Jack Omer Jackaman

The Great Global Leftist Conspiracy – Part Two

Israelis clash with police during a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
Israelis clash with police during a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

In a recent public Facebook post, Assaf Malach took the Israeli leftand the academy in particularto task for opposing the judicial reforms in a manner contemptuous and suppressive of alternative opinion. Such was, he said, consistent with the ‘coercion, silencing, intimidation, and violence… embedded in the political tradition of the global left’. At his request, the post received wide sharing on Facebook. I take his arguments to be in keeping with a wider right-wing narrative, dominant in Israel and elsewhere, regarding the supposed power of left-wing “elites”,  and to which I offer a two-part reply. The first part can be read here.

Dear Dr Malach (continued),

Elites—the political motif du jour

Although Israel’s unique circumstances and no less unique challenges often make its debates sui generis, I recognise so much of the Anglo-American zeitgeist in the current farrago, not least with how it would pit the “people” against the “elites”. As I suggested in part one of my letter, this is surely the dominant political theme of our age. So, some wider thoughts on it; I hope for further discussion.

Like much traditionally useful lexicography, “elites” is currently fatally degraded by misuse. To be useful again it must cease to be deployed to mean, too much of the time: any substantial body of opinion with which we disagree. That there are powerful elites, and that they cannot be relied upon to advance the general welfare of the majority seems to me fairly obvious. On the left, we have tended to consider them to be comprised of concentrated wealth and the power and privilege it confers. The right has generally scorned us as envious: now, in Israel, the right is, like Boris Johnson before it, dead against corporate power for having opposed the revolution. Tell me: once this is all over will concentrated capital remain an enemy elite or revert to being the right’s favoured backbone of the nation? I.e. does an elite cease to be an elite—or at least a dangerous one—once it is back onside?

Who are the ‘global right’s’ more usual elites, these unassailable redoubts of concentrated totalitarian leftist power? The academy—I think it a perfectly reasonable assertion that in some disciplines in Israel, and “Western” academia more broadly, an orthodoxy of thought predominates. It’s often of a type (Foucaultian, Lacanist and other post-modern maladies) that does no-one any good frankly. There is a strain of leftist academic thought which is counter-enlightenment in rationale, sometimes—and increasingly—explicitly; and which brooks no dissent or co-existence. It is in thrall to the more deleterious legacies of ’68 (there are plenty of positive ones, too) and I don’t doubt that it has been “entryist”, as per Rudi Dutschke’s ‘long march through the institutions’. In Israel, I’m sure it’s true to say that in most departments in most universities being a judicial reformer is a fairly lonely business, and I don’t doubt for a moment your description of the resultant intimidation and despair. I regret it: disagreement, even on so weighty a matter, should not cause those on the right to suffer exile from the academic community of the good. To proceed from this to the proposition that the academic right is an endangered species, however, as rightists in the US and UK invariably do, strikes me as both hysterical and counter-factual. Anglo-American students, in most disciplines, remain amply served by purveyors of conservative thought. I know less the case in Israel: please enlighten me with some data?

The media—I don’t dispute the idea that in most Western democracies individuals operating within the fourth estate skew left of centre, and yet the idea, du jour amongst the right, that this results in a disproportionately left-wing media product is divorced from reality. I’m barraged, daily, by “anti-elite” rightists busy saying, very loudly, any number of things that apparently cannot be said “these days”. You can’t move for it. In most of the democratic world, too, the bulk of media remains owned, not by propagandist leftists, but by distinctly right-wing corporate power. In England, for instance, the apparently silenced right must smuggle out its dissenting samizdat through such underground pamphlets as The Daily Telegraph, The Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Sun, The Express, and The Spectator. Extra shifts for the leftist censor, I suggest. In Israel, too, whose papers I read daily, I see far more ideological variety than the right would admit.

As I was writing, I came across Kenan Malik in the hyper-elite yet barely read Observer. Malik is a sharp commentator with whom I share a broad, comradely, Rortyite ambivalence to some of the thinking of the cultural left. He writes (of Britain, but I think it stands elsewhere): ‘It is true that a new generation of thinkers and activists has helped consolidate a culture more given to identitarian thinking and more censorious in its outlook (though also one that is less racist, more accepting of women’s equality and more welcoming of gay people).’ Note ‘more given’; not ‘dominated by’. Malik is also gentlemanly enough not to say that it is the implications of his bracketed clause which really provoke the greatest rage in most of the anti-elitist right: I, violent, intimidatory leftist that I am, will do so for him. He continues, with a conclusion requiring no elaboration from me: ‘To confuse that, however, with the claim that it constitutes the new ruling class is to have a weak understanding of how power works and where it lies.’ Quite.

