Our collaborator Mitchell Abidor writes here about his anger with a part of his political camp, writing about it, saying: “Blinded by hatred of Israel, fearing being associated with the governments of the West, the left’s moral compass has gone missing.” His account of the analyses and reports published in the left-wing press since October 7, particularly the left-wing Jewish press , provides insights into the mechanism behind the nearly physical impossibility felt by the American left to condemn outright the massacres carried out by Hamas.
The reaction of the American left, particularly young leftists and an important segment of the Jewish left, to the massacres of October 7, the immediate acceptance of the slaughter of 1400 people as a natural part of the fight against colonialism, caused me little surprise. I’ve spent fifty years on the left, converted at sixteen to the revolutionary cause by the events of May 1968 in France. I lived the late 1960s and early 1970s in the expectation that the revolution was a week from Thursday and I had to be ready for it. I am no strange to the sanctimoniousness and certainties that are hallmarks of the left.
But there was an intensely personal reason why the reaction of those who had not a tear to shed for the pogrom of October 7 was no surprise. Ever present in me is the memory of my young self. Thanks to a high school social studies teacher, who in 1968 told my class that there was a case to be made in support of the grievances of the Palestinians, I began reading anti-Zionist works, writing my first pro-Palestinian article in 1970. The spirit of the times led me to support armed struggle everywhere, nowhere more than that of Palestinians. In my circles it was the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine that was the preferred organization, with its insistence that it was fighting for a socialist Palestine in which Jews and Arabs would live together in peace and harmony. Despite their proclaimed goals they were not shy of the occasional terrorist attack on civilians, like the killing of twenty-seven schoolchildren in Ma’alot in 1974. I remember explaining away the act, as the leftists of today do the events of October 7, as a natural part of the fight against imperialism. Moral idiocy is not foreign to me.
I soon drew back from this ultra-leftism and, enamored of old-line leftism, began writing for Jewish Currents magazine in 1981. Founded as a Jewish Communist magazine, it had renounced its communism but was still solidly anchored in the traditions of the left of the 1930s. It was there that I was able to write in praise of the Jewish Communist Resistance fighters in France of the Manouchian Group.
Jewish Currents has had only three editors over the course of its existence, and the shifts in its profile have tracked the three generations that have been its base. After its decades as a magazine of Jewish leftists who came of age during the Depression it was dominated by baby-boomers like myself. It is now a magazine of the children of the boomers and has struck a chord among young leftist Jews with its mix of anti-Israel articles, attacks on the Jewish establishment, its questioning of the reality of the rise of antisemitism in America, and a syncretic religiosity having little to do with Judaism as its commonly practiced, looking at the Talmud, for example, through a trans lens. Its reach is greater than it has ever been and, though I don’t share many of its views, I continue to write for it.
Like the rest of the left, it faced a quandary on October 7 and in the time since. How are Jewish leftists to deal with the death and kidnapping of over a thousand Jews, among them children, infants, women, and the elderly? In the event, there was no quandary for the bulk of the left. Saying anything about the Jews slaughtered meant giving aid and comfort to Israel and its supporters in the West. In their either/or world, speaking of Jewish suffering means ignoring Palestinian suffering. Empathy for both cannot exist simultaneously, and it is the Jews who will be ignored.
It was an almost reflective reaction that occurred after October 7. Blinded by hatred of Israel, fearing being associated with the governments of the West, the left’s moral compass went missing. This was simply inexcusable. As Ezekiel Emmanuel wrote in The New York Times: “This case offers an unambiguous base to elucidate clear, shared moral principles. It’s what the ethicist John Rawls calls reflective equilibrium. The clarity of this easy example helps identify principles that allow us to wrestle through harder cases…” And yet, this simple moral test has been failed by the left. Instead, Israel is at fault for what was done to it by Hamas, which was driven to murder by the Occupation. Cast aside was the possibility of opposing the Occupation without justifying murder. Ignored is the fact that Hamas in its program is frankly and openly and unambiguously antisemitic. But so what? They’re objectively anti-colonialist. And so dies morality.
To an extent I understand the difficulty the left found itself in. I felt it myself. The world is, after all, demonstrating horrendous hypocrisy in defending Israel’s bombardments of civilians in Gaza, so how could one join in the chorus of its supporters? And the sight of politicians tripping over each other to embrace – to literally embrace – Benjamin Netanyahu should have turned the stomach of any sensible human being. What pair could be more nauseating than Netanyahu and the fascist president of Italy, Meloni? Or what more absurd than the visit of the governor of the state of New York to demonstrate that “New York stands with Israel?” What does that even mean? And yet, the fact of the horrors of the October 7 remains and were not effaced or diminished by Biden taking Netanyahu in his arms and sending aircraft carriers to the region. Biden’s hypocrisy didn’t lessen the tragedy of the Hamas attacks. If it was incumbent on the left to condemn attacks on civilians by Israel, it was equally so to condemn attacks on Israeli civilians. And yet, the idea occurred to few.
The New York branch of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), probably the largest group on what passes for a left in the US, immediately supported an anti-Israel demonstration, only to find itself embarrassed by the tenor of the demonstration and the insensitivity of calling for a demonstration against Israel while the massacres were ongoing. It withdrew its support, but the damage was already done. As I write this on October 23, Jacobin magazine, with its hundreds of thousands of online readers has more articles than I can count attacking Israel directly or indirectly, but you won’t find a word about a pogrom here. In fairness to the left, The Nation, which has a much older readership than Jacobin, has published an attack on the indifference of young leftists to the pogrom. But it was one of despair, that of a longtime radical, Maurice Isserman, at the indifference of the DSA to the pogrom and his resignation from the movement.
