Moral privilege and the paradox of progressives who defend Israel

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The case of the Green party president and Gaza is intriguing. Paul Estrin, who's Jewish from Quebec City, posted a piece on the party site; it's rambling, passionate and fiercely defends Israel against critics. Many members responded angrily, some cancelled memberships. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May straddled awhile, then distanced herself from his piece. It felt similar to a column this week on the Huffington Post by Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, former justice minister, estimable human rights advocate and unconditional defender of Israel.

They both fit the fairly recent category, PPOEEI, Progressive People On Everything Except Israel, pronounced, I believe, pooey. It arose because Israel is viewed by many leftists (progressives) as self-evidently right-wing: militarist, imperial, capitalist, racist, etc. -- so such individuals embody a contradiction.

But it's less paradoxical than it seems. Israel for much of the last century was seen, and saw itself, as left and progressive. It was built by secular Jewish "pioneers" who left reactionary, anti-Semitic Europe to build a socialist society. Many -- like Israel's first prime minister -- lived on kibbutzim, collective farms that consciously challenged the Soviet version of socialism. Its labour movement was vigorous. Progressive cultural figures elsewhere, like Pete Seeger, included Israeli songs like Shalom Chaverim (Peace, Comrades) in their repertoire. They seemed like principled underdogs who had nevertheless triumphed. Estrin and Cotler may be the last hiccup of this once extensive approach to Zionism.

You feel it in the anguish with which they justify attacks on Gaza. Estrin is incoherent and Cotler reverts to listing platitudes, as if running to a refuge he's long known instead of facing the present reality. Compare their unease to the comfortable aggressiveness of Israel's leaders or apologists like Stephen Harper, who said, "Obviously no one likes to see the suffering and loss of life . . . That said, we hold the terrorist organization Hamas responsible . . ." He's all business and can't wait ("That said") to get past a pro forma show of concern and on to seriously supporting the slaughter. That's not Cotler or Estrin's tone.

What's made it agony for them is the visuals. It's not about whether Israel must respond to rockets and tunnels. Personally, I think it must. It's been the wanton savagery of that response, relentlessly revealed by cameras. Journalists who arrived with no vested interest seem stunned. CBC's Paul Hunter, not normally a passionate reporter, looked speechless or afraid to say what he was thinking. CNN's cool Karl Penhaul can scarcely suppress his outrage.

"Progressive" Zionists like Cotler and Estrin felt in a sense bulletproof since their views sprang from their identification as victims of racism themselves. How could they not be in the right? Based on the Jewish experience of oppression, they fought for the rights of others and even of the planet. Who could call them -- or their support for Israel -- unjust? So they lived in a state of moral privilege. Then along come those visuals. No wonder they sound torn. Few things are as hard as losing a privilege you once enjoyed. It's why people who become rich or famous can spend the rest of their lives in a panic over losing it.

There are examples of Jews, in fact Israelis, who have rejected this status of moral privilege and instead embraced a moral humility. I'm thinking of:

·  The late Yeshayahu Leibowitz, brilliant Orthodox Jewish editor of the Hebrew Encyclopedia who identified the occupation after the 1967 war as a mortal danger for Israel that would lead to "bestial" behaviour by its army.

·  The late Israel Shahak, secular academic, who led Israel's League for Human Rights and fearlessly denounced excesses on all sides. He was obsessed with the dangers of theocracy in Israel. It sounded far-fetched but that impulse is now the intractable core of the problem among Israeli settlers.

·  90 year-old Uri Avnery, a lifelong Zionist who moved from right to left and continues to write weekly about these horrors with humour and even optimism.

There's a Jewish tradition about the righteous among the gentiles. Maybe at this point there should be a Jewish tradition of the righteous among Jews, or Israelis. In retrospect, with the insight of hindsight after these two weeks, those three would be among them.

Listen up, Cotler and Estrin.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Israel Defense Forces/flickr

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