‘Liberals’ And ‘Leftists’ Are Not The Same
Tue, 11/27/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
David Bernstein
David Bernstein

All too often I hear people in the pro-Israel community lump together “liberals” and “leftists,” suggesting that these two distinct worldviews are equally critical of Israel. Such imprecise language does not help us improve Israel’s standing in the U.S. Liberals and leftists see the world in very different ways, and those differences matter in how we advance understanding of Israel in the U.S.

Let’s take a look at two disparate ideological archetypes:

Janet, 48, runs a food co-op in Boulder, Colo. She’s involved in a range of progressive issues, from protesting the Keystone gas pipeline to Occupy Boulder to the Colorado Progressive Alliance, which fights against “systemic demographic inequities that have allowed corporate and high-wealth interests to grow at the expense of low-income and people of color.”

Jack, 53, is an attorney in Philadelphia. While not especially politically active, he consistently votes for Democratic candidates for higher office, and supports marriage equality, separation of church and state and a stronger safety net for the disadvantaged.

Jack is a liberal and Janet is a leftist. Knowing nothing else about them, it is likely that Jack is mildly supportive but troubled about reports of Israel’s waywardness, while Janet is highly disapproving of “Israeli occupation and militancy.” Jack’s long-term view of Israel is in play; Janet’s is not.

The pro-Israel community should spend the lion’s share of its resources on the Jacks of the world — the movable middle — who are crucial to maintaining two-party support for Israel, and a minority of its resources on the Janets, who will never be close friends of the Jewish state. More importantly, mainstream liberals will have a far greater impact than leftists on the future of American foreign policy. (Likewise, we should spend a minority of our resources on loyal supporters on the political right who may need less convincing and attention.) In order to allocate resources accordingly, we need to know what distinguishes liberals from leftists.

The far left offers not only a set of policies to confront social inequities, it proffers a set of causes for why there are social inequities in the first place. It believes that there are “haves” and “have-nots,” and that the “haves” cause the adverse conditions of the “have nots.”

Classical liberals, on the other hand, typically offer only policy prescriptions for assisting the “have-nots,” but avoid placing all the blame on the “haves” for social inequities. They believe, for example, that the rich have a responsibility to help the poor, but did not force them into poverty. They might say, “It’s complicated.”

One expression of the far left’s worldview is “dependency theory,” which holds that resources flow from poor countries to wealthy countries, enriching the latter at the expense of the former. In other words, the reason that there are rich and poor nations is the rich nations exploit the resources of the poor nations.

Another expression is the notion of “institutional racism,” which argues that racial inequality is caused by economic and political structures that place racial minorities at a disadvantage in relation to whites. The institutional racism concept doesn’t just highlight racial inequality, it tells you the cause in no uncertain terms.

Both dependency theory and the institutional racism charge are forms of political and economic determinism — power structure determines behavior — which consigns no agency to the weaker party.

Those who buy into a zero-sum-game explanation of inequality are likely to see Israel as a powerful country that brought about Palestinian suffering. If someone believes that social ills in Latin America are a function of Western domination, they will also likely believe that Hamas’ rockets or suicide terrorists are a function of Israeli occupation. In this worldview, Israel has agency, and the Palestinians don’t.

While we might prevail upon the far left to view Israel in the context of the much larger Arab world in which the Jewish state is the weaker party, leftist views on the victimizers and victims are mostly set in stone and out of reach. Fortunately, the anti-Israel left constitutes only about eight percent of the U.S. population, and has much less sway on mainstream sensibilities than its counterpart in Europe

The best we can do with the American far left is to steer away some of its less dogmatic adherents from de-legitimizing rhetoric and activities, such as boycotts.

While Janet may never support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, she may be convinced that there are better ways of advancing peace than having her food co-op boycott Israeli products. To contain such divestment efforts, the pro-Israel community should exert some effort to persuade Janet to find more productive ways to show empathy to the perceived underdog.

Pro-Israel organizations should make their highest priority, however, maintaining Jack’s local Democratic party platform of support for U.S.-Israel relations. Giving Jack more attention than Janet is hard because Jack is not contemplating boycotts. He’s just slowly drifting. To win over Jack, we need to hold more missions to Israel with non-Jewish elites, encourage more pro-Israel voices to take a role in left-of-center causes, engage in more intergroup relations with ascending minority groups and do more cultivation of Democratic politicians.

Not only are liberals and leftists not equally critical of  Israel, they are not equally critical to Israel.

Remember: Jack’s the linchpin.

David Bernstein is executive director of The David Project, a national pro-Israel advocacy group based in Boston.

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