Toward a Humane Left

Toward a Humane Left

To hold everyone’s humanity—that is the task of the hour.

Cars and a stroller left behind at the scene of a rocket attack from Gaza near the entrance of the Israeli kibbutz of Kfar Aza, October 10, 2023. (THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images)

You can read Gabriel Winant’s response to this article here. Leifer replies here.

At the end of the Jewish holiday weekend of Simchat Torah, I turned my phone back on and was overwhelmed by images of death and horror. As more bodies continue to be discovered, the grief has not stopped. Facebook is an infinite scroll of mourning—friends posting images of their lost or murdered loved ones, plaintive, agonized calls for help. Israeli news is a blur of devastating testimony: of how parents threw their bodies on children in the hope they might survive, of babies and toddlers torn away from their families, of hundreds of young people gunned down at an outdoor rave, of corpses desecrated, of hostages, including the elderly, dragged back to Gaza, tortured, and assaulted. At least 1,200 Israelis are dead, the vast majority civilians, after Hamas’s incursion. It was the deadliest single day since Israel’s founding, and perhaps in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

From New York, my partner and I frantically texted loved ones and friends in Israel. They are all safe, thankfully, but everyone seems to have lost someone or knows someone who has. Hamas’s violence was indiscriminate, and there is something grotesque in dividing the dead by political affiliation—still, the fact burns in the mind: some of the kibbutzim attacked in Israel’s western Negev are home to old peace movement stalwarts, and the Israeli left has lost many good souls. For instance: seventy-four-year-old Vivian Silver, a founding member of the Israeli Women Wage Peace movement, a fixture of peacemaking and coexistence efforts, is assumed kidnapped in Gaza; Hayim Katsman, an anti-occupation activist and friend and comrade to many of my good friends, was killed in Kibbutz Holit. There are, devastatingly, countless others.

In the face of this slaughter, parts of the Anglophone left have reacted with shocking inhumanity. Progressive journalists proclaimed “glory” to the Hamas fighters or announced a day of “celebration.” Lawyers who make their careers criticizing Israel’s violations of international law contorted themselves in defense of Hamas’s war crimes. A prominent writer cruelly tweeted, “what did y’all think decolonization meant? vibes? essays? losers.” Many others, including numerous academics, echoed her implication that this—the massacre of innocent men, women, children, the elderly—was the answer. “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” they declared in a furious chorus. A Yale professor, in a tweet which she later deleted, asserted that a woman taken hostage at the rave was a legitimate target because she had served in the army. A piece published in n+1 dismissed “smarmy moralizing about civilian deaths.” At a protest, briefly endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, under the banner, “All Out for Palestine,” a speaker grinningly described Hamas’s attack on the rave—“until the resistance came in electrified hang gliders and took at least several dozen hipsters,” he said—to a cheering crowd.

Others were more inclined to dress their celebration of suffering in abstraction. A terrible phrase seemed to emerge as if from the graveyard of last century’s midnight: historical inevitability. A former editor of the New Inquiry reposted a tweet that declared, “It is an error to begin by asking ‘what actions are morally justified in decolonial struggle.’” The tweet continued, “Decolonisation is a response to colonisation – it can only come after the fact. What we need to ask is ‘what actions have been made historically inevitable in decolonial struggle.’” Another left-wing writer similarly brushed away the senseless killing of civilians in the myopic jargon of vulgar anti-imperialism. “Being supportive of a world historical insurrection event is not akin to rejoicing in the violence and bloodshed that inevitably occurs in such an event,” they wrote. “Suggesting otherwise is a juvenile and racist equivocation.” Except that Hamas’s attack is no such “world historical insurrection event”—it was, rather, an act of heinous immorality and a devastating miscalculation that will likely end in immeasurable Palestinian suffering, perhaps beyond anything seen in Israel/Palestine this century. To condemn the killing of civilians is not “juvenile” or “racist”—it is the only humane response to despicable acts. And the language of historical inevitability is nothing more than a convenient way to abdicate moral judgment costumed as hard-headed realpolitik.

Of course, such ultra-left myopia, more a pose than a politics, has long been an affliction of the Western left. From the safety of Brooklyn or other bien-pensant precincts, there is no cost to ham-fistedly applying radical-chic slogans to a far-away place. The question of whether there can be a decent left has been posed perennially in this magazine’s pages, most clearly by Michael Walzer in 2002, but I must admit that I often contested its premise. Indeed, for a while I thought that the left’s worst self-marginalizing tendencies had been generally cast aside, and so the matter had been resolved; in the 2010s it seemed that a new, more electorally minded left had begun to take its moral responsibility, its politics, more seriously. Now, I am afraid that I have been terribly naïve. There remains a visible and strident tendency prepared to endorse or hand-wave utter inhumanity out of adherence to abstract or obsolete ideology. But whereas Walzer’s critique centered on what he saw as the U.S. left’s curdled guilt and self-hatred, this time the Anglophone left’s hatred is directed not inward but outward toward Israeli Jews.

It has long been the task of the humane left to reject the line of reasoning that would sacrifice civilians on the altar of “historical inevitability,” whether in its Stalinist or Third Worldist guise—to protest the idea that untold innocents must die in the service of some grand telos. The humane left insists instead on the possibility, on the moral imperative, of bending what others take to be history’s iron tracks. The humane left’s north star is no flag or banner but the unflinching belief in the inherent, even divine, worth of every human life.

After all, it is this same belief out of which the humane left stands in steadfast opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and siege of the Gaza Strip, that drives our opposition to Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, our protests against the injustices of apartheid, our demands for a long-term and equal resolution to this conflict. Just as the humane left abhors Hamas’s attack and demands the immediate release of the hostages, the humane left rejects with all its force the exterminationist logic now promulgated by officials in Netanyahu’s government and right-wing politicians in the United States. There is no contradiction here. The left must be humane, or it is no left at all.

Earlier this week, as the death toll mounted in Israel and the bombing of Gaza intensified, Sahar Vardi, an Israeli anti-occupation activist and friend in Jerusalem posted an essay titled “Dual Loyalty” on Facebook. Although often an insult dealt to leftists, an accusation equivalent to treason, “dual loyalty,” she suggested, might be viewed another way. Indeed, she refigured it as a name for an exceptional emotional asset—the ability to “let one’s heart break from this, and from this,” to mourn the Israeli civilians killed, entire families wiped out, and to mourn the Palestinians killed in Gaza, crushed under the bombing, impoverished by sixteen years of blockade. But maybe, she added, loyalty isn’t the right world. “It’s a dual pain, dual heartbreak, care, love. It is to hold everyone’s humanity.”

To hold everyone’s humanity—that is the task of the hour. To reject calls for retribution, to stand against the dehumanization of Palestinians and the unfolding catastrophe in Gaza, and—yes, in the same breath—to recognize the horror of Hamas’s attack and the categorical unjustifiability of killing civilians. If Israeli leftists still burying their dead can manage this, self-described leftists in New York or London have no excuse.

Joshua Leifer is a member of Dissent’s editorial board.