I wrote this piece shortly after the conclusion of the 2014 Gaza War.
ISRAEL-BASHING AND THE NEO-ANARCHIST IMAGINATION
by Charles Berezin
Let us establish that there is a difference between Israel-bashing and criticizing Israel. I am a critic of Israel. I think the Netanyahu government and its policies have been a disaster for Israel. The occupation is a moral outrage. The settlement program, besides being cruel and illegal is a violation of the original values of Zionism; all the settlements should be dismantled as a precursor to good faith negotiations. The outsize influence of AIPAC and its uncritical support for Israel as well as the uncritical support of similar groups has had a deleterious effect on American politics and poses a serious moral challenge for American Judaism. I am against these things because they are not good for Israel, and I want what’s good for Israel. I want Israel to do better.
If Israel’s behavior in Gaza is criminal, it should be adjudicated as such, although the UN, at this point, can hardly be considered impartial. Hamas’ undeniable criminality is a separate issue, but should be adjudicated as well. It is the foolishness of the rhetoric of moral superiority to claim that one side’s criminality justifies the other’s. To claim the responsibility of one side in the mutual stupidity of provocation and response fueled by political cowardice is to trivialize the scope of the human tragedy in Gaza and exploits that tragedy for a political agenda. The people of Gaza are the victims of political cowardice on both sides.
But the Israel bashers do not want what’s good for Israel. They do not want Israel to do better; they want the Jewish state not to exist. Is this anti-Semitism? Possibly. In some cases – yes. At least, the Israel bashers must explain why, among all the peoples of the world, only the Jews have no right to their own state. I am as ambivalent about the concept of the nation-state as anyone on the Left. As a child, I asked the elders at my synagogue why is it that the people who have suffered the most from extreme nationalism are now among the greatest supporters of nationalism. I was told not to ask such questions. I still think the question is appropriate, but if nation-states are, unfortunately, still the norm, why shouldn’t the Jews have the right to one?
August Bebel, the German Marxist, pointed out, rather trenchantly, that anti-Semitism is the Socialism of the fools. We can add, in the current context, that Israel-bashing is the Anarchism of the idiots. Let me explain. In a nutshell, the dispute between Socialists and Anarchists that broke up the First International in 1872 centered on the role of the state vs class as the focus of political activity. The Socialists argued that class was the issue and that the state was merely the servant of bourgeois class hegemony. They advocated organizing to seize state power in the name of the proletariat. The Anarchists argued that the power of the state was the issue and that there could be no class victory until the state was eliminated. Socialist practice favored organization and education, while Anarchist practice favored activism and spontaneity, opposing any manifestation of state power.
These divisions on the Left have persisted. We can clearly see the influence of Anarchism on the American New Left of the sixties whose only practice was confronting state power through spontaneous activism and was deliberately anti-ideological and anti-intellectual as a rejection of the Socialist “old left.” If your principal tactic is confronting state power, then state violence is the eventual outcome. After its moment of ironic success, when it finally achieved that outcome at Kent State and Jackson State, the New Left had nowhere else to go, so it fizzled off into the absurd and tragic political theatre of violent confrontation in the Weather Underground and the SLA.
For the most part, the current American Left is the zombie remnant of that neo-Anarchist movement. Anarchists tend to consider themselves more ethical than Socialists since, in their eyes, opposing power confers moral superiority. The current crop of neo-Anarchists have elevated this moral component into a fetish. As Noam Chomsky, the eminence grise of neo-Anarchism and Israel- basher extraordinaire, puts it: “Violence, deceit, and lawlessness are the natural functions of the state, any state.” He excoriates liberal critics for serving state evil by bamboozling people into believing that with a little effort, the state could be otherwise. This evil, he tells us, is “the systematic expression of the way our institutions function and will continue to function unless impeded by an aroused public”2 Chomsky neatly encapsulates for us the two major tenets of neo-Anarchism: the state is evil; political activity consists of opposing evil through spontaneous activism to impede state power. In the neo-Anarchist narrative, then, states are the primary holders of power and guarantee the legitimacy of power-wielding institutions. Evil, therefore, flows to the pole of state power; virtue flows to the pole of those opposing state power. So anyone opposing state power is deemed automatically virtuous. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is where this good vs evil morality play plays itself out in its most intense form since the Israelis have a powerful state and the Palestinians have none.
No information gets through which does not fit the neo-Anarchist narrative, and so all conflicts get reduced to a morality tale of victims vs victimizers. As a result, Israel-bashers tend to sentimentalize the Palestinian struggle in these terms and confer moral superiority on the Palestinians. Thus we have the complaint of the Israeli leftist who says that when he visits fellow leftists in the US, he is seen as “an occupier whose every attempt to dialogue is normalizing the occupation and diminishing the Palestinian struggle.”
One’s condition may be pitiable, even extremely so, as in the case of the Palestinians, but condition does not confer virtue. Virtue attaches to actions and behavior, not to condition. But in the neo-Anarchist imagination, moral superiority is conferred by condition alone, the status of victim, and by extension to the actions of those victims, and by extension again to the supporters of those victims. So in the end, the sentimentalizing of the Palestinian struggle, the determination to see them as pure victims and the Israelis as pure victimizers, is driven by self-righteousness, the desire to see oneself as virtuous. This overweening concern for the politics of personal purity marks neo-Anarchism as a petit-bourgeois, not a proletarian, movement.
