The denunciation of anti-Semitism in House Resolution 183 is a welcome and necessary response to the anti-Semitic statements of Congressperson Ilhan Omar. However, it did not address the issue of how that hatred has been linked over the past half century to attacks on the state of Israel. Omar’s comments about Jews and money, dual loyalty and Israel’s ability to “hypnotize the world” went far beyond the criticism of the policy of the government of Israel—criticism that occurs regularly in the Israeli parliament. Rather, her comments, along with support for efforts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel that have been a defining element of leftist politics in recent years, point to a more ambitious agenda: replacement of the state of Israel entirely. Indeed, this antagonism to the existence of the state of Israel—and the accompanying, misleading arguments about that state’s origins—has become a defining feature of the radical left around the world since the 1960s.
For many decades, the anti-Semitism question has been an Israel question. The ideological assault on the Jewish state attributes to Israel the combination of power and evil intent that anti-Semites once attributed to Jews or “world Jewry.” Again, not all criticism of Israel is motivated by anti-Semitism. For example, the settlements policy remains highly disputed both within Israeli society and among Israel’s strong supporters around the world. On the other hand, efforts to call the basic legitimacy of the state into question, to spread the lie that it is a form of apartheid, to thus isolate the Jewish state in order to destroy it, leaving its six million citizens at the mercy of the likes of Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, are now the most politically consequential forms in which anti-Semitism appears. When Omar wrote that Israel had “hypnotized the world” she used language that only those who attribute such power and evil to the Jewish state have frequently used in the past.
The real historical novelty of Omar’s comments, therefore, lies not in their substance but in the fact that they are being voiced by a Democratic member of Congress appointed to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Her stance stands in contrast to a long and storied tradition of support for Israel within the Democratic Party. Given where we are today, it’s useful to recall both the mentalities and the politics that undergirded this stance. In brief, the Democratic Party supported the founding of the state of Israel in the name of anti-fascism and in opposition to racism and anti-Semitism. In 1948, this stance was in harmony with the broad consensus on the global Left. But the Democratic Party and the global Left have never walked in lockstep, and as time went on their views on Israel diverged.
In Europe, in the crucial years of 1947-48 when the issue hung in the balance, Israel’s strongest supporters came from Communists, Socialists, liberals, and moderate conservatives who had fought in the anti-Nazi resistance organizations. At the United Nations the strong support for the Partition Plan by its Soviet Ambassador Andrei Gromyko stood in striking contrast to the halting support, legalisms, and ambiguities of the U.S. Ambassador, Warren Austin.
And it wasn’t just the Ambassador. It may come as a surprise to Israel’s leftist critics of recent years to learn that the establishment of the state of Israel on May 15, 1948 was fiercely opposed by the leadership of the foreign policy and defense establishment of the United States government. All the leaders of the State Department, the Pentagon, and the American intelligence agencies, including Secretary of State George Marshall and Director of Policy Planning George Kennan, argued that a Jewish state in Palestine would undermine American national interests. They asserted that it would meet with such Arab antagonism that Western access to Middle East oil would be put at risk, thereby undermining the economic recovery of Western Europe and the policy of containment of communism with which it was associated. American diplomats, intelligence officials and military leaders were convinced that Israel would facilitate Soviet penetration of the Middle East, both by antagonizing the Arab and Muslim populations, who then might turn to the Soviets, and by allowing Communist agents into Israel posing as European refugees. Odd as it may sound in 2019, in the years following World War II the association of Jews with the Left caused unease and suspicion in the generally conservative corridors of power in Washington.
Following its recognition of the new state of Israel, the United States imposed an arms embargo on material destined for Israel and the Arab states. In Europe (and at the UN) support for Israel came from the Soviet Union and the Communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and Poland, veterans of the French Resistance, and from Socialist members of the French government. Political leaders and informed citizens in Europe and the United States remembered that the leader of the Palestinian Arab Higher Committee, Haj Amin al-Husseini, had been a propagandist for Nazi Germany during World War II and the Holocaust, that his own interpretation of Islam inspired a deep hatred of Jews and Judaism, that this hatred was the foundation for his collaboration with the Nazis as well as for his rejection of the Partition Plan, and that the Muslim Brotherhood and others in Arab societies also expressed support for the Axis as allies in their battle against Zionism.
