At times like the present, when violence breaks out between Israel and Palestine, it becomes common to observe that contemporary progressives have a particular problem with the Jewish state – and that this seems to be connected to the fact that it is Jewish. The situation of the Palestinian populace is appalling, and it is entirely understandable why Palestinian people, and those with friends and relatives who are connected to the territory, would feel an animus against Israel. Only a Martian who knew nothing of human behaviour would expect otherwise. But the reaction to events in Israel among progressives based in the West in general, whose connection to the events is only abstract, is something different. Why is it that the response of such people to events in Palestine is simply not the same as it is with regard to other tragedies or injustices around the world?
It is not, to be clear, that Western progressives do not seem to care about the fate of the Tibetans, the Uyghurs, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, the population of Western Sahara, and so on. But they care about what happens in Palestine much more. And they care about it in such a way as to indicate not just compassion for the suffering Palestinians, but visceral hatred of Israel itself. There is a celebratory, almost gleeful mood that sets in among some such people when Israelis are killed. Among the rest, there is a steely lack of sympathy where in any other similar circumstance there would be an outpouring of emotion. And it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is because Israelis are usually Jews. As somebody called Dave Rich put it to Nick Cohen, writing in the Spectator yesterday:
Anti-Semites are getting excited by the sight of dead Jews… Sorry to be blunt but I am in an uncompromising mood. They’re not angry because Israeli soldiers have killed Palestinians. The sight of Hamas murdering Israeli civilians has exhilarated them instead and filled them with joy.
And the evidence for this is everywhere – across Twitter and indeed across the streets of many national capitals in previous days. Some progressives living in the West get excited, let us repeat, by the sight of dead Jews. In some respects, it is as simple as that.
However, the explanation that is usually given for this is not, I think, sufficient. In that usual explanation, the theory goes that it is simply the case that there are a number of personally antisemitic people in contemporary progressive circles (particularly within the hard left), and that when violence is perpetrated against Israel, the mask slips and the antisemitism is revealed. This may be true of a small number of people. But the reality is that most progressives are not personally antisemitic in their daily lives in the sense that they are animated by hatred of Jewish people per se or think them inferior. The truth is much deeper than that: it is that the contemporary progressive movement itself, necessarily, is imbued with profoundly antisemitic themes which at a time like this bubble to the surface like poison in a witch’s cauldron, and which cloud the judgement of otherwise fairly milquetoast, mild-mannered people.
Let’s go back to a familiar theme. Modern progressivism has to be understood as a manifestation of what I have previously referred to as ‘political reason’ – namely, that series of rationales which justify the relationship of the governing class to the governed, and hence the existence of the state itself (and the international organisations which come under the umbrella of ‘global governance’). As I put it in that earlier post:
Political reason [is] both ‘individualising and totalising’. Again, this is not difficult to understand, but worth spelling out. The state’s impulse is always to atomise the population, such that each and every individual first and foremost looks to his or her relationship to the state as the most important in his or her life. And this is at the same time necessarily a totalising impulse, as it installs the state as the very essence of society, without which the latter simply cannot survive, let alone flourish.
This is the basis of political reason, but why is it so? Regular readers will I hope forgive me for returning to Machiavelli, who made things perfectly clear: “[A] wise ruler… must think of a method by which his citizens will need the state and himself at all times and in every circumstance. Then they will always be loyal to him.”
Modern progressivism, seen through this lens, is essentially a sequence of individualising and totalising impulses, whose function is to destroy all barriers between state (and global) governance and society such that the latter becomes entirely subordinate to the former, and such that the only relationship of relevance is that between the individual and those who govern him. This is what justifies the existence of the state in modernity: its claim to know society in all its intimate detail, so that it can insert itself into every corner, and thereby render every individual entirely reliant upon it in order to maintain his or her loyalty and justify its own position.
It is no accident, then, that modern progressivism is obsessed with the figure of the victim. A victim, quintessentially vulnerable, is by definition in need of the state’s intervention to cater to his needs. Modern progressivism, indeed, can be understood as a never-ending search for new categories of victims who can be constructed as vulnerable and therefore requiring of the power of the state in order to intervene in society on its behalf. This is how the modern state, and by extension modern global governance, has come to justify itself: it is the origin of modern political thought, the pattern of modern political discourse, and the consequence of modern political doctrine when it is put into practical effect.