Key to the neo-Anarchist narrative on Palestine is the idea that Israel evicted the Palestinians in 1948 and caused the Palestinian refugee crisis. The truth is, of course, a little more complicated, and Israeli historians have never been shy about pointing out that atrocities were perpetrated by both sides in the lamentable events of 1948. But the myth of the victims’ moral superiority feeds the Israel-bashers’ insistence on a one-state solution featuring the right of return. The basis of that myth is the neo-Anarchist belief in the moral superiority of the victims of state oppression, so they imagine that that dispossession was carried out solely by the Israeli state and can only be redressed by the nullification of the Israeli state.
But there are other problems with the right of return that the neo-Anarchist imagination cannot admit to. It is correct to say that during the events surrounding the independence of Israel, 850,000 people were subjected to state persecution, eviction, and confiscation of their property. We are not talking about the Palestinians, however, but the Jewish citizens of the Arab states that declared war on Israel. Fortunately, these refugees found a country willing to take them in and make them citizens; the Palestinians who fled were not so fortunate. Somehow, the moral turpitude of that event has disappeared in the neo-Anarchist imagination because those refugees can no longer be sentimentalized as victims. But the right of redress, if it is a right, pertains to them no less because of that.
Let us also remember that around the same time as Israel was created, another country was created by partition for the exclusive use of a religious community, Pakistan. Greater violence attended the creation of Pakistan than the creation of Israel. Millions of Hindus were evicted from Pakistan, and millions of Muslims fled India. But with this difference. India had no policy of evicting its Muslim citizens and confiscating their property while Pakistan had exactly that policy regarding its non-Muslim residents. Simple justice would require the Israel- bashers to support the right of the Hindu victims of Pakistani state oppression to return to their homes in Pakistan and reclaim their property as they support the right of Palestinians to do so in Israel. If the right of return is to be considered a principle, then they must at least admit that it applies equally to Pakistan as to Israel, equally to the Jewish dispossessed as to the Palestinian. Denying this equality raises the suspicion of a racist double standard.
Much of Israel-bashing, then, is determined by the neo-Anarchist narrative and supported by the rhetoric of moral superiority that accompanies that narrative, in which the victim of state power is conferred automatic virtue and innocence. It was interesting, recently, to hear Palestinian voices expressing solidarity with the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri. We are both, so they claim, victims of state violence. Somehow, Hamas’ rockets targeting Israeli civilians seem to have disappeared from the equation. But as we suggested earlier, the people of Gaza are the victims of political cowardice, not state oppression. Their plight is no less pitiable for that, but the solutions and lessons are different and importantly so. Neo-Anarchism will never find that difference.
While Israelis are hardly immune from feelings of moral superiority, the striking thing about the 2000 Camp David meeting was the Israeli willingness to forego that claim if it would lead to a settlement. The Israelis have since retreated from that position, but it is still a possibility. Arafat understood that he could not forego that claim, the moral superiority of victimhood being the basis of Palestinian national consciousness.
For their part, Arab intellectuals have been quick to seize the mantle of victimhood, moral superiority becoming a rhetorical disease among this group. They deny any moral equivalence with the West and recoil from introspection and self-criticism. Any pointing out of problems in the Muslim world is attacked as baseless and hypocritical because of similar problems in the West. The neo-Anarchist Left has abetted this childishness by cheerleading for Palestinian and Arab moral superiority. The cost to rational discourse has been great, as has been the cost to legitimate concerns about the condition of women in the Arab world. To their discredit, the Neo-Anarchist left has neglected this issue since seeing Arabs and Muslims as victimizers of women might diminish their inherent moral superiority as victims of imperialism. This addiction to moral superiority has been tremendously destructive, since moral superiority and the rage it engenders is the wellspring of jihadist terrorism. It is la trahison des clercs, Arab style.
In a recent Op-Ed piece in the LA Times, Ibrahim Sharqieh suggests that Palestinians feel more equal to the Israelis when at war than otherwise. If the Palestinians want to feel equality with Israel, let them accept equal culpability for the plight of Palestine, equal culpability with the Israelis for the moral and political cowardice that troubles the region. But equal culpability is not admissible in the neo-Anarchist narrative nor in the rhetoric of moral superiority. You cannot negotiate from a position of moral superiority. Until the Palestinians accept equal culpability, negotiations will always fail, and warfare will continue.
There is a corollary to Lord Acton’s famous dictum, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There is another force equally as corrupting as power, and that is powerlessness. The neo-Anarchist imagination cannot entertain the possibility that the Palestinian struggle has not withstood these forces and has been suffused with the corruption of the powerless.
 I would make a distinction between New Left groups like SDS and the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement was led by people who understood organization and strategy. The Freedom Riders were hardly a spontaneous demonstration against racism, despite the mythology surrounding Rosa Parks. It was a tactic to sharpen the contradictions of Jim Crow in an attempt to educate those who were watching. Before his death, Martin Luther King was looking to expand the movement to a consideration of economic justice which could have led to a Socialist revival had he continued.