|New Statesman (British leftist magazine)
Monday 17th June 2002
The anti-imperialism of fools
By Mick Hume
Western leftists find themselves in strange company when it comes to the
Middle East. Are they really happy to line up with neo-Nazis and Islamic
Once upon a time, a hundred years or so ago, it was fashionable to
attack something called "Jewish capitalism". August Bebel, a German
friend of Karl Marx, described this attempt to give anti-Semitism a
progressive spin as "the socialism of fools".
Today's fashion for Israel-bashing seems to me to represent a similar
foolishness. It is not old-fashioned anti-Semitism. But there is a
growing tendency to endorse dubious ideas under the guise of solidarity
with the Palestinians. It is the anti-imperialism of fools.
Particularly since 11 September, a strange-looking global alliance has
formed against Israel, incorporating Islamic fundamentalists, European
neo-Nazis and anti-globalists. Many, in all three groups, had previously
shown little interest in the plight of the Palestinians: the Israeli
state has become a sort of ersatz America, a symbol of all that they
hate about contemporary capitalism.
For Israeli, read western; and for the west, read modernity. What the
anti-globalists share above all with their newfound fellow-travellers
among the Islamic fundamentalists is a loss of faith in the modern age
and in Enlightenment ideas. The spirit of their protests was captured by
a banner at a recent rally in Berlin: "Civilisation is genocide".
Yet, despite all the criticisms of America, they end up calling on the
Great Satan to solve the problems of the world, and particularly of the
Middle East. The demand of the western activists who visit the West Bank
is for more international intervention. Back in the west, the
Palestinian solidarity campaigns demand sanctions against the Israeli
state and a boycott of Israeli goods. The opponents of globalisation
want to globalise the Middle East conflict; they demand that the US and
Europe turn their attention away from disciplining Iraq and towards
punishing Israel. In effect, they end up echoing the call of Robert
Cooper, Tony Blair's foreign policy adviser, for a new kind of
imperialism - the same kind of "humanitarian" arrogance that recently
prompted the British government to say it would send troops to India,
although the Indian government did not want them.
If ever there were an area that bears the scars of too much foreign
interference, it is the Middle East. Conflicts there have been
manipulated and perpetuated by imperial powers for two centuries. Yet
those who claim to oppose imperialism now propose even more intervention
- a "foreign occupation" to stop Israel, in the words of one leading
radical journalist. Perhaps they would be happy if Palestine ended up
like Bosnia - a place where ethnic divisions have been set in stone by
international intervention, and now to be ruled over by Paddy Ashdown in
his new role as UN high representative (that is to say, the colonial
The politics of anti-imperialism first emerged as a defence of the
democratic right to self-determination. It rejected the notion that the
solutions to a society's problems were to be found from without. Today's
anti-imperialism of fools, by contrast, not only endorses imperialist
intervention, it also appears to oppose anything progressive that the
west stands for - such as rationalism, universalism, scientific
experimentation or economic development. (Its advocates are happy,
however, to use the internet to spread the message; theirs is a
high-tech primitivism.) The very different tradition of an older
anti-imperialism was summed up by C L R James: "I denounce European
colonialism. But I respect the learning and profound discoveries of
western civilisation." The idea was to free the colonial world so that
it might reap the benefits of modernity. Today, as Kenan Malik points
out: "James's defence of 'western civilisation' would probably be
dismissed as Eurocentric, even racist."
Anti-globalisation protesters now find themselves in the same bed as
al-Muhajiroun, "an Islamic movement which exists to fulfil the commands
of the divine text of the Koran". Its website argues that the Potters
Bar rail crash and the crisis in the national health service were caused
by the British government ploughing billions into its pro-globalisation
and war policies, instead of investing in domestic services. Its
argument ends not with the demand to renationalise the railways, but
with an invocation that "by the will of Allah, the economies of those
countries at war with Islam will continue to deteriorate".
It is not unusual to find oneself with strange bedfellows on particular
issues. Politics is not for purists, especially where war is concerned.
Yet it is striking how comfortably many arguments of the
anti-globalisation movement now seem to fit the arguments of Islamic
fundamentalists such as al-Muhajiroun - a group which boasts that its
outlook "is not rational", and reserves its most bitter hatred for "the
Jews" who, it claims, run much of the world.
