The Movement and the Middle East: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Divided the American Left

Video & Transcript
 Dr. Michael Fischbach
 Transcript No. 540 (February 20, 2020)



Michael Fischbach:
Okay, good afternoon everybody. It’s a pleasure to be here at The Palestine Center.

Every time I come here I always remind audiences that way back in the 1980s, both when I was a student, a graduate student at Georgetown, I was a student assistant to Professor Hisham Sharabi, and later when I worked on my dissertation, he was on my dissertation committee. I have many fond memories and some inside stories about him that probably nobody knows, and I’ll never tell.

Let me begin my talk today with a story. I mean, I’m a historian and we like stories. In November of 1966, Daniel Rubin, who was a member of the central committee of the Communist Party USA decried what he called the “up-side-down approach” to Israel exhibited by American Jews. By accepting this picture, he said, Jews in the U.S. usually unwittingly find themselves on the side of US imperialism in opposition to national liberation movements. Rubin was upholding the party line – the CP [Communist Party] party line in the sixties: that what best served American Jews was not to support Israel blindly, but see that the real question in the Middle East was one of the struggle to overthrow imperialism, which was the common enemy of both Jews and Arabs.

And Rubin also waxed personal in his 1966 commentary, stating, “As an American Jewish communist, I feel ashamed and angry that a Jewish government coming from a people who have known so much oppression should oppress Arabs within Israel and play the U.S. imperialist game of supporting their oppression in neighboring countries.”

But not all Jewish communists agreed. Indeed, just six or seven months later, when the Communist Party leadership denounced Israel for “aggression” in the 1967 war, comrade Sid Resnick strongly objected. For Resnick, Israel was merely defending itself against a threatened Arab genocide. And he said, “The Arab chauvinist threat to Israel’s existence was real in May and June of 1967. And de-Zionizing the state of Israel and converting it to an Arab Palestine state is impossible without destroying the people and the state of Israel.” Resnick further said, “Within left-wing movements, Jewish and non-Jewish radicals ought to challenge the sham internationalism which glorifies Palestinian Arab terrorists and runs interference for Arab chauvinism.”

The fact that two Jewish members of the same left-wing political party held such divergent and mutually antagonistic attitudes towards the Arab-Israeli conflict is illustrative of a major problem that ultimately weakened the white American Left in the 1960s and which is the subject of my book.

Which side, Israel or the Palestinians, deserves the support of left-wing activists during that tumultuous period of time? While almost everyone [on] the left, the white left and the black left for that matter agreed on the need to end the Vietnam war, support the black freedom struggle at home, and strive a new politics in America, the left nonetheless was bitterly crippled and weakened by a major split in the sixties and seventies over the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Indeed, this question of whether to support Israel or the Palestinians hurt the left at the time, ultimately helped among many factors [that] led to [their] ultimate weakening and basically demise by the 1980s. And the fact that, as I mentioned, that left-wing Jews were prominently represented on both sides of that split super-heated and worsened the divisions that were already there, as a kind of Jewish civil war broke out over the question of Israel and Palestine and the left.

Today what I’d like to do is talk a little bit about these varying left-wing attitudes towards Israel and the Palestinians in the sixties and seventies, going into greater detail about why they had such tremendous impact on the left; and also, to discuss the painful and sometimes ugly debate among Jewish left-wing activists themselves, and conclude with a few thoughts about what this can tell us about progressive American politics today in advance of the 2020 elections.

Almost as soon as Israel launched the 1967 war with preemptive attacks on several Arab countries’ military forces, splits emerged within the American left over what to do. These splits grew deeper when black militants like those in the student nonviolent coordinating committee, black militants at the national conference for new politics in Chicago in the summer, both in the summer of 67, strongly supported the Palestinians and criticized Israel quite vehemently.

Youthful new left activists, largely white, are among those who quickly picked up on this and began championing the Palestinians as an example of a third-world liberation struggle that American leftists should solidly support.

