Nothing should better qualify me to write about world affairs at the moment – and Western meddling in Ukraine – than the fact that I have intimately followed the twists and turns of Israeli politics for two decades.
We will turn to the wider picture in a moment. But before that, let us consider developments in Israel, as its “historic,” year-old government – which included for the very first time a party representing a section of Israel’s minority of Palestinian citizens – teeters on the brink of collapse.
Crisis struck, as everyone knew it would sooner or later, because the Israeli parliament had to vote on a major issue relating to the occupation: renewing a temporary law that for decades has regularly extended Israel’s legal system outside its territory, applying it to Jewish settlers living on stolen Palestinian land in the West Bank.
That law lies at the heart of an Israeli political system that the world’s leading human rights groups, both in Israel and abroad, now belatedly admit has always constituted apartheid. The law ensures that Jewish settlers living in the West Bank in violation of international law receive rights different from, and far superior to, those of the Palestinians that are ruled over by Israel’s occupying military authorities.
The law enshrines the principle of Jim Crow-style inequality, creating two different systems of law in the West Bank: one for Jewish settlers and another for Palestinians. But it does more. Those superior rights, and their enforcement by Israel’s army, have for decades allowed Jewish settlers to rampage against Palestinian rural communities with absolute impunity and steal their land – to the point that Palestinians are now confined to tiny, choked slivers of their own homeland.
In international law, that process is called “forcible transfer,” or what we would think of as ethnic cleansing. It’s a major reason that the settlements are a war crime – a fact that the International Criminal Court in the Hague is finding it very hard to ignore. Israel’s leading politicians and generals would all be tried for war crimes if we lived in a fair, and sane, world.
So what happened when this law came before the parliament for a vote on its renewal? The “historic” government, supposedly a rainbow coalition of leftwing and rightwing Jewish parties joined by a religiously conservative Palestinian party, split on entirely predictable ethnic lines.
Members of the Palestinian party either voted against the law or absented themselves from the vote. All the Jewish parties in the government voted for it. The law failed – and the government is now in trouble – because the rightwing Likud Party of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined the Palestinian parties in voting against the law, in the hope of bringing the government down, even though his legislators are completely committed to the apartheid system it upholds.
What is most significant about the vote is that it has revealed something far uglier about Israel’s Jewish tribalism than most Westerners appreciate. It shows that all of Israel’s Jewish parties – even the “nice ones” that are termed leftwing or liberal – are in essence racist.
Most Westerners understand Zionism to be split into two broad camps: the right, including the far-right, and the liberal-left camp.
Today this so-called liberal-left camp is tiny and represented by the Israeli Labour and Meretz parties. Israel’s Labour Party is considered so respectable that Britain’s Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, publicly celebrated the recent restoration of ties after the Israeli party severed connections during the term of Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.
But note this. Not only have the Labour and Meretz parties been sitting for a year in a government led by Naftali Bennett, whose party represents the illegal settlements, they have just voted for the very apartheid law that ensures the settlers get superior rights over Palestinians, including the right to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from their land.
In the case of the Israeli Labour Party, that is hardly surprising. Labour founded the first settlements and, apart from a brief period in the late 1990s when it paid lip service to a peace process, always backed to the hilt the apartheid system that enabled the settlements to expand. None of that ever troubled Britain’s Labour Party, apart from when it was led by Corbyn, a genuinely dedicated anti-racist.
But by contrast to Labour, Meretz is an avowedly anti-occupation party. That was the very reason it was founded in the early 1990s. Opposition to the occupation and the settlements is supposedly hardwired into its DNA. So how did it vote for the very apartheid law underpinning the settlements?
The naïve, or mischievous, will tell you Meretz had no choice because the alternative was Bennett’s government losing the vote – which in fact happened anyway – and reviving the chances of Netanyahu returning to power. Meretz’s hands were supposedly tied.
This argument – of pragmatic necessity – is one we often hear when groups professing to believe one thing act in ways that damage the very thing they say they hold dear.
But Israeli commentator Gideon Levy makes a very telling point that applies far beyond this particular Israeli case.
He notes that Meretz would never have been seen to vote for the apartheid law – whatever the consequences – if the issue had been about transgressing the rights of Israel’s LGBTQ community rather than transgressing Palestinian rights. Meretz, whose leader is gay, has LGBTQ rights at the top of its agenda.
