The hollowness of liberal Zionism

Barnaby Raine
7 min readJan 19, 2017

Contrary to the frenzied webs spun in both anti-Semitic and philo-Semitic fantasies, Israel is hardly special. An outpost in the desert, a small fort for Europe whose hardy soldiers moan that liberals back in the metropole know little of the violence at civilisation’s frontier — Israel is only the last living incarnation of an old mould. Hardly surprising, then, that its embassies should mimic some of the subterfuge once beloved of the South African Apartheid regime. From the early 1970s Pretoria’s embassy in London was a buzzing hub of the unscrupulous and the underhand. Agents infiltrated and intimidated British campaigns for democracy in South Africa, but they did something more too; they set up front groups purporting to be independent organisations while quietly taking some of their cash and some of their orders from the guardians of white supremacy. The goal was always to undermine democracy’s champions overseas.

Israel’s attempt at the same behaviour, revealed last week in an Al Jazeera investigation, is only a pale imitation. But there is a basic similarity. In both cases, after the onset of formal decolonisation colonialism’s morbid symptoms see a world public turning against them. Rocky fortresses of domination that they are, in their scramble to fight a propaganda war these governments have few qualms. In that sense there was nothing surprising about Al Jazeera’s revelations that the Israeli embassy works with Britons to undermine critics of Israel in British politics, nor even should we be particularly shocked by Israel’s more brazen history of mimicry from the playbook of Apartheid espionage — say, the forging of British passports to aid an extrajudicial assassination in 2010. Of course Israel behaves like this. To think that Al Jazeera’s service lies in revealing shocking secrets about Israeli diplomacy is to miss the point.

The awkward resignation of a single spy aside, the true embarrassment here falls less on Israel than on its would-be accomplices. Many of those recorded in the documentary working closely with the Israeli embassy come from the centre-left. Frequently they claim the mantle of sensible moderation in contradistinction to the supposed hot-headed radicalism of pro-Palestinian activists. Labour Friends of Israel adorns itself in the slogan “For Israel, For Palestine, For Peace” while opponents of BDS on campus proclaim an interest in building “bridges” not “walls”. This is hardly Netanyahu’s language; he is the man who hurries voters to the polls with nakedly racist warnings that Arabs are voting too while his ministers openly call for genocide against Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes”. He leads a government that bulldozes homes and turfs families onto the streets, homeless, all to make room for new houses for Jewish citizens. Yesterday a village resident was murdered and a dissident member of Israel’s parliament was shot in the head by police as they defended a Bedouin village from callous demolition. On paper these were citizens of Israel, but that did them little good. Millions more are patrolled, policed, bombed and kept from citizenship at all, mere animal objects of control and humiliation. Gazans are denied more than a few hours’ power a day because Israel bombed their power plant and imposes heavy fuel taxes on Palestinians. Without electricity, hospitals in Gaza are forced to cut back on operations. In the West Bank, Palestinian residents are permitted to consume only about a quarter of the water granted to illegal Israeli settlers, who maintain swimming pools and lush gardens while Palestinian agriculture wilts and dies. The paranoid logic of particularism knows few limits. Israel’s is the only government in the world that tries children in military courts, and last year over 400 Palestinian minors languished in Israeli jails.

These, then, are the friends and allies of “moderation” in the Labour Party and in the National Union of Students. Convinced opponents of the politics of the dog-whistle and discrimination when it comes from the likes of Nigel Farage, we know now that Labour MPs and NUS Vice-Presidents happily consort with Netanyahu’s emissaries abroad. No longer can they conjure a convenient distinction between defending Israel’s “right to exist” and supporting its hardline government; declared opponents of racism, they must answer for their eagerness to work with violent racists. What might that reveal about their politics? Facing strident international opposition, Israel clearly thinks its interests are well served by defenders who sometimes come packaged as critics, opposing moves to boycott Israel by praising “dialogue” while the state that backs them bombs universities. The image of such a third path — a respectable Zionism, “liberal” or even “socialist” — between BDS and the Israeli state should lie tattered today; doubtless it will live on in the imaginations of plenty, but it was always chimerical and as a material force in British politics it is often only a rhetorical flourish that obscures nastier binaries, deliberately or otherwise. If Israel’s liberal warriors are not always criminally disingenuous, that is only because they are sometimes criminally naive. If Al Jazeera has made a small contribution to confirming that the radical Zionist right and the Palestinian-led opposition to it are really the only shows on the road now, that will not be news to Netanyahu or any of his ministers, but it is an uncomfortable truth for those antagonists of Palestinian liberation abroad who would prefer to paint themselves in more palatable colours. Small wonder that Michael Rubin, an official at Labour Friends of Israel filmed by Al Jazeera, stressed the importance of keeping his cooperation with the Israeli embassy firmly under the radar.

