The Deep Roots of the Left’s Deafening Silence on Hamas
There are serious ideological reasons why parts of the left have gone so badly astray. The implications go far beyond the conflict in the Middle East.
On October 7th, the world witnessed the worst slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust. Hundreds of attendees at a music festival were murdered in cold blood. Families hiding in their homes were burned alive. Jewish mothers and fathers were, in an eerie echo of the 1940s, imploring their children to stay quiet lest their would-be murderers should detect their whereabouts. Nearly two hundred people remain in the clutches of a terrorist organization that announced its genocidal intentions in its founding charter.
Many people, of all faiths and convictions, have recognized the enormity of these crimes. Numerous world leaders denounced the terrorist attacks in clear language. Private citizens shared their grief on social media. Millions mourned. But despite the outpouring of support, there has also been a large contingent of people and organizations who stayed uncharacteristically silent—or went so far as to celebrate the carnage.
Even as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak found clear words about Hamas, for example, the BBC have steadfastly refused to call the Hamas fighters who killed over 1200 people by the name rightfully reserved for those who deliberately target innocent civilians for political ends: terrorists. Meanwhile, many schools and universities, nonprofit organizations and corporations that have over the past years gotten into the business of condemning and commemorating all kinds of tragedies, both small and large, fell uncharacteristically silent.
Some of the most famous universities in the world—including Princeton, Yale and Stanford—only released statements after they came under intense pressure on social media. At Harvard University, it took pressure from alumni and an outraged thread on X by Larry Summers, a former president of the institution, to prompt his successor into belated action.
Worse still were the people and organizations who actively celebrated the pogroms. Multiple chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America, which continues to count Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez among its ranks, encouraged their followers to attend rallies that glorified Hamas’ terror as a righteous form of resistance. As its San Francisco chapter wrote on X, the “weekend’s events” should be seen as part and parcel of Palestinians’ “right to resist.” The Chicago chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement even glorified the terrorists who murdered scores of people at a rave in southern Israel, pairing a now-deleted image of a paraglider with the caption: “I stand with Palestine.”
Meanwhile, academics from leading universities were busy defending these terrorist attacks as a form of anti-colonial struggle. “Postcolonial, anticolonial, and decolonial are not just words you heard in your EDI workshop,” a professor in the school of social work at McMaster University, in Canada, wrote on X. “Settlers are not civilians,” a Yale professor who has written for mainstream outlets including The Washington Post and The New York Times, maintained.
All of this raises a simple question: How could such a notable portion of the left side with terrorists who openly announce their genocidal intentions? Why have key institutions proven so reluctant to denounce one of the worst terrorist attacks in living memory? What, to them, renders the victims of these attacks so much less worthy of solidarity than those of the many other atrocities they have full-throatedly condemned?
The ideological roots of the great obfuscation
In the past days, people have offered many possible explanations for this selective silence. Some focus on outright antisemitism. Others emphasize that an understandable concern over the immoral actions that Israeli governments have taken in the past have blinded many activists to the suffering of innocent Israeli civilians. Others still point out that institutional leaders want to avoid eliciting angry reactions from activists, preferring to stay silent on a sensitive issue out of simple fear for their jobs.
Each of these explanations contains a grain of truth. Some people in the world really are consumed by one of the world’s most ancient hatreds. Others are indeed hyper-focused on everything that Israel has done wrong, a stance that is easier to understand in the case of Palestinians whose ancestors have been displaced than it is in the case of leftist activists who have for many decades found the missteps of the one state that happens to be Jewish worthy of much greater condemnation than similar, or greater, missteps perpetrated by any other. Finally, it is indeed true that many university presidents, nonprofit leaders and corporate CEOs have, among the institutional meltdowns of the past years, come to believe that they must avoid controversy at all costs if they are to keep drawing their generous paychecks.
But the double-standard that has in the past days become so obvious on parts of the left also has a more profound source, one that is ideological rather than practical or atavistic. Over the past decades, a new set of ideas about the role that identity does— and should—play in the world have transformed the very nature of what it means to be on the left, displacing an older set of universalist aspirations in the process.
