Global Independent Analytics
Danny Orbach
Danny Orbach

Location: USA

Specialization: Modern Japanese History, Modern Chinese History, Military History, History of Counterinsurgency, History of Disobedience, Dynamics of Atrocities in Wartime

“Don’t harm!” - On the Weakness of the Left

In the last two weeks, the inner-Israeli struggle between left and right took an ugly turn.

Did I ever say to you, when you were fulfilling your character as a royalist,

and cut off the head of one of my party, `My son, you have committed a murder?'

No, I said, `Very well, sir, you have gained the victory;

to-morrow, perchance, it will be our turn.'"

Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

A right-wing organization, called Ad Kan (rough translation: enough is enough), came into the open with hidden recordings from the daily workings of leftist organizations. This NGO, financed by mysterious elements, planted spies in organizations such as Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence), an alliance of former soldiers who testify about military misdeeds, and Ta’ayush (co-existence), an organization that fights for the rights of Palestinian farmers in South Hebron Hills.

This time, the muckraking was highly successful. Ad Kan’s spies recorded two senior Ta’ayush activists, Ezra Nawi and Guy Butavia, conspiring to give away to Palestinian intelligence the names of Arabs who sold land to Jews. Nawi even boasted in front of the camera that those whom he turned in were tortured by the Palestinian security services. He added in crude slang that “first they’re beaten to a pulp, then finished.”  The incriminating recordings were aired on a prestigious investigative Israeli TV show.

These recordings require some context. Land deals between Israelis and Palestinians are one of the most sensitive features of the West Bank’s reality. In Palestinian society, it is considered taboo to sell land to Jews, and not only for reasons of national enmity. These deals, many of which are shady and based on dubious business methods (and at times even forgery), are widely seen as a means to dispossess Palestinians and expel them from their native land. In the Palestinian authority there is still a death penalty for such dealers. President Mahmoud Abbas had not approved death sentences since 2005, but dealers are often imprisoned without parole, tortured and sometimes even unofficially murdered.

Based on these recordings, the police arrested some radical left activists on several charges, including conspiracy to commit murder. The right-wing spies were so far unable to find other evidence for criminal activity, but they did release some embarrassing recordings of internal conversations of activists, who expressed their despair regarding Israeli society and admitted that Israel should be pressured by foreign countries to end its occupation. Right-wing politicians, pundits, journalists and commentators of all kinds, used the opportunity to gleefully bash the human rights organizations in Israel, presenting them as a gang of opportunist criminals working with foreign elements to the detriment of the state.

Representative of the Israeli left and the human rights community, as well as liberal academics associated with progressive causes, reacted vigorously, accusing the right of using lies, guile and “Stasi” methods of spying. Often, this response was misguided, and caused more harm than good. Especially disastrous was the tendency to attack the journalists who aired the incriminating recordings in their show, charging that they served as dupes in a right-wing conspiracy to incriminate and destroy the human rights community and the left. Obviously, this was a boomerang. In the eyes of many in the public, too many leftist spokesmen and spokeswomen seemed too keen to defend “their own kind”, cover up delinquencies and bash the people who investigated them. Justly or unjustly, they were too often perceived as representative of an establishment keen to keep its dark secrets from the public eye. In terms of public opinion, that was self-defeating.

Closing of the Ranks

This, however, is merely a symptom to deeper problems. First of all, it is a mistake to instinctively close ranks when attacked. It is much wiser to reflect on the left’s failings, even if exposed by political rivals. An Israeli human right activist, for example, has no business giving away people to torture and death in the basements of a foreign intelligence service, regardless of circumstances. People who chose such a disastrous course should not be part of the Israeli human rights community, notwithstanding their previous achievements and merits (and Nawi did do great things by helping the poorest of the poor in South Hebron Hills on a daily basis). In the same vein, the tendency of Israeli left-wing activists to prioritize European elites rather than their own people, and speak to foreign financiers more than to Israelis, is a terrible strategic mistake. During an ongoing national conflict, the vast majority of the Israeli population will never be fond of citizens who speak above its head with foreign elites in order to put more pressure on their state. This strategy, that some of right-wing spies exposed in their recordings, is equivalent to a complete abandonment of any chance to gain political influence inside Israel.

Objection to the Use of Force

In addition to the reluctance to tend its own problems and shortcomings, the reaction of the Israeli left to this affair exposed another kind of a fundamental weakness, which is not limited to the Israeli left alone but can be seen in the left in various western countries. The overt aggressiveness of the response was mostly reactive, and very rarely active. It seemed as a panicked attempt at self-defense, while the right was dictating the pace and direction of events. Even when elements of the Israeli left took initiative and criticized the right on its own duplicity, hypocrisy and misdeeds, it all too often took the form of lengthy, learned and semi-academic reports. There are almost no attempts to retaliate in kind against the right, regaining the political momentum through offensive action. When I wrote this in the Israeli blogosphere, three typical responses I received from activists exposed the root of the problem:

“If the left uses the same dirty tricks as the right, it wouldn’t be worthy of the name ‘left’ anymore. It would lose its identity.”

“Principled opposition to the use of force is the biggest leftist contribution to public discourse.”

“We don’t have time to respond. We are busy with human rights work. Shame that the Israeli public doesn’t understand the discourse of human rights.”

People who believe that “principled opposition to the use of force” is the core of their political contribution to public discourse, expose their deep aversion to militancy, violence and war. This aversion is all too common in the contemporary left.

