NS Essay - The anti-imperialism of fools

Western leftists find themselves in strange company when it comes to the Middle East. Are they reall

Once upon a time, a hundred years or so ago, it was fashionable to attack something called "Jewish capitalism". August Bebel, a German friend of Karl Marx, described this attempt to give anti-Semitism a progressive spin as "the socialism of fools".

Today's fashion for Israel-bashing seems to me to represent a similar foolishness. It is not old-fashioned anti-Semitism. But there is a growing tendency to endorse dubious ideas under the guise of solidarity with the Palestinians. It is the anti-imperialism of fools.

Particularly since 11 September, a strange-looking global alliance has formed against Israel, incorporating Islamic fundamentalists, European neo-Nazis and anti-globalists. Many, in all three groups, had previously shown little interest in the plight of the Palestinians: the Israeli state has become a sort of ersatz America, a symbol of all that they hate about contemporary capitalism.

For Israeli, read western; and for the west, read modernity. What the anti-globalists share above all with their newfound fellow-travellers among the Islamic fundamentalists is a loss of faith in the modern age and in Enlightenment ideas. The spirit of their protests was captured by a banner at a recent rally in Berlin: "Civilisation is genocide".

Yet, despite all the criticisms of America, they end up calling on the Great Satan to solve the problems of the world, and particularly of the Middle East. The demand of the western activists who visit the West Bank is for more international intervention. Back in the west, the Palestinian solidarity campaigns demand sanctions against the Israeli state and a boycott of Israeli goods. The opponents of globalisation want to globalise the Middle East conflict; they demand that the US and Europe turn their attention away from disciplining Iraq and towards punishing Israel. In effect, they end up echoing the call of Robert Cooper, Tony Blair's foreign policy adviser, for a new kind of imperialism - the same kind of "humanitarian" arrogance that recently prompted the British government to say it would send troops to India, although the Indian government did not want them.

If ever there were an area that bears the scars of too much foreign interference, it is the Middle East. Conflicts there have been manipulated and perpetuated by imperial powers for two centuries. Yet those who claim to oppose imperialism now propose even more intervention - a "foreign occupation" to stop Israel, in the words of one leading radical journalist. Perhaps they would be happy if Palestine ended up like Bosnia - a place where ethnic divisions have been set in stone by international intervention, and now to be ruled over by Paddy Ashdown in his new role as UN high representative (that is to say, the colonial governor general).

The politics of anti-imperialism first emerged as a defence of the democratic right to self-determination. It rejected the notion that the solutions to a society's problems were to be found from without. Today's anti-imperialism of fools, by contrast, not only endorses imperialist intervention, it also appears to oppose anything progressive that the west stands for - such as rationalism, universalism, scientific experimentation or economic development. (Its advocates are happy, however, to use the internet to spread the message; theirs is a high-tech primitivism.) The very different tradition of an older anti-imperialism was summed up by C L R James: "I denounce European colonialism. But I respect the learning and profound discoveries of western civilisation." The idea was to free the colonial world so that it might reap the benefits of modernity. Today, as Kenan Malik points out: "James's defence of 'western civilisation' would probably be dismissed as Eurocentric, even racist."

Anti-globalisation protesters now find themselves in the same bed as al-Muhajiroun, "an Islamic movement which exists to fulfil the commands of the divine text of the Koran". Its website argues that the Potters Bar rail crash and the crisis in the national health service were caused by the British government ploughing billions into its pro-globalisation and war policies, instead of investing in domestic services. Its argument ends not with the demand to renationalise the railways, but with an invocation that "by the will of Allah, the economies of those countries at war with Islam will continue to deteriorate".

It is not unusual to find oneself with strange bedfellows on particular issues. Politics is not for purists, especially where war is concerned. Yet it is striking how comfortably many arguments of the anti-globalisation movement now seem to fit the arguments of Islamic fundamentalists such as al-Muhajiroun - a group which boasts that its outlook "is not rational", and reserves its most bitter hatred for "the Jews" who, it claims, run much of the world.