It’s not only political groups that have refused to speak out against Hamas. A group of artists issued an open letter, published on several art website, that began by saying “We support Palestinian liberation,” and that failed to mention the pogrom. The Writers Guild of America, as well, condemned Israel’s response to the massacres without mentioning the massacres. It appears no consensus could be found within the organization to do so.
Whatever the shortcomings of the response of the left writ large, a special responsibility fell on the Jewish left to condemn Hamas’ killings. And yet, paralyzed by the situation, it for the most part failed in this task. It was as if the mere mention of Jewish deaths signified the privileging of Jewish deaths. Jewish Currents, the most important voice on the Jewish left today, stands as an example of this failure. It took several days for the editor of the magazine, Arielle Angel, to write a lengthy piece about the events. It is a profoundly complex article, in which she speaks of how her “own feelings fluctuated wildly;” of the “tears of hope” she cried when the bulldozer tore down the fence, while continuing by saying that “these images were quickly joined by others—the image of a woman’s body, mostly naked and bent unnaturally in the back of a truck; rooms full of families lying in piles, the walls spattered in blood. I wanted desperately to keep these images separate—to hold close the liberatory metaphor and banish the violent reality.” And yet, she wonders “How can we publicly grieve the death and suffering of Israelis without these feelings being politically metabolized against Palestinians.” And so the case is made for the diminution of a slaughter unequaled, except for the Holocaust, since the attacks on Jews in medieval Spain.
For all the sensitivity and pain Arielle displays, what stood out for me was her responding to those who say “you ‘cannot tell Palestinians how to resist,’” that “To me, it seems there is a very literal dimension to this axiom: They are not asking. Part of what has made the experience of this event feel so different from the status quo—and so different to Palestinians and Jews—comes from the fact that Palestinians were undeniably the actors, for once, not the acted upon. The protagonists of the story.” But is that necessarily a good thing? If becoming the one who acts rather than the one acted upon means becoming a murderer, is it our job to stand by and simply acknowledge that fact, or should we be combatting it? Much of the spirit of Jewish Currents and the young on the left is an outgrowth of an idea dear to the Occupy movement, one that proclaims that any movement wanting to change society should prefigure the new world it wants to see built. What does October 7 prefigure? How can anyone concerned to build a better world, a fraternal Middle East be indifferent to the way the fight for it is fought? Israel’s bombs certainly don’t inspire a desire to love Israel in Palestinians; shooting down 250 young people at a rave will not inspire Israelis to seek out their Palestinian brothers in order to shake their hands. Arielle, a person for whom I have the greatest respect and fondness, was clearly struggling with conflicting feelings, and she was not alone in this. But nowhere in her article is there an unambiguous expression of sorrow at the massacre of Jews. In fact, she even says of the two most notable leftists victims of the events that “We are seeing the ways that Jews as the agents of apartheid will not be spared—even those of us who have devoted our lives to the work of ending it.” I have tried parsing this sentence a dozen times to find an acceptable meaning in it, but I can only read this as saying that even Israelis fighting the Occupation are “agents of apartheid.” I can only read this and be saddened.
The magazine’s website still contains no unambiguous condemnation of the events of October 7, nor did it grant it any direct coverage, though a letter from the magazine’s publisher, Daniel May, was the closest it came to an acknowledgement of the unacceptable nature of the killings. An article that appeared on October 13 headlined “A textbook case of genocide” led me to think that the pogrom was the topic. It wasn’t; it was about the Israeli offensive against Gaza. The website contains articles about Palestinian commentators being kept from American airwaves, about Gazan workers being denied access to their jobs, and reports from Gazans about the situation there.
The ultimate indignity is that in one of the accounts by Gazans the expulsion of Israeli Jews – at least those who’ve moved there in their own lifetimes – is called for. An activist in Gaza explains that “The solution is to roll back and dismantle the colony. My message to the colonizers who left their home countries to occupy our lands is simply to go back home. As for those who were born here, my message is: You are secondary victims of this colonial project. You are being used to occupy other people’s lands, and your Jewishness is being politicized for colonial means. Meditate carefully on the examples of South Africa, Angola, Algeria—they may not apply wholesale to the settler colonization of Palestine, but they hold lessons for you.” The prefiguration here is horrifically clear: you will be killed, driven out, or dispossessed of your homes. In another account a Gazan is asked for his feelings about October 7 and he answers that “When I heard that the fence had been breached, I felt hope. It felt like a first step toward liberating Palestine”. The follow-up question, “And how did you feel about what was done with the ability to enter Israel?” isn’t asked.
Language has played no small part in the desensitization to the killings of October 7. The words “genocide,” “apartheid,” and “ethnic cleansing” are constantly used to describe Israel and its actions. Whatever the veracity of these characterizations, they are widespread on the left. Here can be found an explanation for the left’s indifference to the pogrom. Once a country has been determined to be genocidal all sympathy for it evaporates. It is guilty of the greatest sins a nation can be accused of, and it’s acceptable to do whatever is necessary to bring it down.
The urge to defend the Palestinians being bombed in Gaza is a commendable one, one with which I have no argument and, in fact, share. But I also admit to being embarrassed and even angered that a magazine I have been part of for decades couldn’t cast aside its ideological blinders the time of a massacre of Jews of historic proportions and remember that its title bears the name of the people who were victims of a horrible slaughter. There is no ideology that should lead to failure to condemn murder, and certainly not the universalist ideals of the left. To condemn the savagery of Hamas doesn’t prevent one from condemning the savagery of the Israeli response. It in fact places one on more sold ground to do so. That ground is no longer beneath the feet of the left.