The yippies, for instance—the famous combination of the hippies and the new left—are well-known in American history in the sixties. But how many of you know today that figures like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were strongly supportive of the Palestinians? Abby Hoffman once said, “I hate Israel and want to see the Palestinians triumph. I am violently anti-Israel, and no longer believe they have the right to exist.” Jerry Rubin—people called him the clown prince of sixties leftism—said, “I do not believe in freedom for Jews at the expense of Arabs,” and once quipped that “if Moses were alive today, he’d be an Arab guerilla.”

The fact that two prominent Jewish members of the new left sided so strongly with the Palestinians was emblematic of other trends within the major left-wing student groups: Students for Democratic Society. Certain leaders began also demanding that their organization, SDS, support the Palestinians as an example of an anti-imperialist global struggle.

An SDS publication written by a Jewish professor named Larry Hochman said in 1967, “A Jewish state has been established in the midst of the Arab world without the invitation or consent of the indigenous population. The Jewish immigration that occurred,” Hochman continued, “could only have occurred under the aegis of Western colonial control.” And two years later, the SDS publication New Left Notes noted in a series of articles, compared what Zionism had done to the Palestinians to what white settlers had done to North America. But very early on, SDS began receiving considerable flack and blowback for this stance.

Indeed in 69, the same publication New Left Notes featured a series of letters to the editors from frustrated SDS members, quite angry at the pro-Palestinian slant that was coming out in the pages of their newspaper. One letter to the editor said that the New Left Notes was “presenting Zionists as racist bad guys and the Arabs as anti-imperialist good guys.” Clearly the lines were being drawn.

Beyond SDS and the yippies, the student movement was another example where sharp divisions in an otherwise common attitude towards stopping the war in Vietnam broke out. Pro-Palestinian campus groups began emerging on college campuses, particularly starting in 1969, when the Palestinian guerrilla movement was much in the global news. In the spring of 1969 Palestine week activities took place in many schools including [UC] Berkley, UCLA, Madison, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. Groups like the American Friends for Free Palestine emerged at the University of Virginia, and at Indiana Bloomington, the Palestine Solidarity Committee emerged.

Yet here again, there was immediate reaction. Pro-Israeli groups on campuses began pushing back. Left-wing student groups like Amiyah Suel at SUNY Albany and the Jewish Student Movement at Northwestern emerged with great force. In fact, so divisive did this question become on college campuses, that for instance, teaching on the Middle East at Columbia in April of 1969, descended into fist fights among those in attendance. And the following year, a similar event prompted the New York City police to intervene after members of the Jewish Defense League began attacking members of the audience.

So clearly, the youthful new left was split over the war in the Middle East, even as they could agree on the need to end the war in Southeast Asia. And outside the new left, at the so-called old left, these issues emerged again with great force and divisiveness. Old left groups like the Workers World Party, which was the only organization led by Americans actually to protest against Israel while the 67 war was going on, were solidly supportive of the Palestinians. So too was the Socialist Workers Party, which developed fairly sophisticated theoretical understandings of the conflict. But on the other hand, some in so-called old left political parties were quite uncertain. And as I alluded to in my opening remarks, nowhere was this more evident than within the Communist Party USA. The party leaders, as I mentioned, had condemned Israel for starting the war in 67, and party bosses tried to enforce party unity. But many Jewish comrades in particular, and there were a large number of Jews within the Communist Party as in other left-wing groups, rebelled against this hostile attitude towards Israel. They claimed that they were “pro-Israel” but “non-Zionist.” And one such party member noted, “But on one issue, left non-Zionists unreservedly agree with Zionists, that Israel now has an inalienable right to exist.” Indeed, the ever-watchful FBI, which had dozens, in fact hundreds of informers, gleefully wrote in 1970 that disputes over the Middle East were “a crisis of first order of magnitude within the CP, and one from which it never really recovered.”