The issue that brings the anti-capitalists and Islamists closest is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both are quite recent converts to the Palestinian cause. As he made efforts to win support in the Islamic world during the 1990s, Osama Bin Laden did not mention the plight of the Palestinians at all. The anti-globalisation movement is an even later recruit to the Palestinian banner. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict now features at May Day marches and international summit protests. In April in Washington, three separate demonstrations - against the World Bank/International Monetary Fund, against the war in Afghanistan and against the Israeli occupation - merged into what was reported as the biggest pro-Palestinian demonstration in US history, involving 75,000 people, according to the police. The International Solidarity Movement has sent delegations of western protesters to "witness" the Middle East conflict and show solidarity with the Palestinians - notably by breaking through an Israel Defence Forces blockade to enter the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Why should Palestine have suddenly become such a cause celebre? Critics now talk of the Israeli state as if it were a mini-superpower, given licence by Washington to commit genocide against the Palestinians; some have described President Bush as "Sharon's poodle". This cartoon version of events grossly inflates the power and importance of Israel today. It is ridiculous to think that the foreign policy of a global superpower could be driven by a tiny state with a population of six million. For America (and before that Britain), relations between Jews and Arabs have always been negotiable in the wider scheme of things.

During the cold war, the US generally backed Israel as its gendarme, in order to contain the threat (real and imagined) of a Soviet-backed Arab nationalism. But we are no longer living in 1967 or 1973. Arab nationalism has been dead for at least a decade. The west has less need of Israel to police the region so tightly. More important, in the post-cold war era, the west has lost its sense of imperial certainty. This underlying vulnerability is revealed most sharply in its relations with the Islamic world. No longer able to promote their cherished old notions of racial or cultural superiority, the western elites have become increasingly defensive.

After 11 September, many predicted a full-scale clash of civilisations. Yet, far from pursuing a fundamentalist crusade, Bush and Blair have emphasised that they are not fighting a war against Islam. There have been panics about "Islamophobia" in America and Europe. The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was denounced for advertising "the superiority of our civilisation" over the Islamic world. And a US marines website was closed down for making "insensitive" remarks. This must be the first war in which it is officially considered illegitimate to hate the enemy.

The newly defensive mentality within the western camp is far removed from America's past belief in its manifest destiny. This uncertainty towards Islam has clear implications for relations with the Israeli state, long seen as an outpost of the west in a hostile Muslim world.

Even a right-wing Republican such as George Bush now demands that Israel pull out of "occupied territories" and calls for the creation of a Palestinian state. Other members of Washington's foreign-policy establishment have gone further. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, denounced the Israelis as being "increasingly like the white supremacist South Africans, viewing the Palestinians as a lower form of life". The US still helps to bankroll the Israeli state, and there remains a powerful pro-Israeli lobby in Congress and the media. But these people now feel compelled to make shrill public appeals on Israel's behalf which would have been considered unnecessary in the past.

Elsewhere in the west, a new antagonism towards Israel is more obvious. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, declares that Israel's current offensive falls outside the war against terrorism. The German government offers to send peacekeeping troops to separate Arabs and Jews (something considered taboo since the Holocaust). And in Belgium, a court is attempting to prosecute the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, for "crimes against humanity". The immediate reaction from the UN and Europe to the Israeli attacks on Jenin revealed a readiness to accept the wilder allegations of massacres and mass graves.

All this has more to do with western uncertainty than with anti-Semitism; the most vehement critics of Israel include leading Jewish spokesmen such as the Labour backbencher Gerald Kaufman, a veteran Zionist, who has condemned Israel as a pariah state and Sharon as a war criminal in the House of Commons.

Yet Israel is no more a "Nazi" state than it ever was. Those who imagine that the violence in Jenin was unique in the Israeli-Arab conflict have short memories (or none). What is different today is the west's defensiveness about Israeli actions. Israel now stands condemned for the kind of actions that might once have been condoned tacitly. It is this feeling of western vulnerability that has inspired the left and the anti-globalisation movement. Protesters find it easier to feel morally worthy when they are guaranteed to get an apologetic response from the authorities.

