Friday, January 12, 2007

Protest is Fine, Balanced Protest is Better

It's easy to form the impression that anyone who defends Israel comes from a right-wing, even a far-right, political viewpoint. Because a majority (or what seems like a majority, but may well be only a vocal minority) of people on the Left, most of the liberal and left-leaning press, most liberal and leftish intellectuals, journalists, TV producers, and political activists have become anti-Israel in their sentiments and actions, it is too easy to assume that defence of Israel is automatically a right-wing matter, and a matter for shame at that. But it really isn't that simple. There are Labour MPs who belong to Labour Friends of Israel, there are pro-Israel, Left-oriented pressure groups like Engage, and there are plenty of vocal Israel advocates from the centre of politics, like myself.

There are, naturally, many people who defend Israel who do take conservative and neo-conservative positions on related issues. Some of them are very hawkish indeed, and they frighten me as much as they do you. But they are not representative. For one thing, there are many liberal-minded people on the right whose concern for social justice is equal to that of those on the left and centre. For another, there are probably more on the extreme right who consider Israel and Jews with contempt or outright hatred. It's also important to remember that, until not that long ago, Israeli politics and Israeli government were dominated by the Left. Israel's history is more socialist than that of the UK. Israelis protest about many of the same things other liberal-minded people protest about. Israeli liberals anguish about much the same things as liberals everywhere: poverty, war, injustice, freedom of speech, torture, abuse of human rights, the environment, racism, the impact of giant corporations, prisoners of conscience, and other, often related, issues.

This is not to suggest that people on the right, in Israel as elsewhere, do not anguish about these matters or take action to improve them. But the centre and left are more likely to be seen on the streets marching, carrying placards, or shouting slogans, writing letters to the press, creating pressure groups. And such activities, it must me said, are vital to the health of any democratic society. We all have to care about the oppressed, the disappeared, the imposition of capital punishment, the waging of war, the massacre of innocents. If liberals and the Left take up their cudgels on behalf of such causes more visibly than those on the Right, then we must all be grateful for that. If left-wing feminists have advanced the cause of women's rights in the teeth of opposition from conservatives and traditionalists, they deserve the thanks of women (and men) everywhere. If liberals have put apartheid or sex trafficking or the exploitation of workers and farmers in the Third World on the agenda, and have challenged the Dutch Reformed Church or women traffickers or big business to do so, they can be credited for many legal and political reforms that enhance the rights of us all. Their predecessors, who brought about the abolition of slavery, the end of child labour, the curtailment of capital punishment, or the introduction of legislation granting homosexuals the same rights as other citizens no longer seem the enemies of propriety, morality, and social cohesion they did all those years ago.

But over the past couple of decades, liberal and left-wing politics have undergone an unprecedented, even bizarre, change of direction, a sea change that has distorted and disfigured much of its original world-view. Much of the natural sentiment of liberal politiics remains: a bias towards the underdog, a determination for justice, a belief in humanity and the rights human beings deserve as a natural heritage. But this has often been obscured — and, as time passes, is ever more obscured — beneath other messages. Political correctness, from valid beginnings, has transmogrified into something so far removed from its original purposes as to be unrecognizable. This is nothing new in politics or religion, of course: human minds and institutions seem to have an instinctive drive towards extremes. Thus Marxism, starting as an ideology based in justice and the equitable distribution of wealth and resources, helped create some of the least just societies in history, some forms of Christianity, though rooted in the teachings of a man of peace who loved the poor and the dispossessed, became illiberal and violent expressions of militancy and aristocratic contempt for the poor, the French Revolution, situated in the Rights of Man, devoured its children and brought forth a megalomaniac emperor. We can all add examples from history and current affairs, from both the left and right of politics.

Political correctness and related political attitudes have turned several otherwise honourable endeavours into extremist onslaughts on moderate and balanced democratic discourse. For example, feminism achieved great things then turned sour in part with radical feminists made men culpable for all the ills of human kind, declared that 'all sex is rape', and became as intolerant of the male sex as men had ever been of women. Similarly, where Martin Luther King took black people on a great march to freedom and equality, black power ideologues became racists in reverse. Listening to the boxer Muhammad Ali pour out venom on the white race was to me as sickening as giving ear to a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan spew forth hate speech against blacks.