Also, in the old left, there was not only uncertainty, but outright support for Israel. This was most clearly seen in the Socialist Party of America and its offshoots in the seventies—groups like Social Democrats USA and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. They believed, certainly starting in 1970 Michael Harrington, at that time a young Carl Gershman, that the proper choice for left-wing Americans, certainly for socialists, was to embrace Israel as a bastion of socialist progress in a sea of backwards Arabs supported by Soviet Communist totalitarianism.

Now, moving away from the new left and the old left, there were other aspects of the American left. Maybe not the true left, but at least progressive Americans that also found themselves quite divided over this issue. One thinks, for example, of the movement and the war in Vietnam. One pacifist stated the dilemma of how people fighting to stop the war in Vietnam should deal with war in the Middle East this way when he said, “Raising the question of the Middle East at peace meetings seems to lead to a most disconcerting silence.” This balancing act about what to do impacted the major anti-war group in the sixties, the MOBE, which fought hard to, despite some efforts by left-wing groups, to include denunciation of Israel’s actions in the Middle East along with America’s actions in Southeast Asia. The MOBE studiously avoided taking on other questions.

Outside the MOBE, anti-war figures like Martin Luther King Jr. similarly faced a dilemma of how to remain morally consistent in their denunciation of war and military action across the board, yet not offend important domestic constituents. King eventually tried to have it both ways, and noted in September of 67, several months after the [1967 Six Day] war, that, “Neither military measures,” which was talking to Israel, “nor a stubborn effort to reverse history,” he was talking to the Arab world, “can provide a permanent solution for people who need and deserve both development and security.”

But King also later admitted—and we know this because the FBI was bugging the telephone, we now have the records—that this was “the darkest days of his life”: trying to figure out what to do about being a Nobel peace prize winner who was about to lead a pilgrimage to the Middle East (which he had to cancel), how to address, if to address, this particular example of war and conflict when attacking American policy. Vietnam had been anguishing him enough as it was.

Other peace groups like Women Strike for Peace never came up with a unified position on the war. When the anti-war hero Daniel Berrigan, in 1973, in the wake of the 73 Arab-Israeli war, denounced both the Arabs and Israel, he was roundly criticized. Not for what he said about the Arab world, but for the fact that he had dared to criticize Israel.

And in other cases, anti-war activists openly supported Israel to the degree that some, particularly liberals, earned the nickname “doves for war” for their seeming, in some people’s eyes, their seeming contradictions in supporting military action and the use of napalm in the Middle East, but of denouncing military action and the use of American-supplied napalm in the South East [Asia].

Indeed, liberal anti-war figures like Robert F. Kennedy in congress, Eugene McCarthy also in the senate, George McGovern again in the senate, all strongly supported Israel despite being doves on Vietnam. And the perceived contradiction was so severe that in June 1967, shortly after the [67] war, a conference was actually held in New York City called “Israel and Vietnam, there is a difference.” By which, pro-Israeli peaceniks said that it is perfectly consistent to support Israel in the Middle East yet denounce the war.

And throughout all of this. the anti-war movement, the old left. The new left, the peace movement, the fact that progressives and left-wing activists disproportionately had a large number of Jewish members, made all of this much more painful, much more bitter. [This was happening] As the painful history of the Jewish people led different liberal and left-wing Jews to very different conclusions about how their activism in America intersected or did not intersect with the question of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Some left-wing Jews strongly objected to attacks on Israel and singled out, in particular, their fellow Jews for a great deal of opprobrium. For example, the academics at Harvard, Mike Walzer and Martin Peretz, both younger in those days—they’re still around—took to the pages of the left-wing magazine ramparts to blast the left for its attacks on Israel. And Peretz himself, later writing in a commentary magazine, said, “Those of us in the radical community then, for whom Israel’s rights are on the same moral plane as the rights of the Vietnamese, have drawn the kind of moral cutoff line on the issue. Other radicals cannot deny or reasonably plead against it in the name of unity.”

Other left-wing Jews denounced pro-Palestinian Jews as self-hating, who suffered from various Jewish pathologies. Among these were scholars like Seymour Martin Lipset, who argued that the new left “privileged emotion and irrationality over reason. The Arabs represent the former, Israel the latter.”

