Why the Left Is the Right Track for Israel

Leftist concepts of universal human rights and social justice have historically ensured the stability of nations that adopted them. With a struggle, they could work here too.

Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz
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Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz

The word “left” has become a dirty word in Israeli politics. Witness the desperate attempts by the leader of the Labor Party to empty it of any identification with the traditional ideas of the left ‏(her focus on social issues is a way of caring for Jews only, not for the fate of Palestinians‏) or the ways in which countless former members of the Labor Party have painted themselves with the gray colors of the center-right.

Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, whose political opinions I do not share, made a brilliant comment on Ayala Hasson’s current affairs program “Yoman” on Friday, December 7: “The right,” he said, “is strong because we can forget our differences and get together around a single vision. The left is fragmented, because everyone there is fighting for his own self-interest.” Even if self-interested and principled people exist on all sides, and even if right-wing politicians can teach others a trick or two about the art of dancing the minuet in the Knesset, Sa’ar’s remark seems to capture remarkably well how the right and the left are perceived.

As the English philosopher John Stuart Mill put it: “One person with a belief is a social power equal to 99 who have only interests.” At the moment it is the right that seems to have beliefs.

The left’s amorphous politics has many well-known causes: the fiasco of Camp David, the lack of party discipline of power-hungry politicians, demographic trends that give more power to the settlers and religious people, and the political confusion that comes with postmodern “cool.” But there is a more profound and elusive reason as well: the few parties that still embody the values of the left − Meretz or Hadash − do not seem realistic; to many, their values do not seem aligned with the realpolitik that only the right can defend. Many left-wing people themselves subscribe to the tired cliché that morality is opposed to political realism and that there is a trade-off between the two. The opposite is true: only moral institutions bring true political power.

The reader, I am sure, has frowned, half skeptical, half cynical: hardened by the daily spectacle of our politics, s/he will ask me to simply contemplate the recent fate of Benny Begin, Michael Eitan and Dan Meridor − three outstanding, principled Likud Knesset members − to see how little morality plays a role in politics. The difficulty in getting across the point of this article − that morality brings political power − is in a sense the very problem at hand here. We are so overwhelmed with securitism ‏(alternating between fear of and contempt for the enemy‏), aggressive religious nationalism, rampant self-interest, indifference to the rights of non-Jews, indifference to the well-being of the public at large, that our structures of thought and feeling make it difficult to raise moral principles in the political discourse, to imagine what principled politics looks like.

Of course, principled politicians do exist − Zahava Gal-On, Nitzan Horowitz, Dov Khenin, Mohammad Barakeh − but the very fact that they seem to be at the far end of the political spectrum makes my point.

The election season is surely the time to remind ourselves of the burning beliefs the left stands for and the great accomplishments these beliefs brought about. As the great American historian Howard Zinn wrote: “Without history, anybody in authority can get up before a microphone and tell you anything [like we’ve got to make this or that war]. And if you have no history, you have no way of checking up on that.”

So in the face of the long procession of people telling lies unchecked, let us remind ourselves what the left stands for. Historically, it is the left − not the right − that has offered the powerful ways to reimagine and reshape societies.

The left is a large family with many siblings. It ranges from anarchism to social democracy, via Marxism. Still, this broad, cacophonous family has two main branches: liberalism ‏(defending the basic rights and freedoms of human beings‏) and socialism ‏(creating mechanisms to insure distributive justice‏). Most differences between the various factions of the left revolve around the respective emphasis each places on freedom or on equality ‏(in the United States leftists are mostly liberal; Europe has historically mixed liberalism with socialism‏).

Yet despite its differences, the left has one single and powerful moral core, summarized in one word: universalism − the belief that beneath the social uniform of their religion or social class, human beings are equal and should enjoy similar freedoms and resources.

This moral belief has had tremendous power in shaping the powerful matrix we call “modernity”: the universal right to vote, the equality of men and women, the redistribution of wealth and the creation of public goods such as public schools and parks, the equality of all human beings before the law, freedom of expression and of the press, the right to religious freedom. All these elements, which we see as natural, “neutral” components of civilized countries, were inventions of the liberal left and have dramatically reshaped the world.

Human rights

The idea that human beings are endowed with natural rights that no state or political authority can ever take away is one of the greatest inventions of
human history. It was the French revolutionaries who drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. ‏(The French model, rather than the American Bill of Rights of the same year, is the one that was imitated in Europe‏.) It is also that model that inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was drafted at the United Nations from 1946 to 1948.

