Analysis: Limitations of the Israeli left

Abetted by the ban on foreign journalists entering Gaza, the Israeli press has shown a near complete disregard for the plight of Gazans. The traditional Israeli peace camp and left-wing press has been wringing its hands for a ceasefire but offering little food for rational thought. Beirut-based journalist Emile Dische-Becker offers this analysis of the Israeli left as the Israeli military presses on with its military onslaught of the Gaza Strip.
israel newspaper
Reading the broadsheets at a cafe in Israel as the Israeli government rejects a U.N. Security Council demand for an immediate ceasefire. R.R.

Last week, self-described  war veteran turned peace activist Uri Avnery purchased a full-page ad in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz decrying the war in Gaza and calling for an immediate ceasefire.

The celebrated voice of the secular left in Israel, Avnery called for an end to the Israeli blockade and an initiation of dialog with Hamas. “This war is inhuman, unnecessary and harmful. Nothing good for Israel will come out of it!” the ad read.

Avnery, born in Germany and now age 85, has been protesting Israeli violence against Palestinian since he left the Irgun - a militant Zionist group that operated in Palestine between 1931 and 1948 - at age 19. (According to my calculations, that was in 1942.)
He also published a piece in the English-language Counterpunch periodical entitled, “Molten Lead,” which not only squarely placed the blame for the outbreak in violence on the Israeli blockade of Gaza and incursions by the Israeli military, but also warned the reader of the creation of an entire "generation of haters."

“That is a terrible price, which we will be compelled to pay long after the other results of the war itself have been forgotten in Israel.” 

Avnery says he writes primarily for the Israeli public, but in recent years, his articles mostly appear on the website of Gush Shalom or in online publications.

His press releases, he insists, are read by “opinion makers.” But, he laments, “In Israel we can raise our voice, but we are boycotted by all the TV and radio stations and in almost all written media.”

Other voices

Avnery is certainly not alone in his opposition to the carnage in Gaza, although polls taken last week show some 70 percent of Israeli’s support continued air strikes in the Gaza Strip.

Writing in the Guardian on December 31, Chris Dalby asserts, “While most reports suggest Israeli citizens are almost entirely in favor of the war in Gaza, supporting it as an overdue response to years of terror,” calmer voices are being ignored by the international media.

Demonstrations calling for a ceasefire have swelled from a paltry few hundred at the onset of the bombing campaign to a march of 10,000 in Tel Aviv on January 3rd. 

The war’s popularity, Dalby suggests, mirrors the general perception that Israel acted with restraint against Hamas and that the bombing raids are being carried out against legitimate “Hamas targets.”

At a glance, Israeli English-language newspapers (many of which also appear in the original Hebrew) lend the impression that – apart from casualty figures, where most if not all male casualties are lumped together as Hamas fighters—human interest reporting focuses on the suffering of Israelis in the range of Qassam rocket fire.

For the most part, one gets almost no sense of conditions on the ground in Gaza. Instead, readers get sterile accounts of the IDF’s successful exploits, emotive accounts of a funeral held for a Golani soldier killed in Gaza, and the tale of a former Gazan settler returning to his evacuated home to fight Hamas terrorists.

Newspaper Reports

At least two Israeli journalists have steadfastly drawn attention to the Palestinian narrative and the plight of the civilian populations under ceaseless attack.

Amira Hass, the only Jewish Israeli journalist who lives among Palestinians in the 1967 Occupied Territories, now communicates with friends and acquaintances in Gaza by phone from her home in Ramallah.

In an article on January 4, she describes the plight of a family home in Gaza’s Zeitoun neighborhood, which was struck by missile fire a day earlier wounding “two women in their eighties (his mother and aunt), his 14-year-old son, his 13-year-old niece and his 10-year-old nephew.”

“Twenty hours later, the wounded were still bleeding in a shed in the courtyard of the house. There was no electricity, no heat, no water. Their relatives were with them, but every time they tried to leave the courtyard to fetch water, the army shot at them,” she writes.

Hass continues to describe the phone calls of helpless injured friends and acquaintances who are left to perish, hour by hour, unreachable by ambulance despite pleas to the IDF for safe passage.


“Jews in the Diaspora begin asking themselves very awkward questions: Are they surrounded by latent racists, or is something wrong with them that denies the feelings of certainty of those around them? Or does everyone have similar doubts but are simply afraid to express them?”

-Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, Electronic Intifada

The other vocal opponent in the Israeli press is Gideon Levy.

Also published in Haaretz, he rails against what he sees as the complacent Israeli masses and Israel’s criminal leadership. “Even if Israel wiped Gaza off the face of the earth, killing tens of thousands in the process, as a Chechnyan laborer working in Sderot proposed to me, one can assume that there would be no protest.” 

He also disparages other Israeli intellectuals’ response to the “havoc we have wreaked.” “Amos Oz urges: ‘Cease-fire now.’ David Grossman writes: ‘Hold your fire. Stop.’ Meir Shalev wants ‘a punitive operation.’ And not one word about our moral image, which has been horribly distorted.”