It is therefore deeply disturbing for contemporary progressives, who have wedded themselves so thoroughly to the doctrines of political reason, to have to confront the idea that vulnerability might be merely temporary, that it might end, and indeed that it might be transcended – not through the state or international organisations doing nice things for people, but through the exercise of will and cooperation with one’s peers and community. If it is possible to transcend vulnerability through the exercise of will and cooperation with one’s peers and community, then the entire edifice of the modern state as we have come to understand it collapses. Because then there is no need for the state to bestow its blessings, no need for it to deconstruct the social order, and no need for the members of the establishment to man the corridors of its power and subordinate society to their dreams.
And this brings us naturally to Israel and the Jews. In 1945 there was no people on Earth who more aptly merited the category of victim than the Jews, and therefore no people who better fitted the framework of political reason: a vulnerable mass in need of the benefits of political power (in this case, chiefly exercised through global governance). But 80 years later this is no longer the case. Modern Israel is the almost absolute opposite of a victim, and the Jews have repudiated victim status categorically and completely, largely if not entirely through sheer effort of their own. It is not the case that Israel has raised itself by its boot-straps, exactly, but it is true that through collective commitment to a national project it has forever cast off the status of vulnerability, and made abundantly clear that it never intends to re-embrace it. (Indeed, one might say that Israel represents another, older, alternative form of political reason, which sees the justification for the relationship between governor and governed as inhering in national (and religious) identity rather than vulnerability and benevolence.)
Israel therefore symbolises an absolutely categorical and fundamental repudiation of the vulnerablising dynamic of modern political reason and the logic of much of modern political power, and so indeed do the Jews themselves writ large as the paradigm case of a people who were once, as Arendt might have put it, ‘malheureux’, but who refused to accept that status as permanent.
This means that Israel serves as a symbol to purportedly ‘vulnerable’ people everywhere: transcendence is possible. And the progressive movement, so wedded to the individualising and totalising mission of political reason, hates and fears that symbolism as a necessary consequence of its own logic. Contemporary progressivism is therefore contemptuous of Israel and Jewish people almost by definition; antisemitism is necessary to its worldview, because that worldview produces a relationship between political power and the victim, and between state and global governance and society, which – by merely existing – Israel and the Jews repudiate.
This cannot be tolerated. And it is why so many ‘woke’ activists in particular, who are the very vanguard of political reason as I have here described it, are so invested in the subject of Palestine. It is not because they care particularly about Palestinians, but because they loathe what the Israeli state in particular symbolises. They loathe the fact that it is proud (some might even say arrogant), that it rejects the logic of victimhood, and that it emphasises its own form of political reason that is bound up in nationhood and religion in a manner that is implacably opposed to their own understanding of the proper relationship between society and state. The only thing that needs to be added is that anybody who understands anything about the human mind can then see quite easily why it is that those people then behave so deplorably when they see their enemy wrought low.
Three closing remarks. The first is that I am anxious not to be misunderstood: plenty of people who would call themselves progressives, or Leftists, genuinely abhor violence and would reject absolutely the argument I here make. I do not suggest for a moment that the schema I have laid out is what takes place within the mind of any given individual. What I am arguing is in a way even more simple; it is that progressive thought is readily beckoned towards antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment because of the predicates on which it rests. This needs to be reflected upon.
The second remark is that I do not wish to be interpreted as making a racially essentialist argument. Israel goes against the grain of contemporary progressive thought, and is hated and feared, precisely because its existence suggests that the bundle of ideas which informs that thought is, in essence, wrong – universally, not only for Jewish people. This, I think, needs emphasising. Political reason, which justifies the existence of the state, is fundamentally and essentially inhumane in all the most important respects. The human spirit is crushed by a conception of itself as vulnerable and in need therefore of the impersonal care of the benevolent state; it is raised up by casting that conception off in union with family and community and genuinely human relationships. Insofar as Israel and the story of the Jewish people after 1945 demonstrates that truth (and it does so very imperfectly), it is despised by those whose worldview rests on its denial.
The third remark – and this should probably go without saying – is that it is inexcusable that Israel and its allies, the Arab States, the United Nations and Palestinian leaders themselves have somehow contrived to reduce the Palestinian population to the status of permanent victims, and that it is the hope of all sensible people that one day this situation ends.