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Divided We Stand 

This is no time for unity on the left

Wednesday, Oct 3 2001
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When I was 18, just out from under the influence of a headmistress whose idea of career counseling was to steer all her ”gels“ into primary-school teaching, I entered the London School of Economics as an undergraduate majoring in sociology. It was October 1967, and I was tremendously excited. Founded by the Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the LSE -- with its lavish quotas of bright kids from the British working class and graduate students from newly independent Third World countries -- was now the hub of a flourishing campus left, bolstered by an influx of radicalized Americans, mostly from Columbia University, taking their year abroad to spread the red word. They came to the right place, for unlike Oxford or Cambridge, this was an elite school where proletarian origins counted as a badge of honor, not to say status. Eager to join the club, I took it for granted that my credentials were better than most. I had been raised in a Labour-Zionist family, spent time on a kibbutz, and had been exposed from a tender age to leftist politics under the wing of a socialist-Zionist youth movement.

But if I loved the New Left, it didn‘t necessarily love me back. I had just returned from a gap year in Israel that had ended with an unanticipated bang. Until the Six Day War in June 1967, much of the left in the West regarded the tiny new state as an underdog threatened by enemies more numerous and fiercely armed than itself. In the course of winning the war, Israel annexed territory not its own, a grave mistake for which it and the Palestinians have been paying ever since. Overnight, Israel, in the eyes of the international left, became the oppressor. The criticism may have been legitimate, but it was also clear to many Israelis that the New Left was pissed at them for having the temerity to triumph in a battle which, had they lost, would have meant annihilation. The fact that Israel was also the only functioning democracy in a region dominated by theocrats and feudal monarchs with a powerful interest in fanning the flames of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was swept under the carpet as the left redefined its position on the Middle East. By 1968, when I marched on London’s Grosvenor Square, along with thousands of other students and workers, to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam, I stuck defensively with my own little group of Jewish Marxists, for we were not especially welcome among the left, nor have we been since.

In retrospect, I‘m not complaining: Nothing concentrates the mind quite like being stranded between the establishment and its opposition. If my upbringing made of me a lifelong democratic socialist, my experiences at the LSE stamped me with a permanent mistrust of left absolutism. Having been, in my middle teens, a gifted dogmatist myself -- like most of my friends, I treated my parents to breakfast-table homilies on the egalitarian splendor of the Soviet Union, and snarled when they suggested that if I liked Russia so much, why didn’t I go and live there -- I understood the pleasures of doctrinal simplicity unclouded by anything so dull as evidence. But the discomfort of being an outsider taught me that if it was true that the student movements of the late ‘60s were shaping up as an indispensable scourge of world injustice, it was also true that some strains of the left were cultivating a readiness to lionize almost any movement that called itself a liberation front, and to cry fascism without discrimination among degrees of political evil. True, those were heady times, and the young are rarely afflicted by uncertainty. Only once many leftists had their political map of the world, they stuck to it through thick and thin, for better and worse. Thirty years on, it’s still not unusual for a fellow lefty, on hearing that I hold an Israeli passport as well as an American one, to ask me how I could have borne to live under such an egregious regime. On good days I manage to restrain myself from answering, ”The same way you can live in a country that believes it rules the world.“ a

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That, of course, is an answer as glib, pious and reductive as the question, and it is also the answer that some on the left -- including in the pages of this newspaper -- have, with dispiriting predictability, trotted out to assign blame for the events of September 11. You could count the seconds before Chomsky, Cockburn et al., having carefully prefaced their remarks with the word outrage to describe the attack on the World Trade Center, dived in variously to blame it on America‘s ravenous hunger for empire; on our president’s stupidity; on our unconditional support for Israel. There is partial truth to all of that, but at best this line of argument betrays a crude sense of causality. At worst it is the tub-thumping inverse of Jerry Falwell‘s ravings about God punishing us for our fleshly sins. Yes, the U.S. is deeply implicated in a global economy that immiserates millions, and, yes, we need to confront the fact that many of those millions hate us, and not without reason. Yes, Bush is not a conspicuously smart man, though even the irascible Alexander Cockburn conceded, before muscling in to eviscerate the president, that his speech to the nation last week rose above expectations.

Certainly Bush must be given credit for distinguishing between Islam and those who pervert its teachings in the name of terror, and for visiting an Islamic center to show good will. What is certain is that a cleverer or more statesmanlike man than Bush could not have stopped the massacre at the World Trade Center. This was not about statesmanship.

Nor, as Christopher Hitchens -- by no definition a friend of Israel -- pointed out in The Nation, would the attack have been forestalled by an Israeli withdrawal from the territories. Accurately for once, Hitchens uses the term fascist to describe the attack, which was planned and perpetrated by people who hate what is best, as well as what is worst, about American life: democracy itself, as expressed in freedom of speech; the separation -- however compromised lately -- of church and state; the guarantee of civil rights; the emancipation of women. Hitchens has been pilloried for his efforts -- nothing riles the dug-in left quite like a member breaking ranks. As far as I’m concerned, he can come to dinner any time, and we can have a lovely fight about American support for Israel, which for all its errors is the lone practitioner in the Middle East of the values he holds dear.

These are trying times for opposition period, and some have called for unity on the left. I, for one, have never been so happy to see the left fractured and divided. The intellectual debate will keep us honest and force on us a discussion we haven‘t lately had of the basic principles of dissent. Some are easy. Right now, the left should be making a stink about the thousands of workers who have been pink-slipped in the last two weeks, not to mention the months since the economic bubble burst, not to mention the poor and oppressed who remain poor and oppressed now, as they were before September 11. But there are more difficult areas for which we need the skills to take stock, and to make critical distinctions between degrees of evil. Right now, if the police want to search your bags in public places, or the government detains a foreign national on suspicion of terrorism by association, or taps into your e-mail, is that a necessary part of security, or a flagrant abuse of civil rights? How are we to move the Middle East debate beyond ”Israel, boo; Palestine, hurray“? Most difficult of all, how is America to respond to the attack?

Having lived through two of Israel’s wars, I find it hard to take seriously the pacifism, however sincerely meant, espoused by Howard Zinn and others. War has been declared on us, and one of the tasks of a mature left will be to decide what counts as an appropriate -- and yes, maybe a military -- response.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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