A cancer on the political left

The reflexive hostility to Israel on the democratic left is becoming troubling. I think well-meaning progressives need to increase their vigilance in the name of decency.

Consider the ruckus caused by remarks in which NDP deputy leader Libby Davies appeared to denounce the very founding of Israel as illegitimate. Once her comments went viral, and her party commendably repudiated them, she wrote a letter saying "My reference to the year 1948 as the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory was a serious and completely inadvertent error." But this explanation does not wash.

That her comments were serious I grant. But inadvertent? This was not some slip of the tongue like a right-winger shouting "Long live Communism" when they meant to say "Capitalism." She knows 1948 was the founding of Israel, not a subsequent war in which it acquired "disputed" territory. And she had also broken with her party to endorse a boycott and sanctions against Israel. There is deep hostility here that, one fears, is uncontroversial among many of her associates.

Then consider Fidel Castro's declaration, proudly circulated by Cuban diplomats at a typical recent UN anti-Israel session: "The hatred felt by the state of Israel against the Palestinians is such that they would not hesitate to send the one and a half million men, women and children of that country to the crematoria where millions of Jews of all ages were exterminated by the Nazis. It would seem that the Fuehrer's swastika is today Israel's banner." And ask yourself: Where is the outrage on the democratic left?

I will not rehash old quarrels about whether Castro is a vicious incompetent or a romantic anti-imperialist hero. But anyone who reads the newspapers knows it is Hamas that is pledged to exterminate Jews, not the other way around. And putting swastikas over the Star of David is second only to the blood libel in gratuitous malevolence. So why aren't we hearing more criticism of Castro from his erstwhile admirers? You're not sympathetic, are you?

I don't believe so. I'm convinced most Canadians on the left are motivated by precisely the compassionate sensitivity to injustice and bigotry they proclaim a little too often and too loudly. And I am certain that, if they actually read the drearily revolting stream of anti-Semitic blood-libel cartoons, sermons and political statements in Middle Eastern publications and, increasingly, Islamist outlets in the West, they would be physically ill. But I also know they do not read these things, on purpose. And I don't understand why not.

Thus I appeal to the Canadian left, with absolute sincerity: Please recognize that there is an enemy to your left and it is creeping up on you.

I realize you believe you have adversaries and enemies on the right. I am not convinced you draw a sufficiently careful distinction between the merely misguided and the genuinely malign to that side but I grant that the latter do exist. Including anti-Semites in the fever swamps of the right. But they inhabit the fever swamps of the left as well. I am increasingly persuaded that anti-Semitism is an infallible badge of vile extremism everywhere. And if you look hard to your left you will see a loathsome horde dripping its slime and heading your way.

Of course not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. If it were, it would make most Israelis anti-Semitic, since the inhabitants of that fractious democracy incessantly debate every aspect of public life and criticize their own government with considerable glee. Ever since Job berated God for callous incompetence, it has been normal within Judaism to question everything without standing on ceremony.

I love it. But why doesn't the left? You all know Israel investigates itself constantly over the Gaza blockade, the Lebanon incursion, the withdrawal from Gaza and everything else, and Israelis quarrel about them constantly. You all know that in Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Gaza dissent brings death. Yet the very existence of Israel seems increasingly offensive to some of you.

The naive still ask why the left dislikes Israel despite its democratic openness. But darker questions are starting to arise. You cannot be unaware of the moral gulf between Israel and Hamas. And as long as you side reflexively with Hamas, you cannot reassure me that you are not culpable in a weird infiltration of hate into progressivism.

It is a relief that even an American media icon like Helen Thomas destroys her career by telling Israelis openly to "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home" to "Poland. Germany. And America ..." But her views cannot have been a secret to colleagues who continued to respect her until she went toxically public.

Anti-Semitism is wicked and grotesque. Please do not let it seep into the mainstream left.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson