The Left in the Lurch — Syria Palestine Israel


Fairly regularly I used to enjoy reading Palestinian activist Ramzy Baroud at the Palestine Chronicle. But I stopped reading after awhile because the perspectives seemed to me to be one-sided, monotonous, and predictable. I read him now at Al-Arabiya English where the perspectives are, to my opinion, more varied. In this piece, Baroud confronts the fact that on the left there are limits to solidarity with Palestinians.

Writing about the death and destruction in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, Baroud observes, “While on the left (not the establishment left of course) Palestine has brought many likeminded people together, Egypt has fragmented that unity, and Syria has crushed and pulverized it to bits. Those who cried over the victims of Israeli wars on Gaza, did not seem very concerned about Palestinians starving to death in the Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus. Some squarely blamed the Syrian government for the siege that killed hundreds, while others blamed the rebels. Some writers even went further, blaming the residents of the camp. Somehow, the refugees were implicated in their own misery and needed to be collectively punished for showing sympathy to the Syrian opposition.

About Syria more generally, Baroud throws in a negative, critical light things about the left-left activist crowd that has always bothered me about the way they approach the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Baroud writes, “It also has turned out that some of those who pose as human rights activists are rarely compelled by ethical priorities, but rather dogmatic ideology that is so rigid it has no space for a sensible argument based on a serious investigation of facts… How is one to navigate the Syrian intellectual realm when both narratives are riddled with half-truths or outright lies, where each discourse is predicated on the complete dismissal of the other? How is one to navigate this territory when many intellectuals who also masquerade as ‘human rights activists’ turn out to be narrow-minded ideologues devoid of any humanism?

What then is one to do about Syria? “[H]ow do you navigate an impossible story? The answer: You side with the victim, no matter her colour, sect or creed. You remain committed to the truth, no matter how elusive. You drop every presupposition, abandon ideology, permanently discard dogma, and approach Syria with abundance of humanity and humility.” Yes, one must side with the victim. It’s a deep moral position steeped in sympathy that Baroud wants to stake out here. The last words to Baroud’s this thoughtful piece are to insist that “Syria belongs to its people. You either stand on their side, or the side of the oppressor.” But, I’m not sure what this means in practice. A moral statement, it’s not political. All that’s “left” is a slogan in the lurch.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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20 Responses to The Left in the Lurch — Syria Palestine Israel

  1. dmseattle says:

    What I am looking for in the Arab/Moslem world (which includes Arab/Moslem populations in the USA) is nuanced, self-reflective, self-critical discussion….which of course would include Israel/Palestine. Discussions either in writing or just plain folks talking. Baroud might have such potential (though I guess he became boring in the past.)

    Putting it another way, are there discussions in the Arab/Moslem world which are not “one-sided, monotonous, and predictable” — the sort of discussion you find in the Jewish and Israeli world? Yes each Jewish speaker may be “one-sided, monotonous, and predictable” but as a whole in the Jewish community worldwide there is a cacophony of opinions. The discussion in the Jewish world is vigorous, contentious, thoughtful and full-throated. Is there a mirror-image on the other (i.e. Arab/Moslem) side? Jews have Jenny Diski, Michael Lerner, Phil Weiss and Judith Butler versus (very roughly) Alan Dershowitz, Jeremey Ben-Ami, Martin Indyk and Meir Kahane. (I am just picking out names.) Where is the thoughtful discussion in the Arabs/Moslem world? Have their liberal and intellectuals been silenced by the fear of social opprobrium and even death?

    Yes I know that there must be a few voices on the other side (and yes it is “another side” no matter what dreamers like Michael Lerner might think); the only one I read is Hussein Ibish. And in her own way there is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But surely there are others. One hopes. But not many it seems.

    Does it matter? Yes.

    Such lack of a parallel discussion on the other side should give deliberation in how we approach negotiations. It is not only Israeli leaders who must have ‘partners for peace” among the Arab elite (though I agree that a lot of the current PM’s search is only window-dressing) but also by the rest of us among ordinary plain people. Do you know (or even know of) Arabs/Moslems with whom you can have a discussion in which their views are more than predictable cant? I agree that it can be hard to have such discussion even with other Jews. (Did you hear that Alan Dershowitz was recently booed as being insufficiently pro-Israel? Madness.) But en masse there is a variety of views. Does such variety exist in the Arab/Moslem world?

    • zjb says:

      yes, i think the views exist, especially on Twitter, where’ there’s a lot of “liberal” opinion from across the Arab world and its diaspora. and while i know it’s suspect in a lot of circles i like a lot Al Arabiya and would recommend it to you.

