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James Brennan: To live and die on the left

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By James Brennan, Columnist
Published July 13, 2014

A terrible symptom of infighting on the left is creating boogeymen and casting opposition as the evil root of oppression. Factions always want to frame an issue as simply as possible, choosing groups to be the evil villain behind injustice. This has been the case with Israel time and again, a fact made clear during Friday’s pro-Palestinian protest near the Diag. In the crowd of 100 or so peaceful demonstrators, one sign stuck out: it was adorned with swastikas and read “Nazi Israel is a cancer it must be radiated.”

I spoke with the person holding the sign, a middle aged Palestinian man named Muhammad. He claimed Israel’s policies of stealing land, killing civilians and operating prison camps qualified it as a “Nazi country.” He also claimed that only a week earlier, his home in Gaza had been destroyed. This type of system, he told me, must be “uprooted” (the word he chose to describe what his sign meant by “radiated”).

Regardless of the truth behind this man’s anger — Israel’s human rights violations, their continued breaking of international law, the destruction of his own home — his rhetoric is wrong. Israel is painted as the end all, be all evil empire behind his oppression and the oppression of others, meaning any support for the country is completely evil, too.

This is nothing new when it comes to the left criticizing Israel, from claims that the state is a “Nazi country” to implying that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson use their influence and money to control U.S. foreign policy.

While these narratives are pleasing to those facing oppression, they’re untrue and polarizing. Those on the left, more moderate or supportive of Israel are turned into pawns of an international conspiracy controlling U.S. foreign policy, apologists for a country whose only functions are stealing land and bombing civilians. Once the debate reaches this level, it ends. Our side is good and the other is evil, and you don’t negotiate with evil.

Ultimately, this framing as oppressors versus the oppressed translates into the other side doing the same. In the case of Israel, moderates on the left frame the pro-Palestine groups as hateful, anti-Semitic and supportive of terrorists. Not to say that there aren’t elements of anti-Semitism in the far left; the assumption that wealthy Zionists and Israel dictate world affairs hearkens back to the anti-Semitism that has always plagued the world. The prejudice towards Jews is less pronounced, but that’s to be expected in an age of subconscious, dog-whistle racism (and let’s not even get into the use of swastikas on that sign). The prejudice is there, but it doesn’t control all pro-Palestinian activists.

I’m also not asserting that the two sides we typically see fighting in this conflict are equal. Israel is beating Palestine by a wide margin when it comes to killing civilians and deserves much harsher criticism from the mainstream press. Israel isn’t the evil one here, but this debate doesn’t have equal sides, either.

The left gets caught up in this trap too: false equivalency. Because people realize an issue is more complicated than Good versus Evil, they instead frame it as Side A versus Equally-Valid-And-Flawed Side B. Israel has its right-wingers who hate Arabs, while Palestine has its left-wingers who hate Jews, etc., etc. It’s framed as a push, and the new illusion is a fake solution right down the middle. For Israel and Palestine, this turns into “they need to both sacrifice, stop killing each other and make peace.”

While the latter “fair” narrative comes off much better, it’s just a different side of the same coin: simplicity. If we can’t have a narrative that’s black and white, instead we assume it must be equal shades of grey, where both have similar amounts of good and bad. Things are typically far more complicated, and the same logic doesn’t apply to every issue. There aren’t always equal sides, nor is there always one good and one evil. There aren’t always only two sides, either; sometimes there are three, or four or ten.

When the left chooses to take a simplistic narrative, dialogue ceases to progress and the real causes of oppression, injustice and war that we all despise continue on. It isn’t some monster causing the problem that needs to be slain, it’s complex systems of oppression. But instead of acknowledging the intricacies and depth of a problem, the left grabs on to an easy narrative that hinders solutions.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of dozens of issues the left needs to be having a real debate on. Given the conflict’s one-sided history, one of the left’s agreed solutions may ultimately be a more extreme tactic like BDS — or maybe not. But we can’t know if we don’t have a real debate, one where facts, reality and the truth play out instead of demonization or fake balance.

I don’t blame anyone for failing to do this, because it’s hard — our minds crave simplicity. But the worst problems are often the most complex, and the left has to unite and search for real solutions instead of tearing itself apart fighting straw men.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.