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  1. Ideas
29 November 2023

Jewish progressives are deeply critical of Israel, yet inextricably tied to it

The horrendous killing and abduction of Israeli civilians placed many Jewish activists in unfamiliar territory.

By Yair Wallach

The late Israeli author Ronit Matalon, wrote that her Parisian aunt used to get annoyed when asked about her place of origin. “What does it mean, where I’m from? We are from the left.” Matalon’s aunt was an Egyptian Jew, who left Cairo in the early 1950s to settle in France. She remained, writes Matalon, a permanent migrant who felt most at home with her political camp.

The sense that the left is a natural home for Jews, and perhaps their only home, was familiar to many 20th-century Jews. Persecution and forced migration were constitutive experiences, while trade unionism and political activism provided a welcoming space, which led them to embrace egalitarian politics. Senator Bernie Sanders is perhaps the iconic example of this tradition.

In the early decades of Israel, when it was ruled by the Labor Party, the tension between Jewish diaspora leftist politics and Zionism was not obvious; the two trajectories seemed to align. And yet as Israel turned more and more to the right, the tension became impossible to contain. What started as criticism of Israel’s occupation and settlements, extended for many to a rigorous critique of Zionism and its place within Jewish diaspora education and communal life. Among mobilisations in the US, UK and elsewhere, one could see the emergence of dissenting movements, anchored in Jewish traditions. In the last decade, a new kind of diasporic Jewish left has emerged.

The current crisis presents those movements with an acute test. They have largely mobilised under the call for a ceasefire and around rejecting the alarming rhetoric of Israel’s far-right government, with some ministers calling for ethnic cleansing and the destruction of Gaza. A recent poll found that almost half of American Jews under 35 did not approve of President Biden’s response to Israel’s war against Hamas – in contrast with an 82 per cent approval rate among American Jews aged over 36.

Yet the horrendous mass killing and abduction of Israeli civilians on 7 October placed many Jewish activists in unfamiliar territory, creating a gap between themselves and the Palestine solidarity movement. Many Jewish diaspora progressives have strong ties with the Israeli anti-occupation left, and  some of those Israeli peace activists were killed or taken hostage on 7 October. Since the war started Israeli activists have faced a severe police clampdown. Many demonstrations and vigils were prevented or dispersed, and some activists lost their jobs or were arrested. Families of 7 October victims that called for a ceasefire were verbally attacked.

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Left-wing Israeli intellectuals and activists expressed deep disappointment with the global left for its inadequate response to 7/10. In the avalanche of global left-wing statements on Palestine/Israel over the past eight weeks, few condemned Hamas’s attack. Most have ignored the massacre, while some even appeared to endorse the attack as a form of Palestinian resistance.

For many in the global Palestine solidarity movement, the Israeli left appears insignificant. It is small, having hardly any representation in the Knesset. While the information Israeli activists provide on the occupation and apartheid is appreciated, their own political position and vision are often ignored. The Israeli left promotes a bi-national, Jewish-Arab model of solidarity, which appears too “Zionist” for some Palestine activists.

Could a Jewish diasporic progressive left cut its ties with Israel, and see it purely in terms of a threat or an adversary? Perhaps a minority could. And yet as many other diaspora leftists find out, even if they reject Zionism as an ideology, they are still tied to Israeli society in a variety of ways – through familial and friendship ties, solidarity with activists there, or by the crisis in Palestine/Israel inevitably impacting their lives and dragging them into its orbit.

This article is part of the series What It Means to Be Jewish Now.

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