Why America’s Leftist Literati Loves to Fetishize Hamas Brutality

Published by Haaretz

By now, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that there are those on the Western left who openly support the attacks of October 7 on Israeli civilians. The past six months have produced a long list of examples.

The latest came when Verso Books, easily the most renowned left-wing publishing house in the English-speaking world, released an article on its website by political theorist Jodi Dean.

Dean’s position was made clear from her opening sentence in which she announces the image of October 7 paragliders, those who would go on to help brutally murder more than 300 young participants in a trance music festival, were “exhilarating” for her. She goes on to criticize the Western left for not doing enough to support Hamas and making clear that “[by] defending Hamas, we take the side of the Palestinian resistance.”

She writes: “Which side are you on? Liberation or Zionism and imperialism? There are two sides and no alternative, no negotiation of the relation between oppressor and oppressed.”

The article made even more news after Dean’s employer, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, started an investigation into her based on the article and temporarily relieved her of classroom duties.

Dean called the move “McCarthyism” and she has since become a cause in herself, with many among many well-known academics declaring their “solidarity” with her.

As an historian of political ideas, the fact that some human beings gleefully support brutalization and murder of others is, alas, not surprising to me. After all, the worst human atrocities, from the Cambodian genocide to Syria’s Bashar Assad‘s killing of hundreds of thousands of his own people, have long had their enthusiastic supporters, not least those on Western campuses

Images of Hamas militants parading the body of Shani Louk, a 22-year-old Israeli woman, on the back of a pickup truck, her body clad only in her underwear, while people take turn in spitting on her, were awful to many of us who could imagine in her, a sister, a cousin, a friend. To others, they could have been, well, “exhilarating,” justifiable as part of a broader political campaign. In the same way, some have rationalized any number of brutalities enacted upon Palestinian civilians.

So I am not writing these lines to profess my shock and disgust at Dean’s writing, but rather to place it in a political context and to show what it tells us about the state of the acceptable discourse on the Western left.

Just a month ago, about a dozen editors resigned from their unpaid positions at Guernica, a respected left-leaning American online magazine, over an essay published by Joanna Chen, an Israeli writer and peace activist.

The essay, which was soon retracted by Guernica, was denounced by one resignee as “hand-wringing apologia for Zionism and the ongoing genocide in Palestine.” In fact, Chen is pacifist enough to have refused mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces.

When not translating Arabic and Hebrew poetry, she was volunteering to drive Palestinian children from the West Bank to Israeli hospitals. Her beautiful essay doesn’t give an ounce of support to Israel’s assault on Gaza and is instead brimming with humanity, full of empathy for all the people between river and the sea. As Guernica’s editor-in-chief, Jina Moore, who has since resigned herself amid the debacle, later put it, it addresses “caregiving as a political act as aligned with a long tradition of feminist writing.”

What was the controversy about then?

Simply put, Chen’s “crime” was that she is an Israeli who painted a humanized image of Israelis as real people; not nameless, faceless ‘settlers’ who are dehumanized enough so that a massacre of 1,200 of them, the kidnapping of over 230 be so boastfully celebrated.

Friday, Guernica’s founder Michael Archer, said Chen’s essay should have never been published, writing, “Rather than mine the personal to expose the political, individual angst was elevated above the collective suffering laid bare in the extensive body of work Guernica has published from the region.”

We saw another version of such controversy much earlier just after the October 7 attacks, when Canadian leftist writer Naomi Klein dared to write a piece in which she complained about “some of our supposed comrades on the left [who] continue to minimize massacres of Israeli civilians, and some even seem to celebrate them, as if doing so proves their bad-ass anti-Zionism.”

Even though Klein supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and had gone out of her way to denounce Zionism in the very same piece, she met with such avalanche of opposition that she edited her piece within hours.

The new corrected version affirmed in a note at the bottom that “celebrations of the deaths were rare,” which begged the question: Why had she written it in the first place? She had now taken out the part about “bad-ass anti-Zionism” and added an acknowledgement about the “desire to celebrate the powerful symbolism of Palestinians escaping the open air prison that is Gaza – which occupied people have every right to do.”

A bigger controversy is currently riling the literary world. Numerous writers, including many well-known names, resigned en masse from events and awards associated with PEN America, an association of writers dedicated to free speech.

This furor began in February when PEN America hosted an author’s event in Los Angeles for stand-up comedian Moshe Kasher’s memoir. He was joined on stage by his close friend, “The Big Bang Theory” actress Mayim Bialik whose pro-Israel commentary on the war has riled some. The event had nothing to do with the Middle East. The two were there to talk about the latter’s memoir which accounts his growing up in a deaf and Jewish household, journey through Alcoholics Anonymous and eventual landing in the world of comedy.

But PEN was accused of “platforming” Bialik, the implication being that she shouldn’t be allowed a platform to talk about anything, even if unrelated to the Middle East, not even her friend’s memoir.

Put together, these events show the framework of accepted discourse on Israel-Palestine on large sections of the American left and literary world. Publishing open defense of murdering Israeli civilians is hardly controversial and can even gain you “solidarity.” But publishing an essay that humanizes them is beyond the pale. This one-sided censoriousness is mirrored on the other side of the divide by those that ban any support to the Palestinian cause or sometimes a mere mention of Palestine, with the most extreme case being seen in Germany.

Turning to Dean’s essay itself, we find clues as to why some celebrations of violence against civilians are so welcome among parts of the Western left.

The very adjective “exhilarated,” which had already been used by at least one other American academic in the days after October 7, is quite telling.

Dean calls herself a communist but what “communist” measure can she take that influences politics in the United States in any meaningful way? She is a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) which has runs in US elections for years. Its most spectacular success came in 2021 when a candidate it supported for city council in a small college town in Illinois got 40 percent of the vote (he still lost.) What better way to compensate for political irrelevance than by defending the most extreme position in support of Hamas?

Unsurprisingly, staunchly anti-Western PSL also supports Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, Assad’s regime in Syria and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. This all sure sound more “exhilarating” than running and losing in a city council race in Illinois.

In defense of her position, Dean cites the Western left’s adulation of Palestinian militants in the heady days of 1960s and 70s, specifically the left-wing Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and its fabled plane hijackings including those by its most famous member, Leila Khaled. This works particularly well for her argument since PFLP continues to exist and celebrated the October 7 attacks.

This historical placing is also telling. Indeed, if the Western left then gave support to politically insane acts like PLFP plane hijackings, it was also to compensate for its lack of political relevance back home. Dean cites Khaled’s memoirs where she defended hijackings as “[acting] heroically in a cowardly world” and claimed that “the more spectacular the action the better the morale of our people.” With historical hindsight, we know that the “spectacular” actions of the militants produced a lot of “exhilaration,” but no progressive political change for Palestinians or anyone else. They arguably set back the Palestinian cause by decades.

The only difference is that, back then, those leftists actually took part in similar violent actions in home and abroad, putting their bodies on the line for their short-sighted political adventures. Now, a blog post is most they muster.

This isn’t about supporting the people of the Middle East, of which I am one, but using us as objects of amusement.

If Dean wanted to show solidarity to the Palestinian left, she could have done so by supporting Marxists such as those in the People’s Party of Palestine or the Palestinian-led Communist Party of Israel, both of whom have been on the forefront of countering the occupation and apartheid policies while also opposing the killing of civilians, whether in Gaza or in the kibbutzim.

But, in 2024 just like in 1970s, that would hardly provide much “exhilaration.” Dean’s act is not one of solidarity, but fetishization of violence in lands faraway. One might even call it colonial.

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