There is a phenomenon, the self-righteous left, which lives in a simple black-and-white universe, governed by what I call SLES, short for Standard Left Explanatory System – a concoction that is ruining the left’s credibility and integrity. This system, which started to evolve in the 1960s, says: “Always look for the underdog and then blame the stronger party for anything the underdog does, particularly if the stronger party belongs to the west. Never hold the underdog (particularly when non-western) accountable for anything.”
SLES, when applied to the Middle East, is remarkably simple. If Palestinians, Muslims or Arabs say something that isn’t nice (like “It is a religious duty to kill Americans”, or “Israel needs to be wiped off the map“), or do something even less nice (like blowing up the Twin Towers, killing entire families on the first evening of Passover in Netanya, or attacking London’s public transport system) you have a very quick explanation for it: “There is something that the Jews/Americans did that must have hurt him/her terribly. We must try to understand him/her.”
A good example is Gal Wettstein’s recent article in which he says that he doesn’t feel that there is true freedom of expression in Israel because, among other reasons, his superiors may re-evaluate their views on him. He says he has even lost some dates because of his political views. I’m sorry for his loss, but turning this into an indictment of Israel’s freedom of speech is, to put it mildly, preposterous.
Voicing political opinions generally has consequences. I am critical of many Israeli policies; I voice my views in several venues and I know the price for this – even though I doubt that it is higher in Israel than in other democracies. I do not always get accolades and have been called anything from being “anti-Israeli” to “antisemitic” to “Nazi” (paradoxically by those from right and left, the latter mostly from outside Israel). A recent gem from my inbox is: “You inside out disgusting fat, skinhead, Swiss intellectual Lilliputian thug. Go away from Israel brownshirt Nazi excrement thug! … Raus!”
Pondering this masterpiece, I need to admit that my head is shaved. I am originally Swiss, so that’s not to be disputed. “Lilliputian” is obviously not meant physically, since I’m 187cm tall; I don’t currently own a single brown shirt, so I’ll pass over the fashion part of the compliment. As to “thug”, I haven’t used physical violence except in the dojo, since the age of 10. “Excrement” I don’t quite know how to interpret. So I am left with the embarrassing truth that I should lose at least five kilograms.
Do I feel that this restricts my freedom of speech? Absolutely not. Arab members of the Knesset can call Avigdor Lieberman’s proposal to outlaw commemoration of the “nakba” “racist” and “fascist” without risking life or their parliamentary immunity. I don’t have parliamentary immunity, and I completely agree with the Arab MKs; the law is fascist, racist, and utterly stupid to boot, because no law will suppress consciousness of the nakba. And I can write this without fear of retribution or persecution by the state.
Israel does a lot of reprehensible things. Nevertheless, flawed as it is, Israel is a flourishing democracy in which people like MK Ahmad Tibi, Wettstein and I – along with centrists and rightwingers, can voice our views. We can argue about them – often in bitter anger – but the state does not persecute us for it, and so far Lieberman’s anti-democratic attempts to silence us have failed to gain sufficient support. Israel is maintaining a very noisy, often uncivilised, but lively democracy through a history of constant threat to its security and existence.
There is not a single state in this area where I could express my views freely except Israel. In Gaza, the Hamas regime has just imposed a rule requiring women to wear veils to comply with Islamic modesty laws; in Iran gay people are hanged and critics of the recent elections threatened with death – or actually killed. Egypt and Syria incarcerate political opponents, and Saudi Arabia is a highly repressive regime – and the list goes on. This is not meant to characterise Islam: it’s a description of the facts in the Middle East.
While I feel strongly for Wettstein’s lost dates, I feel even more strongly about the disproportion between the condemnations of Israeli policies and the silence of Europe’s self-righteous left about horrors ranging from the mass murder of members of Fatah by Hamas, to the genocide in Darfur, to rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.
Critical though I am of Israel’s policies, I have nothing but disdain for the self-righteous left hiding behind a simplistic SLES that enables them to spill venomous condemnation of Israel as if it were nicely placed between the US and Canada, and for completely unintelligible reasons behaves as if it were under threat.
The psychological mechanism behind applying SLES to Israel is rather simple: the Middle Eastern conflicts (there are a number, of which the Israeli-Palestinian is the most prominent) have been intractable for a long time. The autocratic and sometimes totalitarian structure of most of the regimes is a huge problem, and the west is stuck with its dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
Europe is actually in a worse conundrum than the US: the population of all European states is shrinking, and their economies depend on immigration. So far most of these immigrants are Muslims, and Europe doesn’t have the faintest idea how to integrate them into its societies. Meanwhile the Muslim world is choking on a huge youth bulge along with stagnating economies and a tribal social system that almost completely blocks modernisation.
Nobody in Europe and the Middle East knows what to do about this, but SLES provides a wonderfully simple solution: why not say that Israel is the culprit, and that all problems would go away if Israel were to cease the occupation, or, even better, would disappear. I fight the occupation day by day, because it’s wrong, not because I have the slightest illusion that this would solve Europe’s geopolitical problems or those of the Middle East.
The self-righteous left should listen to the honest voices of a left that retains its moral and intellectual integrity, like Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut, who refuse to live in the simplistic world of SLES and believe that you actually need to tackle the complexity of our situation rather than enjoy the simple pleasure of self-righteousness that SLES shares with the right.
Carlo Strenger, a philosopher and psychoanalyst.