Yet these newfound friends of Palestine do not seem to know much about the history of this conflict. Their websites and leaflets sloganise about "NaZionists", and how this is a war between "racism and justice" (a politically correct way of saying "good v evil"). But there is little analysis of the causes.

Some of the clumsy attempts to incorporate the Middle East into the concerns of the anti-globalisation movement border on the bizarre. Jose Bove, the French farmer and green activist, sprang to global fame when he attacked a McDonald's burger bar with a tractor, and wrecked GM crops. Last year, he turned up in a peace delegation on the West Bank. This year, he was back again, visiting Yasser Arafat's besieged compound at Ramallah. Why? Bove told the New Left Review that the Israelis are "putting in place - with the support of the World Bank - a series of neoliberal measures intended to integrate the Middle East into globalised production circuits, through the exploitation of cheap Palestinian labour". This is the kind of conspiratorial anti- capitalist-speak that we might call globaldegook.

Naomi Klein, a critic of both the Israeli occupation and globalisation, worries that "every time I log on to activist news sites such as indymedia.org . . . I'm confronted with a string of Jewish conspiracy theories about 9/11 and excerpts from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion". She thinks that "the anti-globalisation movement isn't anti-Semitic, it just hasn't fully confronted the implications of diving into the Middle East conflict".

Klein is right. What we are witnessing is not simply a resurgence of old-fashioned anti-Semitism: that accusation is most often a defensive reaction from Israel's supporters. But the anti-globalisation movement is "diving into the Middle East conflict" blindly, in pursuit of a vague and simplistic moral agenda of its own. The delegations of self-styled "internationals" who travel to the Middle East to show sympathy for the Palestinians are lauded as "the real heroes of today" on solidarity websites. Yet few of them would lie down in front of tanks if Israel really were the Nazi state they claim. The internationals seem less keen to travel to other conflicts, away from the eyes of the world media, where they might risk meeting the fate of the international solidarity activists killed during the Pinochet coup in Chile.

For many activists, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have become a convenient outlet for the morbid emotionalism and victim-centred culture of our age. A solidarity meeting in London begins with people being searched and asked for "passes" (tickets), so that they can "experience" what life is like under Israeli occupation. Writing in the NS, one "international" announced that, having seen a warning shot fired and been woken up by the noisy Israeli air force, "I'm beginning to understand what it must be like to be a Palestinian." I am beginning to think that this might be the point of the exercise for some of these people.

Far from offering an alternative for the Middle East, these self-indulgent demonstrations of western victim culture can only reinforce the emotional nihilism that is already rampant in the region - what one American commentator calls "the desperado politics of victimhood, embraced by Jews and Palestinians alike".

Writing about the 1979 Iranian revolution, Tariq Ali attacked "the anti-imperialism of fools" expressed by "useful idiots from the western European left", who thought there must be something progressive in the Ayatollah, because he overthrew America's stooge, the Shah. Many on the western left now express sentiments that are just as foolishly misplaced. At least those idiots in Iran had a successful popular revolt to get carried away with; many of the anti-Israel protesters of today seem content to revel in powerlessness.

Western society is infected by a powerful sense of self-loathing and a rejection of its political, social and economic achievements. It was this spirit of self-loathing that led some, of the left and right alike, to suggest that America got what it deserved on 11 September. Those sentiments are no more progressive when aimed against Israel as a symbol of the west than when they are directed in irrational campaigns against GM crops and the literature of Dead White Males.

We may feel solidarity with the Palestinians, but that is no reason to endorse the anti-imperialism of fools. Populist anti-Israeli rhetoric is cheap, but it offers no solutions - especially when it ends with a demand for even more western intervention in the affairs of the Middle East. The long-suffering peoples of the region deserve better than to be used by those looking for somewhere convenient to strike sanctimonious poses.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com)