This novel ideology, which I call the “identity synthesis,” insists that we must see the whole world through the prism of identity categories like race. It maintains that the key to understanding any political conflict is to conceive of it in terms of the power relations between different identity groups. It analyzes the nature of those power relations through a simplistic schema that, based on the North American experience, pits so-called whites against so-called “people of color.” Finally, it imposes that schema—in a fashion that might, in the academic jargon of the day, ironically be called “neo-colonial”—on complex conflicts in faraway lands.
The trouble with structural racism
Many advocates of the identity synthesis rightly point out that an account of racism which focuses purely on individual beliefs or motivations runs the danger of concealing important forms of injustice. Even if everyone has the best of intentions, the after effects of historical injustices can ensure that many immigrant students attend underfunded public schools or that many members of ethnic minorities suffer disadvantages in the housing market. It therefore makes sense, they argue, to add a new concept to our vocabulary: structural racism.
As the Cambridge Dictionary explains, structural racism consists of “laws, rules, or official policies in a society that result in and support a continued unfair advantage to some people and unfair or harmful treatment of others based on race.” By pointing out that some forms of racism are “structural” in this way, we are better able to capture—and hopefully remedy—circumstances in which members of some racial groups suffer significant disadvantages for reasons other than individual bias.
This is plausible insofar as it goes. To understand contemporary America, it is indeed helpful to add the notion of structural racism to our conceptual toolbox. But in recent years, many advocates of the identity synthesis have gone one step further: they have begun to claim that this more recent concept of structural racism should altogether supplant the older concept of individual racism.
Rather than acknowledging that there are two different conceptions of racism, each of which helps to elucidate real injustices in its own way, parts of the left have come to conceptualize racism in an exclusively structural form. “Racism,” one online guide puts the growing consensus, “is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination” because it must involve “one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of the society and by shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices.”
In its most radical form, this claim entails that it is impossible for a member of a historically marginalized group to be racist toward a member of a historically dominant group. Because racism does not have anything to do with individual beliefs or attributes, and members of groups that are comparatively powerless are incapable of carrying out “systematic discrimination” against members of groups that are comparatively powerful, even the vilest forms of hatred need not count as racist. As an article in Vice put it, “It’s literally impossible to be racist to a white person.”
The result has, again and again, been a form of selective blindness when members of minority groups have expressed bigoted attitudes toward supposedly more privileged groups, including those that are themselves minorities. This inability to recognize the importance of the more traditional conception of racism makes it impossible to name what is happening when members of one minority group are the victims of hate crimes committed by members of another minority group that is now considered to suffer from greater disadvantages. In December 2019, for example, two terrorists killed a police detective and then murdered three people at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, close to New York. They had a long trail of posting antisemitic content on social media; one assailant was a follower of the Black Hebrew Israelites, a movement which holds overtly antisemitic beliefs. But because the assailants were black, and the victims perceived as white, many news outlets failed to categorize the shooting as racist, or to treat it as a hate crime, for an astoundingly long period of time.
The trouble with white privilege
The idea that all racism is structural is deeply damaging because it makes it hard for institutions to open their eyes to forms of discrimination towards members of groups that are supposedly dominant. In practice, it is made even worse by the fact that many people on the left have now embraced a very simplistic notion of who is dominant and who is marginalized—one that imposes American conceptions of race onto situations in which they distort rather than illuminate underlying realities.
In North America, the most salient—though by no means the only—racial divide has for centuries been that between whites and blacks. In assessing which group is supposedly privileged in a foreign conflict, many Americans therefore think it is enough to figure out who is “white” and who is a “person of color.” This makes it impossible for them to understand conflicts in which the relevant political cleavage does not neatly pit whites against blacks (or, more broadly, “whites” against “people of color”).
Whoopi Goldberg, for example, has repeatedly insisted that the Holocaust was “not about race.” Since, from an American point of view, both Jewish and non-Jewish Germans are white, she found it impossible to get her head around an ideology that centers around racial distinctions between them. “You could not tell a Jew on a street,” she wrongly claimed. “You could find me. You couldn’t find them.”
