Building a real left: Not one that condemns resistance and is without Palestinians

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This article was originally published in Liberation News on December 2, 2023.

We are eight weeks into the war in Gaza and into a protest movement that has swept the country demanding justice for Palestinians. It is remarkable how much the political environment has transformed in the United States in general, and within the U.S. left in particular on account of the mass mobilizations organized by genuine anti-imperialist forces, both inside the United States and around the world. An honest reflection must admit, however, that eight weeks ago, many of the liberal leftists and “progressives” were paralyzed, bending to the pressures of bourgeois opinion, practically abandoning the Palestinian cause, and reserving their sharpest vitriol for anti-imperialists rather than apartheid Israel.

From the very start, anti-imperialists rallied to the side of Palestine and so were called apologists for terrorism by mayors, governors, the White House and liberal leftist publications in one united chorus. While for a moment that meant the real, anti-imperialist left was demonized, caricatured and written off as a marginalized fringe by the liberal leftist organizations and some prominent liberal “influencers,” two months later there is now a mass anti-war movement taking the streets every night with anti-imperialist politics at the very center, and it is the liberals who are isolated.

The spineless “plague on both your houses” position held by liberal leftists and “progressives” collapsed within a week as Israel began its genocidal bombing, and as the broad spectrum of left forces and Palestinians united to demand an end to the siege of Gaza and a ceasefire. But the initial awful reaction from big sections of ostensibly “left” commentators should not be forgotten, and in fact should be learned from. It reflects a recurring line of division that will likely reappear as Israel’s siege enters a new murderous stage, especially if Palestinians begin to strike back outside of Gaza. This division is not about ideological minutiae but a fundamentally different approach to the colonial question. It speaks directly to the question of what type of movement we aim to build—either one that is tethered to a section of the liberal bourgeoisie, and so vacillates alongside it, or one that seeks to build anti-imperialist politics among the working class and is oriented towards unity with the Global South. 

To review: Four days into the genocidal bombing and siege of Gaza, with a massive ground invasion pending, the West’s most prominent left-liberal intellectuals stood up and spoke out against … the leftists on the streets for Palestine. Naomi Klein, Michelle Goldberg, and other self-proclaimed “left” writers immediately joined the ruling-class mob howling at those who had dared to demonstrate in solidarity with the Palestinian people, and their resistance, in the days after the Al-Aqsa Flood operation. They declared there can be no “credible” or “decent” left that does not condemn the tactics of the Palestinian resistance—and that by “valorizing terrorism, these voices on the left are effectively choosing to stop contending for power in a serious way.”

Goldberg proposed that the left should declare instead: “We are horrified by the murder of innocent people by Hamas and we want the United States to put maximum pressure on Israel to not to commit atrocities in Gaza.” The sentence is a marvel. The feelings of horror are reserved for the actions of Hamas—not Israel—while Israeli atrocities are presented passively, a potential thing of the future, which could be hopefully stopped by U.S. government “pressure.” Ignored are all the core questions: what about the longstanding Israeli atrocities and the fact that the United States has always facilitated and funded Israeli crimes? And what should the Palestinians do in the meantime? Apparently, anything but fight back.

For her part, Klein called for “An international left rooted in values that side with the child over the gun every single time, no matter whose gun and no matter whose child. A left that is unshakably morally consistent, and does not mistake that consistency with moral equivalency between occupier and occupied. Love.”

Sift through the poetics of this paragraph and this is essentially a call for the left to put equal distance from all the sides of the battle, so that it can achieve pure and unadulterated morality. How decent! Perhaps the Palestinians should lay down their arms entirely so the international left can keep our hands and reputations clean. Under this liberal position (using left phrases), it is fine to retain the moral and political position that Palestinians are in the right against occupation, but to be “consistent” this must be combined with a condemnation of Palestinians when they actually rise up against that occupation. This is nonsense: the “left” as an abstraction rather than a social force that accompanies the living struggles of our time and the real people fighting injustice. The true betrayal of left principles is to lapse into pure pacifism and abstract humanism so as to create distance from the oppressed.