The issue that brings the anti-capitalists and Islamists closest is the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both are quite recent converts to the
Palestinian cause. As he made efforts to win support in the Islamic
world during the 1990s, Osama Bin Laden did not mention the plight of
the Palestinians at all. The anti-globalisation movement is an even
later recruit to the Palestinian banner. The Israeli-Palestinian
conflict now features at May Day marches and international summit
protests. In April in Washington, three separate demonstrations -
against the World Bank/International Monetary Fund, against the war in
Afghanistan and against the Israeli occupation - merged into what was
reported as the biggest pro-Palestinian demonstration in US history,
involving 75,000 people, according to the police. The International
Solidarity Movement has sent delegations of western protesters to
"witness" the Middle East conflict and show solidarity with the
Palestinians - notably by breaking through an Israel Defence Forces
blockade to enter the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Why should Palestine have suddenly become such a cause celebre? Critics
now talk of the Israeli state as if it were a mini-superpower, given
licence by Washington to commit genocide against the Palestinians; some
have described President Bush as "Sharon's poodle". This cartoon version
of events grossly inflates the power and importance of Israel today. It
is ridiculous to think that the foreign policy of a global superpower
could be driven by a tiny state with a population of six million. For
America (and before that Britain), relations between Jews and Arabs have
always been negotiable in the wider scheme of things.
During the cold war, the US generally backed Israel as its gendarme, in
order to contain the threat (real and imagined) of a Soviet-backed Arab
nationalism. But we are no longer living in 1967 or 1973. Arab
nationalism has been dead for at least a decade. The west has less need
of Israel to police the region so tightly. More important, in the
post-cold war era, the west has lost its sense of imperial certainty.
This underlying vulnerability is revealed most sharply in its relations
with the Islamic world. No longer able to promote their cherished old
notions of racial or cultural superiority, the western elites have
become increasingly defensive.
After 11 September, many predicted a full-scale clash of civilisations.
Yet, far from pursuing a fundamentalist crusade, Bush and Blair have
emphasised that they are not fighting a war against Islam. There have
been panics about "Islamophobia" in America and Europe. The Italian
prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was denounced for advertising "the
superiority of our civilisation" over the Islamic world. And a US
marines website was closed down for making "insensitive" remarks. This
must be the first war in which it is officially considered illegitimate
to hate the enemy.
The newly defensive mentality within the western camp is far removed
from America's past belief in its manifest destiny. This uncertainty
towards Islam has clear implications for relations with the Israeli
state, long seen as an outpost of the west in a hostile Muslim world.
Even a right-wing Republican such as George Bush now demands that Israel
pull out of "occupied territories" and calls for the creation of a
Palestinian state. Other members of Washington's foreign-policy
establishment have gone further. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national
security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, denounced the Israelis as
being "increasingly like the white supremacist South Africans, viewing
the Palestinians as a lower form of life". The US still helps to
bankroll the Israeli state, and there remains a powerful pro-Israeli
lobby in Congress and the media. But these people now feel compelled to
make shrill public appeals on Israel's behalf which would have been
considered unnecessary in the past.
Elsewhere in the west, a new antagonism towards Israel is more obvious.
The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, declares that Israel's current
offensive falls outside the war against terrorism. The German government
offers to send peacekeeping troops to separate Arabs and Jews (something
considered taboo since the Holocaust). And in Belgium, a court is
attempting to prosecute the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, for
"crimes against humanity". The immediate reaction from the UN and Europe
to the Israeli attacks on Jenin revealed a readiness to accept the
wilder allegations of massacres and mass graves.
All this has more to do with western uncertainty than with
anti-Semitism; the most vehement critics of Israel include leading
Jewish spokesmen such as the Labour backbencher Gerald Kaufman, a
veteran Zionist, who has condemned Israel as a pariah state and Sharon
as a war criminal in the House of Commons.