In the case of Israel, this has led most observers to assume that there is a clear division in racial roles between Israelis and Palestinians: In their mind, Israelis are white, Palestinians “people of color.” And since white people have historically held power over non-white people, this reinforces the impression that it is impossible for Israelis to be victims of racial hatred.
But this perspective once again turns out to be so simplistic as to verge on the delusional. Ms. Goldberg was wrong to believe that Nazis were unable to spot Jews; though some Jews did manage to survive by passing themselves off as “Aryan,” many Nazis—and their collaborators in Central Europe—were highly effective at spotting people whom they suspected of being Jewish.
More importantly, the assumption that most of the victims of last Saturday’s terrorist attacks were “white” Jews with roots in Europe is simply wrong. It’s not just that there are black Israeli Jews whose ancestors immigrated from Ethiopia, or that Hamas’ victims included many migrants from Thailand and Nepal; it’s also that Israel as a whole is now home to more Mizrahi Jews, who hail from the Middle East, than Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors long lived in Europe.
I will leave it up to others to speculate on whether the visual differences between Jewish and non-Jewish Germans are more or less stark than those between Arabs and Mizrahi Jews. But the prominence of Mizrahi Jews also betrays yet another way in which attempts to fit the Israel-Palestine conflict into a simplistic conceptual scheme go badly wrong.
The trouble with Decolonialism
The actual demographic composition of the country makes claims that Israeli civilians should be seen as settlers who are fair game for terrorist attacks doubly cynical. They are cynical because no political cause, however righteous, justifies the deliberate targeting of babies and grandmothers—neither on the Israeli nor on the Palestinian side. And they are also cynical because the great majority of Mizrahi Jews have, since the end of the Second World War, been violently displaced from the Middle Eastern countries in which their ancestors had lived for hundreds of years, with no country other than the world’s only Jewish state willing to offer them a safe harbor.
Postcolonial apologists for terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah love to invoke Frantz Fanon’s glorification of violence. The problem is not just that their tendentious reading of his work overlooks the ways in which violence can be morally corrosive and politically destructive; it’s also that the implied analogy between the so-called pied noirs (white settlers in Algeria who could safely return to the French metropolis if they chose to do so) and Mizrahi Jews (who would be neither welcome nor safe if they were to return to Iran or Iraq, to Morocco or Algeria) is so misleading as to be perverse.
And yet, this misleading analogy governs how many on the left ascribe the role of victim and perpetrator, explaining why dozens of student groups at Harvard could claim that Israel is somehow “entirely responsible” for Hamas’ decision to murder more than 1,000 civilians. At a deeper level, they even help to explain how left-wing activists and academics can contrive to perceive a deeply authoritarian and overtly theocratic regime that is explicitly hostile to sexual minorities as a progressive movement.
According to many progressives, what determines whether a movement should count as left-wing or right-wing is based on whether it claims to be fighting on behalf of those they believe to be marginalized. Since Hamas is an organization of underprivileged “people of color” fighting against “privileged” “white” Jews, it must be seen as part of a global struggle against oppression. Even though its program—which incidentally includes the violent suppression of sexual minorities within the Gaza strip—is reminiscent of some of the world’s most brutal far-right regimes, those marching in support of Hamas consider them to be part of the global struggle for progressive values. As Judith Butler, a central figure in this intellectual tradition, said in 2006, it is “very important” to classify both Hamas and Hezbollah as “social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left.”
It’s time for a reckoning with bad ideas on the left
Over the past few days, some observers have started to recognize how badly parts of the left have gone astray. Many leftist academics were genuinely horrified to see their friends and colleagues celebrate the murder of babies. There has been widespread outrage at the decision of influential movements like Black Lives Matter to idolize terrorists. Shri Thanedar, a U.S. Congressman, has publicly renounced his membership in the DSA.