That distance from the oppressed was made literal in the following days, when the protests with that political line were attended by shockingly few Palestinians and scarcely a Palestinian flag in sight. Meanwhile, the anti-imperialist forces who were so demonized and declared to not be “contending for power in a serious way” united a broad coalition rooted in the Palestinian and Arab community for the largest pro-Palestinian march in U.S. history, which was estimated at 500,000 people. That unity was not built by equivocating on the central issues of Palestinian self-determination, or pandering to the mood of the liberal bourgeoisie. Doing so would have not made the march bigger but actually doomed it. Instead, it put out a clear, unmistakable message that tapped into the mass mood of struggle and defiance felt by people of conscience from all communities.

Whatever initial isolation was necessary for anti-imperialists, the last month of mobilization has shown that a different type of broad unity can be built—not with bourgeois liberals—but by going directly to the base, and orienting to the majority sentiments of the Global South. Viewed from a global scale, it is the liberals who are isolated, and increasingly struggling to stay relevant. Look at the supposedly “decent” “left” represented by figures like Bernie Sanders and AOC: they have never been less relevant to the actual movement of history as now, when it counts the most. Sanders has stubbornly refused to even call for a ceasefire while AOC has scarcely been better—in two month’s time she has voiced support for the Iron Dome, then called for a ceasefire, and this week voted for a slanderous House resolution that equates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

Klein, Goldberg and company focused their arguments after October 7 on the killing of Israeli civilians and noncombatants as war crimes. But this was just a convenient way to mask what was really a condemnation of Palestinian armed resistance as a whole. It’s not as if they defended under the rules of war the Al Aqsa Flood operation’s killing of an estimated 280 Israeli military personnel, or its taking dozens more soldiers and even generals as prisoners of war. What they really want is for Palestinians to remain peaceful and committed to nonviolent forms of protest. A more sophisticated and explicit version of this argument was presented at length in a New York Times essay calling for Palestinians to commit to “ethical resistance.”

Of course, Palestinian groups will debate among themselves what tactics and strategies are correct to advance their national liberation struggle, as they have in each phase of struggle. But not a single Palestinian party or faction (aside from the widely hated Mahmoud Abbas) condemned the Al Aqsa Flood operation—quite the contrary. Klein, Goldberg, et al should ask themselves why not. It is because the Palestinian people have attempted every type of march, protest and petition only to see the noose tighten around their necks.

The Great March of Return consisted of weekly marches in 2018-19 at the Gaza border. Those mass marches, peaceful apart from mere rock-throwing, resulted in 223 Palestinian killed by Israeli sniper fire and thousands wounded. There was no international hue and cry; the settlements expanded and Israeli society shifted even further towards fascism. Now four years later, the Al Aqsa Flood fighters returned to those same border fences and bulldozed them. It is no wonder why three-quarters of all Palestinians explicitly support the October 7 attacks, and 89 percent support Hamas’s military wing.

The Palestinian people as a whole, as a nation, understand that those who made nonviolent revolution impossible made the shift to full-fledged armed resistance inevitable. So in their insistence on an international left that condemns armed resistance, Klein and Goldberg are effectively asking for an international left without Palestinians.

Without question, the experience of war is horrific, and no images shock the conscience quite like those of civilian casualties, especially women, children and the elderly. These images seem to require no context or explanation; they instinctively shape our emotions, stir our desire for justice, and compel us to show solidarity with the victims. But this is how and why imperialist war propaganda works time and again. Even though some people can in retrospect see the folly of many wars, in the moment of crisis they are selectively presented certain images, so that feelings of empathy and grief are easily instrumentalized as pretext for an invasion. The demand in a war fever is to feel anger and grief, to set aside analysis and critical thought. Hidden of course are the years of images of civilian death and mass destruction on the Palestinian side, the stories of trauma and terrorism they’ve endured, the names of their children. The whole world has never been instructed to join in their grief and to insist on their right to self-defense and retaliation against those responsible for that terrorism. 

