The disillusionment of the Israeli left. Interview with Adam Raz

Adam Raz is an Israeli historian. He has published numerous books and articles condemning, in particular, the expulsion of Arabs during the 1948 war and the post-1967 occupation. As a left-wing activist who was stunned by some of the reactions in the United States and Europe after October 7 within his own political camp, he is one of the authors of the open letter: “Statement by Israel-based progressives and peace activists. Regarding the debates on recent events in our region”.


>> Read in K. : “Universalism vs. decolonialism. Is there really no third way for the left?”, by Julia Christ ?


Sun in an Empty Room, Edward Hopper, 1963, wikiart


For the Israeli left the events of October 7 brought a supplementary shock. Around the world, particularly in the US, the UK, Germany, and France, a significant portion of the left refused to issue of a word of lament about the slaughter of almost 1200 people, mainly Jews. Even more, many leftists all but extolled the pogrom as a decolonizing event. Absent was any hesitation about objective support of Hamas, an organization whose beliefs have nothing to do with those associated with thee left.  

In response to this silence, a group of Israelis progressives issued an open letter to the global left. The letter chastised the left for failing to live up to its own values by supporting the killing and kidnapping of civilians by an Islamist group under the guise of supporting Palestinian liberation. In the open letter the signatories, who included former members of the Knesset, including two Arabs and a Jewish Communist, said that “to our dismay, some elements within the global left, individuals who were, until now, our political partners, have reacted with indifference to these horrific events and sometimes even justified Hamas’s actions.” Dismay is not the only emotion they expressed: “We never imagined that individuals on the left, advocates of equality, freedom, justice, and welfare, would reveal such extreme moral insensitivity and political recklessness.” Condemning the pogrom, they were clear, does not mean supporting Netanyahu’s policies: “We emphasize: there is no contradiction between staunchly opposing the Israeli subjugation and occupation of Palestinians and unequivocally condemning brutal acts of violence against innocent civilians. In fact, every consistent leftist must hold both positions simultaneously.”  

Adam Raz is an Israeli historian who has published a number of books and articles condemning Israeli actions, focusing on the expulsion of the Arabs during the war of 1948 and the post-1967 Occupation. He works for the human rights organization the Akevot Institute, which not only publishes documents found in Israeli government files, but assists, by providing these documents to Palestinian groups, in their attempts to change Israel’s policy through legal action in the courts. I interviewed him via Zoom. — Mitchell Abidor 


Adam Raz: It’s a difficult time to write books and articles, but I’m trying to do it… It’s really hard to concentrate. 

Mitchell Abidor: This is perfectly understandable, and I thank you for taking the time to talk to me. Who was the primary organizer of the open letter? 

Adam Raz: There was a group of people on the left, people who know one another, people who write for Ha’aretz, academics, people in NGOs who were in a WhatsApp group. When we read the early responses [by the left] from around the world to the massacre, the pogrom of Shabbat, it was overwhelming. And when people sent me links and I read more responses it was very, very difficult. These were not sophisticated responses and it was a difficult moment for us in Israel. We thought that our people, our friends, intellectuals all over the world, would be able to stop for a moment and shed a tear with us… But quite the opposite was happening.  

In a very short time, about fifty people joined us in this WhatsApp group and we wrote something. Everyone had their specific point of view, like me. I try to always emphasize what really is Hamas: Hamas is a theocratic movement, a fascistic movement that kills gays and who, when they took over Gaza, threw PLO people from buildings, killing almost two hundred in 2007. And Hamas is a movement that, when you read their declaration, states that they’re not only against Zionism or Israel, they’re against Jews. So to read comments by people from big and famous universities that Hamas is practicing “decolonialism”, that they’re fighting “apartheid” … You just think what the hell is going on? There is no difference between Hamas and ISIS or Al Qaeda: they’re all fundamentalist movements. And they see them as a friend, as a partner?  Our global movement has tried to talk about democracy and human rights and liberalism and so on and they put out such kind of statements! 