Levy writes: “Two justice systems in the same territory, one for straight people and another for gay people? Is there any circumstance in which this would happen? A single political constellation that could bring it about?”
The same could be said of Labour, even if we believe, as Starmer apparently does, that it is a leftwing party. Its leader, Merav Michaeli, is an ardent feminist.
Would Labour, Levy writes, “ever raise its hand for apartheid laws against [Israeli] women in the West Bank? Two separate legal systems, one for men and another for women? Never. Absolutely not.”
Levy’s point is that even for the so-called Zionist left, Palestinians are inherently inferior by virtue of the fact that they are Palestinian. The Palestinian gay community and Palestinian women are just as affected by the Israel’s apartheid law favoring Jewish settlers as Palestinian men are. So in voting for it, Meretz and Labour showed that they do not care about the rights of Palestinian women or members of the Palestinian LGBTQ community. Their support for women and the gay community is dependent on the ethnicity of those belonging to these groups.
It should not need highlighting how close such a distinction on racial grounds is to the views espoused by the traditional supporters of Jim Crow in the U.S. or apartheid’s supporters in South Africa.
So what makes Meretz and Labour legislators capable of not just utter hypocrisy but such flagrant racism? The answer is Zionism.
Zionism is a form of ideological tribalism that prioritizes Jewish privilege in the legal, military and political realms. However leftwing you consider yourself, if you subscribe to Zionism you regard your ethnic tribalism as supremely important – and for that reason alone, you are racist.
You may not be conscious of your racism, you may not wish to be racist, but by default you are. Ultimately, when push comes to shove, when you perceive your own Jewish tribalism to be under threat from another tribalism, you will revert to type. Your racism will come to fore, just as surely as Meretz’s just did.
But of course, there is nothing exceptional about most Israeli Jews or Israel’s Zionist supporters abroad, whether Jewish or not. Tribalism is endemic to the way most of us view the world, and rapidly comes to the surface whenever we perceive our tribe to be in danger.
Most of us can quickly become extreme tribalists. When tribalism relates to more trivial matters, such as supporting a sports team, it mostly manifests in less dangerous forms, such as boorish or aggressive behavior. But if it relates to an ethnic or national group, it encourages a host of more dangerous behaviors: jingoism, racism, discrimination, segregation and warmongering.
As sensitive as Meretz is to its own tribal identities, whether the Jewish one or a solidarity with the LGBTQ community, its sensitivity to the tribal concerns of others can quickly dissolve when that other identity is presented as threatening. Which is why Meretz, in prioritizing its Jewish identity, lacks any meaningful solidarity with Palestinians or even the Palestinian LGBTQ community.
Instead, Meretz’s opposition to the occupation and the settlements often appears more rooted in the sentiment that they are bad for Israel and its relations with the West than that they are a crime against Palestinians.
This inconsistency means we can easily be fooled about who our real allies are. Just because we share a commitment to one thing, such as ending the occupation, it doesn’t necessarily mean we do so for the same reasons – or we attach the same importance to our commitment.
It is easy, for example, for less experienced Palestinian solidarity activists to assume when they hear Meretz politicians that the party will help advance the Palestinian cause. But failing to understand Meretz’s tribal priorities is a recipe for constant disappointment – and futile activism on behalf of Palestinians.
The Oslo “peace” process remained credible in the West for so long only because Westerners misunderstood how it fitted with the tribal priorities of Israelis. Most were ready to back peace in the abstract so long as it did not entail any practical loss of their tribal privileges.
Yitzhak Rabin, the West’s Israeli partner in the Oslo process, showed what such tribalism entailed in the wake of a gun rampage by a settler, Baruch Goldstein, in 1994 that killed and wounded more than 100 Palestinians at worship in the Palestinian city of Hebron.
Rather than using the murder spree as the justification to implement his commitment to remove the small colonies of extreme settlers from Hebron, Rabin put Hebron’s Palestinians under curfew for many months. Those restrictions have never been fully lifted for many of Hebron’s Palestinians and have allowed Jewish settlers to expand their colonies ever since.
Hierarchy of tribalisms
There is a further point that needs underscoring, and that the Israel-Palestine case illustrates well. Not all tribalisms are equal, or equally dangerous. Palestinians are quite capable of being tribal too. Just look at the self-righteous posturing of some Hamas leaders, for example.
But whatever delusions Zionists subscribe to, Palestinian tribalism is clearly far less dangerous to Israel than Jewish tribalism is to Palestinians.