      • dmseattle says:

        I think you have just damned with faint praise.

        I will take a further look at Al Arabiya but so far I am unimpressed e.g.

        Have you ever read/heard a statement by an Arab/Moslem who would say _anything close to_ “Notwithstanding that the Palestinians must have, justice, a state of their own, of course it was totally understandable that the Jews had no choice to form their own in 1948. And after all, we were the ones to start the war.”

        Just some plain honest practical reality-talk like that would go a long way toward going to a solution. But I still hear is “Zionist entity” BS.

        So far, count me as totally unconvinced that there is a parallel discussion, which you are saying does exist.

      • zjb says:

        My sense is that a lot of the discussion at Al-Arabiya is pragmatic, and that they want to get out of narrative, which is just a trap. There’s actually not a lot of talk about the Nakba either. A lot of the writers tend to look at Israel as a normal country with normal interests, which as often as not converge with their own, as representatives of the Saudi regime, those interests being anti-Iran, anti-Assad, anti-Hezbollah, anti-Hamas, and increasingly anti-Muslim Brotherhood.. And sometimes the articles refer to Israel as “the Jewish State,” which is actually not uncommon in journalistic prose. I don’t think I ever see the term “Zionist entity” at Al-Arabiyah or the liberal opinion-shapers at Twitter, such as they are. In my opinion, interests matter more than narrative, and that narrative tends to shape around interests.

      • dmseattle says:

        Thx, I will monitor Al Arabiya.

        Btw, I wouldn’t have even raised the subject because of your remark “I used to enjoy reading Palestinian activist Ramzy Baroud at the Palestine Chronicle. But I stopped reading after awhile because the perspectives seemed to me to be one-sided, monotonous, and predictable.”

        So I am bit surprised by your response since I thought we were seeing the same thing.

        I was simply expanding on my own sense that there is little nuanced, sophisticated discussion by Arabs/Moslems of I/P. Most of it is cant, rigid and extremely defensive…loss of manhood stuff. God knows we get the same from the Jewish side. But then we get the weird Judith Butlers and Phil Weiss…where are their counterparts in the Arab world? Why is there no continuum of thought? Where is their continuum of thinking?

        I hope that my question will linger and that you will re-consider the matter.

      • zjb says:

        i always consider the matters you rasie!! 🙂

  2. Phillip says:

    Dear dmseattle,

    Do you read Arabic?

    • dmseattle says:

      Dear Phillip.
      Alas, no, I do not read Arabic.
      Do you?

      (And I hope that reading Arabic is not a requirement — many Arab/Moslems speak and read English, French, German etc with great facility; in fact many speak them fluently. So if such discussion exists in the Arab/Moslem world, then I should think that some of it would be easily available without knowing Arabic, just as much of the Jewish discussion is in English, not Hebrew.)

      • Phillip says:

        I don’t think you can make the sweeping statements you make about “Arab/Moslems” (as if the two are the same thing!) without reading Arabic. Just claiming that many *read* English, French, German etc does not mean you have the authority to judge and decide the qualities of *their* conversations. Moreover, your claims suggests that you haven’t even done a good job of reading what’s available in English. Travel to East Jerusalem and go into some of their bookstores. Much richer conversations than you’ll find in West Jerusalem.

        I will admit, I do not know Arabic. I have many friends that do, so that does inform my position here. Just as importantly, I do have enough facility with Modern Hebrew to understand how much an understanding of the languages at stake matter.

      • dmseattle says:

        Philip my friend.

        You don’t like my QUESTION (and if you read you would see that I asked a QUESTION…the little symbol like this: ? ) and yet you are claiming that I am wrong!

        Let’s make it simple.
        1. I was never referring to Arabic/Farsi-only speakers.
        2. I asked a QUESTION.
        3. There are millions Arabs/Moslems in the USA and Britain who speak fluent English (and elsewhere in Western Europe of course too) and they are able to communicate with each other and without fear. (one hopes.)
        4. Do they have the kind of public conversations such as I describe? with a range of opinions about I/P from (mirror image of course) the odious Phil Weiss to the almost equally-odious Charles Krauthammer?
        5. If so, where are those discussions?

      • zjb says:

        i’ll say it again. there’s al-arabiyah, also Sari Nusseibah, who runs al-Quds University in E. Jerusalem. Also very good is The American Task Force for Palestine, headed by Hussein Ibish, who’s awesome. With him I’d also add Shibley Telhami, and Rashed Khalidi, who is very very critical of the Palestinian political establishment, and was, during the Oslo heyday, quite dovish. It’s hard to know what kind of a public they represent, but they are voices very much worth hearing. As a general rule, I’ve found as Arab opinion makers have had to confront internal political matters related to the Arab Spring, the less and less they pay attention to Israel, and tend to look at in more normal terms. Ibish you can follow on Tw Khalidi and Nusseibah both write or have written in English, which, yes, more of us, including me, read more than . Arabic.

