Why is the Western left so obsessed with Israel?

It ain’t anti-Semitism. 

There’s no question – the evil perpetrated by Bashar Assad on the Syrians for the last year and a half makes the evils of the occupation during this time seem mild. So why does the Western left still seem so much more preoccupied with Israel, not to say obsessed, than it is with Syria? Or with Congo, or with Sudan, or with Afghanistan, or with any other place where man’s inhumanity to man is causing far greater agony and bloodshed than it is in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza?

The Israeli answer, of course, is anti-Semitism. The left naturally disagrees – but it has had a hard time defending its obsession – a fair word – with Israel’s injustices when, as even Israel-obsessed leftists will acknowledge, there is much, much worse shit going on elsewhere in Asia, and in Africa and Latin America.

The reason for the left’s difficulty in defending its Israel obsession lies in the embarrassment of leftists to admit who, in the overwhelming majority of cases,  they are – white, middle-class members of the First World’s educated elite. They number among the haves. As leftists (or progressives, liberals or social democrats), what they hate more than anything else is seeing the strong bully the weak – but the worst, by far, is when the bully comes from among their peers, the strong on a global scale – the Western-dominated, economically-advanced world. Then the left – the college students, professors, activists, writers, artists and other politically engaged people – have a personal stake in the injustice they’re seeing. When Syrians are bullying Syrians, or Sudanese are bullying South Sudanese, they don’t.

Israelis may not be as white as people think, but they are as Western as you get in the Middle East, and they are without doubt the haves against the Palestinians’ have-nots, while the occupation is without doubt a case of the strong bullying the weak. After nearly a half-century of this, how can any Western left-winger, how can any American liberal or European social democrat, not be incensed at what this country is doing?

Before Israel, there was South Africa as the most glaring example of the white, rich Westerner trampling the dark, poor Third Worlder. The left’s obsession with South Africa was no less intense or abiding than the one it carries for Israel; was this because of ethnic prejudice, of anti-Afrikanerism? No, it was because left-wing haves naturally recoil when they see fellow haves lording it over the have-nots.

The quality of the left’s enmity toward Israel in the last generation has always seemed to me basically identical to that of its enmity toward apartheid South Africa. Also to its fury at George W. Bush in Iraq, at Reagan in Nicaragua and El Salvador, at Nixon/Kissinger in Chile, and most of all at Nixon/Kissinger and LBJ in Vietnam. Before my time, the left’s fury was directed at European colonialism – at France in Algeria, Britain in India, Belgium in the Congo, and so on. Always, it’s directed at the spectacle of the haves stepping on the have-nots. For a leftist, that is the ugliest thing on earth, even when elsewhere, other have-nots are being beaten up much worse by “their own.” 

It’s important for leftists obsessed with Israel to keep some perspective, to judge this country not only against an absolute standard of justice but against other countries, currently and historically. It’s also important to be alive to other, greater evils going on in the world. But Western liberals – not to mention Israeli liberals – whose greatest moral outrage is reserved for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians have nothing to apologize for. It’s a natural reaction, an inevitable one. As with apartheid South Africa, Vietnam, European colonialism and other examples from the West’s history,  the occupation enflames leftists in a way that other, greater tyrannies in the world don’t, simply because this tyranny – the last of its kind still standing – is being perpetrated by their own side.