Joseph Stalin in a Soviet-era poster
Joseph Stalin in a Soviet-era poster
Text size

Question: When did you repudiate the views of the opposition - before or after Zinoviev sent his latest message of contrition to the party?

Answer: I became aware of the opposition's error gradually, but Zinoviev's letter definitely tipped the scales.

Q: Under what circumstances did you join up with Kutuzov?

A: Kutuzov informed me that there was an article by Trotsky about the Russian-British Council. I glanced at it ...

Q: What do you have to say now about your second letter of contrition, in which you wrote that you have no organizational ties with the opposition?

A: I was not a member of the faction. And I was not present at Kutuzov's soiree ... I never heard about the printing press and I knew nothing about the distribution of opposition leaflets.

Bolshevik interrogation, quoted in "The Stalinist Purges" by Igal Halfin (Resling, 2006, Hebrew)

I want to address a widespread practice in left-wing circles, which I will refer to as the "practice of denunciation." The resort to this practice seems to have reached a certain peak of late, threatening to bury every other form of speech. Every other status posting in Facebook and every third response on an average left-wing blog has the following structure:

G. has revealed his true face! The real left should dissociate itself from people like that!

How do you dare do X and still call yourself a socialist?

Anyone who took part in Y does not deserve to be considered part of the left. They and I apparently are not engaged in the same struggle.

So common, trite and self-evident is this practice to anyone who has tried his hand a little at being a left-winger that it sometimes seems superfluous to talk about it. After spending about 10 years in this social environment, I would say that denunciation and purge have become knee-jerk conceptual reactions. Which is exactly why I feel a powerful need to write about this subject.

The motivating episode was the cancellation of a bloggers' conference in which I was scheduled to take part last month at Tel Aviv University. The event was canceled by the head of the Department of Comparative Literature, Dr. Orly Lubin, following accusations hurled by women and women's organizations that she was harming their cause. Her sin was to invite to the conference Haaretz journalist Benny Ziffer, who in the past shrugged off the allegations of sexual harassment of women that were raised against the writer Yitzhak Laor. Thus, the first time I was truly silenced occurred "from within the camp."

In addition, I myself recently fell victim to a denunciation of the "You have revealed your true face!" style, after I posted an illustration from the medieval period on my blog. I also have to admit that I myself have engaged in the act of denunciation, and more than once. Nor can I promise that I will completely refrain from denouncing others in the future.

Political Judgment Day

The act of denunciation bears a set structure. The question is never "Are you a nothing?" It is, "Is a nothing like you entitled to consider himself a left-winger / feminist / socialist / queer?" I will give away the end by pointing out that all you have to do in order to get the threat of denunciation removed is to declare from the outset that you are not a member of the left. From this point of view, a left-winger is like a party member in the period of the purges: anyone who does not purport to be a member of the left does not belong to the reference group, so the potential danger he represents is far smaller (in which case you can also like him, as Stalin liked the reactionary Dostoevsky and apparently also Bulgakov ).

The difference is that in contemporary Israel, no benefits accrue from belonging to the left - the very opposite, in fact.

My observations of the denunciation phenomenon have turned up a number of interesting patterns. One of them is the principle that "the denouncer becomes the denounced." I discovered this when I became more closely acquainted with the great denouncers in the camp, who until then I barely knew. Only then did I learn that they themselves suffer from fear of denunciation! Thus, because internal judgment overhangs us like a shadow, denunciation becomes a form of self-defense. Did you quarrel with someone? Wait a few weeks until he makes some fatal political error and then denounce him and be done with it. Were you thinking of denouncing me? Did you hint that I am "problematic"? You messed with the wrong guy. I will denounce you even before you have managed to post a status on Facebook. You're dead, baby! You won't be able to show your face in demonstrations outside the Defense Ministry without people whispering and glowering at you.

I sometimes have a sneaking suspicion that the hidden logic of the purge practice is a metaphysical belief that when political Judgment Day arrives, those who have survived all the purges and remained in the group of the pure and the elect will be redeemed and live in a paradise free of contradictions.

