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Traveling With Bad Companions

by Traveling With Bad Companions Sunday, Jun. 29, 2003 at 8:49 PM

Western supporters of the Palestinian cause are morally blind.

COMMENTARY

Traveling With Bad Companions

Western supporters of the Palestinian cause are morally blind.

By Martin Peretz

June 23, 2003

Every failed revolution in modern times has had its fellow travelers, a phenomenon hard to define but easy to recognize. Picasso was one; Jean-Paul Sartre, another; FDR's vice president, Henry Wallace, a third. Two, three decades later, Susan Sontag would also put her words to work for the brutal engineers of soul and society.

There were literally tens of thousands of these influentials in the United States and elsewhere in the West. And the revolutions of the left did not have a monopoly on fellow-traveling. In the 1930s, there were lots of fellow travelers of Nazism, too: Charles Lindbergh, Ezra Pound, the duke of Windsor and many others.

Many fellow travelers went exuberantly from one decaying communism to another, seriatim, from the Soviet Union to the People's Republic of China to Castroite Cuba and Vietnam and then to Sandinista Nicaragua, never quite realizing they would soon feel the need to move on again.

But move on they would, armed as always — as author David Caute put it — with their usual arsenal of "bifocal lenses, double standards, a myopic romanticism."

Of course, there is now no world revolution into which these deluded folk can vest their ardors, as yesteryear's fellow travelers did when extolling the nonexistent — but exemplary — democratic virtues of Stalin's Russia or of some other transformatory idyll. Only certified kooks are in the business these days of changing the nature of man.

So the present-day romantics, who at home typically despise the idea of the nation-state and the realities of national interest, are left with often contrived and almost always murderous nationalisms to adore. The nationalism du jour is Palestinian nationalism.

It was the British political historian David Pryce-Jones who, I think, first made the analogy between the old fellow travelers and the new, between those who romanticized the Soviets and those who now romanticize Palestinian (and Islamic) terrorism.

Not that all Palestinians are terrorists, not at all, although polls show an overwhelming proportion of them to be supporters of terrorism. But terrorism happens to be the defining paradigm of the Palestinian cause. Thus it is terrorism that is being supported by the American and British university professors who demand that their institutions divest from companies invested in Israel. And it is terrorism that is being supported by scientists and other academics who propose institutional and personal boycotts of Israeli intellectuals.

In any case, the political pilgrims from abroad drawn to the Palestinian cause seem, almost unfailingly, to be lured to those whose very vocation is terror.

Take, for example, the International Solidarity Movement, a nongovernmental organization ensconced in Gaza. The two British Muslims recruited by Hamas who blew up Mike's Place, a blues pub in Tel Aviv, moved in and out of Israel from the territories with remarkable ease, aided by ISM activists.

On its own Web site, the ISM admits to supporting the Palestinian right to "legitimate armed struggle." This did not keep much of the press from calling the organization "pacifist." Not surprisingly, Linda Gradstein, Jerusalem correspondent for NPR (now widely known as National Palestine Radio), is one of these. On "All Things Considered," she blithely characterized ISM as "committed to nonviolent resistance." Well, it cannot, after all, be committed to both. And it isn't. Its activities are dovetailed with the needs of Hamas. It stages media events for the murder militias, and sometimes its own volunteers get hurt — or even killed, as one American was by an Israeli bulldozer. The best you can say of them is that they are gulled. But this is not bravery; it is stupidity.

Unlike the deluded men who fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War and thought they were putting their lives on the line against Hitlerism while they were actually risking their lives for Stalinism, there are no such daydreams available to the partisans of Palestine.

Let us concede, as I do, that the Palestinians need a state. But let us also concede that, had not the Palestinians started a bloody insurrection in the midst of negotiations with Israel during the fall of 2000 and turned that into a Walpurgisnacht of unrelenting terror, they would already have a state and be on their way to as robust an independence as they could manage — contingent only on the peacefulness of their borders.

But why should the cause of independent Palestine resonate with idealists and international moralists? After all, there are dozens of historic nations and peoples, some more numerous than the Palestinians, who are stateless and powerless in the world. There are, living among the Arabs themselves, the Berbers and the Kurds, who have no established political power. Even in Europe, where the nation-state was born, there are nations deprived of independence. Do they and the more numerous stateless peoples of Asia and Africa not merit solidarity and support for independence? What is so special about the Palestinians?

Actually, nothing. Except that their neighbors are the Jews. There is certainly no reason to believe that independent Palestine will be an ethical advance over the other long-independent and, at best, autocratic states in the Arab world, some of them barbarisms.

The truth is that no one who has had a real hearing among the Palestinians has ever articulated a vision of Palestine that is premised on an idea of social justice, a new relationship between the classes, among the clans and tribes, between the sexes. Believe me, Palestine will not be a democratic state because Palestine is not a democratic or tolerant society. This is in devastating contrast to the Zionist enterprise that had true ideals about how human beings and political difference were to be treated, ideals that were turned to realities.

The contrast is not an abstraction. We've had nearly a decade of Palestinian rule in the West Bank and Gaza and, between 1976 and 1982, six years of Palestinian rule over southern Lebanon to judge this empirically. There is no mystery about how its courts are run and how its press is manipulated and terrorized. No one actually imagines an independent judiciary or a truly free and competitive press in Palestine. Even though Palestinians work enormously hard, there is no animating dream of what a productive and fair economy would look like. What one sees way in the future is a corrupt corporatism engineered by those who hold political power.

Palestine will soon have its political expression in statehood. On the night it happens, gunshots will echo throughout the Arab street — to the rest of the world, a peculiar way of celebrating. Still, it will be a celebration. And on the long morrow, there won't be much disenchantment because nothing truly fundamental will have ever been promised or even envisioned.

Dictatorship will settle its rule onto independent Palestine, as it had during the long struggle. Civil strife will follow, and likely another dictatorship will replace the first.

And the borders of Palestine will not be still.

But, by then, the fellow travelers of the Palestinian revolution will be gone, some of them on to other causes, most of them (like the veterans of the 1960s) nursing their heady memories for retelling to their children. Heady memories and lies.

Martin Peretz is editor in chief of the New Republic

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