Our emotional response to what happened on the left was: “Maybe you want to stop for a moment before you tweet, to think things over a day or two”. The second aspect, the intellectual aspect, was: “What is Hamas?”. How can a lesbian professor at Cornell tweet something about Hamas, although if she were to meet someone from Hamas in his territory he would butcher her.  And they know nothing about Fatah, they know nothing about the criticisms of Abu Mazen1 who, every day for the last fifteen years has declared that Hamas is an obstacle to peace. And then you hear leftists in Germany or the States shouting, calling for “one state from the river to the sea.”  As a Jew I can only ask: what’s the meaning of being a Jew in one state “from the river to the sea”? There’s no place for a Jew in any Hamas state from the river to the sea. So there were mixed emotions on my part, that there was no willingness to wait a second, or to stand by me as a Jew, as a political activist, as a human rights activist who has criticized Israel for the last twenty years. This bizarre intellectual category of “decolonization” … and all this post-modernist, anti-universalistic stuff… 

So we wrote this one-pager, we collected signatures and we sent it out. I don’t think it changed anything.  But over the past two weeks there have been comments about the pogrom and we’ve engaged with them, both the global left and people like [Greek leftist economist] Yannis Varoufakis. 

Abidor: What did he have to say? 

Raz: He tried to establish this bizarre symmetry between Hamas and Israel.  

But let’s talk about Germany. Most of the people, the left, they’re ignorant, they don’t know any details. They don’t know that Israel left Gaza, they don’t know the difference between the West Bank and Gaza. You know, when I talk to someone about all this, I ask them, “Who’s the prime minister of the Occupied Territories, tell me a few names of people there.” They don’t know anything, they don’t know what kind of regime they have, they don’t know its name, they don’t know how many people live in Gaza. They call the kibbutzim near the Gaza strip “settlements”. They don’t know that in 1949 there was an agreement after the war, after the Nakba, between Egypt and Israel about them: they’re within Israel’s borders and they are not settlements.  

It’s impossible to even start to try to explain things to these Western leftists. Kibbutz Be’eri is not a settlement. People who live in Be’eri, which was attacked, are my friends. Most of them are leftists trying to live in unbelievable circumstances, and the Hamas came and massacred them in their beds. So, when you hear in the last few days people who we’ve stood alongside talking about Hamas as if it was legitimate, as if it was trying to bring human rights or democracy to Palestine…  

I have always been and still am in solidarity with Palestinians and with anyone fighting for democracy in Israel/Palestine so we can live together. And then this pogrom happened. My criticism is not only of these left organizations, of what people call the “progressive left,” although they’re not progressive and they’re not truly left. But there’s also the Palestinian leadership in Israel, who choose to be silent, and not to act, to shed a tear and stand with us in this very difficult moment.  

Abidor: Is there anything else at play here, in this lack of sympathy? 

Raz: There’s this notion I have in the back of my mind of this thing we call anti-Semitism. When you’re talking to people and they don’t really know the issues or know the details, they can’t be convinced if you tell them the facts. So, you have to wonder: is it the Jewish banker, the Jewish imperialist they have in mind? These people are not really devoted to the values of the left. 

If you read Michel Foucault, who wrote three essays in 1979. He went to visit Ayatollah Khomeini, and he wrote articles trying to say that the Ayatollah was going to establish an “authentic” regime that would bring a new kind of democracy, not the Western, liberal kind of democracy. When you read Foucault, you can draw a straight line from him to the left of today. Nothing has changed.  

Abidor: This all put me in mind of the Palestine Communist Party in 1929, after the massacres in Hebron. It first called it a pogrom, then, at the Comintern’s orders, defined it as an act of national liberation. Jewish communist groups around the world did the same.  

Raz: These progressive leftists are not truly leftists. This is an actualization/replay of the left that in 1939 changed its mind in a few seconds about Hitler after the Hitler-Stalin pact. Now, when I’m seeing the responses from nineteen- twenty-, twenty-one – year-olds on Twitter I see them as victims of modern ideology. But when I hear it from people like Varoufakis it’s different, and I’m trying to measure the gap between ignorance and anti-Semitism. It’s not easy for we, the left in Israel, those who fight for human rights… I wrote an article a few months ago that will be published in a German magazine, about people, Palestinians and German Christians, who criticize Israel, and I said that this criticism is not anti-Semitism. And it’s not. There’s a very propagandistic exhibition in Germany, in the Bundestag, on 1948 (reference). It’s a traveling exhibition and millions have seen it, and it’s just Israeli propaganda. Even in Israel today no one talks about 1948 in the way it’s discussed in the exhibition. Some people criticized the exhibition and they were accused of anti-Semitism. I wrote too that it’s a bad exhibition, and that people who write critically about it are not anti-Semites. And so I thought that the people who asked me to write this piece in their defense would call me [after October 7]. But they didn’t. And I ask myself, why?  