Yet Israel is no more a "Nazi" state than it ever was. Those who imagine
that the violence in Jenin was unique in the Israeli-Arab conflict have
short memories (or none). What is different today is the west's
defensiveness about Israeli actions. Israel now stands condemned for the
kind of actions that might once have been condoned tacitly. It is this
feeling of western vulnerability that has inspired the left and the
anti-globalisation movement. Protesters find it easier to feel morally
worthy when they are guaranteed to get an apologetic response from the
Yet these newfound friends of Palestine do not seem to know much about
the history of this conflict. Their websites and leaflets sloganise
about "NaZionists", and how this is a war between "racism and justice"
(a politically correct way of saying "good v evil"). But there is little
analysis of the causes.
Some of the clumsy attempts to incorporate the Middle East into the
concerns of the anti-globalisation movement border on the bizarre. Jose
Bove, the French farmer and green activist, sprang to global fame when
he attacked a McDonald's burger bar with a tractor, and wrecked GM
crops. Last year, he turned up in a peace delegation on the West Bank.
This year, he was back again, visiting Yasser Arafat's besieged compound
at Ramallah. Why? Bove told the New Left Review that the Israelis are
"putting in place - with the support of the World Bank - a series of
neoliberal measures intended to integrate the Middle East into
globalised production circuits, through the exploitation of cheap
Palestinian labour". This is the kind of conspiratorial anti-
capitalist-speak that we might call globaldegook.
Naomi Klein, a critic of both the Israeli occupation and globalisation,
worries that "every time I log on to activist news sites such as
indymedia.org . . . I'm confronted with a string of Jewish conspiracy
theories about 9/11 and excerpts from the Protocols of the Elders of
Zion". She thinks that "the anti-globalisation movement isn't
anti-Semitic, it just hasn't fully confronted the implications of diving
into the Middle East conflict".
Klein is right. What we are witnessing is not simply a resurgence of
old-fashioned anti-Semitism: that accusation is most often a defensive
reaction from Israel's supporters. But the anti-globalisation movement
is "diving into the Middle East conflict" blindly, in pursuit of a vague
and simplistic moral agenda of its own. The delegations of self-styled
"internationals" who travel to the Middle East to show sympathy for the
Palestinians are lauded as "the real heroes of today" on solidarity
websites. Yet few of them would lie down in front of tanks if Israel
really were the Nazi state they claim. The internationals seem less keen
to travel to other conflicts, away from the eyes of the world media,
where they might risk meeting the fate of the international solidarity
activists killed during the Pinochet coup in Chile.
For many activists, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have
become a convenient outlet for the morbid emotionalism and
victim-centred culture of our age. A solidarity meeting in London begins
with people being searched and asked for "passes" (tickets), so that
they can "experience" what life is like under Israeli occupation.
Writing in the NS, one "international" announced that, having seen a
warning shot fired and been woken up by the noisy Israeli air force,
"I'm beginning to understand what it must be like to be a Palestinian."
I am beginning to think that this might be the point of the exercise for
some of these people.
Far from offering an alternative for the Middle East, these
self-indulgent demonstrations of western victim culture can only
reinforce the emotional nihilism that is already rampant in the region -
what one American commentator calls "the desperado politics of
victimhood, embraced by Jews and Palestinians alike".
Writing about the 1979 Iranian revolution, Tariq Ali attacked "the
anti-imperialism of fools" expressed by "useful idiots from the western
European left", who thought there must be something progressive in the
Ayatollah, because he overthrew America's stooge, the Shah. Many on the
western left now express sentiments that are just as foolishly
misplaced. At least those idiots in Iran had a successful popular revolt
to get carried away with; many of the anti-Israel protesters of today
seem content to revel in powerlessness.
Western society is infected by a powerful sense of self-loathing and a
rejection of its political, social and economic achievements. It was
this spirit of self-loathing that led some, of the left and right alike,
to suggest that America got what it deserved on 11 September. Those
sentiments are no more progressive when aimed against Israel as a symbol
of the west than when they are directed in irrational campaigns against
GM crops and the literature of Dead White Males.
We may feel solidarity with the Palestinians, but that is no reason to
endorse the anti-imperialism of fools. Populist anti-Israeli rhetoric is
cheap, but it offers no solutions - especially when it ends with a
demand for even more western intervention in the affairs of the Middle
East. The long-suffering peoples of the region deserve better than to be
used by those looking for somewhere convenient to strike sanctimonious
Mick Hume is editor of spiked (http://www.spiked-online.com)