The antithesis of anti-imperialism

Anyone who cares about Palestinian self-determination should steer clear of the Israel-bashing lobby; there’s nothing progressive in it.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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The great anti-imperialists of the past tended to hold true to two views: they respected and were inspired by the gains of modernity, by the insights of Western civilisation; and they were angry that such gains had been denied to the West’s colonial subjects, to those whose nation’s political, social and economic development had been stunted through subjugation to an external power.

The late CLR James, the Trinidadian-born Marxist and author of The Black Jacobins (still sublime on the seventieth anniversary of its publication), put it best. ‘I denounce European colonialism. But I respect the learning and the profound discoveries of Western civilisation’, he wrote. Much to the chagrin of the contemporary po-mo academics who study him, James sang the praises of ‘the work of the great men of Ancient Greece; of Michelet, the French historian; of Hegel, Marx and Lenin; of Du Bois; of Europeans and Englishmen like Richard Pares and EP Thompson’; it was through the work of these Western men that ‘my ears and eyes have been opened’, he said. His anti-imperialism, unflappable to the very end, was based on a rejection of Western colonialism, not Western civilisation; his argument was that colonialism itself was a crime against civilisation since it denigrated the promise of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ contained within modern Western thought (1).

Today, with the vocal, influential and noisy anti-Israel lobby, we have almost the precise opposite: a collection of groups and individuals that is itchily uncomfortable with modernity and which has a blind faith in the power and right of Western institutions to resolve other states’ affairs. If James and other anti-imperialists of the twentieth century were passionately committed to progress and passionately opposed to the colonial domination of weak nations, then today’s anti-Israel lobby is deeply uncertain about progress and deeply supportive of the right of powerful governments to monitor, divide and if necessary invade a ‘rogue state’ (Israel) in order to protect a ‘victim state’ (Palestine).

It is time to recognise that there is nothing progressive in the sentiments and outlook of contemporary Israel-bashing. It is the antithesis of anti-imperialism.

As Israel’s assault on Gaza enters its twelfth day, with 560 Palestinians reported dead, many people – including we at spiked – are keen to offer solidarity to the Palestinians under attack. But it’s important to make a distinction between the anger felt by individuals over Israel’s actions and the rise and rise over the past five to 10 years of an increasingly influential, almost semi-official anti-Israel lobby.

This lobby, a peculiar alliance of European officials, well-to-do journalists, sections of the old left, anti-globalists, Islamic fundamentalists and neo-Nazis, is drawn to the issue of the Middle East, not because it is committed to meaningful self-determination for Palestinians, but because Israel has become a convenient symbol of many of the things it instinctively hates: national sovereignty; unilateral action; forcefully defending one’s interests; refusing to bow to ‘international morality’; even a sense of commitment to modernity itself. Some very dubious arguments, emanating from a motley crew of organisations, are being promoted under the guise of solidarity with Palestinians.

In liberal circles, Israel is ultimately seen as a symbol of America, a smaller, more compact, more robust expression of what the anti-Israel lobby sees as the sins of contemporary capitalism and progress. If America is viewed by many anti-globalists and Islamic fundamentalists as the main rotten representative of destructive modernity (in Osama bin Laden’s environmentalist words, America is putting ‘all of mankind in danger because of the global warming resulting from the factories of its major corporations’), then Israel is seen as an even cruder, more unapologetic, militarised expression of destructive modernity (2). In contemporary debate, ‘America’ has become a codeword for greedy, obese, polluting progress – now ‘Israel’ is increasingly a codeword for progress at its most obscene, for the backward idea that, as one critic of Israel put it, the ‘genocide’ in Gaza represents ‘the crême-de-la-crême of Judaeo-Christian civilisation’ (3).

That bashing Israel has become a proxy for something else, for a broader discomfort with modern society, is clear from the fact that two of the most vocal groups in the strange anti-Israel alliance – new-left anti-globalists and old-world Islamic fundamentalists – have only recently discovered a passion for defending innocent Palestinians from evil Israel. Today, many of the youthful, green-leaning anti-capitalists who came to prominence in the anti-globalisation movement of the mid- to late 1990s devote much of their energies to slating Israel. Some have even moved to Palestinian territories to become human shields protecting communities from being bulldozed. American and British activists who have died ‘in the line of duty’ in Palestine have been lionised in books, plays and TV documentaries.