One member of the subcommittee drafting that UN declaration − Hernán Santa Cruz from Chile − summarized the essence of the enterprise: “I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing − which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality.”

The concept of human rights transposed God’s sacredness to ordinary human beings, who now became equal in the nakedness and sacredness of their humanity. This grandiose vision of humanity pervaded the 20th century, during which many oppressed and discriminated groups in Western and non-Western democracies fought for their rights to be treated equally and to enjoy what we now perceive as normal freedoms. Women, blacks, invalids, the sick, aliens, refugees, homosexuals, people oppressed by dictatorial regimes − all these groups invoked their rights as a sacred prerogative of human beings.

This sanctification of the rights of human beings to be treated fairly and equally by the law, to move freely, to live where they choose, is now so obvious and taken for granted in Western European countries that we forget it was the left that invented it. But there is more: These rights protected individuals against the arbitrary power of a state, and yet increased the strength of the state as well. Much research shows that states that protect human rights are stronger than those that don’t: They are politically more stable; economically more successful; able to attract immigrants; endowed with international legitimacy, and thus able to display what political scientists call “soft power.”
In contrast, we need only be faithful spectators of the news to know that the long list of countries that do not respect human rights have unstable and volatile political cultures ‏(not even the mammoth China really disproves this claim‏).

Human rights, then, represent not only moral progress; they are also pragmatic resources that increase the strength of nation-states as well.

Rights of workers

Karl Marx is often hysterically associated with the extreme left. But were his ideas that extreme? Let us look at the evidence. With the rise of machines to produce goods in the 19th century, capitalists introduced a workday of 15-17 hours and made extensive use of female and child labor. In England, women and children accounted for 50-60 percent of the labor force in the cotton industry in the first half of the 19th century. A large army of unemployed men and women naturally followed, with the result, as economists would predict, that wages declined, and declined below the subsistence level.

In a way, 19th-century workers were worse off than slaves, because while the latter were provided with food and shelter and cared for ‏(as an expensive commodity‏), the workers were brutally exploited and left to live in appalling social conditions; their death did not preoccupy the capitalists, who knew there were endless supplies of workers.

The factory worker was subject to exhausting labor, hunger, slum conditions, disease, and early death. It was to these conditions that Marx ‏(and Marxism‏) reacted, giving rise to working class agitation and various socialist movements, which later became the International Labour Organization − formed in 1919 as part of the League of Nations to protect worker’s rights.

These rights, thought by many at the time to threaten social order, consisted of the right to work, the prohibition of child labor, minimally safe working conditions, the right to form unions and the right to strike. They have become so basic to our society that we cannot think of them as having any political color.

Again, here is the striking fact: In organizing workers’ rights, Marxism and socialism indirectly contributed to stabilizing and expanding capitalism, by making the capitalist economy tolerable to the large reservoir of people it exploited. The regulation of the labor market through wages helped regulate employment and increase wages, which was in turn crucial for the development of capitalism.

As became obvious with Fordism in the 1910s, it was an employed working class earning relatively high wages that helped create the shift to mass consumption, which marked the decisive development of capitalism. ‏(Roosevelt’s New Deal further proved the strength of this view during the Great Depression by launching government programs aiming at full employment.‏) Thus, it was the left that helped prevent the tremendous technological forces of capitalist production from destroying societies as we knew them, and helped build a more just distribution of resources. Ironically, it was the left that saved capitalism from itself.

Separation of state and religion

The 1905 French Law on the Separation of the Churches and the State was enacted during the Third Republic and established state secularism in France − laïcité. France was then governed by the Bloc des Gauches ‏(a leftist coalition‏) led by the socialist Émile Combes. The law established one of the most crucial principles of democratic states − namely, that it must remain neutral with regard to religion. As the first article of the law illustrated, this neutrality aimed to preserve a chief moral principle: “The Republic defends the freedom of conscience.”

Why is the separation of state and religion, a condition for the preservation of the “freedom of conscience,” so crucial to democracies? That is because a state defined by religion implicitly condones and privileges one group over another. In a situation of religious plurality, the state quickly becomes a direct instrument in the oppression of religious minorities by the religious majority. Without even knowing it, such a state institutionalizes discrimination and racism, and makes them routine.

