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On how the hard left and hard right oppose Israel for very different reasons5 min read
It is something of a truism to say that the hard left and right share rather a lot in common. This is very much in relation to the modern age where the extremes of the political spectrum can be seen, to a large extent, as radical reactions against modernity and the liberal status quo. Israel, rightly or wrongly, is for many emblematic of the forces of this status quo which must be resisted.
The state has become a lightning rod for criticism over a maelstrom of issues: colonialism, racism and ethnicity; religion and secularism; capitalism, technology and globalisation. We need to ask how these various issues relate to causes on the hard left and right, whether they agree or overlap, and address the spectre of anti-Semitism which runs through this debate.
The hard right
Who are the hard right and why are they anti-Israel? As the extreme right wing, they are groups advocating radical change outside and to the right of the consensus of globalised, liberal democracy and capitalism. This would primarily include neo-Nazis, ethno-nationalists and elements of the recent “alt-right” movement.
The first thing to say is that much of the anti-Israel motivation of such groups is outright anti-Semitism and racism. Their lineage reaches back to anti-Semitic tropes in European thought, such as the idea of the rootless Jew who undermines the settled, organic people of the homeland.[i] Similarly, conspiracy theories surrounding ideas of Jews controlling international finance and so on link into this racist worldview.
The hard right overlaps with the hard left in how it sees Israel as a frontline part of a globalised, capitalist US hegemony. Their motivation is usually perceived as some concept of purity and preservation for a people, nation or culture and the dominance of the US – politically, militarily and culturally. Even elements within the US itself would espouse this narrative and equate Jewishness with a globalised status quo, such as ethno-nationalists at the Charlottesville rally.[ii]
Interestingly, however, it is notable how some of the European right has – in its attempt to be seen as more mainstream – sought to embrace Israel and Jews. This is quite clear in the rhetoric of Marine Le Pen’s Front National party – a party with a collaborationist heritage which now brands itself as the pro-Israel protector of French Jews due to its anti-Muslim orientation.[iii] France also provides a good example of the right’s concern over cultural mixing and US hegemony through the emergence of a Nouvelle Droite, or New Right movement.[iv]
We can, then, summarise the hard right stance on Israel in two broad points: racism, and the fear of globalised cultural homogeneity. What there is a deafening lack of concern for, however, is the question of justice for Palestinians themselves. This concept of external justice and rights is what should set the hard left apart from the right. The left defines itself by opposition to colonialism and racism and it is on this ground that much of the anti-Israel conviction stands.
Israel is seen as a settler-colonial state upheld by US power, a Western satellite planted in the Middle East. Concerns around anti-Semitism are also raised towards the left, as with the recent media furore over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the UK.
Whilst parts of the left can fall into similar anti-Semitic tropes,[v] it remains possible to differentiate between anti-Semitism and genuine criticism of Israel as a state.
The hard left
The hard left shares some of the premises that make the hard right take an anti-Israel stance. It too views Israel as an imperialist-capitalist project and a frontline piece of the US’ hegemonic hold on world power and influence. However, whilst both extremes share some of this analysis, they react to it for mostly different reasons.
Leftist concern for anti-colonial resistance and the rights of displaced peoples cannot be reduced to an aim of maintaining or creating ethnically or culturally homogeneous nations. To take the example of anti-Semitic violence, a German study showed that the vast majority of this violence is perpetrated by right wing extremists.[vi]
To say that two groups oppose the same thing does not make them reducible to the same cause. Both the extreme left and right stand outside of the Western political mainstream defined by liberalism and capitalism for largely the same reasons that they oppose Israel; they do not, however, strive for the same outcome.
Walter Benjamin famously said that behind every fascism is a failed revolution: radical politics will always overlap by definition of seeking to break the status quo, but the radical left and right have very different motives in doing so.
[i] Watson, Peter, ch. 22 “The Pathologies of Nationalism” in The German Genius, Simon and Schuster: London, 2010
[ii] The Independent, “Anti-Semitic incidents rise 60 per cent in a year in US”, February 27, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/anti-semitism-hate-crime-harassment-attacks-rise-increase-jewish-anti-defamation-league-a8231871.html
[iii] New York Times, “France’s far right, once known for anti-Semitism, courts Jews”, April 5, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/world/europe/france-jews-marine-le-pen-national-front-anti-semitism.html
[iv] New Yorker, “The French origins of ‘you will not replace us’”, December 4, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/04/the-french-origins-of-you-will-not-replace-us
[v] Guardian, “The shame of antisemitism on the left has a long, malign history”, April 1, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/01/shame-of-anitsemitism-on-left-has-long-malign-history
[vi] Spiegel Online, “Envy and prejudice in Germany: an author’s quest to explain Muslim anti-Semitism”, March 28, 2018, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/david-ranan-wrote-a-book-about-muslim-anti-semitism-in-germany-a-1199942.html