Response by Zahi Zalloua and Ilan Kapoor

7 January 2024

What the Internationalist Left can still learn from the anti-colonial Left

We write in response to the “contribution to left renewal and transformation,” written by Ben Gidley, Daniel Mang, and Daniel Randall, and endorsed by so many we consider comrades and fellow Left intellectuals, activists, and critics. We are grateful for the invitation for leftists to think critically about their pro-Palestinian position, to be mindful not to replace one hegemonic regime with another. We certainly agree with the pressing concern for the anti-colonial Left to develop, or at least to make more clear, its internationalist vision, while tying the Palestinian question to class struggle, other sites of antagonisms, and just peace—a coexistence between Palestinians and Israeli Jews grounded in principles of equality and freedom for all.

But toward advancing this ideal, we want to briefly address a few lacunas in the letter’s vision of Palestine/Israel and the Hamas attack. The letter, with good reason, objects to the type of armed struggle against Israel that makes no distinction between military targets and civilians. The letter stresses the necessity of defending the rights and lives of both Palestinian and Israeli civilians. We agree without qualification. At the same time, armed struggle against an occupying force as such is never really discussed. Ukraine is introduced, but only to accuse a myopic anti-colonial Left for standing with Russia, and for believing that they are contributing to anti-imperialist resistance. In the context of Palestine/Israel, the anti-colonial Left is not chastised for standing with Palestinians, but for supporting Hamas and by extension an Iranian regional-imperialism. Praising the courage of Hamas’s brutal attack feeds the antisemitism that concerns the authors of the letter and fellow signatories. Any celebration of civilian deaths concerns us and should indeed be the concern of all of us. What we see as left unresolved or unaddressed however is the parallel between the armed struggle of Ukrainians and the armed struggle of Palestinians in general.

The Western world can empathise with the suffering of Ukrainian civilians, but it can also without tension or contradiction identify with their armed struggle for liberation: we seem to have no trouble viewing Ukrainians as victims and at the same time as freedom fighters struggling against an imperialist Russia. So what prevents an analogous approach to the Palestinian struggle? In this regard, whereas the letter urges a qualified use of the settler-colonial framework, we urge a more nuanced assessment of its presumed limits. The settler-colonial framing of the antagonism is still foreign to most Western liberals and to some leftists, who tend to see what is happening in Palestine/Israel as a fundamentally deracialized conflict over territory. Identifying the Palestinian cause with the struggle against a racist settler-colonial state puts front and centre the struggle for liberation, which itself is tied to sovereignty over land (and here, we should say that nothing precludes a shared sovereignty over the land). To recognize Palestinians as freedom fighters re-centres the settler-colonial situation. But there seems to be no room in the letter for armed resistance in the context of such settler colonialism, which abides by international law and does not target defenceless civilians, but only the military.

To its credit, the letter includes the West Bank in its discussion. It decries “the violence of settlers and Israeli security forces against Palestinians in the West Bank.” But how are Palestinians supposed to resist? What recourse do they have faced with settler hooligans who are executing farmers and burning down Palestinian villages—increasingly supported and armed by the Israeli far-right government? Here Western leaders and corporate media make no distinction between types of armed struggles—it is not how you struggle but that you struggle that is really denounced. Armed struggle that views every Jewish Israeli as a legitimate target and armed struggle that only targets the IDF and attacking settlers are one and the same in this view. The internationalist Left cannot afford to conflate the two. Liberals and Western heads of state can lament the murders of victims on both sides, but Palestinians are denied their right to resist.

It would have been helpful to describe in the letter how Palestinian non-violence is also demonised as antisemitic. Take for example the 2018 Great March of Return, during which tens of thousands of Gazans demanded the right of return for refugees and an end to the siege. The cruel outcome: Israeli snipers killed more than 223 peaceful Palestinians and injured some 13,000. There is also the case of the slandering of the non-violent global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. They are invariably accused of antisemitism for singling out Israel. “Why don’t you go after China?” is a common refrain. But the problem with the China and Israel comparison is that no one in the Global North would mistake China for a democratic state, or Russia for that matter. Critiques of these regimes are already being heard. But Israel enjoys all the benefits of a democratic state without actually being one. It is passing as democratic. The Israeli state is certainly not democratic in relation to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the Nakba survivors living in Israel. And it is certainly not a democratic state in its overall practice of apartheid inside and outside the Green Line as attested to by a number of human rights groups, including B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group.

We are struck, in this regard, by the letter’s repeated assumption of, and appeal to, vague notions of “rights” and “democracy,” which we suggest, in the current late capitalist conjuncture, may actually be the problem: as indicated in the case of Israel, the belief in the human rights-democratic form of struggle against (settler) democratic capitalism is precisely what prevents the questioning and dismantling of the System. The parliamentary and rights-based framework of late capitalism has become an increasingly ideological cloak for covering and justifying domination and exploitation. The challenge for the Left is to better conceptualise rights away from dominant individual civil and political notions in favour of more collective socioeconomic and land rights; and to ensure a more politicised democracy that includes the economy and environment and puts the subaltern (racialized and gendered workers as much migrants, Indigenous communities, and Palestinians) first.

On “the historical internal diversity of Zionism,” we have no dispute (Zionists like Martin Buber did envision co-existence with the Indigenous Palestinians); but we also need to point out its current dominant meaning and how it is wielded by those in power inside and outside of Israel—by Messianic and ultra-nationalist Zionists, for example, who call for genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Indigenous population, or in the now-dominant Zionist vision, under which Jewish attachment to the land has become exclusive. The Israeli state has no problem brutishly flaunting its Jewish chauvinism, thematized by the Knesset’s passing of the 2018 Nation-State Law that declares the State of Israel to be the nation-state of the Jewish people. These may well be Zionist fundamentalists; but the problem is that secular Zionists do not offer any change. What they promote instead is an Occupation on cruise control that ends up sustaining the status quo. Imagine if secular Zionists and other Jewish Israelis, rather than limiting their objections to Netanyahu’s judicial coup, engaged in a civil action like a March on Tel Aviv for Palestinian rights: Wouldn’t that be a better way of politicising their call for democracy? And wouldn’t that present Palestinians with a genuine alternative to Hamas?

Lastly, it is tragic that it took Hamas’s attack for the world to talk about Palestinians and their right to self-determination. The world sadly only seems to be interested in spectacular events—which, of course, tend to be violent. But here too the question of choosing between violence and non-violence can function as a ruse. The point is to change the current framing of the Palestinian question in a way that advances a universal politics. Resistance to such a move is nothing short of overwhelming. Any substantial change to it will be experienced as violent. If refusing the Occupation means anything at all it must mean refusal of the global capitalist status quo and the racist and neocolonial carving up of that world. The internationalist Left must ceaselessly ask: What kind of a world do we want?

Zahi Zalloua and Ilan Kapoor