However, it is striking that many of these anti-globalist activists only seem to have become interested in Israel-Palestine – a conflict that has been fought in its modern guerrilla form from the early 1970s onwards – in 2003 and 2004. Prior to that, they had spent their time focusing on apparently more pressing, historically burning issues: the evil of Starbucks coffee, the wickedness of McDonald’s hamburgers, etc. They were attracted to Israel-bashing not from any profound knowledge of the history of the conflict, or from a commitment to Palestinian self-determination, but because in the early 2000s – particularly after 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War in 2003 – Israel was being increasingly criticised by its former allies in the West, and was being fingered even by European officials as a ‘rogue state’ that was the cause of most of the world’s violence (4). For the anti-modern, anti-Western anti-globalists, here was a readymade symbol of Western decadence, abandoned even by its former supporters in Brussels, Paris and elsewhere, which was now a legitimate target for those keen to express a broader sense of disgust with Western excess, with Western arrogance, and with the gone-off ‘crême-de-la-crême’ of dangerous Western civilisation.

The new-left anti-globalists simply projected on to Israel-Palestine the simplistic politics of anti-progress that they had developed in the mid- to late 1990s. This was not about getting to grips with the complexities of an historic conflict; rather, in one author’s words, it was about ‘young Westerners disillusioned with their pampered modern lives’ letting out a scream of angst in a part of the world where the clash between the forces of militarised modernity and ordinary people seemed most explicit: the Palestinian territories (5). They were delivering a ‘powerful slap at the state of Israel’ in their effort to help ‘shape a better world’ (6). In effect, they were lashing out against the world’s most powerful and ultimate Starbucks – that is, the world’s crudest representative of contemporary Westernism: Israel – in supposed solidarity with a people they considered to be ‘authentic, gritty and real’: the Palestinians (7). It is striking that following the launch of war in Gaza last week, the anti-globalists combined their two pet hates of Starbucks and Israel (talk about disproportionality…) by calling for a boycott of Starbucks because it plans to ‘donate all its money to Israel’ (8).

Likewise, radical Islamist groups like al-Qaeda have only recently embraced the ‘Palestinian cause’. If you read Osama bin Laden’s statements of the past 15 years, you will notice that he says little about Palestine in the 1990s; his main concern is with the blasphemy of the Saudi rulers or with the failure of the West (ironically) to assist Bosnian Muslims. It is only at the turn of the millennium, in 2002 and 2003, that bin Laden suddenly realises that his raison d’être is standing up to ‘the destruction and murder of our people’ in Palestine (9). He, too, is subconsciously responding to the official and academic demonisation of Israel that followed 9/11 in particular, and adopting a cause readily recognisable in the West – Israel: bad, Palestine: good – in order to renew and re-justify his archaic, anti-modernity politics and violence.

Amongst young radical Islamists in Britain – some of whom explicitly model themselves on al-Qaeda and praise bin Laden – the adoption of a quite sudden and furious stance on Israel (‘the great evil’) and Palestine (‘our people’) is bound up with their sense of distance from, and disgust with, contemporary Western values. Effectively, they express their alienation from Western society by taking a noisy, spectacular, fancy-dress stand, usually in front of TV cameras, against that crudest flag-waver for the values of ‘Western society’: Israel. The banner carried by a group of shouting Islamists at a demo in the UK last week – ‘ISRAEL IS THE CANCER, JIHAD IS THE ANSWER’ – summed up both today’s childish attitude to a complex conflict and the contemporary view of Israel as a kind of disease poisoning the globe, as the ‘top threat to world peace’ (10).

These sentiments are shared in European polite society, too, in high-level dinner-party complaints that Israel is a ‘shitty little country’, and in a newsreader’s moaning this week about the ‘unsophisticated’ rhetoric of Israel’s foreign minister: ‘This just isn’t European language, is it?’, he said to his fellow sophisticated EU officials (11). Amongst Western officials and thinkers, a powerful sense of disillusionment with ‘the Western project’ – and a defensiveness about their own militaristic and colonialist pasts – leads to a view of Israel as a mortifying embarrassment that should ideally just go away. In turn, this fuels the left/radical/Islamist fingering of Israel as a representative of the genocidal nature of the West, if not of civilisation itself.

