You don’t have to spend much time observing the politics of Britain, or any other Western nation, to realise that a section of the left are completely, utterly and unequivocally obsessed with Israel. That is with a small Middle Eastern nation of around eight million people. To this group Israel, more than any other state, is the embodiment of something akin to pure wickedness. They see it not as a conventional country, but as some human version of Mordor.
This attitude used to confuse me. After all, on paper there is much to commend Israel to the left. By any standard the country is a bastion of equality, and by the standards of the region it’s a veritable oasis. Israel protects religious freedom, minority rights and sexual equality. It’s a country where a woman could become Prime Minister in 1969, and where same-sex couples can adopt and enjoy a range of spousal benefits. Much of the country’s population are descendent from refugees, and its dominant religious community was subjected to genocide in recent history. Truthfully Israel is the only country in the Middle East which I, as an atheist, would feel remotely comfortable living in.
It’s necessary at this point to deal with two, or at least one and a half, red herrings. Some claim that the left’s loathing of Israel is the product of poorly disguised anti-Semitism. I’m not convinced. Yes anti-Semites do exist on the hard-left, as they do on the hard-right, and that the Labour Party has done a truly appalling job of combatting them. But it’s not plausible to claim that the British left is institutionally anti-Semitic, and misusing that accusation devalues it for when we have to deal with the real thing.
Nor can the left’s obsession be interpreted as a rational response to the behaviour of the Israeli Government. It’s true that Israeli Governments have been tough, in the manner which you have to be if you’re encircled by opponents who desire your liquidation. Moreover at times Israeli Governments have persuaded policies which are not morally defensible, such as the current settlement expansion programme which makes compromise with the Palestinians all but impossible. And yet, considering the strength and range of the threats it has faced, Israel’s survival as a Western democratic style state is staggering.
The Israeli people have been locked in a continuous struggle, since before the state was founded in 1948, with enemies who desire their destruction. They have fought three wars, in 1948-9, 1956 and 1973 which threatened the survival of their nation. Moreover they have faced near continuous, and often extremely brutalist, attacks from a range of terrorist and insurgent groups. That is from groups which send young men to blow themselves up in public places, and who go out of their way to target civilians. It’s impossible to deny that some of Israel’s adversaries have a genocidal intent. Considering the threat it’s impressive that the Israeli people have protected their democratic system and civil liberties, and it’s hard to imagine any Western tribe behaving any differently if put in the same situation.
Moreover, considering the standards of the blood soaked region, the fixation with Israeli behaviour is highly disproportionate. Conflicts in the Middle East not involving Israel, such as the ongoing war in Syria or the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, attract a fraction of a fragment of the level of left-wing activism that Israel’s wars do. Tens of thousands of leftists will take to the streets, and demand boycotts, in response to just about any action by the Israeli state. But the same people, and groups like the Stop the War Coalition, show no sign of responding to other incidents, such as the Russian bombing of Aleppo last year or the widespread ethnic cleansing carried out by both sides during the Syrian civil war. Nor are they exclusively concerned with the Palestinians. Palestinian refugee camps have, in recent years, been attacked or invaded by the armies of Lebanon and Syria, as well as ISIS, with barely a whisper from the left. Palestinian lives matter it seems, but only when their killers are Israelis.
So if it’s not anti-Semitism, nor a justified response to the country’s moral conduct, why are the left so fixated on Israel. The answer, I think, it because of what Israel represents. Israel is a highly successful nation whose society is structured along liberal-democratic-capitalist, or Western, lines. It possesses the standard Western norms of the rule of law, a free market economy, full political freedoms, free elections and a sense of national identity. To see that model triumph so blatantly, in a region where it is not the norm, must be galling to those who hate Western civilisation.
Most of Israel’s opponents have subscribed to some form of authoritarian government, and their defeat by a country as small as Israel gives a powerful illustration of the strength of the Western model. As an aside Israel’s freedom also provides its enemies with ammunition. Leftist journalists can visit the country and Palestine with ease, in a way that is not possible in other conflict zones. If several hundred-thousand people are massacred in Darfur, but there are no Guardian journalists to witness it, did it really take place?
The left’s loathing for Israel then is neither an expression of supressed anti-Semitism, not a proportional response to that state’s behaviour. It’s an attack by those who loath the Western model of running a human society, and who can’t stand to see it produce such prosperity and strength in a region where neither of these are the norm. Israel is unfortunate in that it’s a Western country surrounded by states with rival governmental systems, invariably authoritarian. As such by comparison it reveals the bankruptcy of these systems, and the corresponding strength of Western values. For some on the hard-left, who loath the Western model, this is not an acceptable state of affairs.