      • dmseattle says:

        Never mind, ZJB.
        We are not talking in the same ball park. (And in fact I mentioned Ibish.)

      • zjb says:

        ach, sorry we missed each other on this one dm, please accept my apologies for any misunderstanding. in the interest of trying to get it right, let me just repeat myself only a little that there’s actually a lot of nuanced opinion out there, even in English. it just won’t include the exact kind of recognition that you or even myself would like to see, but that middle-of-the-roaders like ourselves should just be patient, and stick to the long haul. i hope this helps and meant no offense.

      • dmseattle says:


        I guess I don’t agree that there is much out there — considering a population of many many tens of millions of highly educated PAMs — Palestinian/Arab/Moslem. (And I lump PAM together because they are all united, and hopefully not much else, in hatred/dislike for Israel.) It’s as if there was only one Jewish opinion and it is AIPAC. And it is time for them to grow up; western liberals shouldn’t coddle them. THAT is the racism.

        I am looking for something more subtle…a matter of “tone”…put it this way:

        Have you ever heard a PAM) speak to the Umma with something like “Geez, guys”, speaking to an Iranian General, “could you just wait a second on your public statements about ‘we can easily destroy Israel’? It doesn’t help the Palestinians to get their own state. It just make the Israelis yet more paranoid and defensive. It reminds the Israelis that there are billions of devout Moslems with the oil weapon and we hate them. Shut up!”

        See what I mean? My statement to the Umma is not even going very far. That’s not a PAM doing a reverse Phil Weiss “The-Jews-were-right-and-we-should-have-shared-the-land” schtick.

        My “Geez, guys” is pure _tactical_ thinking to help the Palestinians. But I never hear anything even close. And I do read. There is some good solid reporting in The National (UAE). But nothing where I can reach across and say with certainty “Yes there are partners for peace.” It certainly is not in the air.

        And I do try to find such “counter-thinking” because most of what I find on almost _every_ side is so drearily predictable.

        Maybe the PAMs are thinking it but they are not saying it.

        But obviously we will just have to agree to disagree and that is OK.

      • zjb says:

        I’m not sure if you want to prolong much this thread, but I hear what you’re saying. What you want to see is a deep historical reckoning, and you regard this to be the only basis upon which to resolve the conflict. In contrast, I think those kinds of deep historical or retrospective shifts happen only as the conflict begins to get resolved in the here and now. About this, yes, we can agree to disagree, although I would like to think we’re not too far apart.

      • dmseattle says:

        As a practical matter I still hew to the two state solution and hope that Netanyahu will find his way.

        (And Abbas, who shares blame too. For example: why didn’t he simply loudly and cleanly say to the world (and Kerry): “Hey! We liked the Olmert Plan. Let’s start from there.” But Abbas is too cagey for his own good. There is some truth to the Likkudnik claims that Abbas doesn’t care.)

        And the lack of partners for peace at our “plain folks” level is going to make it more difficult. Do you know any PAMs you can talk to? Organize? (In the USA of course.) No, I bet not a one. Such folks don’t exist. They want the Jews to do all the work.

        So my point about PAM conversation is not theoretical but extremely practical.

        But let’s move on to another matter. 🙂

      • zjb says:

        Let’s move on, yes. But I would still like to push back a little. There are plenty of Muslims and Arabs whom I encounter at the university with whom I can speak with about things that matter to me and what matters to them. There are tacit understandings as to what we can say or won’t say to each other. But normal (!!) concourse has a way to loosen up those tacit understandings, and to make them more pliable. So yes, I have to say that, yes, they “exist.” With Palestinians, I dare say it’s more fraught. The problem is always with the activists on both sides, regardless of ethnicity and religion, who tend to see things b/w. If you want to continue this part of the exchange in private, my email is easy enough to find, yes?

  3. Phillip says:

    Actually, the more I think about it the the more I regret even engaging with you. Were back S. Africans who fought against Apartheid inferior somehow because they didn’t have enough academics supporting Apartheid? And even the idea that somehow Jews are sophisticated intellectually, but “Arabs/Moslems” are somehow unable to think smacks of racism.

  4. Phillip says:

    It’s called question-begging. “I am just shocked, shocked, that you haven’t told me when you stopped beating your wife”

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