I think for the left in Israel, the true left, the human rights movement, it’s a difficult moment. I talk with a lot of friends, people who lost friends and family, and I’m truly, truly interested in thinking about what will happen next. Because in the end the war will be over, in a month or in a year, and we will continue to fight for democracy and the end of the Occupation. But I also think about how we will continue to work together with the global left. I’m a leftist in my heart: this is what I do. I see myself as part of a global movement. When I read in magazines, or when I talk to friends, I see myself as a soldier in this battle. And I’m doing my job here in Israel and Palestine.  A few hours ago, I got a few phone calls from people in Berlin. The police are arresting people there, only for demonstrating against what Israel is doing in Gaza. They asked me if I can write an article. And of course, I’ll write an article. But I won’t forget that at the demonstrations there were people who shouted Hamas propaganda. And yet, I will write it. This is my job, and I’ll continue to do it. 

Abidor:  When you and other left-wing Israeli historians have talked about apartheid and ethnic cleansing, I wonder to what extent does that feed into the dehumanization of Israelis for some leftists? 

Raz: You can talk with an educated leftist in America, in Germany, and he will know all about Tantura,2 a very small event in 1948, but nothing about 1948 and the war. It was a war that lasted a year. He knows about the massacre at Kafr Qasim3, but he doesn’t know anything about 1956. There’s this grotesque approach, a kind of pornography, that tries to collect everything about Israel’s wrongdoing and to talk about Deir Yassin, Tantura, Sabra and Shatila and the various crimes that the Israeli state –  soldiers or civilians – have committed. The most critical books and articles and films on the Nakba of the last seventy years have been written or made by Jews and Israelis. I’ve been looking and I’m still looking for this kind of critical work on the Palestinian side, about their role in the story. I’ve written about Israel’s ethnic cleansing in 1948 and 1967, and I have the same right to criticize what Hamas and the PLO are doing.  

You know, I’m not a hero, but I’ve spent the last twenty years fighting against the Occupation and working for Akevot, the human rights organization. There are people who call me a professor of Israel’s 1948 massacres. I’ve written books about 1948, about Israeli massacres like Kafr Qasim. I do this because it’s what’s important to me. I’ve devoted my entire life to fighting against apartheid, the Occupation, the crimes committed by my country. 

Abidor: But the thing is, in a perverse way, your noble work ended up blowing up in your face. Your language gave the left license to not shed a tear. 

Raz: Of course. That’s one of the problems. Yeah. There is a problem, there is a gap, between being a human rights activist and a political activist. There is a difference, there is a gap. And it’s difficult to meld the two. I will continue to help the Palestinian people; I will continue searching for documents when they ask me and will provide documents when they go to court. I’ll continue writing and researching about what Israel does in the Occupied territories and in Israel. And I do this not to say “Look at me, I’m a leftist intellectual; I get a thrill out of shouting loud out the war crimes of my country.” I do it for one reason: I think doing so is necessary in order to understand the political situation, to understand history, to talk about our future, a better future for the two communities who live here.  

My grandmother, who was in the Palmach,4 asks me all the time: “Why can’t you write something nice about the kibbutzim? Why do you always have to write about how they killed and stole Palestinian property? Why do you always have to be a professor of massacres?”. I see my work as a way to persuade, to educate Israelis about their past. But at the same time, I truly want my Palestinian friends to understand their part in the story. And this is much more difficult. You know, the Palestinians in Israel are in very difficult situation. We have two million of them, and most of them are truly scared. 

It’s such a bizarre situation that people think that you have to choose a side. What’s the meaning of choosing a side in this situation? The people in Gaza – not Hamas – are victims, not only of the Israeli army, but of Hamas. Hamas are butchers! I don’t see Palestinians as the enemy of the Israeli state or Jews. I stand in solidarity with the people in Gaza; I want leftists to understand that in Israel there are also people calling for a two-state solution.

Interview by Mitchell Abidor

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