American progressives, Israel, and intolerance of the left

Today I was accused of being a Trump supporter. I was accused of “following the views of the ‘Orange One'” because I apparently was expressing views consistent with him on Israel. I had refused to tow the “left” line in a discussion about Israel, and thus must be a Trump supporter. What? Huh? In many ways, the experience was quite telling, in terms of how close minded American political discourse has fallen, not just on the right, but on the left as well.

About a month after the November election, I wrote a reflection on Trump’s victory.  I chose to focus my words on the role of American “progressives” or what might be considered “the left.”  Writing this was challenging, as in general, I am a proponent of many of the policies that progressives seek, but over the past several years, it has become clear to me that there is a cancer eating American progressives. The left has taken an approach to public policy in which every “progressive” issue is the same. It is one-size-fits-all, from LGBT to Black Lives Matter to Boycotting Israel, to a wide range of other “progressive” causes. And the left has demonstrated incredible intolerance of any political viewpoint that runs count to its prescribed moral code.  It has even gone so far to come up with an academic term, justifying the linkage of all social justice issues — intersectionality.  The theory goes that all systems of oppression are tied together.  Yet, I’ve come to think that the real intersectionality isn’t the problems faced by American Blacks, or Native Americans, or Palestinians, but instead, the system of oppression is the left itself, and its oppression of any contrary views.

I might never have become cognizant of the issue were it not for my having staked out a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that runs counter to the prescribed viewpoint.  I believe firmly in a two state solution, in which security for Israelis and self-determination for Palestinians is guaranteed, a solution in which it is possible for both sides to have a future free from fear and terror.  But it is a solution in which boycotts and sanctions against Israel are not only contrary to peacemaking, but destructive, given the stated end of many proponents of the BDS movement, who not only delegitimize Israel’s right to exist, but seek to ensure that Palestine is free “from the river to the sea.”  This has put me on the wrong side, and somehow, apparently, turned me into a conservative, and even a “Trump supporter.”

A few weeks after the election, Mark Lilla wrote an op-ed in the New York Times called “The End of Identity Liberalism.” It was an essay that resulted in a massive amount of attention, and numerous criticisms by those who felt slighted by it. Lilla placed a good deal of the blame for Clinton’s loss on identity liberalism.  He placed blame on Clinton for towing the left line, and completely ignoring the working class. Lilla writes: “But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.”

When I first read his essay, the first half of it resonated with me, primarily due to how I had experienced the indifference of self-defined “progressives” in the context of the Presbyterian Church USA; the rapidly declining mainline Protestant church that is symbolically far more important to the left and progressive politics, than it is in terms of actual people in the pews. For me, what resonated was exactly what I felt at the PCUSA General Assembly, the Church’s legislative body that meets every two years. GA is dominated by people so passionately committed to progressivism and pet causes that they are blinded and completely unsympathetic to ANY competing views, even going so far as to mock fellow Presbyterians on Twitter.

Last year, I was randomly selected to serve on the committee dealing with fossil fuel divestment. While PCUSA has a piddling amount of money to invest, the big ticket issue was whether the church should divest all pension funds from fossil fuel energy companies, and thus have zero leverage whatsoever on climate change through those companies.  Such a vote would enable them to feel better about themselves by making a political statement and ensuring that the Church’s moral conscience was clear. I sat on that committee for 2 days, and listened to pastors from places in Texas and Oklahoma practically begging for the committee — and the Church itself — to not throw their entire congregations and communities, who live and work in the energy industry, under the bus. Desperate pleas from pastors saying, look yes, climate change is an issue, and we need to pressure companies, but don’t do it in a way that literally tears our congregations apart. I then observed other pastors who just basically said, I’m sorry, but I don’t care, we have to divest. It was a truly disturbing thing to witness. There was no place at the table for anyone other than the far left. In the end, the assembly voted to take a middle position, and not immediately divest, and you would have thought the world had come to an end.

I compare that to the Church’s historic vote for marriage equality in 2014. That decision, which I fully supported, resulted in a a lot of congregations leaving the denomination. Yet, many more conservative rural congregations were staying, but struggling. But rather than just being happy with the historic decision, the church’s progressives decided that they wanted more. They wanted the church issue to issue an apology to LGBTQ folk. It was mind boggling. A lot of moderate and conservative churches were trying to grapple with marriage equality, and trying to stay in the denomination, but these folks weren’t happy with what they had gained; they had to pour salt into an open wound. It was all or nothing. There was no room at the table for diverse viewpoints.