But on the other hand, other left-wing Jews bravely called upon their fellow Jews to honestly examine their own strident pro-Zionist feelings. Just days after the 67 war, for instance, the noted writer I. F. Stone wrote, “It is a moral tragedy to which no Jew worthy of our best prophetic tradition could be insensitive, that a kindred people was left homeless in the task of making new homes for the remnants of the Hitler Holocaust.” Other left-wing Jews like Paul Jacob, Noam Chomsky, and Arthur Waskow similarly argued that their fellow Jews on the left adopted a more dispassionate analysis of the conflict.

Now as the sixties waded, or shall we say faded, into the 1970s, America was changing. The left was in retreat. But there still were left-wing groups operating both above ground and underground in the early and mid-seventies. And they too were adopting stances on the Middle East. Certainly, the bombers of the weather underground were stridently pro-Palestinian and hailed Palestinian militants such as Leila Khalid. It was also true of the above ground Marxist party that tried to form a new movement in the seventies, commonly called “the new Communist movement”- groups like the Revolutionary Communist Party USA and the October league.

Yet elsewhere in the seventies, the new seventies left similarly found itself either openly supporting Israel or suffering from great division. Within the Women’s movement pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian women, notably Jews on both sides, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan on the one hand for example. Groups such as Women Against Imperialism in the San Francisco Bay area on the other, stridently supporting the Palestinians.

And so, by the time we got to the mid-late seventies, this kind of intro-left dispute in the left causes some who sided with Israel to simply abandon the left altogether. Notably, I’m thinking of certain figures within the socialist movement who left the left and became, as we should say, charter members of the neoconservative movement. And many of them, including people like Norman Podhoretz, have openly stated that what they perceived as the left’s mistreatment of Israel in the sixties had much to do with their own rightward turn.

To conclude, certainly the left in America took a beating after the seventies were over. And I argue that years of disagreement about the Arab-Israeli conflict was one of many factors that contributed to the downfall of the left. But it’s important to point out though, that the idea of leftists still divided is something that outlasted that and certainly we see still featuring today. Certainly, today it is much more… Let’s put it this way, people can discuss Palestinians, Palestinian rights, Palestinian liberation, what have you, publicly much more easily today than five decades ago whereas that kind of talk that came from radicals in the sixties might have been considered extreme. Even those outside the left, in more broad progressive and liberal societies in America, can discuss such matters today. Certainly, when it comes to young people, organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine, those who support the BDS movement, whatever one thinks about it, the discourse of Palestinian rights today has really become a permanent part of the progressive political landscape.

On the other hand, and indeed the historian Rashid Khalidi noted in 2015, he said, “There’s a much higher level of discussion of matters related to Palestine than ever before, especially in the field of Middle East Studies and among students on college campuses.” That, as I said, is certainly true. But on the other hand, it is also true that pro-Israeli forces in society at large and on college campuses are symbiotically also much stronger than they were in the sixties. Today, campus groups such as Campus Watch, and the Secret Canary Mission, have set up internet sites designed to monitor, expose, and counteract pro-Palestinian views on college campuses. Efforts have also been made to equate anti-Zionist critiques with anti-Semitism, and therefore label it as a form of college hate speech.

So, in presenting, in conclusion, the story of the divisions within the left in the sixties and seventies that showed that left wing identity and action were thrown into very sharp relief by how one viewed the Arab-Israeli conflict—and these divisions were worsened by the fact that left wing American Jews were supporting both sides—this story is a cautionary tale, I would argue, for today. What remains of the tiny American left today is fairly solidly united behind one point of view, a pro-Palestinian one. But if you move a little but further to the right, among the progressives, liberal more generally, where to stand on the Middle East is still as divisive today as it was then. And nowhere has this become clearer than within the Democratic Party today, which I’m including as liberal—by no means am I saying it’s left wing—where the splits between supporters of Israel and the Palestinians are deepening.