Israel, the state representing Jewish tribalists, has the support of all Western governments and major media outlets, as well as most Arab governments, and at the very least the complicity of global institutions. Israel has an army, navy and air force, all of which can rely on the latest, most powerful weaponry, itself heavily subsidized by the U.S. Israel also enjoys special trading status with the West, which has made its economy one of the strongest on the planet.
The idea that Israeli Jews have a greater reason to fear the Palestinians (or in a further delusion, the Arab world) than Palestinians have to fear Israel is easily refuted. Simply consider how many Israeli Jews would wish to exchange places with a Palestinian – whether in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem or from the minority living inside Israel.
The lesson is that there is a hierarchy of tribalisms, and that a tribalism is more dangerous if it enjoys more power. Empowered tribalisms have the ability to cause much greater harm than disempowered tribalisms. Not all tribalisms are equally destructive.
But there is a more significant point. An empowered tribalism necessarily provokes, accentuates and deepens a disempowered tribalism. Zionists often claim that Palestinians are a made-up or imaginary people because they did not identify as Palestinians until after the state of Israel was created. Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously suggested the Palestinians were an invented people.
This was, of course, self-serving nonsense. But it has a kernel of truth that makes it sound plausible. Palestinian identity clarified and intensified as a result of the threat posed by Jewish immigrants arriving from Europe, claiming the Palestinian homeland as their own.
As the saying goes, you don’t always fully appreciate what you have until you face losing it. Palestinians had to sharpen their national identity, and their national ambitions, faced with the threat that someone else was claiming what they had always assumed belonged to them.
So how does all this help us understand our own tribalism in the West?
Not least, whatever the anxieties being encouraged in the West over the supposed threat posed by Russia and China, the reality is that the West’s tribalism – sometimes termed “Western civilization,” or “the rules-based order,” or “the democratic world,” or, even more ludicrously, “the international community” – is by far the most powerful of all tribalisms on the planet. And so also the most dangerous.
Israel’s tribal power, for example, derives almost exclusively from the West’s tribal power. It is an adjunct, an extension, of Western tribal power.
But we need to be a little more specific in our thinking. You and I subscribe to Western tribalism – either consciously or less so, depending on whether we see ourselves as on the right or the left of the political spectrum – because it has been cultivated in us over a lifetime through parenting, schools and the corporate media.
We think West is best. None of us would want to be Russian or Chinese, any more than Israeli Jews would choose to be Palestinian. We implicitly understand that we have privileges over other tribes. And because we are tribal, we assume those privileges are justified in some way. They either derive from our own inherent superiority (a view often associated with the far right) or from a superior culture or traditions (a view usually embracing the moderate right, liberals and parts of the left).
Again, this echoes Zionist views. Israeli Jews on the right tend to believe that they have inherently superior qualities to Palestinians and Arabs, who are seen as primitive, backward or barbarian-terrorists. Overlapping with these assumptions, religious-Zionist Jews tend to imagine that they are superior because they have the one true God on their side.
By contrast, most secular Jews on the left, like the liberals of Meretz, believe that their superiority derives from some vague conception of Western “culture” or civilization that has fostered in them a greater ability to show tolerance and compassion, and act rationally, than do most Palestinians.
Meretz would like to extend that culture to Palestinians to help them benefit from the same civilizing influences. But until that can happen, they, like the Zionist right, view Palestinians primarily as a threat.
Seen in simple terms, Meretz believes they cannot easily empower the Palestinian LGBTQ community, much as they would like to, without also empowering Hamas. And they do not wish to do that because an empowered Hamas, they fear, would not only threaten the Palestinian LGBTQ community but the Israeli one too.
So liberating Palestinians from decades of Israeli military occupation and ethnic cleansing will just have to wait for a more opportune moment – however long that may take, and however many Palestinians must suffer in the meantime.
The parallels with our own, Western worldview should not be hard to perceive.
We understand that our tribalism, our prioritizing of our own privileges in the West, entails suffering for others. But either we assume we are more deserving than other tribes, or we assume others – to become deserving – must first be brought up to our level through education and other civilizing influences. They will just have to suffer in the meantime.
When we read about the “white man’s burden” worldview in history books, we understand – with the benefit of distance from those times – how ugly Western colonialism was. When it is suggested that we might still harbor this kind of tribalism, we get irritated or, more likely, indignant. “Racist – me? Ridiculous!”