Take the example of an elected Likud MK, Danny Danon, who in 2005 lobbied vociferously to bar Arab MK Mohammad Barakeh from attending a commemoration ceremony at Auschwitz. What could possibly explain such a vile act? Only the close identification of a state ceremony with the Jewish majority, the implicit idea that “this belongs to the Jews only.” The principle of religious neutrality of the state is thus crucial for creating broad, and flexible social covenants that can embrace various groups and create peaceful relationships between them.


War suited premodern societies because their economies were based on territorial expansion and the control of populations. This is also why premodern societies are powerfully structured around such divisions of the world as “us-them,” “friends-foes,” “allies-enemies.” Universalist thought was bound to change that mode of thinking. World War I was the occasion for trade unionists, anarchists and Marxists to unite in their opposition to war, because they saw the humanity of the people who carried the flags. Even if many subsequently changed their minds, this was enough to establish an enduring association of the left with pacifism.

Alphonse Merrheim, a French revolutionary trade unionist, saw the butchery of World War I coming. In 1915, speaking of French political leaders, he said: “They lie. The truth is that they are burying, beneath the buildings and families they have destroyed, the freedom of their own people as well as the independence of other nations.”

Throughout the second part of the 20th century, a consensus was slowly built around the idea that war destroys freedom − both of those who are subjugated and those using military power. The left’s skepticism toward war has become widespread among Western European citizens, the majority of whom views war as both immoral and ineffective. As Zinn himself reminds us: “Wars are not practical ways of achieving their ends. More and more, in recent history, the most powerful nations find themselves unable to conquer much weaker nations.”

The moral repulsion of war as a permanent way of organizing national sovereignty is based on a highly pragmatic understanding that wars distract nations from economic and cultural development. We may at this point ask a simple question: Why has universalism proved to be such an effective moral and pragmatic way to organize society?

The answer, I believe, is surprisingly simple: because it fosters cooperation. Particularist political arrangements are by definition focused on one group and must always, at one point or another, prefer one group to another. This generates inequality and discrimination, which in turn generate violence between groups, and between groups and the state. Universalism, in contrast, creates rules and structures to facilitate the entry of everyone into the social contract, making stable social covenants possible.

The New Likud does have one endearing trait: Its politicians are not plagued by the vice of hypocrisy. They tell it like it is, and do not even pretend they are defending a generous vision of humanity, an injunction to help the weak, a burning desire for equality or the basic rights of human beings. Their politics is one that feels cozily at ease with the warm and brutish aspects of ethnic and religious particularism.

The country that awaits us the day after the New Likud is in power will be unstable and volatile because members of the New Likud are now largely identified with the settlement project, a vast enterprise whose legal and economic apparatus is based on an ever- tighter identification of the state with the Jews, on a bellicose view of foreign affairs, and a systematic and structural denial of basic human rights ‏(like the right of free movement, the right of construction and the right of ownership‏).

The New Likud will provide neither political stability nor a flourishing economy, because its economy is particularistic: it will continue to serve the endless needs of the ultra-Orthodox, the settlers, the super-rich 1 percent. Members of the New Likud do not mind this, because they secretly, or not so secretly, wish for a great war that will once and for all determine who has military sovereignty in the region, and a perpetual state of warfare financed by the U.S. and by secular Israelis.

The New Likud follows the logic of chaos and violence well known in the history of European extreme right-wing parties. By creating violence, it hopes either to create intimidation and silence, or to invite retaliatory violence, which can then in turn legitimately set off and intensify its own violence.

In the same way as the right beat the left by making it a dirty word, the left has won the battle against the right by making it obvious that it is the only voice that speaks in the name of universal morality. The moral vision of the left has proved numerous times that it is the only pragmatic way to organize society into a flourishing and stable citizenry.

Although we will have to overcome our profound disgust with politics, let us not forget that politics does not belong to parties, but to the streets and to the people. Zinn again: “It is true that Americans have been voting every few years for Congressmen and presidents. But it is also true that the most important social changes in the history of the United States − independence from England, Black emancipation, the organization of labor, gains in sexual equality, the outlawing of racial segregation, the withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam − have come about not through the ballot box but through the direct action of social struggle, through the organization of popular movements using a variety of extralegal and illegal tactics.”

Not only political parties, but also civil society and ordinary citizens can oppose the politics of death of the New Likud, and can continue the struggle which many men and women have fought for the last three centuries.

Likud members after the November primary. The logic of chaos and violence.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Historian Howard Zinn. The most profound social changes came about through social struggle, not the ballot box.Credit: AP
Karl Marx. The left saved capitalism from itself.Credit: International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam



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