Universalism vs. decolonialism. Is there really no third way for the left?

In the aftermath of the 7 October massacre, the Israeli left saw how a section of the global left in the United States and Europe refused to condemn the murder of 1,200 men, women and children, most of them Jewish. Within the extreme left, some even glorified the pogrom as a decolonising event and expressed no hesitation in their objective support for Hamas. Adam Raz – interviewed in K. this week- was one of the authors of the open letter expressing his ‘concern at the inadequate response of some American and European progressives to Hamas’s targeting of Israeli civilians, a response that reflects a disturbing trend in the political culture of the global left’. Julia Christ looks back at the disillusionment of the Israeli left and sets out the political lessons to be learned from the rift that has emerged between the Israeli left and part of the global left. 


>> Read in K. : “The disillusionment of the Israeli left. Interview with Adam Raz, by Mitchell Abidor.


The Long Leg, Edward Hopper, c.1930, wikiart

Adam Raz is a young historian working for the NGO Akevot, dedicated to searching Israeli archives – military, governmental and secret service – for documents that could establish an empirically based account of the creation and construction of the State of Israel. It is part of his work to focus on the war crimes committed by Israel during this process. He has therefore devoted a large part of his research to the Nakba and the responsibility that Israelis bear for this event. As such, the young researcher, who sees himself as part of the global Left, has come to work very closely with left-wing movements in the West fighting for the Palestinian cause. For him, being on the Left means one thing and one thing only: fighting for human rights, including, or perhaps especially, when it means criticising his own country. 

He believed that his friends on the Left shared this conviction. Then came 7 October, and the rejoicing of a large part of the global left at the act of resistance carried out by Hamas in a war of liberation against the Jewish coloniser. Adam Raz, along with a number of left-wing Israeli and Jewish intellectuals, has reacted to these despicable positions in an open letter in which they express their disappointment. Antoyshung in Yiddish, אכזבה in Hebrew, disappointment refers to that moment when you are deceived, when your illusions fall away: the illusion that the fight for human rights was sincerely just that and not a roundabout way of attacking Israel. The illusion that Palestinians who rely on the struggles led by the global left in the name of human rights would consequently apply the same critical tools to their own government and history. The illusion that the global left really wants an Israeli state, if only it were beyond reproach from a human rights point of view. Behind these fallen illusions lies the outline of a new knowledge: that in the eyes of the global Left, Israel will never be innocent. That the anti-universalism of decolonial thinking has taken precedence over the universalism of human rights. And Raz has even come to believe that there is a difference between defending human rights and political thought. But the thinking stops there. It’s like an insurmountable stumbling block that tells us about the dilemmas of today’s Left. Like a mantra, it repeats that the “true man/woman of the left” is the one who anchors his or her politics in human rights and nowhere else, and that he or she will continue his or her struggle by drawing exclusively on them. 

Two lefts seem to be available at the moment: a moral left which, in the name of the universalism of human rights, tries to fight for liberal democracy and, for this reason, accepts to use terms that seem right in the light of historical facts, to describe Israel’s violations of these rights: “apartheid” in the territories after 1967, “ethnic cleansing” in 1948, to name only the terms that Raz himself was led to use in his work. On the other hand, there is a decolonial left which is undeniably more political than moral, and which aims everywhere to establish authentic indigenous regimes faithful to their culture and customs, regimes which are in no way expected to bow to the universalism of human rights, the latter being fundamentally alien to their authentic cultures. That this second left should draw on the criticisms and self-criticisms of the first to promote its project for a free Palestine – free in the sense of being free of all foreign elements – is the shock that the universalist Israeli left has received in its face. 

Is that a reason to abandon self-criticism? Adam Raz is certainly right to say that it is not. But perhaps it is a reason to base it on something more real than human rights, in this case the internal life of the political societies from which this self-criticism emanates. What would be a Zionist, or even Jewish, critique of Israel? And who would be the allies of the Israeli Left if it spoke not the universal and abstract language of human rights but that of Jewish universalism? Finally, what kind of left-wing politics would it be if it chose its partners exclusively from among those who were willing and able to conduct a critical analysis of reality from within their own group, whether that group was a nation, a political society that had not yet been state-run, or a religious community? 

Let us dare to be utopian, also because the question of a post-war world must be asked: this would be a politics in which we would first and foremost debate the understandings of justice of each of these groups. And perhaps, on that basis, we would arrive at a global left where no one would hesitate to affirm that, according to the criteria of justice of their own group, massacring civilians in their beds, raping girls and women, mutilating bodies, burning them to make identification impossible and kidnapping babies and other innocent civilians is unacceptable. And perhaps this would also lead to a situation where those who cannot name this injustice would not belong to the Left, clearly and in everyone’s eyes. Not because they defend ‘authentic and indigenous ways of life’ that have nothing to do with human rights, but because they refuse to do the work of seeking out the principles of justice that structure their own groups. But there can be no group without internal justice. 

Raz complains that there is no self-criticism on the Palestinian side. It is all very well for the decolonial left to retort that to do so in the name of human rights would be to accept Western thinking. In this impasse, trusting in the existence of a way of thinking about justice that is internal to the groups, and asking the Palestinians to criticise their political society in the name of its own criteria of justice, might be the way to rebuild a global left that does not have to discover in the ordeal that it has never existed. 

Julia Christ

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