Denis MacEoin
Denis MacEoin

A liberal’s dilemma in defence of Israel

Our lives are full of contradictions, great and small. For myself, a single contradiction runs through almost everything. Put simply, it is this. I am a political liberal, yet I am a lifelong supporter of Israel. To many, that may not appear a contradiction at all. Yet to others, it is glaringly obvious. Today, the most vehement and widespread opposition to Israel’s very existence comes from the left, from students, faculty members, political activists. Unionists, and all self-consciously ‘woke’ people. Support for Israel is considered an attribute of conservatives and others who are not ‘right-minded’.

This strikes me as more or less insane, and certainly wrong-headed. For myself, coming from a life of Middle East studies (notably Iran), I am only too aware that, for miles in every direction, Israel is the only state that can lay claim to any form of liberalism.

Of course there are aspects of hyper-conservatism in Israel, relating to marriage, divorce, same-sex marriage and more – aspects of law controlled by the Chief Rabbinate and the haredim. But let’s be realistic. Israel has an unsurpassed level of rights for women, gays and lesbians, and religious minorities. The Baha’is, persecuted viciously n Iran and effectively banned in all Muslim countries, have their world centre in Haifa and their holiest shrine at Bahji, where thousands of pilgrims pay visits from around the globe. Try allowing anything like that in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan or elsewhere.

In Iran, they hang homosexuals, deny women full rights, and have demolished many of the Baha’i holy places and cemeteries. Yet self-professed liberals in the West reserve say little about the Iranian regime (with its new president, Ibrahim Raisi, dubbed ‘The Butcher of Tehran’ in celebration of his long record as a hanging judge). Better, most liberals reckon, to slang Israel and march chanting ‘Palestine will be free from the river to the sea’ through streets in Britain or the United States, where passers-by have no idea which river or which sea is meant.

There is a deep hypocrisy in all this. It is one (but the most import) of numerous modern examples of antisemitism in the public sphere. Liberals rightly profess disgust for the far right, yet they share the latter’s hatred of Jews, in their case expressed through hatred of Israel.

Anti-Israel liberals tell lies. They claim Israel is an apartheid state, something it clearly is not. They celebrate Palestinian victimhood while staying mum about Hamas and West Bank terrorism and long years of rejection of peace or refusal to create a Palestinian state alongside, not in opposition to, Israel. They distort history in many ways and usually show themselves thoroughly ignorant of it. Gaza and the West Bank were never ‘Palestinian’ to start with, but belonged to the Syrian province of the Ottoman empire for centuries. A colony, in other words, ruled by non-Arabs.  Conversely, Israel was never established as nor is in any legal sense of the word a colony, making cries about Israeli colonialism let alone imperialism meaningless.

So why such brisk condemnation of Israel as a colonial state? It has nothing to do with history in any sense, not even during the period of the Balfour Declaration or the early League of Nations mandate. The modern era has seen a broad end to empires and from the start liberals have backed opposition to imperialism, just as they have been opposed to the slave trade. Imperialism is a large part of the left-wing agenda, which means that it is a knee-jerk way to assert one’s leftist and liberal credentials.

Let me repeat. I am a liberal. Not a socialist or anarchist, and certainly not for the most part a conservative. I would rather march arm-in-arm with other liberals for a good cause, but never to support Palestinian victimhood, which I consider mainly self-inflicted. There are multiple good causes from the need for action on climate change, to world hunger, to international injustice, to the freeing of political prisoners including the British-Iranian women Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe among thousands of others in Iran. If we are to be considered liberals, we need to get our priorities right. For the present I see little sign of that.

About the Author
Retired Middle East historian, author of books, articles, and encyclopedia entries on Islam and related topics. Member of UK Liberal Democratic Party.
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