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Ivory Tower Agita: On Israel and the Past, The Left Loses Its Way

Never before have liberals and progressives had so little in common; indeed, the words themselves are beginning to mean very different things.

The Democratic Party is suffering through a summer identity crisis, courtesy of Bernie Sanders’ now-unwinding insurgency against the liberal establishment. His promises—of universal healthcare, tuition-free state college, and a more aggressive taxation of the top one percent—are forcing liberal Democrats to decide whether equality of outcome, rather than opportunity, is the new rallying cry of the old Left.

Israel is becoming a litmus test, too. Those who Sanders appointed to serve on the Democratic Party’s platform drafting committee include two outspoken critics of Israel, who intend to shift American foreign policy more in line with the Palestinian cause. One of them, James Zogby, tried to include language in the platform urging “an end to occupation and illegal settlements,” language he claimed Sanders had crafted himself. This amendment didn’t make it into the platform’s first draft, although Sanders surely isn’t finished trying to change the official party line on Israel.

The Democratic Party has been staunchly pro-Israel since the country’s inception in 1948. Jewish-Americans, who mostly count themselves as liberals, vote the Democratic ticket nearly 80 percent of the time. Progressives are forcing liberals in general, and Jewish liberals in particular, to choose sides. Meanwhile, Republicans, whose support for Israel has remained unshakable, hope to become the beneficiaries of party defections.

Sanders has acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself, but finds disproportionate Palestinian losses to be unacceptable. How Israel is supposed to reduce civilian casualties in these asymmetrical wars it is forced to fight, where rockets and playpens, terrorists and toddlers, share the same household, is a matter that neither Sanders, nor any progressive, has an answer for.

Sanders is hardly alone. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio—who, in the tradition of New York mayors, is a loyal supporter of Israel, to the frustration of his allies on the left—is busy creating his own progressive, municipal playbook. Linda Sarsour, who heads the Muslim Democratic Club of New York and has advocated for both progressive and pro-Palestinian causes, is gearing up to run for City Council.

What they share is a love affair with “intersectionality.” Once largely confined to college campuses, it is shaping up as a core theme of the progressive agenda and the latest craze of the culture wars. Its focus is a solidarity of the oppressed, a binding together of ethnic, racial and gender grievances—a sharing of otherwise disparate struggles.

How else to explain the strange camaraderie between the boycott movement against Israel and the proponents of Black Lives Matter? After all, the lives of black people, especially Christians, mean little to the extremist Muslims of the Middle East, who play no favorites among infidels. Similarly, feminists and victims of racial profiling shouldn’t be speaking with the same voice because their experiences are quite different. And the granting of LGBT rights, whether in same-sex marriage or in access to restrooms, has little to do with those enduring the bigotry of Islamophobia—a fault line vividly exposed by the Orlando massacre.

Intersectionality is a big tent of strange bedfellows, united to leverage the suffering of each group against the detested white colonialist of the moment. And Israel seems to be everyone’s flavor of the month. When it comes to a gathering of the marginalized, Jews who feel any connection to the Jewish State need not apply. Greek life in such fraternities has only one hazing ritual: hate Israel.

Even as Sanders’ progressive push forced Hillary Clinton to pivot left and, after decades of service to the cause, once again prove her liberal bona fides, Donald Trump closed ranks on the right by galvanizing the bitterness of a largely white electorate who were castigated as bigots, censured by the PC Police, and told to check their white privilege at the door rather than deign to assert any grievances of their own. One consequence of progressive promiscuity was to encourage Trump to raise the ante on the anger of his legions, as if he needed any help.

Much of this progressive crusade is, for the time being, localized on college campuses where liberalism has been transformed into a theater of the absurd. Entire categories of new grievances have been created. Students complaining about microagressions, trigger warnings and safe spaces have lowered standards, quashed ideas and stifled debate.

Professors live in fear of their students, nervously on guard not to offend or to trigger discomfort. The boycott movement is paradoxically regressive, since it often prejudices Palestinians who end up losing jobs from targeted Israeli employers. Just ask the former Palestinian employees of SodaStream how the boycott blew up in their face far worse than any seltzer bottle.

At Brown University, a transgender activist was pressured not to speak on campus because one of the sponsoring organizations was the Jewish student organization Hillel, though Israel is a bastion of LBGT liberties. At Vassar, a visiting lecturer asserted that Israel’s military has harvested Palestinian organs. No one objected to this Flat-Earth thesis. Students at Oberlin dismissed the Holocaust as merely “white on white crime.”

The fight song in college today is: truth and moral clarity be damned.

The whole point of a liberal arts education—indeed, the essence of being a liberal—is the celebration of openness: the openness of opinion and to free thought; the intellectual rigor and historical truth of serious inquiry; and a willingness to judge right from wrong. Life on many campuses, however, infused with such newfangled progressive ideals, now offers close-minded, anti-intellectual, and ahistorical environments of politicized, polarized agenda-driven learning.

It’s not the life of the mind that is being celebrated, but the perpetuation of victim grievances and the settling of political scores.

The progressive revolution that Bernie Sanders has peddled extends far beyond the ivory tower. He didn’t win his party’s nomination, but his real aim all along was to transform the Democratic Party into something traditional liberals may not recognize. His foray into the public sphere, and the remarkable number of delegates he amassed, suggests that this progressive trend will not disappear.

Meanwhile, another liberal, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, took aim at Israel-boycotters earlier this month by signing an executive order requiring state agencies to divest from any entity linked to the BDS movement—essentially boycotting the boycotters of Israel.

This bold action will surely not be fashionable in progressive circles. But in standing up for a democratic, pluralistic society, Cuomo was at least holding the line on a fine, albeit neglected liberal tradition.

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and Distinguished Fellow at NYU Law School where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society.  His most recent book, How Sweet It Is!, is due out in paperback in the fall.  His forthcoming book is entitled The High Cost of Free Speech: Rethinking the First Amendment.

[Photo: James Ennis / Wikimedia]