Struggle,” New Left Notes, the newspaper of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), declared that the Jews’ chosen people concept gives Israel “the right to expand and expand.” Like Nazi Germany, the Jewish state would “not contain itself within any set borders.” It explained that the “architects of Zionism were mainly bourgeois Jewish intellectuals” and that the movement’s early sponsors were “leaders in…world imperialism” like wealthy Jewish banker Edmond de Rothschild, who wanted to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine to promote “his own financial interests.””

      (Norwood, Stephen H. /Antisemitism and the American Far Left./ New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. p. 1)

      “The American far left remained fragmented and marginalized in the four decades following the New Left’s collapse in the early 1970s. It never commanded more than a small fraction of the New Left’s following. Nonetheless the far left continued to disseminate virulently anti-Zionist propaganda laced with antisemitism, serving as junior partner to Muslim student organizations and black nationalist groups that became the driving forces in an ever-expanding campaign to denigrate Israel and Jews. In the post-Vietnam era, the far left gave the Palestinian cause greater emphasis than any foreign policy issue. Mainstream liberals, particularly in academia, increasingly embraced much of the far left view of Israel. They often remained indifferent to manifestations of blatant antisemitism and even sometimes excused or shared responsibility for them.”

      (Norwood, Stephen H. /Antisemitism and the American Far Left./ New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. p. 208)

      “Many far leftists today make overtures to militant Islamists, whose outlook is intensely antisemitic, and excuse Muslim customs that Communists once denounced as reactionary.”

      (Norwood, Stephen H. /Antisemitism and the American Far Left./ New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. p. 225)

    2. By the way, these two books are also recommendable:

      * Hirsh, David. /Contemporary Left Antisemitism./ Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2018.

      “This book argues that a ‘politics of position’ is emerging on the left in preference to a politics of reason or persuasion. This tends to solidify an essentialist notion of who belongs in the community of the oppressed and the community of the progressive. The boundaries of these communities are coming more and more to be policed by coercive discursive practices and less by democratic debate and persuasion. Hostility to Israel becomes a key marker of identity in this process. If Jews are reluctant to embrace this hostility to Israel identity, then they risk exile from what I am calling ‘the community of the good’.” (Hirsh, p. 3)

      * Johnson, Alan, ed. /Mapping the New Left Antisemitism: The Fathom Essays./ Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2023.

  5. I’m a life member of a union that has roots in the great maritime unions of the past, before containerization cut numbers so much, we had to amalgamate.
    I was a proud member, now I’m thinking of resigning.

  6. Judith Butler is an icon of the Woke Left (as a godmother of gender/queer theory). Despite being Jewish herself, she made the following remarkable statement in 2006, to which many Leftists subscribe, and which is a paradigmatic example of the progressives’ having gone astray:

    “[U]nderstanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important.”

    However, note that she said on October 13, 2023: “I do condemn without qualification the violence committed by Hamas. This was a terrifying and revolting massacre.”


  7. Campus demonstrations in support of Hamas have so far lacked one familiar feature: a cry that the Israeli troops entered the Gaza strip in order to seize Palestinian children’s blood for baking in matzos. We can perhaps count on professor. Jasbir Puar, that noted Gender Studies specialist at Rutgers, to include this revelation in her next scholarly monograph.

  8. There are three different leftist anti-Israel positions on the Hamas attack:
    1) Celebrating the mass murder and terrorism as a glorious idea
    2) Opposing mass murder but blaming the victim, Israel, for ultimately causing it
    3) Blaming and hating Hamas for the attack, but opposing the revenge of Israel by killing (even unintentionally) thousands of innocent people in Gaza

    I think it is a serious mistake for the left when they fail to clearly distinguish these positions. I also think it is a serious mistake for critics of the anti-Israel left to merge all three positions as the same and denounce them as antisemitic. There are rational arguments for and against a ceasefire, but neither position should be assumed to be support for genocide, and no one will be persuaded by being called a bigot.

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