"Comrade I., in the demonstration that was held outside the Tel Aviv Cinematheque two weeks ago, you were observed conversing with two people from Peace Now."

"Yes, they are politically weak people, but in the last elections they voted for City of Us All."

"Comrade I., that is a dubious response. City of Us All is full of defeatist elements." "Comrade I., did you read the periodical Mita'am [edited by Yitzhak Laor] after February 15, 2010?"

"Yes, I mean no, I mean I am a subscriber but I am considering not renewing the subscription. Yes! I promise not to renew the subscription."

"Comrade I., your crimes are being progressively revealed. We were told only that you were riffling through Mita'am on a shelf of the Bookworm Cafe."

"Comrade I., on Sunday, March 21, you were heard humming the occupation anthem 'Jerusalem of Gold' next to the local branch of the Third Ear."

"You are wrong. I would never even consider singing 'Jerusalem of Gold.' I was humming the Basque folksong from which the Zionist-fascist Naomi Shemer stole the lyrics. Besides, I wasn't singing it, but performing a subversive drag version."

"We have it from reliable sources, Comrade I., that you read books by Amos Oz in the toilet."

"No! Not since 'To Know a Woman'! I mean, in 1969 I read 'My Michael' and even there I skipped the section with Khalil and Aziz!"

What's left

I am aware that the practices of denunciation and purge are not entirely without a point, and that they do not spring from malevolence. They possess logic, not least because in Israel the culture of peace and liberalism served as the ideology of the strongest social classes. Or, for example, because under the cover of striving for equality and justice, sexist and macho practices have become rooted in the left-wing camp. In a constellation like this, marking the boundaries becomes critical. On top of this, because the practical strength of the left is small, denunciation and boycott are among the few practices remaining to it. What's ironic is that these practices are mainly effective internally - that is, against the few people who are even interested in taking part in the left-wing project. In an era in which the term McCarthyism is bandied about by all and sundry, we have to admit that the left has turned the weapon of denunciation and purge into an art, and it's worth contemplating what the consequences of this are for the boycotters themselves. In my view, they are ruinous. Many people are very badly hurt by this terror - hurt in a way that is no different from some of the forms of violence the left wing combats. The funny thing is that the purge dynamic is often implemented in order to protect people, of all things. For example, some find it difficult to express themselves in the presence of straights, carnivores or those who did army service, so groups are established that are closed to those people, explicitly or implicitly. However, the result is heightened exclusivity, extreme purism and the exclusion of every outsider. The more extreme the ideology in terms of the demand to accept the other, the more closed it is, so that some groups consist of just one person. Permit me to put forward the proposition that if the left were less engaged in self-purgation, it could be many times larger. A great many people identify with the aspiration for peace and justice, but they simply do not have the strength to deal with the fear of denunciation, and rightly so. In fact, I'm not sure I understand the political benefit of forcing people out of the camp. The Bolsheviks at least liquidated party members who went astray. Leftists "whose true face has been revealed" will remain outside and develop a growing resentment of the left. What, then, is to be done? Clearly, there is a range of options for coping, but personally I am a little less optimistic and prefer a different approach: I simply prefer not to consider myself part of the left. Neither the "left" or anyone else will rob me of my liberty. Of course, this obligates only me personally. For this purpose, and until proved different, please consider me a reactionary. Patently, my attitudes toward Zionism, the army, the empire, capitalism and the heteronormative society have not changed in the least, nor have my actions, whether by speech or by deed. But I prefer not to view myself as belonging to any specific camp, even though nearly all my friends belong to it.

In the present state of affairs, there is something liberating about not being part of the left. In a certain sense, it's only then that people start listening to you. And I allow myself to ask how useful, really, the category of "left" is these days in terms of changing the situation, and what the effect will be if we put the concept aside, if only as an experiment.

This article first appeared on the blog of Ofri Ilani and Gal Katz, "Eretz Haemori" (in Hebrew) and on 972mag.com (English).