In a settler-colonial society that continues to be structured around the effort to displace and dispossess the indigenous inhabitants of the country, can there be a left? Commitment to basic left principles of freedom and equality would set “left-wing colonizers” against the majority within their own societies – including the poor, marginalized ethnic groups, and women, obviating the classical left strategies which aim to mobilize this majority against economic and political tyranny. Thus, the question is difficult to dismiss even in principle.
In practice, the (Jewish) Israeli left has faced this dilemma since its inception, developing a variety of responses to its challenge. These have included leaving the country and defecting to the national “enemy”, as well as pretending that Israel is a “normal” capitalist country and wishing colonialism away (or expelling it to the realm beyond the Green Line). The question of whether to reject the colonial project or to try to effect “change from within” has historically split the Israeli left into a Zionist and a non/anti-Zionist or “radical” wing. And yet the recurring cycles of violence to which succeeding stages of the colonial thrust have subjected Palestinians and Israelis continue to de-stabilize all answers to the dilemma. On the one hand, leftists organizing with oppressed sections of Jewish Israeli society are always forced, sooner or later, to deal with these groups’ active adherence to the colonial “rule of difference.” On the other, as many Palestinian militants have acknowledged, organizing within their own society is the most specific contribution Israelis, as Israelis, can make to Palestinian liberation.
The “labor” wing of Zionism which reigned hegemonic in Israel until 1977 and its increasingly neo-liberal heirs are not “left” in the sense in which I use the word here, and yet they continue to monopolize use of the word in Israeli public discourse. The rebellion of working-class Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews against this hegemony, which reached its radical apogee with the formation of the Israeli Black Panthers in 1971, was appeased and integrated into the colonial project with the rise of the Likud. Starting with the “turnabout” (mahapach) of 1977, Likud-led governments have given recognition to Mizrahi culture and supported limited redistribution (usually through coalition partner Shas). Perhaps more importantly, the Likud has fostered the rise of a Mizrahi petty bourgeoisie of employers of Palestinian labor and ensured that Mizrahis enjoy their share of the lavish welfare payments entitled to settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.
Many radicals, especially Mizrahis, seek to dissociate themselves from the “white left” associated with Labor Zionism and the justified ire that it draws from wide sections of the populace. Their critique has drawn attention to the ways anti-Mizrahi racism and class prejudice are reproduced within radical circles, but has not thereby found a way to bypass the basic dilemma of the left. It is unsurprising that those who possess few privileges beside their Jewishness – Mizrahis and even more marginalized groups, like the Ethiopian Jews – are least eager to give up this privilege. Thus, as the Mizrahi community experiences increasing internal differentiation by class, both its relatively privileged and its underprivileged sections are less and less receptive to the radical Mizrahi discourse which invites them to make common cause with the Palestinians.
From the end of the second intifada in the mid-2000s and until recently, the Israeli establishment and its Palestinian Authority partners have enjoyed extraordinary success in suppressing resistance to the occupation. This repression paradoxically created a space for the left to organize within Jewish Israeli society without being forced to take on the “rule of difference.” In the 2008 elections for mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a non-Zionist Communist candidate, smeared by opponents for “refusing to sing the national anthem,” received thirty-five percent of the vote. The global wave of “social justice” protests which encircled the globe in 2011 made an enthusiastic appearance in Israel, elevating leftists to crucial organizing positions. Less evanescent than these has been the creation and rapid growth of the militant Koah La’ovdim trade union federation, which also includes a number of radical leftists among its core organizers.
But the succession of events following the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in May this year has made it starkly clear that the Israeli left has not been released from the obligation to make difficult choices. As long as Israelis were shielded from paying any price for the ongoing occupation, the need to choose between organizing effectively within Israeli society and expressing solidarity with the Palestinians was deferred indefinitely. Smear campaigns aiming to break the ties between left activists and those they organized with were delightfully ineffective. But the kidnapping and the belated announcement that the three teenagers were dead unleashed a wave of popular hatred and violence that caught the left entirely by surprise, and changed everything.
This popular hatred – epitomized thus far by the barbaric murder of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir — is what strikes us here as new about the current situation. Settlers have carried out wanton acts of violence against Palestinians for years, but this act was apparently carried out by “ordinary” Israeli youths, fueled by an atmosphere of vengeance that enveloped the entire mainstream. “Operation Protective Edge,” though particularly destructive, is but the third or fourth in a series of what the IDF calls “lawn-mowing” operations against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. But this time around, the military operation was preceded, and perhaps precipitated, by the spontaneous appearance of a grassroots movement demanding “revenge” for the death of the kidnapped teenagers. Hatred of Arabs, always fostered by the Zionist movement as an instrument towards furthering its goals of colonization, seems to have come into its own as an end in itself.