One final point that applies to both the academy and the media: while there is “cancelling”, and it is largely regressive and anti-intellectual, some confuse being cancelled with not, or no longer, receiving what they consider their due fawning or preferment—not the same thing, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The courts—the anti-elitist right almost always has an antinomian hue (a little anarchistic, no?). In the UK they are ‘enemies of the people’; in the US, deviant upholders of a woman’s bodily autonomy/satanic baby killers. Returning to Israel, the justices of the Supreme Court are all “leftists”, whatever their background and jurisprudential record. Your side of the debate also says that since the Barakian revolution they have been a quasi-dictatorial crypto-government, thwarting democratically mandated governments on matters well beyond their brief. Your opponents—with whom I am in sympathy on this point—suggest that the record shows a fairly modest ratio of intervention by international standards.

That periodic restraint of popularly elected governments is, in any case, perfectly compatible with liberty is a fact recognised by all properly democratic systems. In fact, liberty for all is impossible without such executive obstacles—which Rothman-Levin and others elsewhere would remove—being provided for. That such restraint might still be proper even when the majority is proven in tune with the government is also a widely accepted liberal-democratic doctrine; satiating all impulses of the demos satisfies a majoritarian, not a democratic, impulse. Such elitist anti-majoritarianism is anathema to a populist right contemptuous of the subtleties of the Rousseauian conception of the “general will”, but it is essential both to the protection of minority rights and often, as we are seeing in the response of the markets to the judicial revolution, to a nation’s material well-being.

The Rousseauian conception also allows for a disinterested judgement to be made that the will of the majority is either morally illegitimate or else insufficiently expertly informed to properly meet the demands of the moment. (Critics noting that the fiddly, possibly even ironic, character of the ‘disinterested judgement’ have a point, of course, but the indispensable nature of the principle is, it seems to me, inviolate.) By way of example: my own compatriots have shown, since its abolition in 1969, consistent majority approval for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Every successive government, of whatever hue, has ignored the will of the demos on this question; and even those to whom the Rousseauian logic is otherwise repellent have accepted its applicability here.

As I said in the first part of my letter, reform used to be a bipartisan concern, with all sides recognising that Israel’s famously postponed constitutional reckoning had produced an imperfect holding pattern. It is to be hoped that a grownup constitutional arrangement might still emerge from the Herzog-brokered compromise talks. But one that is not a travesty bringing only disaster and discord will have to be a long way from the executive blank cheque sought by the extremists.

If the above laments are common to all contemporary populist revolts, then one that is certainly sui generis to Israel amongst Western democracies is the military-intelligence complex. My own countrymen would certainly be baffled by the influence of the IDF, the Mossad, the GSS et al on domestic Israeli policy debates. To which I would explain that having saved the nation many times over they’ve perhaps earned any privilege they have, and that measures they judge likely to make that unending task harder and increase the threat to life are rather properly within their wheelhouse.

There is some force, I acknowledge, to the argument that the battle for judicial reform is but one front in a wider Israeli culture war between “first” and “second” Israel: between a well-to-do, predominantly Ashkenazi secular class and its more devout or Mizrahi compatriots, of whose identities and concerns it is either ignorant or contemptuous. One would be a fool or a liar to claim that such divides have not played, and do not continue to play, an important part in the Israeli story; or that there isn’t a tension between the “Jewish” and the “Democratic” that Israel has been wrestling with—rather impressively in many ways, I would argue—for 75 years; or that there is a genuine culture clash between those who favour a Western-style “State for the Jews” and those who seek a more authentically “Jewish State”. (The question of authenticity is all too often narrowly or chauvinistically defined, alas.) I accept all this, have previously chided the Israeli left for failing to address the valid concerns of “Second Israel”, and would only point out to Israelis that while the specifics and the painful histories from which they come are unique, the general milieu is not so different from the reductive narratives of Britain’s “metropolitan elites” and “white working class”. But to subsume the judicial reform debate to this entirely obscures the cross-communal and multi-sectoral character of a protest movement which is demonstrably not a purely secular or Ashkenazi affair.

May some elites continue to protect me from some of their opponents

Even if I vacation in the populist right’s world and accept as accurate its characterisation of my subjugation by an elite to whom I gave no mandate, then, cherishing my freedom and right to representative democracy though I do, I am often frankly grateful for the protection. For such is the power of the modern anti-elite moment that the bar for anti-elitist crusaders is set staggeringly, grubbily low. As an expert in nationalism, you will know that Dr Johnson’s “scoundrel” aphorism is everywhere misunderstood to mean that he meant to damn patriotism. He meant instead, of course, that patriotism itself was fine and useful, but that it was also a neat crutch for the morally bankrupt: that it was the last refuge of the scoundrel when all others had proven futile. This is where we are with anti-elitism: fine and useful, but also a place for literally anyone to get away with literally anything if they can say they are fighting the elites.