But many Israeli readers of Haaretz are apparently unwilling to stomach Levy’s reproof. According to an article in Spiegel, subscribers to Haaretz have been abandoning the newspaper in droves in recent years.

The most frequent reason cited for cancellations? Levy’s biweekly column.

The Anti-Zionist Left

While Avnery might be considered the extreme left in Israel, his views still fall into the framework of the Zionist left—those who insist on returning land occupied by Israel since 1967 in exchange for peace.

“In general, the Israeli left is split into Zionist left and non-Zionist left, and the non-Zionist left is not widely read, except by the non-Zionist left. Avnery is on the Zionist side of the so-called extreme left. He is read, still, but people mostly read newspapers like Haaretz,” The Magnes Zionist wrote in an e-mail.

If anti-Zionist Israelis are barely read in Israel, their views are also scantily represented in the international mainstream press.

Most anti-Zionist Jews (which include some post-Zionists who see the need for a Jewish state transcended) favor a secular bi-national state with equal rights for Jews and Arabs across all of historic Palestine.

Their criticism is leveled against the Zionist state itself rather than specific policies.

Unsurprisingly, many anti- or post-Zionist Israelis have left Israel and now write from overseas. Writing in Electronic Intifada, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe calls Israel’s “direct attack on the last vestiges of humanity and dignity of the Palestinian people” “genocidal” and concludes:

“Today in Israel, from Left to Right, from Likud to Kadima, from the academia to the media, one can hear this righteous fury of a state that is more busy than any other state in the world in destroying and dispossessing an indigenous population.”

More prevalent perhaps than Israeli opposition to the attacks on Gaza is a growing disenchantment with Israel’s conduct amongst the Jewish diaspora.

In a piece in Haaretz, entitled “Right and Left—Jewish diaspora more critical of Israel than ever” , Anshel Pfeffer describes the nagging doubts of diaspora Jews unsettled by Israel’s wanton bombing.

“They begin asking themselves very awkward questions: Are they surrounded by latent racists, or is something wrong with them that denies the feelings of certainty of those around them? Or does everyone have similar doubts but are simply afraid to express them?”

Mainstream Jewish American bloggers such as Matthew Yglesias and Glen Greenwald have also become increasingly vocal in their opposition.

In his latest post on the Salon website, Greenwald attacks the “ingrained tribalistic blindness”  of liberal American Jews who only identify with their own, and the selective label of terrorism leveled against Palestinian resistance.

Traditional “peace camp” blames Hamas

Amos Oz, international bestselling author and founder of Peace Now! is considered a leading dove because of his support for a two-state partition following the 1967 war. (He is also in favor of the separation wall.)

At the onset of the Israeli bombing raids on December 27, which killed more than 200 Palestinians in a few short hours, Oz blamed Hamas for the outbreak of violence, but subsequently called for a ceasefire.

Writing in the New York Times, David Grossman, also a “peacenik”, argued that after the “heavy blow that Israel has dealt to the Gaza Strip,” Israel should demonstrate that it is the more restrained party and consider a 48-hour ceasefire. “The war isn’t going anywhere,” he soothes the anxious reader.

Unlike Avnery, who acknowledges that Israel violated the ceasefire through its continuing stranglehold on Gaza, Grossman claims that “until last Saturday (the start of the ground invasion), Israel — under the military leadership of Defense Minister Ehud Barak — acted with impressive level-headedness.” 

His quibble lies with the “deadly logic of military power and the dynamic of escalation.”

More critical voices from the Zionist left have been published in US or British publications. In a piece entitled, “Israel’s New War Ethic” in The Nation, Neve Gordon describes the saturated coverage on Israeli TV of mothers mourning fallen soldier sons and distressed Sderotis reeling in shock at the sound of sirens.

Equal value of life

Meanwhile, Operation Cast Lead continues unabated, and while Tzipi Livni audaciously claims that there is no “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, Israelis needn’t look any further than their leading newspaper Haaretz for tidbits that suggest otherwise.

Moreover, they can read their fellow Israelis’ altruistic pleas for peace, often characterized by an ideologically-defused pacifism and sugarcoated with the brush of equal blame for the inevitable “cycle of violence”, in the international press or online. In the Washington Post, Julia Chait, an Israeli living near Sderot, writes:

“We will know peace only when we accept the fact that the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have every right to lives of dignity. We will know peace only when we recognize that we must negotiate with Hamas, our enemy, even if we are devastated that the Palestinians did not elect a more moderate party to lead them. We will know peace only when our leaders stop considering our lives cheap and expendable, and help us create a beautiful, green Negev, free of fear and despair.”

Uri Avnery might well be placing ads in Haaretz and enlightening his fellow citizens to the barbaric scenes broadcast on Arabic-language TV, which will radicalize an entire generation of Arab masses, when he turns one hundred. In 2023.