Now I’m not saying I don’t agree with the vast majority of what progressives want, but having come down on the side of an issue where they are opposed (Israel/Palestine) and watching what in many ways is a biased, one-sided, take-no-prisoners, facts be damned approach, it made me much more cognizant of HOW the left is viewed by those who don’t “fit” into the mold.  PCUSA is a case-study in the identity politics Lilla was writing about. And I certainly can understand why many people might feel left behind.

I had become convinced, in the month after the election, that unless progressives — and Democrats in general — did something differently, all the talk of resistance would come to no good.  If all a resistance movement did was mobilize those on the left, how would it draw on the 62 million Americans who voted for Trump; and how would it reach the tens of millions of Americans who simply sat out the election?

I had hope that the resistance movement would find a way to move beyond its singular focus, and find a way to reach out to working class voters, yet, as times goes by, I am less and less convinced this is likely or possible. I was both excited and disturbed by the marches that happened in the first couple weeks of the Trump presidency.  The Women’s march brought out over 4 million people.  That is impressive.  Yet, I wondered how effective a campaign these marches would be to regain the support of those who had turned toward Trump. I did not get any sense of an effort to re-gain the support of the working class.  Instead, time and time again, I have seen people mocking them and anyone who supported Trump.

Then there were the numerous Facebook groups that have sprouted up.  Some in Republican districts, where groups titling themselves “Indivisible” have gathered, determined to challenge the Republican office-holder and organize for the 2018 campaign.  Add to that, a variety of progressive-minded groups, creating a “safe space” for progressives to come together. I even joined a couple of them.  I left the first one I participated in quickly, when it became crystal clear that there was no desire whatsoever for discussion, or moving forward.  It was just anger, and hatred.  Okay, I get it.  There is a lot to be angry about.

But I stayed in one, which seemed to be really open to discussion, and I thought had potential. I commented a few times, challenging individuals to think outside the box; to ask how they would broaden the base.  This was met with some agreement, some disagreement, but it was all civil. Then, the issue I was anticipating happened.  Someone posted something about Israel, the removal of the person from the UN committee that issued the latest apartheid report, and frustration that Illinois’ senators are slated to speak to AIPAC at its policy conference.  Here was the test. Would this group fall in lock-step, or would there be an opportunity for honest discussion.

I decided to jump in.  The discussion devolved rapidly.  I soon found myself being accused of pro-Israel bias because I provided two counter pieces to the news story (from Al Jazeera) that was initially posted.  A story I posted from Honest Reporting was immediately attacked as pro-Israel, and therefore automatically biased.  Indeed, it was clear that ALL Jewish sources were suspect. But news stories from Electronic Intifada, to the contrary, were perfectly reliable, because “they provide a Palestinian perspective.” It was also clear that there is one, and only one Jewish organization that has any credibility to the American left.  JVP, or Jewish Voices for Peace.  My complaints that JVP is a fringe group, representing a tiny fraction of American Jews, and is but a front for the BDS Movement, seeking to end the Jewish state, was met with derision.  Instead I was told it represents a “courageous group of Jews” speaking against injustice.

I debated whether to continue the argument, or to just walk away, but I decided to stay with it, and counter many of the points being made. That is was when it happened. My jaw dropped when I was accused of “voicing the Orange Man’s views, and supporting his position.” I had somehow, because I took a position challenging the progressive BDS narrative, become a Trump supporter.

Wow. I guess my hope was mistaken.  Any criticism of efforts for justice for Palestine meant that I was a Trump supporter.  Quite frankly, I’m tired of being accused of inherent bias because I  support Israel’s right to exist. Quite frankly, I grow weary of even having to engage people who refuse to even challenge their pre-existing narrative.  What happened to me is typical of anyone who expresses support for Israel and claims to be a progressive.

Beyond the anti-Israel bias which I encountered, there is the even broader problem of the the real problem that progressives face. To date they have done absolutely nothing to expand the base, to find ways to win back those who turned to Trump, to bring the needs and concerns of working class Americans into the fold. We may very well have a “generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.” If they continue down this path, all the talk of “resistance” will be futile.

About the Author
Michael Gizzi is an active member of Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, and an elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). A political scientist and professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University, Gizzi is actively involved in research on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. His opinions are his own, and not those of Illinois State University.