While Protective Edge certainly has other objectives as well, it also functioned as an internal political move by Netanyahu in response to this wave of popular rage. But the operation has not cooled the atmosphere inside Israel. Rather, the popular movement for revenge has found new channels for expression. Newly coalesced gangs, some organized by rapper “the Shadow” and using social networks for recruitment, have dubbed themselves “Israel’s second army” and enlisted enthusiastically in the fight against the “fifth column”—Jewish leftists and Palestinian citizens of Israel who have come out against the war and its atrocities.
The most visible and immediately shocking effect of this mobilization has been the violent intimidation of anti-war demonstrators. Israeli leftists, especially those in the heroic feminist tradition of Women in Black, have long been inured to sexually inflected slurs, volleys of saliva, and the occasional random act of violence. This time, however, anti-war demonstrations in Jewish localities have been met with organized mobs throwing bottles and stones and waiting for dispersal (usually at the hands of police, which is indifferent at best to the protesters’ safety) to follow protesters and beat them up. This occurred in Tel Aviv on 12 July and in Haifa on 16 and 17 July, as well as after the biggest demonstration in Tel Aviv on 26 July, in which anti-war protestors vastly outnumbered the thugs.
Less dramatic but arguably more insidious has been the massive chill cast upon freedom of expression. While demonstrations by Palestinian citizens have been met more by police repression than by mob violence, civilian groups going after anti-war expressions by Palestinian public employees and calling for their dismissal have managed to cost some people their jobs, and clearly to intimidate far greater numbers into silence. Artists and entertainers critical of the war have faced threats of boycott and violence, leading some to retract their criticisms. Even the universities, which some opponents of BDS argue are bastions of opposition, have threatened disciplinary action against students and issued ominous warnings against expression of “extreme” views by students and faculty.
The combination of mob violence and McCarthy-esque targeting of people’s livelihoods have pushed the Israeli left onto the defensive. Until recently, the left in Israel may have seen its main challenge as similar to that of the left in countries like the United States, namely, how to become relevant to the everyday struggles and needs of the vast majority of the population. Nowadays, though, the question is not one of relevance. Israeli society has wrapped itself up in this war, more and more so as the death toll on the Israeli side has risen; it remains to be seen whether the de-escalation of the last few days will change anything. As things stand, the question seems one of survival: is there any point in going on in the face of such repression and monolithic support for the state’s bloodcurdling policies? Given the overwhelming military odds, defection does not seem to be on anyone’s agenda, but exile in Western Europe or America seems a brighter and brighter prospect, comparatively, for those who have that option.
Nevertheless, there is a case to be made for steadfastness — emulation of the Palestinian sumud — and survival. There is a qualitative difference between a small, beleaguered left and none at all. A remnant can retain traditions and organizational memory, whereas an entirely new left would have to start from scratch. Whereas there may once have been some truth in the claim that the Israeli state uses the existence of the left to paint itself in liberal-democratic colors internationally, this is eminently no longer true. Thus, all the more reason for the left to fight (and to make common cause with Israel’s few real liberals) to access public space, not only for anti-war opinions, but also for anti-capitalist, feminist, Mizrahi and other movements which will suffer from the foreclosure of this space.
Finally, in the face of fatalism bred by despair there is a need to maintain an awareness of the radically open nature of the future. We have no idea what will happen next, and what role we will be called upon to play. To take one example: many analysts have been saying that the Israeli economy is in a bubble, and the costs of the war may pop this bubble, finally bringing the global Great Recession to the country. This may radically de-stabilize the political system, bringing new alliances into possibility. True, the probability of a simultaneous uprising in Israel and Palestine, which I optimistically touted a year and a half ago, seems very small indeed; it is much more likely that the extreme right will take advantage of economic disruption. And yet, the contemporary Israeli radical right (unlike the Likud of the 1970s) has no populist discourse with which to engage economic issues. The left could still influence at least some sections of the working class.
Those members of the Israeli left who have gone or will go into exile certainly have a role to play in criticizing and ostracizing Israel. The claim that movements like BDS are counter-productive because they alienate most Israelis from the Palestinian cause certainly has no more validity, as the current levels of alienation could hardly be surmounted. And yet there is still a case to be made for the defensive fight to maintain a radical presence within the Israeli public sphere. This presence can only be achieved if a critical mass remains physically in the country. Since the future is unwritten, there are no grounds for dismissing our responsibility to influence it as best we can.
 George Steinmetz follows Partha Chatterjee in defining modern colonialism as “sovereignty by a foreign power” combined with the rule of difference, a legal, practical and cultural “assumption of the essential difference and incorrigible inferiority of the subject population”. Steinmetz, The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008).
 See Uri Cohen and Nissim Leon, “The new Mizrahi middle class: Ethnic mobility and class integration in Israel”. Journal of Israeli History 27:1 (2008), pp. 51-64.