Between radical and liberal Lefts, an uneven fissure emerges. Israel is astute to worry about campus politics overseas; after five decades of illegal military occupation, amid a “peace process” going nowhere and witness to burgeoning scholarship on Israel’s settler-colonial character, the two-state formula that still counts Jeremy Corbyn among its declared devotees is increasingly unpopular among student activists willing to counterpose ethno-religiously exclusionary Israeli statehood to the spectre of egalitarian democracy. This is the “delegitimising” Israel so fears, a new language of human rights that casts Zionism itself as today’s mechanism for privileging citizens over the occupied and some citizens over others. In opposing a supremacist European nationalism, this politics has united anti-colonial radicals. Thus the “moderates” who disdain them leap into Israel’s corner; this is how political wedge issues are crafted.

It is worth stressing the resulting gulf between principled advocacy of Palestinian rights on one side, and the chance alignment of the centre-left with Netanyahu’s diplomats on the other. That different motives are at play in these two cases is not often enough acknowledged. Al Jazeera filmed Richard Brooks, an NUS Vice-President, cheerily taking his contacts from an Israeli spy and then offering to work with one of those contacts, a purported pro-Israel lobbyist, to undermine the NUS President. Brooks need not know much about Israel, nor even care much about it — if “Palestine” is a watchword for his factional opponents, “Israel” will be his. Instrumentalising Jews as political cannon fodder is no red line either, treating us as convenient props when we toe a party line and discarding us whenever we don’t. There is a depressing quality to that cynical status quo in student politics, which was almost comically evident when another NUS Vice-President tipped in the documentary as a leading ally for Israel, Robbie Young, lashed out at his critics on Facebook by implying that he is attacked only because he is openly gay. It is not an unreasonable supposition that Young is simply unaware that the Israeli intelligence services make a policy of targeting gay Palestinians for blackmail and abuse. If progressive Zionism occasionally looks in this documentary like a pose, it is sometimes a crudely reactive one by activists who care less about the Middle East than about domestic political scuffles. In the wake of these revelations Shakira Martin, another NUS Vice-President, announced her decision to travel to Israel on a trip organised by the Union of Jewish Students whose members were filmed by Al Jazeera claiming they receive cash from the Israeli state. It might seem strange, in a week that has seen a senior civil servant resign and an Israeli spy recalled amid flustered apologies from his ambassador, that a student leader would rush to identify herself with people with so much egg on their faces. Needless to say, Martin does not make a habit of accepting free trips from fans of other regimes accused of war crimes — neither does anyone else in student politics. Support for Israel, though, has become a singular test of factional loyalties. Truly it stands at the gateway to Europe, and illiberal though it may be, enmeshed in its defence sits the defence of the liberal order from radicals of all stripes. As has so often been its fate, Israel becomes a cipher, a signifier for something else entirely. Mirroring that problem, outraged students now focus on the potential personal harm done to the President by Vice-Presidential attempts to undermine her. Sad though it may be, that is an infinitely less important story than the particular political fault-lines revealed by cooperation with the embassy of (what ought to be) a rogue state.

One final role for liberal Zionism stands out in Al Jazeera’s documentary. Israel soldiers on in a losing public relations war, but its real plan now is surely the old South African model in Britain. Shorn of much sympathy from the British public, the Apartheid regime sustained the support that mattered by shrugging off or even encouraging public criticism from influential allies (“constructive engagement” was Thatcher’s mantra on South Africa, not anything more bullishly supportive of Apartheid) as long as they committed to counter those movements seeking to build material pressure against the South African state. Under those conditions, changing minds among the general public will never be a sufficient condition for achieving Palestinian freedom. “Moderation” as the politician’s obfuscation of hard choices is best dented by bringing those choices into sharper relief — raising clear demands of our own policymakers, like BDS, might sort the wheat from the chaff. We cannot from abroad mend the central tragedy of Palestinian politics, which is the long decline of a national liberation movement at the twin hands of fragmentation and NGO-isation. But we can conceive an enemy: state racism, in Israel as everywhere else, though in Israel it is constitutive. Proper universalists, committed to the possibility of human flourishing without exceptions, should cluster under that banner. That liberal Zionists continue to reject it is telling.