Yet, while the anti-Israel lobby is effectively a collective expression of exhaustion with the ideals of the West, it is also gob-smackingly naïve about the power and integrity of Western institutions. It may have disdain for old-style Western values, but it believes passionately that the West remains the saviour of the world and must intervene to put Israel in its place and save the Palestinian people. It seems to view the West in the same way that Homer Simpson views beer – ‘as the cause of and the solution to all of life’s problems’.

A central aim of the anti-Israel lobby is to re-assert the authority of Western institutions – in particular the American, British and French-dominated United Nations – over the Middle East. The protests that took place in London and elsewhere last week came across like the militant wing of the UN. Petitions and placards demanded ‘robust international action’ to stop Israel’s violence, and called on ‘Barack Obama and the UN’ to intervene to enforce a peace settlement (12). A leading political figure in the UK has even floated the idea of a Western force invading Israel, since Israel should be ‘punished for ignoring UN resolutions’ and it would be ‘poetic justice to invade the invaders’ (13). Others demand that UN troops enter the Middle East and observe the ‘two-state solution’ that was agreed in the 2003 Roadmap to Peace. In the past we might have called this a foreign occupation to enforce partition – and we know where Western forces ‘drawing lines in the sand’ in the Middle East has taken us in the past.

The utter reliance of the anti-Israel lobby on the power of the West to ‘punish’ Israel and ‘save’ Palestine is clear in its use of Western language: it refers to Israel as the real ‘rogue state’ (a phrase created by Reaganites) and complains that it is thumbing its nose at UN resolutions, international law and the will of the international community. What anti-Israel activists seem to find most offensive about Israel is its disobedience of people like themselves: international lawyers, human rights activists, campaigning journalists; its defiance of greater authority; its temerity to act in its own interests as it sees fit. There is a deeply precautionary and conservative streak here, where anyone who ignores the UN (heaven forbid!) and takes what appears to be decisive action is described as the creator of a ‘Holocaust’, an ‘apocalypse’, and as a ‘threat to global peace’ (14). This is not a principled demand for self-determination for the Palestinian people, but a precautionary-principled demand for external determination of Israeli and Palestinian affairs. Free Gaza? It is the very opposite.

The anti-Israel lobby represents the nadir of once dignified and principled anti-imperialism. Where anti-imperialists once celebrated Western civilisation and fought for people’s freedom and self-determination, the anti-Israel lobby treats ‘civilisation’ as a dirty word and seeks to renew and reassert the authority of the West in order to save the whole world from the ‘cancer’ of the tiny state of Israel. In the process, they overlook the fact that ‘robust international action’ created a great many of the problems in the Middle East and still sustains the bloody crisis today (15). Anyone who values freedom and peace for Israel and Palestine, and true self-determination for the peoples who live there, should steer well clear of the Israel-bashers.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Whose war is it anyway?, by Brendan O’Neill

War without ends?, by Mick Hume

The first Twitterwar, by Nathalie Rothschild

‘We’re all Gazans now’, by Tim Black

Read more at spiked issue: War in Gaza

(1) Collected Writings, CLR James, SN Publishers, 1969

(2) See Is Osama bin Laden an environmentalist?, by Brendan O’Neill

(3) Humanizing the West, Arab Online, 5 January 2009

(4) Israel outraged as EU poll names it a threat to peace, Observer, 2 November 2003

(5) See Searching for their own personal Palestine, by Josie Appleton

(6) My Name Is Rachel Corrie, Vancouver Sun, 30 January 2008

(7) See Searching for their own personal Palestine, by Josie Appleton

(8) Read the text message being circulated by leftists and Islamists here

(9) See Is Osama bin Laden an environmentalist?, by Brendan O’Neill

(10) Israel outraged as EU poll names it a threat to peace, Observer, 2 November 2003

(11) Alex Thomson in Snowmail, Channel 4 News, 5 January 2009

(12) See ‘We are all Gazans now’, by Tim Black

(13) Why not invade Israel?, Spectator, 22 November 2003

(14) Israel outraged as EU poll names it a threat to peace, Observer, 2 November 2003

(15) See Whose war is it anyway?, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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