This is a good start. In a free country, anyone must be free to express their support of extremist organizations, however vile; the move by many European governments to suppress pro-Hamas protests or to jail those who glorify the terrorist attacks is a betrayal of the liberal principles on which our opposition to that execrable organization should be based. But mainstream institutions can and absolutely should stop uncritically embracing organizations, like BLM, that openly glorify terrorists. And citizens should demand that moderate political parties, like the Democrats, cease to tolerate in their midst members of organizations, like the DSA, that equivocate about the moral permissibility of mass murder.
Black lives matter, greatly. Colonialism remains one of the greatest historical injustices. Even before this week, though, it should have become clear that the recognition of these important facts is fully compatible with serious concerns about the organizations that now speak on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement, and about a postcolonial discourse that all too often glorifies violent resistance to anybody who, however simplistically, is judged to be an “oppressor.”
Many advocates of the identity synthesis are genuinely motivated by good intentions. But key parts of this ideology now provide cover for forms of racism and dehumanization of vulnerable groups that should be anathema to anybody who genuinely cares about the historical values of the left. It is time for the many reasonable people who have bit their tongue as these ideas took on enormous power in mainstream institutions to raise their voice against them.
The suffering to come
Any humane outlook on the world must recognize that civilians never deserve to suffer due to the group into which they were born or because of actions committed by those who claim to speak on their behalf. I feel as much empathy for the Palestinian children who are dying in bombardments of Gaza as I do for the Jewish children who were killed in Hamas’ attack on Israel. Insinuations of collective responsibility are vile, even when voiced in response to a disgusting terrorist attack. Each civilian death is a tragedy on the same moral order.
While every civilian victim is in equal measure undeserving of their tragic fate, moral philosophers have for centuries recognized a key distinction governing the conduct of war. Military action that is directed against military targets may be legitimate; while some civilian deaths are foreseeable as a consequence of such attacks, soldiers must undertake to minimize them as far as possible. By contrast, military action is always illegitimate when the killing of innocents is the goal, not an unintended side effect.
This set of standards helps to explain how spectacularly Hamas, the organization that started the current war with a long-planned surprise attack that killed over a 1,000 men and women, toddlers and grandmothers, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and Thais and Americans and Canadians and Germans and Chinese, failed to obey the most basic moral rules. Now, it should also guide our assessment of Israel’s unfolding actions in Gaza.
This is a war Israel did not choose, and it has every right to defend itself. No democracy would tolerate on its borders the presence of a terrorist organization that has just demonstrated its willingness to engage in the indiscriminate slaughter of its civilian population; it would be the height of hypocrisy for people living in the safety of Berlin or Paris, of London or New York, to expect Israelis to do so.
But the military offensive against Hamas is extremely difficult because the terrorist organization has deliberately based so much of its military infrastructure in the midst of civilian settlements; because it is now doing what it can to stop its own people from moving away from military targets; and because Egypt, worried about the potential for Hamas fighters to destabilize the government or even perpetrate terrorist attacks within its own borders, has refused safe passage for most Gazans. All of this explains why it is so hard for Israel to accomplish its legitimate goals without causing numerous civilian casualties. But it does not constitute permission for Israel to adopt the logic of collective punishment by cutting off access to food and drinking water ahead of a full-scale invasion, or absolve the country’s armed forces from doing what they can to minimize the number of civilian casualties. As and when Israel fails to do so, full-throated criticism of its government is fully justified.
The left has the potential to speak powerfully to this moment. To do so, it needs to jettison the ideological jargon that has made so many supposed idealists fall for the ever-present temptation to contrive reasons why the suffering of one side is outrageous while the suffering of the other side is glorious. To retain our moral composure in the ugly days and weeks now on the horizon, we must recover a moral universalism that, even in the darkest hour, reminds us of our shared humanity—and unhesitatingly laments the death of innocents, irrespective of the group to which they belong.
Yascha Mounk is the founder and editor-in-chief of Persuasion. His latest book is The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas And Power In Our Time.
A version of this essay originally appeared in The Globe and Mail. Some passages are adapted from The Identity Trap.
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