This aversion to conflict is a problem of the western left at large. After years spent in American academia, mostly in leftist and progressive milieus, I was astounded to see how much aversion exists among leftist students to the field of military history. “Isn’t it a field for war-mongers?” I was asked more than once by colleagues. War and politics associated with war, are considered so dirty, that anything you write about these subjects, apart from scathing criticism, is outright sinful. “I am not a military analyst”, I heard one activist scholar once saying, “I’m not interested in this business of death and war”.

But here comes the problem. Anyone who wants to prevent war, a major leftist cause, has to deeply understand it first. In order to suggest alternatives to armed conflict, when such alternatives exist, one has to be able to say something more detailed and intelligent about war, other than that it is terrible. The advocates of war in Vietnam, for example, had sophisticated geopolitical arguments. Many of their opponents, by contrast, answered in childish T-shirt slogans such as “one, two, three, four – we don’t war another war”. By alienating the average American with such pacifist childishness, the so-called “peace movement” may have extended the Vietnam conflict instead of shortening it. Unsurprisingly, the people who finally put an end to the Vietnam War were not “peaceniks”, but rather diehard realists such as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. They ended the war not because they were horrified about shedding blood, but due to their understanding that victory was strategically unattainable.

In more recent times, the American left has rightly opposed the invasion of Iraq, but again – for the wrong reasons. The arguments about the invasion being “illegal” were too idealistic, and thus unconvincing for most of the public. An alternative line of argumentation on the administration’s myopic views and unpreparedness, might have been much more persuasive. The left was further discredited in 2008, when it showered General Petraeus with disdain during the Iraq surge, notwithstanding his incredible achievements in the fight against Al-Qaeda.

The left’s unwillingness to fight

This is a good segway to our next point. The left, which puts the value of human life above all else, could and should try to prevent wars as much as possible. Sometimes, however, wars cannot be avoided. Few people would say today, for example, that the US should not have interfered in WWII, letting Hitler taking control over Europe and slaughtering Jews to his heart’s content. In the same vein, it is absurd to suggest that the West should not do anything against ISIS and Al-Qaeda. To control these wars, check their excesses and prevent them from spilling over, the US needs influential people with leftist values. But in order to credibly argue against excessive use of military force, they have to show that when push comes to shove, they can fight as better as anyone else.

In a war-prone region such as Israel, the weakness of the left is directly related to its entrenched aversion to war, and its unwillingness to use force when necessary. As proven by the electoral history of the last two decades, the Israeli public is not ready to trust a political block whose “main contribution to public discourse” is principled aversion to the use of force. The Israeli left, as long as it still supports the two-state solution, has to convince the public to give up substantial territory to the Palestinians and to evacuate many Jewish settlers – a dangerous process beyond doubt. The people who propose such concessions are justly expected to use force, intensive force, if the other side uses its newly won territory to launch attacks against Israel. It is not by mere chance, that the only two left-to-center leaders who actually won elections were Itzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, both former generals. In order to prevent redundant wars, the left needs political power. And it will never get any as long as it is dominated by peaceniks who shudder from the mere thought of bullets flying. It is simply unrealistic.

Which brings me to the next point. The weakness of the Israeli left is evident not only in its aversion to the use of military force, but also in its squeamishness inside the Israeli political arena. Take the Nawi affair. Too many leftist observers were shocked that their political rivals planted spies in their midst. Anyone who read leftist op-eds, editorial and blogs for the last two weeks, saw endless whining on the other side’s ungentlemanly methods. It is true, no doubt, that the right-wing spies caused considerable annoyance to their co-workers. It’s not nice to discover that people you deemed your friends were actually spies who kept secret records of your locker talks. However, left and right in Israel are locked in a political struggle. And in a political struggle, you are not there to be nice and gentlemanly to the other side. You’re there to win. The spies of served their political camp with loyalty and perseverance. If it wants to ever gain political power, the left has to start doing the same. It could and should “fight dirty” within the confines of the law.

EXPERT OPINION

Joshua Tartakovsky

Danny Orbach writes about the weakness of its left, its unrealistic or even delusional pacifism, and its tendency to be conflict averse. I wholly agree though perhaps not for the reasons he mentions. It appears quite evident to anyone who studies history, that liberals with their pacifism usually allow fascists to take over, while it is the hard-core communists who fight Nazis and fascists by the use of arms. Similarly, throughout the developing countries, colonized people took up arms to fight and regain their freedom.  Of course, the Cuban revolution did not happen by holding signs and singing John Lennon. However, it appears that nowadays many on the western left have not only lost their masculinity, when it comes to men, but also fear any kind of confrontation and have nothing to offer besides naïve, and childish pacifism which also happens to mean in most cases, absolute surrender.

If the left ever finds itself in what some like to call a ‘revolutionary moment,’ they are likely to ignore it rather than pick up arms. And even if they had arms, they would probably engage in endless discussions, hesitate, think back and fourth, and find the guns too heavy to take a shot.

Real change requires real sacrifice. Confronting evil requires taking a stand, as men (although it is of course politically incorrect to say so). But the western left is incapable of any of that. All it has to offer is subdued masculinity, surrender and utopian visions which are so detached from reality that not only do they not become popular outside of academia but they also can never bring about in real lasting change in the cruel neoliberal world in which we live, as we move to an ever-growing crisis.

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