There is Trump, of course: a morally decrepit, congenitally crooked, pathologically deceitful, preternaturally narcissistic, sexually incontinent, race-baiting, no-talent charlatan. And a billionaire anti-elitist hero. I also saw a thread the other day on the news that that grotesque deviant non-entity Andrew Tate is being sued in a UK civil court. Cue the incel troglodytes contending that their poster boy was innocent, stitched up by the elites for having challenged them. He was the new Assange! Cue, in response, the far leftists, outraged that their own elite-fighting hero (a fallen one, if they had any standards) was being so odiously compared. The standard, one might argue, isn’t uniformly high in Israel right now, either.

It works, there’s no doubt about that. The challenge of our time for liberal democrats is how to address the global dissatisfaction with existing norms: the mass anomie, perfectly legitimate in so many ways but which has so far succeeded only in producing an unhappier world and a decent living for charlatans. The sickness that is Trumpism has many causes, many of them attributable to a lazy liberal democratic immune system. 20th Century liberal civilisation’s seemingly ever-rising tide promised to lift all boats—and did, let us acknowledge, a pretty impressive job—but by the 21st it has ceased to feel that way. The decent left has always had an awareness of liberalism’s limitations and discontents—principally its (wilful?) inability to properly remedy material inequality—while recognising its unparalleled achievements as a guarantor of liberty and offeror of a life not condemned to being nasty, brutish, and short.

An increasingly extreme global right has been highly effective in exploiting the same despair that a different shade of rightist—the neoliberal—largely caused. Decent leftists everywhere have been slow in reacting to the undoubted appeal of the illiberal lurch (as true elites never are, incidentally) and are still hopelessly discombobulated. All over the world, the new right abandons all pretence to fidelity to a truly conservative tradition in favour of the anarchistic social reimagining it has always desired: Randian, norm-free, might-as-right, brute majority rule—promising glorious liberation from the women, gays, minorities, snowflake academics, media luvvies and their elitist patrons.

Once in power, far from further democratising their respective societies, the populist right instead enthrones its own elite, utterly contemptuous of both law and ethical standards. When you catch them in an honest moment the contempt extends to the same ordinary people whose voices they venally purport to be championing. So concerned are they with “democracy” that they shatter faith in the electoral system, threaten the free press, and engage in voter suppression. (The latter is now set to reach the U.K.) And so truly on the side of the under-privileged masses are they that their war on its behalf has only a cultural front: on far less important matters like putting food on the table through stable and dignified work, or providing for safe and comfortable housing and the wherewithal to keep them warm, the new populist right is precisely where the right has always been—absent from the battlefield.

I wonder sometimes if this right might not find achievement of the untrammelled power it seeks a pyrrhic victory. If it really were to become unfettered by the politically correct, leftist demagogues of its imagining then it would be robbed of its most effective message—its own supposed oppression by a mighty foe—and forced to stand only on its own record. Like a cliched thriller, it needs its enemy to survive; needs to portray any constitutional restraint—the product, in reality, of painstaking, decades-long (centuries in my own country’s case) bipartisan compromise—as a leftist coup d’état. To bastardise Leszek Kołakowski, from his immortal epistolary rebuke to EP Thompson: whatever bad happens under left of centre governments is by definition the product of the left; whatever bad happens right of centre governments is by the same definition the product of the same leftism.

In conclusion and in hope for your response

Dr Malach, I’m all for a return to intellectual pluralism in the academy and civil discourse in the agora; both of which, I concede, are in a bad way, in Israel and everywhere else. And I’ll gladly chastise comrades when I see them contributing to this sorry state. But I’m in true ignorance of the apparently weighty popular right-wing crusade for a fair and gentle politics. Or at least of one which is grounded in true principle and not immediate self-interest. The threads of our social fabric are torn the world over? The democratic consensus shattered? Reason assailed; the enlightenment besieged? No complaints from me. And I’m prepared to be ecumenical in apportioning blame, and bipartisan in seeking a decent resolution. But now I’ll be just as generalising as you: few rightists, contrary to your implications, show signs of wanting to join me. This, it seems to me, is the right’s current motif: periodically, from one side of its mouth, it plays the wounded snowflake-patriot, seeking only decent dialogue and compromise but bullied, oppressed, and overruled by the mean, sinister, and omnipotent left. From the other, the bulk of the time, it trades in the same divisive dirty tricks of which it accuses its rivals.

If I’ve misunderstood you, please correct my errors; if I’ve misunderstood the left and the right, as I suspect you will conclude, please, by all means, do likewise.


Dr Jack Omer-Jackaman

About the Author
Dr Jack Omer-Jackaman is Research Associate at BICOM and Deputy Editor of Fathom. Prior to joining BICOM in November 2022, he served for four years as Executive Director of the British Friends of Neve Shalom. He holds degrees in American Studies (BA, University of Kent), International Relations (MA, King’s College London), and History (PhD, King’s College London) and is the author of Caught Somewhere Between Zion and Galut: Zionism, Israel and Anglo-Jewry’s Identity, 1948-1982 (Vallentine Mitchell, 2019). He blogs here in a personal capacity, his views his own.
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