Indeed, when the 2018 elections brought into the House of Representatives three democratic women who were fairly public in their pro-Palestinian sentiments, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, [and] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, some high-level party officials were mortified because those three women represented a trend within the Democratic Party. Where three important constituencies: young people, women, and people of color, were increasingly abandoning the Democratic Party’s traditionally solidly pro-Israeli stance.

And indeed, within just three days after those three women were seated in the house, a new group called the Democrats for Majority for Israel was established to try to shore up traditional pro-Israeli stances within the party. These divisions are also seen more recently, where the Democratic Party hopeful Bernie Sanders has called for conditioning U.S. foreign aid to Israel upon Israel’s need to “fundamentally change its policy toward Palestinians.”

Clearly, liberals in the Democratic Party are quite worried about these kinds of voices arising within the Democratic Party. And traditional party bosses, you know the Nancy Pelosis, the Chuck Schumers, are clearly worried. And they have reason to be.

According to a 2018 poll carried out by the PEW research center, the number of self-described liberal democrats who sympathize with the Palestinians was nearly double the number of those sympathetic with Israel. Another poll from the PEW research center from April of last year, 2019, showed that just 27 percent of Americans under the age of 30 held a favorable view of the Israeli government. Traditional pro-Israeli members of the Democratic Party, as I’ve said, have been quite concerned about these developments. Presidential hopeful Joe Biden has noted, “The idea”, referencing Bernie Sanders, “The idea that we would withdraw military aid from Israel on the condition that they change a specific policy, I find to be absolutely outrageous.”

More recently the Democratic Majority for Israel has begun airing attack ads against Bernie Sanders and in last night’s already famous debate between Mike Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders, when much was made about the self-described capitalist, the self-described socialist in reference to what I’ve been talking about here, both Jewish by the way… I think what I haven’t heard a single person say today is the elephant in the room, that they share very little, not simply over socialism and capitalism, but what to do about the Middle East.

Sander’s views I’ve already outlined. As for Bloomberg, Aryeh Mekel, who was Israel’s Consul General in New York, described him to the Jerusalem Post as “a liberal New Yorker Jew who’s very supportive of Israel,” saying that candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would be “problematic” for Israel. Aryeh Mekel said that, from an Israeli point of view, Bloomberg would be the best candidate.

Former Ambassador to Israel to the United States, Micheal Oren, who’s known Bloomberg for years, characterized him as a friend who would be very good for Israel: “I had a lot of contact with Bloomberg and he was very upset about the Obama administration’s treatment of us. He is a Jewish guy who grew up in Boston suburbs. He’s not a progressive, he has a deep tribal connection to Israel.”

Bloomberg and Sanders differ in stances on the question mirror those of other divisions within the party. And what I’m saying is regardless of whether you or I or anybody else, whatever we feel about which side to support in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Democratic Party, if it hopes to create a unified coalition against president Trump in 2020 in November, is going to have to deal with this internal dissension over the Middle East.

There are certainly other things going on, great divisions within the democratic party, but that’s one that doesn’t get talked about much. And given the experience of what happened to liberal left-wing Americans five decades ago I think, therefore, it’s a cautionary tale for progressive politicians today.

Worsening this is the immensely close relationship between president Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which further puts liberal Americans, particularly American Jews, not only in the Democratic Party in a difficult position- between standing with Israel and Trump, who has arguably adopted some of the most pro-Israeli policies in recent years of any president in decades. With their otherwise disdain of president Trump as members of the Democratic Party, it’s putting them in a very strange position.

So, to end my talk, certainly the research that I did on this question showed a lot about the left’s conflicted attitudes towards the Arab-Israeli conflict back in the sixties and early seventies. Then as I said, I believe it also illustrates some of the ongoing problems that progressive Americans today, whether in the Democratic Party or further to the left, still have. Situating themselves into a discourse where practically the rest of the world, the liberal, the what’s called progressive left-wing forces in the rest of the world, are firmly unified behind one point of view.

And so, with that I think I will end, and I appreciate your patience and I look forward to hearing your questions and comments. Thanks very much.