The current vogue for post-colonial studies, introduced in part by the Egyptian 'Palestinian' intellectual Edward Said, consists for the most part of criticism of the colonial enterprises of the great Western empires — the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese conquest of most of the world, or the later US neo-colonialism by proxy. Much of that criticism is entirely valid, if we bear in mind the multitude of wrongs done to native peoples and their cultures. But less is said about the benefits imperialism sometimes brought, nor do we hear much about non-Western imperialism, its vices, and its benefits. The many Islamic empires — the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Mughals, the Safavids, the Ottomans — seem to be blameless, the Arab conquests, with their devastating impact on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia are passed over in silence. The imperial history of Africa, the exploits of the great jihad states of Nigeria and elsewhere, the Chinese empire, the depradations of the Mongols and Timur Lang, the empires of the Byzantines and Sasanids, the military exploits of the Tartars, the Cossacks, the Turks, and the rest are seldom referred to.

In political terms, this approach translates into an all-consuming hatred for our own culture, for Western civilization in general, and for specific parts of the Western world, notably the United States, Israel, and the United Kingdom. That other civilizations have oppressed subject people, committed atrocities, established totalitarian ideologies, carried out vast and long-lived trading in slaves (notably the Arabs and Ottoman Turks) seems to escape liberal reproach. Meanwhile, the great achievements of the West are swept under the carpet: the abolition of slavery, the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Human Rights, the spread of advanced education, science, medicine, tolerance for different creeds, democracy, and the very creation of left-wing and liberal political thought.

What has turned an entire generation of young people, committed to great ideals, desiring the well-being of their fellow men and women, well educated, enquiring, the recipients of the greatest material comforts bestowed on any generartion in history, with hearts burning for good and peace, dedicated to make poverty history and discrimination a thing of the past into what seems at times a gang of thugs whose hatred for Israel — and sometimes Jews in general — a driving force in their lives? Is it not that same sense of imbalance, that absence of measure that has been imposed on them by the strident demands of political correctness, that numbing sense of righteousness and rightness that has come to pervade the liberal world, that political absolutism that resembles so greatly the unswerving will of the Third Reich, that black-and-white Manichaeism of the Stalinist empire, or that fixed division of the world between Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Islam that characterizes all Islamic political thought?

The demonization of Israel has reached proportions that none of us have seen since the days Hitler and his propagandists made Jews the scapegoats of all the ills of mankind. It is everywhere accompanied by a dogged refusal to see harm in the thoughts and deeds of the PLO, Hamas, Hizbullah, or any other of the terrorist armies whose knives seek Jewish throats, to acknowledge the feverish anti-Semitism of the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the Iranians, and others throughout the world, to contemplate, however briefly, the possibility that Israelis are like other human beings, and that they may have sound reason to defend themselves from a second genocidal attack on their race. Not seeing things like that, that's what hard to understand. How can a liberal not see it? How can members of the International Solidarity Movement pose with Kalshnikovs and still insist they work for peace? How can Muslim liberals read anti-Semitic texts and see anti-Semitic images every day in their press and on television, and turn aside from it, and say and do nothing to call their societies — the very societies they purposrt to condemn for their absolutism and intolerance in every other field — to account? How come the left-wing president of Nicargua, Daniel Ortega is even now embracing Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, the president of a deeply conservative theocratic state, and claiming they have much in common?

How is it possible for a man like Jimmy Carter to abandon his own principles so thoroughly as to seek in the Middle East, not a righting of wrongs, but a down-and-dirty fight with Israel and a whitewashing of Palestinian obstinacy and violence? He knows better than that, I'm convinced; but in a world where value is seen only in the underdog, however ignobly he may have barked or bitten, where strength against intolerance is seen as the iron fist of an apartheid state, and where terrorism becomes the moral equivalent of heroism and a struggle for freedom from 'colonial' oppression, perhaps he felt he had no other choice, if he was not to lose all credibility with the credulous centre of American politics.

Why does no-one march against al-Qa'ida? Against female genital mutilation? Against forced marriages? Against honour killings? Where are the protests about the Burmese dictatorship, the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the Turkish denial of the Armenian massacres, the continuing Arab slave trade, Mugabe's robber regime in Zimbabwe, Pakistan's nuclear bomb, North Korea's state-created famines, and all the other glaring injustices that drag on just above or, more often, just below the headlines? Could it be that none of these involve Western states? Could it be that liberals have come to believe that any sort of injustice or violence may be excused so long as it is the work of non-Westerners, whom we must never condemn? Is that not a form of reverse racism?

When I see ISM members stand in Palestinian streets to place their bodies as shields between Palestinian suicide bombers and Israeli children; when there are banners outside Parliament calling on Hizbullah to disarm in accordance with UN resolutions; when I hear the sound of tramping feet and shouting voices calling for an end to terrorism; when I open my morning Guardian and read a letter signed by hundreds, calling for a boycott of Iran — then, and only then, will I start to believe that the liberal left and the liberal centre have regained their sense of proportion. Until then, I despair, not that there may be peace and justice and kindness in the world, but that political correctness will have blinded so many to where they may find them.