In those years, discussions of racism focused on the racism and anti-Semitism of the Palestinian Arab Higher Committee and the refusal of the Arab League to tolerate a Jewish state amidst many Arab states. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that has come to dominate the global Left, the state of Israel did not come into existence with the support of Western imperialism, nor did racism play a role in its origins and self-definition. On the contrary, it was the product of movements that fought against both anti-Semitism and racism. In a sense, its establishment was the last act of the anti-Hitler coalition, even as that alliance was crumbling as the Cold War was in its early months.
But the meaning and resonance of “anti-fascism” as a rallying cry began to change on the Left as early as 1949. The Soviet Union had reversed its previous support for the United Nations Partition Plan in November 1947, and then had opposed the establishment of the Jewish state in May 1948. With the beginning of the “anti-cosmopolitan purges” in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1949, the Soviet Union adopted a four decades-long policy of diplomatic and military antagonism that associated Israel with “American imperialism.” We owe it in part to the Soviet Union that the word “Zionism” became a term of abuse in world politics in those decades.
A second shift in the history of leftist antagonism to Israel took place during and after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War of 1967. The Western left displaced its commitment to anti-fascism in the 1940s with the bizarre view that the small Jewish state had become part of the “first world” that was exploiting and oppressing the “third world.” In those years, the successor organizations of the New Left in Europe supported the terrorist campaigns—euphemistically renamed “armed struggle”—of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In 1975, these redefinitions found legitimation in the UN, when a huge Soviet, Arab, Muslim, and third world majority passed the “Zionism is racism” resolution. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the American Ambassador to the UN, famously denounced that resolution as an example of anti-Semitism.
The result was what I have called the “undeclared war” waged by the Soviet bloc against Israel. Throughout these years, anti-Israel passion in the Middle East thrived on arms deliveries, military training, and state-supported propaganda campaigns generously provided by the Soviet Union and its East European allies. With the collapse of Communism, these forms of support ended, thereby severely weakening the ability of the Palestine Liberation Organization to make war on Israel. But the anti-Zionist arguments of the Communists and the radical left lived on in more genteel forms in the universities. Since 1989, opposition to Israel’s existence as Jewish state, the conviction that Israel is not a legitimate entity and should be replaced with something else, has found academic adherents who in recent years supported efforts to persuade both student and professional groups to boycott, sanction and divest from the Jewish state (BDS). Most of those efforts have failed as scholars have rejected both their factual assertions and the animus that inspires them. Yet they persist, bolstered as well by the emergence of Islamist anti-Zionism to global prominence following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the writing of the Hamas Charter in 1988, and the emergence of other Islamist groups and ideologues in recent decades, groups that almost uniformly make no distinction between hatred of Jews, Judaism, and the state of Israel. In the blend of leftism and Islamism of recent decades, the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism becomes a distinction without a difference.
President Truman, with the support of the Democratic Party, made the crucial and brave decision to support the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 and recognize the new state of Israel in 1948, in the face of stiff bureaucratic opposition at home. In the United States, strong support for establishing the state of Israel came from a broad array of leftist and liberal organizations who saw doing so as a logical outcome of the anti-fascism that had inspired the Allies to fight the war against Nazi Germany. The facts of the Holocaust that came to full light in summer 1945 only deepened this conviction. And through the years, the Democratic Party has by and large stood by Israel, despite the shifts in the intellectual winds on the Left. After the establishment of the state of Israel, the State Department and U.S. military leadership gradually adapted to its existence.
Representative Omar’s remarks didn’t exactly emerge as a thunderclap in the party. They were foreshadowings of where things were heading. President Obama had already refused to speak frankly about the link between Islamism, terror, and anti-Semitism. In negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, the Obama Administration said far too little about the anti-Semitism at the core of the Iranian regime’s ideology. Furthermore, when Benjamin Netanyahu linked his fate closely to the Republican Party and then to Trump, Israel became a partisan issue. Its support among younger liberals has declined.
Most Democratic members of Congress do not share Omar’s views. Whatever criticisms they have of the current Likud government, they accept the fundamental legitimacy of the Jewish state. Yet now that anti-Semitic arguments that are linked to criticisms of the American alliance with Israel have been voiced in the halls of Congress, it is important that the Democratic Party recall the very different political coordinates and mentalities of 1947 and 1948 that gave rise to Israel. Those coordinates and mentalities were central to the identity of the Democratic Party as one that has been at the forefront of effort to overcome the scourges of racism and anti-Semitism. At this moment, historical awareness about the mentalities of 1948 should serve to counter the resurgence of very old and long discredited falsehoods about Zionism, the state of Israel, and its supporters in the United States.