Further, our blindness to our own super-empowered Western tribalism makes us oblivious too to the effect our tribalism has on less empowered tribalisms. We imagine ourselves under constant threat from any other tribal group that asserts its own tribalism in the face of our more empowered tribalism.
Some of those threats can be more ideological and amorphous, particularly in recent years: like the supposed “clash of civilisations” against the Islamist extremism of al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
But our preferred enemies have a face, and all too readily can be presented as an improbable stand-in for our template of the bogeyman: Adolf Hitler.
Those new Hitlers pop up one after another, like a whack-a-mole game we can never quite win.
Iraq’s Saddam Hussein – supposedly ready to fire the WMD he didn’t actually have in our direction in less than 45 minutes.
The mad ayatollahs of Iran and their politician-puppets – seeking to build a nuclear bomb to destroy our forward outpost of Israel before presumably turning their warheads on Europe and the U.S.
And then there is the biggest, baddest monster of them all: Vladimir Putin. The mastermind threatening our way of life, our values, or civilization with his mind games, disinformation and control of social media through an army of bots.
Because we are as blind to our own tribalism as Meretz is to its racism towards Palestinians, we cannot understand why anyone else might fear us more than we fear them. Our “superior” civilization has cultivated in us a solipsism, a narcissism, that refuses to acknowledge our threatening presence in the world.
The Russians could never be responding to a threat – real or imagined – that we might pose by expanding our military presence right up to Russia’s borders.
The Russians could never see our NATO military alliance as primarily aggressive rather than defensive, as we claim, even though somewhere in a small, dark mental recess where things that make us uncomfortable are shoved we know that Western armies have launched a series of direct wars of aggression against countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and via proxies in Syria, Yemen, Iran and Venezuela.
The Russians could never genuinely fear neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine – groups that until recently Western media worried were growing in power – even after those neo-Nazis were integrated into the Ukrainian military and led what amounts to a civil war against ethnic Russian communities in the country’s east.
In our view, when Putin spoke of the need to de-Nazify Ukraine, he was not amplifying Russians’ justifiable fears of Nazism on their doorstep, given their history, or the threat those groups genuinely pose to ethnic Russian communities nearby. No, he was simply proving that he and the likely majority of Russians who think like he does are insane.
More than that, his hyperbole gave us permission to bring our covert arming of these neo-Nazis groups out into the light. Now we embrace these neo-Nazis, as we do the rest of Ukraine, and send them advanced weaponry – many billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry.
And while we do this, we self-righteously berate Putin for being a madman and for his disinformation. He is demented or a liar for viewing us as a existential threat to Russia, while we are entirely justified in viewing him as an existential threat to Western civilization.
And so we keep feeding the chimerical devil we fear. And however often our fears are exposed as self-rationalizing, we never learn.
Saddam Hussein posed an earlier existential threat. His non-existent WMDs were going to be placed in his non-existent long-range missiles to destroy us. So we had every right to destroy Iraq first, preemptively. But when those WMDs turned out not to exist, whose fault was it? Not ours, of course. It was Saddam Hussein’s. He didn’t tell us he did not have WMDs. How could we have known? In our view, Iraq ended up being destroyed because Saddam was a strongman who believed his own propaganda, a primitive Arab hoisted by his own petard.
If we paused for a moment and stood outside our own tribalism, we might realize how dangerously narcissistic – quite how mad – we sound. Saddam Hussein did not tell us he had no WMDs, that he had secretly destroyed them many years earlier, because he feared us and our uncontrollable urge to dominate the globe. He feared that, if we knew he lacked those weapons, we might have more of an incentive to attack him and Iraq, either directly or through proxies. It was we who trapped him in his own lie.
And then there is Iran. Our endless fury with the mad ayatollahs – our economic sanctions, our and Israel’s executions of Iran’s scientists, our constant chatter of invasion – are intended to stop Tehran from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon that might finally level the Middle East’s playing field with Israel, whom we helped to develop a large nuclear arsenal decades ago.
Iran must be stopped so it cannot destroy Israel and then us. Our fears of the Iranian nuclear threat are paramount. We must strike, directly or through proxies, against its allies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Gaza. Our entire Middle East policy must be fashioned around the effort to prevent Iran from ever gaining the bomb.
In our madness, we cannot imagine the fears of Iranians, their realistic sense that we pose a much graver threat to them than they could ever pose to us. In the circumstances, to Iranians, a nuclear weapon might surely look like a very wise insurance policy – a deterrence – against our boundless self-righteousness.
