How not to resist — the Israeli left as a warning, not a model

Matthew Duss and Dahlia Scheindlin have published an analysis in Democracy Journal and 972 magazine arguing that the Israeli left’s experiences in the past decade (under mostly right-wing governments) can offer lessons for the US left. The takeaway sentence in their analysis is that “we need more commitment to the values of openness, more progressive engagement, more assertive leveraging of the tools necessary for those of us who have been kicked out of the ring and into the back rows of opposition.” Those conclusions sound nice, but there’s nothing in the article or in the scant examples they cite that suggests that these lessons are to be drawn from the model of the Israeli left itself. And critically evaluating how the left has navigated the past decade should offer us in the US more lessons in what not to do than what to emulate.

Lets take their arguments as they provide them. First, after the second major war on Gaza in the past decade (the Israeli left’s inability to stop these from happening should be considered a major failure), the authors write that there grew an opportunity: “People began finding each other, grouping and coalescing, developing bigger, more ambitious ideas that had never seemed worth pursuing before.” The authors don’t give any specifics, and conspicuously fail to discuss the Palestinian BDS call — which is the single most popular idea to have emerged on the question of Palestine during the time period the authors are covering. Then, they offer the Israeli social protest movement of 2011 (in which hundreds of thousands protested in the streets for economic reforms) as a hopeful example. Yes, half a million came into the streets, but the Israeli left was widely criticized for creating this unity by consciously excluding Palestinians and their demands. Scheindlin herself endorsed that critique in 2011, in an article describing the protests as neither justice nor revolution. Endorsing the protests 5 years later as something the US left should aspire to would entail repeating the same non-inclusive model of left organizing.

Later in the article, the authors write that “Now Israeli and American progressives need to catch up, and develop stronger networks and relationships toward a more positive, inclusive vision of both our societies.” The organizations in the US they cite as examples are The Center for American Progress and Media Matters. In truth, these are two of the best examples of the failure of the US left to uphold universal principles. The Center for American Progress knowingly abandoned its progressive values when organizing an event with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and you won’t find any recent examples of Media Matters pushing for coverage of Israel-Palestine that is inclusive of Palestinians or presents them fairly. You really can’t argue that CAP or Media Matters have supported inclusivity on Palestine with a straight face — so how would relying on their example improve things?

Duss and Scheindlin repeatedly center Israeli leftists as the main protagonists in this story, despite the fact that Palestinians bear the brunt of social oppression in the country. “This was, and is, life in opposition. The main levers of political power are not ours. We are in the resistance.” This is remarkably tone-deaf. “We’ve had time to absorb the blow and think about what to do next.” It is as if the Israeli left is the primary victim of its failures when in reality Palestinians are the primary group that suffers from the failure of the left to successfully advocate policies that would end oppression. From this position they write, “for the sake of this vision, we must commit to reaching out within our own societies to those who have supported the political forces of anger.” In an article that fails to cite or note Palestinian demands, fails to report on how the left integrated Palestinian organizations or activists, and fails to examine the ideas presented by Palestinian society, the authors nevertheless felt it was important to reach out to the Israeli right.

What if these actions were adopted by US leftists? It would mean 1) replicating a protest model that prioritized unity amongst the non-Palestinian Israeli left over inclusion of Palestinians, 2) partnering with organizations that compromise their supposedly universal values when its politically expedient to do so, and 3) ignoring the people most affected by the right-wing’s political policies while reaching out to the right wing itself.

This is a recipe for disaster, not duplication.

We need to do precisely the opposite of what the Israeli left did in the past decade. Protest movements need to insist on including the people under the most threat from Republican governance instead of shutting them out for the sake of expediency. We need liberal institutions that are responsive to the grassroots and won’t compromise on their supposed values. And we need to build strong coalitions between people with shared interests in this country before we can successfully confront and defeat the forces of anger, not the other way around.

Although the authors take the time to acknowledge the successes of the right’s political coalitions, they leave out any analysis of the left’s political parties. Setting aside the fortunes of the parties in the Joint List and Meretz, Labor/Zionist Union during the period of this review is a study in moral and political failure. Its leadership failed to offer a vision that could be endorsed by a plurality of voters in the country, and instead focused on mimicking the right so as to appear tough on the Palestinians. Its leader, Isaac Herzog, embarrassed himself with his unconvincing strong man rhetoric and repeated attempts to join the right’s governing coalition. By trying to run to the center Herzog eliminated any motivating distinctions between himself and Likud, and has continued that behavior since losing the 2015 election. Duss himself aptly pointed out how bankrupt Zionist Union’s agenda has been — saying that Herzog’s plan “is an alternative to Netanyahu’s only in the sense that smoking one pack of cigarettes a day is an alternative to smoking two.”

We need to work hard to make sure that the Democratic Party doesn’t go down that route with Trump — it is morally reprehensible, and it will only succeed in eroding the basis of support the party might have amongst the majority of the country that opposes Trump and the Republican Party and will support a dignified and principled alternative.

It is sobering but but necessary to admit that the Israeli left that Duss and Scheindlin refer to (it is never explicitly clear what they consider part of it and what they don’t) has largely failed in the past decade. That failure meant non-stop violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories, calcified occupation, declining democratic freedoms, and very likely the end of the two state solution.

In the month since November 8th, recasting the Israeli left’s mis-steps over the past decade as a model for the US left is as dangerous an exercise in wishful thinking as I’ve seen.