Response by Keith Kahn-Harris

31 December 2023

In this brief response I’d like to focus on two of the points where, according to the statement, the left has gone wrong – ‘Fetishisation of Israel/Palestine’ and ‘The abandonment of class analysis.’ The two are, of course, connected and the work of addressing those vices raises fundamental issues in progressive politics.

I would argue that fetishisation of Israel/Palestine is not a deviation from or forgetting of class analysis so much as a replacement for it. Yet that replacement is often functionally identical to the original. Class analysis, at least as it has been articulated in Marxist theory and its heirs, emerges out of a materialist foundationalism. When left politics treats class and capital as the central object of analysis and political action, it affirms a belief that human civilizations are ultimately based on something, something that can be understood and changed.

There are many reasons why class and capital have declined as the central focus of left political action in the last few decades. What I think that the fetishisation of Israel/Palestine shows us is that there remains a deep (and usually unarticulated) yearning for a foundationalism that can ground what otherwise seem to be disconnected political struggles.

One of the most striking aspects of the Gaza war (and, to a lesser extent, of pro-Palestinian activism prior to the war) is how activists engaged in multiple other struggles have participated in pro-Palestinian solidarity actions and protests. It’s nothing new, of course, for progressive causes to show solidarity with each other. However, what we are seeing sometimes goes beyond solidarity to either imply or directly state that Palestine is the foundational cause that ties them all together.

In a photograph in one of the recent protests, I saw a sign that said ‘Palestine is a Queer Issue.’ I don’t hold with those pro-Israel campaigners who mock LGBT activists for Palestine; those who sneer that they would not survive in a free Palestine. But to fold queer liberation and Palestinian liberation into a single struggle involves an ignoring of tensions between these causes.

I was also struck by Greta Thunberg’s high-profile activism for Palestine during the Gaza war. While she has never been entirely focused on climate change as a cause, the decision to spend considerable time and effort on Gaza can only be explicable if she believes that Israel/Palestine and global warming are connected. This case is particularly revealing as climate change is a materialist issue and, in my view ,the only kind of materialist foundationalism that makes sense these days. So why is it not ‘enough’? Is it, in fact, Palestine that now provides the materialist foundation?

My suspicion is that the place that Palestine has come to hold in multiple progressive political struggles is fundamentally contradictory. On the one hand, it speaks to a desire to secure a firm foundation for political action and for understanding the world. It also speaks to an anxiety that nothing else – not even climate change and certainly not class analysis –  can really provide that foundation.

Why then is Palestine so popular as a foundationalist cause? Part of the reason may be that, ironically, it is containable and limited. The Gaza war is taking place in a tiny strip of land where the conflict is defined by an extreme asymmetry. Although, in reality, the war is part of a complex geopolitical entanglement that cannot be easily parsed, it appears as something much more straightforward. And it’s true that a missile destroying an apartment block that wipes out multiple families is viscerally simple.

Israel/Palestine’s smallness is also a geographical expression of a deeply rooted sense that this land somehow focuses, reduces and distils everything of consequence in the world. That is certainly the role it plays in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is also where antisemitism can enter the picture. It is hard to separate the deeply rooted role that what is now Israel/Palestine holds in multiple societies, from the antisemitic traditions in which they are enmeshed.

To give Israel/Palestine foundational importance in political action is therefore to risk both a distorted worldview and an affirmation of antisemitic ways of thinking. The problem is, however, that Israel/Palestine is undeniably important, even if it isn’t foundational to everything else. It is important because of the immense suffering being experienced there. It is important because it risks a much wider regional conflagration that in its turn can exacerbate global conflict. But that importance does not mean that other issues are reducible to it: It is possible to successfully act against anthropogenic climate change and still be faced with an insoluble Israel/Palestinian oppression. It is possible to achieve queer liberation (in Palestine too) and still be faced with an insoluble Israel/Palestine.

Of course, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work in the according of foundational importance to Israel/Palestine. After all, if you genuinely feel you can’t be free until Palestine is free, then that will determine how you see the world and how you act politically. If the killings in Gaza are unbearable  to witness then opposing Israel becomes an existential matter. And geopolitically we have to recognise the fact that Israel/Palestine is the issue on which competing powers contend.

We are left with a near-impossible challenge: How might it be possible to act politically on an important issue without implying foundational importance?

This is not a question I can answer (and I have been asking it for many years). But I suspect that the answer doesn’t lie in a return to the materialist foundationalism of class-based analysis and political action. It might well be the case that a class-based politics has at least the potential to create alliances and common struggles between peoples separated by nation, religion and so on. It might also be the case that without attention to class and capital, no other struggle can ever completely succeed. The problem is that we are now living in a world in which class-based materialism does not seem to be ‘enough’ to motivate large-scale activism. Further, if the imminent threat of catastrophic climate change has not been enough to relegate all other struggles to second place, then we have to bow to the reality that the fact of common material self-interest cannot override other human entanglements.

We are where we are. I do recognise that my response only deals with one aspect of what is a very rich statement. I also think that many of its arguments do give at least some clues as to how to act on an important issue without treating it as foundational. At some point though, we are going to have to find a way to understand and respond to the evident yearning for a foundational issue that pro-Palestinian activism often reveals. Until the sort of politics that the authors of the statement propose (and that I, with some reservations, also hold to) can find a way to meet this need, it will struggle to get a hearing.

Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and author. His website is here.