War is always horrific and any student of military history knows the so-called “rules of war” are routinely violated—in fact they are not really considered at all by military strategists when they make their plans. Look at the US “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq, which was just another way of saying “strike terror” into the hearts of all Iraqi society. Look at Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Rolling Thunder” operation to completely destroy the northern part of Vietnam, killing an estimated 182,000 civilians in three years. Look at even the “good wars” like World War II, when the U.S. carpet bombed cities in Japan and Germany that had no military purpose, intentionally causing mass civilian deaths as a way of psychologically terrorizing the enemy into surrender. But no one questions the righteousness and necessity of the war against fascism. Those U.S. leaders who directed those mass civilian deaths never faced a day in court for war crimes, but instead had schools and airports named after them.

The Vietnam Memorial in D.C. lists out the names of 58,000 U.S. service member casualties in the war, an emotional display that stretches around 500 feet. But if it had the names of the Vietnamese deaths, civilian and combatant alike, it would stretch two miles. The way the war has been presented and is understood emotionally in the United States is, again, totally selective. The fiction is thus maintained that one civilized side wages war within the “rules” and only the “barbaric” wage war with terror. In fact, all modern war contains elements of terror.

For its part, Hamas officially says it upholds the rules of war and Islamic prohibitions on the targeting of women and children, disputing the dominant narrative of October 7, and says that the breaking down of the border fences allowed undirected groups of Palestinians to enter nearby Israeli settlements.

But regardless of what exactly transpired, and who ordered precisely what, that cannot be used to confuse the basics of the Palestinian question. It is a struggle for national liberation against colonialism. It is not a war between two conventional armies. One side has a massive, high-tech and sophisticated military with advanced weapons systems, while the other side is a collection of guerrilla forces. The Palestinians have no military bases they control, no advanced weapons systems they can buy, no control over their own borders or airspace, no internationally legally recognized force to strike back against enemy states and to defend their population. This is a totally asymmetrical war, and for years it has been rocks versus tanks with nearly all the bleeding on one side.

To win their national liberation struggle, Palestinians have tried general strikes. They have tried to get other Arab armies in the region to intervene. They have conducted dramatic hijackings to get worldwide attention, often designed for maximum spectacle with minimal civilian losses. They have tried peace agreements and negotiations (Hamas itself only turned to armed resistance after about a decade of this). They have tried international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns. They have gone to international courts and tribunals. The First Intifada was built on mass rallies and mobilization, largely led by the left, and it was only after the Israelis conducted a campaign of mass imprisonment and assassination of its leaders that the era of suicide bombings began. The failure of all the promised peace accords produced the Second Intifada, this time more violent. And now after years of losing more and more land, being asphyxiated by the millions, a new phase has opened. But it is one continuous national liberation struggle.

The only real analogy left is that of the Native Americans or the Algerians, whose guerrilla struggles were not to win over the settler population—seeing that as impossible—but to strike back so that they might leave stolen lands and to show their own people through force that the enemy state was not invincible. Those battles too often involved the bloody deaths of non-combatants, and the anti-colonial fighters were called “savages” in the mass media of their day. But after years of broken promises and treaties, continuous encroachment on land, misery and humiliation, such armed resistance and violent eruptions became inevitable. And looking back, is there really any confusion about what was the side of justice?

As Israel begins a new round of murderous bombardment of Gaza, all responsibility for renewed bloodshed must be placed on the occupying power. The world sees clearly the genocidal and terrorist character of the Israeli armed forces. The task in the United States is to channel this into a mass social force that makes it untenable for the U.S. government to continue financing and arming the occupation. Out of the horrors of the present, many within the Palestinian community also believe they are entering a new phase of liberation struggle; this powerful movement must be prepared to stand with them.

Ben Becker is a member of the PSL Central Committee.

Photo: 500,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 4 for a historic march that recognized the Palestinian right to resist