Because we are the strongest tribe on the planet, we are also the most deluded, the most propagandized, as well as the most dangerous. We create the reality we think we oppose. We spawn the devils we fear. We force our rivals into the role of bogeyman that makes us feel good about ourselves.
In Israel, Meretz imagines it opposes the occupation. And yet it keeps conspiring in actions – supposedly to aid Israel’s security, like the apartheid law – that justifiably make Palestinians fear for their existence and believe they have no Jewish allies in Israel. Backed into a corner, Palestinians resist, either in an organized fashion, as during their intifada uprisings, or through ineffectual “lone-wolf” attacks by individuals.
But the Zionist tribalism of Meretz – as liberal, humane and caring as they are – means they can perceive only their own existential anxieties; they cannot see themselves as a threat to others or grasp the fears that they and other Zionists provoke in Palestinians. So the Palestinians must be dismissed as religious maniacs, or primitive, or barbarian-terrorists.
This kind of tribalism produces a vicious cycle – for us, as for Israel. Our behaviors based on the assumption of superiority – our greed and aggression – mean we inevitably deepen the tribalisms of others and provoke their resistance. Which in turn rationalizes our assumption that we must act even more tribally, even more greedily, even more aggressively.
We each have more than one tribal identity, of course. We are not only British, French, American, Brazilian. We are Black, Asian, Hispanic, white. We are straight, gay, trans, or something even more complex. We are conservative, liberal, left. We may support a team, or have a faith.
These tribal identities can conflict and interact in complex ways. As Meretz shows, one identity may come to the fore, and recede into the background, depending on circumstances and the perception of threat.
But perhaps most important of all, some tribalisms can be harnessed and manipulated by other, narrower, more covert tribal identities. Remember, not all tribalisms are equal.
Western elites – our politicians, corporate leaders, billionaires – have their own narrow tribalism. They prioritize their own tribe and its interests: making money and retaining power on the world stage. But given how ugly, selfish and destructive this tribe would look were it to stand before us nakedly pursuing power for its own benefit, it promotes its tribal interests in the name of the wider tribe and its “cultural” values.
This elite tribe wages its endless wars for resource control, it oppresses others, it imposes austerity, it wrecks the planet, all in the name of Western civilization.
When we cheerlead the West’s wars; when we reluctantly concede that other societies must be smashed; when we accept that poverty and food banks are an unfortunate byproduct of supposed economic realities, as is the toxifying of the planet, we conspire in advancing not our own tribal interests but someone else’s.
When we send tens of billions of dollars of weapons to Ukraine, we imagine we are being selfless, helping those in trouble, stopping an evil madman, upholding international law, listening to Ukrainians. But our understanding of why events are unfolding as they are in Ukraine, more so than how they are unfolding, has been imposed on us, just as it has on ordinary Ukrainians and ordinary Russians.
We believe we can end the war through more muscle. We assume we can terrorize Russia into withdrawal. Or even more dangerously, we fantasize that we can defeat a nuclear-armed Russia and remove its “madman” president. We cannot imagine that we are only stoking the very fears that drove Russia to invade Ukraine in the first place, the very fears that brought a strongman like Putin to power and sustain him there. We make the situation worse in assuming we are making it better.
So why do we do it?
Because our thoughts are not our own. We are dancing to a tune composed by others whose motives and interests we barely comprehend.
An endless war is not in our interests, nor in those of Ukrainians or Russians. But it might just be in the interests of Western elites that need to “weaken the enemy” to expand their dominance; that need pretexts to hoover up our money for wars that profit them alone; that need to create enemies to shore up the tribalism of Western publics so that we do not start to see things from the point of view of others or wonder whether our own tribalism really serves our interests or those of an elite.
The truth is we are being constantly manipulated, duped, propagandized to advance “values” that are not inherent in our “superior” culture but manufactured for us by the elites’ public-relations arm, the corporate media. We are made into willing co-conspirators in behavior that actually harms us, others, and the planet.
In Ukraine, our very compassion to help is being weaponized in ways that will kill Ukrainians and destroy their communities, just as Meretz’s caring liberalism has spent decades rationalizing the oppression of Palestinians in the name of ending it.
We cannot liberate Ukraine or Russia. But what we can do may, in the long term, prove far more significant: We can start liberating our minds.
Feature photo | MintPress News
Jonathan Cook is a MintPress contributor. Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.