The first source of the Left’s focus on Israel can be located in the political-intellectual discourse known as ‘post-Zionism’. This is, in essence, a rejection of the Zionist mythology that has traditionally dominated Israeli political culture and Western views of the Jewish state.
The late 1980s and 1990s saw a flood of work emanating from Israeli universities that systematically dismantled much of the dominant Zionist narrative. While post-Zionism has become prevalent in many areas, it is the disciplines of history and sociology that have seen the most radical and influential developments.
The post-Zionist, or ‘New’, historians have overturned years of partial, value-laden historiography, by drawing on archival material that Israel declassified during the 1980s. Benny Morris’ The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (1988) for instance showed how, contrary to the Zionist version of events, the ‘Palestinian refugee problem’ was not the exclusive result of voluntary emigration at the behest of Arab leaders, but instead owes much to Zionist violence. Illan Pappé has gone further, describing this as “ethnic cleansing”.
The Palestinian refugee problem is not the only period that has been subjected to critical scrutiny. Many of Israel’s national myths – from the claim that Britain tried to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state to the idea that it is Arab intransigence that has prevented peace – have been critically examined and, arguably, found wanting.
Israeli sociology too has gone through some radical changes in recent years. Traditionally, Israeli sociologists have produced work that was deeply enmeshed within the Zionist narrative. As Baruch Kimmerling has argued “sociology is both a reflection of a constructed “social-political reality” and a partner in the construction of this reality.” This has certainly been the case in Israel.
From the 1980s onwards the work of sociologists such as Kimmerling, Gershon Shafir, Yoav Peled and many others have taken a more critical turn. The most controversial of these developments is the approach that views Zionism as an example of late European colonialism rather than as a national liberation movement. This idea is fairly prevalent today – evidence of how ubiquitous the work of post-Zionist scholars has become – but before the 1980s it was a position that could only be found on the far Left and in Arab nationalist circles.
Debates over post-Zionism are fraught. Some, like the political scientist Shlomo Avineri, see post-Zionism as a more fashionable incarnation of anti-Zionism. As he wrote in Haaretz, “[f]undamentally, this is a radical criticism not just of Israel’s policy; at its base is total denial of the Zionist project and of the very legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish nation-state.”
Others, taking a more circumspect view, see post-Zionist discourse as an essentially reformist project. As Rebecca Luna Stein writes in the Journal of Palestine Studies, “The “post” in “postzionism” signalled a refusal to depart entirely from the ideologies on which the Jewish state was formed – but to work within the contours of the state to reform its institutions, notions of citizenship, and collective memories.”
There is a certain amount of truth in both of these judgements. Post-Zionism is a broad church whose congregation spans the political spectrum. One of the founding fathers of the New Historians is Benny Morris who, at least since the collapse of the Oslo Peace Process, has become increasingly right-wing, and is prone to making offensive and reductive statements about Palestinians and Islam.
Another prominent post-Zionist is Illan Pappé, a supporter of the One-State solution who dedicated one of his books to his sons, hoping they may live “not only in a modern Palestine, but in a peaceful one,” [emphasis added]. Both of these figures could be used to support Stein and Avineri’s judgements.
What does this have to do with the Left’s tendency to single out Israel?
The question of Palestinian self-determination has become very important to left-wing politics. In a sense it occupies a position comparable to that recently vacated by the anti-apartheid movement, and rightly so. The Palestinians have suffered 44 years of occupation and 63 years of dispossession and so it would be an abrogation of the Left’s responsibility to maintain solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, if it was to ignore this.
The problem arises though in the form that this solidarity assumes. Often the most radical parts of the post-Zionist discourse are adopted (and sometimes taken out of context) and used as a stick with which to beatIsrael, rather than as a tool that can be constructively adopted to help the Palestinians achieve national self-determination.
As Tom Nairn wrote in a review of some of Edward Said’s work, “nationalist counterblast always carries its own danger: an obsessive over-attunement to its object of denunciation. Reading these pages, one feels that the cat-o’-nine-tails will never cease its work, the skin never grow back over the tortured nerve-endings.”
The tendency to adopt the most radical elements of post-Zionism does not really explain the Left’s “obsessive over-attunement” to Israel. At this point Hirsh may be in agreement with what I have written and would simply point out that I have not yet explained why the Left tends to adopt the more radical parts of the post-Zionist critique – why it favours the work of Pappé over Morris.
In order to understand this I think we have to look at developments in left-wing thought during the last quarter of the twentieth century, in particular the adoption of a one-dimensional approach to the issue of colonialism (see Part III).