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The Devolution of Idealism
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The Devolution of Idealism

Israel provides an opportune face of evil for activists looking for a symbol of power, oppression, and colonialism.

Pro-Palestinian demonstration at Harvard University on October 14, 2023. (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)

In his 2005 memoir Gentle Regrets, the conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton recalls being in Paris in May 1968 during a series of far-left student protests against evil “isms”: capitalism, imperialism, traditionalism, etc. Scruton observed windows broken “in jagged fragments” and overturned cars that had “juices flowing from unseen wounds.” After conversing with a friend who had spent the day on the barricades, he asked her:

What … do you propose to put in the place of this “bourgeoisie” whom you so despise, and to whom you owe the freedom and prosperity that enable you to play on your toy barricades? What vision of France and its culture compels you? And are you prepared to die for your beliefs, or merely to put others at risk in order to display them?

The questions of 1968 could and should be asked afresh to vocal opponents of Israel today, many of whom have taken to the streets to protest Western structures they deem as fundamentally oppressive.

As Israel’s retaliatory military action in Gaza has intensified, so too have marches across the West. But even as they claim to call for a ceasefire, the marches seem more intent on the destruction of Israel itself. Messages scrawled out across banners and signs amid seas of Palestinian flags often don’t call for a two-state solution, the return of Israeli hostages, or condemnations of Hamas. The predominant outcry seems to be a fresh call to arms, animated not by a desire for reconciliation but by an impulse for Israel’s great comeuppance.

Amid their outcry lies a remarkable lack of vision of any viable alternative to the deeply contested geopolitical situation of Israel and Palestine. Demonstrators confine themselves to binary language designed to shock progressive sensibilities. Israelis are “settlers,” “colonizers,” and “oppressors” who willingly wage “genocide” and “apartheid.”

It’s much easier to shout inflammatory accusations than to formulate a plan to liberate both Gaza and Israel from the clutches of Hamas, bringing an end to such unthinkable suffering. But is that even the goal? If it were, a desperate pleading with Hamas to free hostages, to make amends, to withdraw its public and unmistakable mission of destroying the Jewish people, would be flooding the airwaves and the streets. 

The likelier explanation is that Israel is an opportune face of evil for idealists looking for a remote monolith to symbolize power, oppression, and colonialism. A political framework built on relentless and “immanent” power struggles, to borrow Michel Foucault’s language, finds its raison d’etre in a small nation-state onto which to hurl all the charges of modern-day evil. 

The fact that Israel is a democracy that allows protest and dissent, an oasis of gay visibility and rights in the region, home to multicultural and multifaith metropolises, and an innovative place of commerce, seems remarkably irrelevant to “Queers for Palestine” and others who accuse Israel of routine crimes against humanity.  

By contrast, the fact that Hamas stifles free speech and media coverage, rations food and supply imports, deliberately handicaps the infrastructure and economy of Gaza, actively carries out unspeakable violence against Jews, inculcates its youth to hate Jews through state-controlled educational materials, and punishes homosexuality with murder and imprisonment? Moot point. On they march.

This isn’t about solutions or about moral convictions. Nothing in the Western pro-Palestine lobby offers any practical or diplomatic steps toward compromise, nor any vision of how a “free Palestine” might be achieved without the minor detail of someone needing to destroy Hamas for anything good to happen in Gaza.

And these angry politics collapse when even gently cross-examined. As one viral video illustrates, when asked what would happen to Israel if Palestine were free “from the river to the sea,” a protester simply grabbed the questioner’s microphone and pointed it to the ground.

Scruton anticipated this sort of reaction would follow revolutionary fervor. Drawing on a long line of conservative reasoning, he wrote: 

People reason collectively towards a common goal only in times of emergency—when there is a threat to be vanquished, or a conquest to be achieved … any attempt to organize society according to this kind of rationality would involve exactly the same conditions: the declaration of war against some real or imagined enemy.

As Edmund Burke argued of the French revolutionaries who turned violent and destructive, the righteous thrill of opposing “evil” en masse is so intoxicating that the real question of where evil lies, and those pesky little details about how to mitigate it, become immaterial. Down goes the microphone.

A moral universe that refuses to distinguish between terror and defense, between regressive fundamentalist rule by fear and democratic liberalism, between the intentional slaughter of children and strategic military strikes, is no more enlightened, no less angry, no more constructive, and no less afraid than the systems it seeks to dismantle or liberate.

And we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of this destructive rhetoric on the actual battlefield. One wonders whether Israeli strategists feel that much more embattled, that much more existentially threatened, watching hundreds of thousands in the streets of European cities call to expunge their country while some tear down and spit upon the images of their captive children. 

Further, the crudeness of loud, indiscriminate and inaccurate accusations—“Genocide!” or “Ethnic Cleansing!”—prevents the careful consideration of a number of abuses in the West Bank. The Israeli government and radical Zionists should be held to account for forcefully displacing Palestinians from their homes and villages. 

Among the most upsetting aspects of the frivolous and angry partisanship in the past weeks has been the extent to which it has drowned out stories of human suffering in Israel and Gaza alike. Reading about an Israeli family of five murdered in each other’s arms, or seeing a video of a Gazan toddler shaking uncontrollably from the trauma of the bombardment—in which thousands of others like him have been killed—the provocative language and safely removed anger of Western idealists seems not only ineffective, but remarkably insensitive. 

These stories are so profoundly devastating that to perceive them is surely to draw one’s mind and heart closer to negotiation, closer to unity, and closer to a common humanity than shouting in the streets ever could. 

But then perhaps some prefer endless calls to arms. As Scruton put it, “The literature of left-wing political science is a literature of conflict, in which the main variables are those identified by Lenin: Who? Whom?

Perpetrator, victim. Oppressor, oppressed.

Those who subscribe to these politics of power warfare and those who respond to these events with passionate certainty, eschewing all moral complexity, should hope that the tides of history inevitably change course. Otherwise, they may find themselves on the receiving end of the manichean culture they’ve helped create.

Megan Dent is a freelance journalist based in Oxford, United Kingdom. Drawing on an academic background in theology and history, her writing focuses on contemporary Christianity as well as politics and culture.