Support for the Palestinian cause -- which usually means all Palestinian demands for an independent state and the right of return of Palestinians to Israel -- has become a major item on the political agenda of the Left in most Western countries.
In demonstrations against globalism or the war in Iraq, there are pro-Palestinian contingents; on American college campuses pro-Palestinian organizations (often allied with Islamic ones) thrive. "Solidarity groups" visit the West Bank and Gaza and often interpose themselves between rioting or demonstrating Palestinians and Israeli troops. Sometimes they join the demonstrators. They are also deployed around the headquarters of Yasser Arafat to protect him, while their representatives visit and hug him. At any given time, hundreds of Western "volunteers" are in the Palestinian areas to lend whatever aid and comfort they can. Boycotts and embargos against Israel are proposed and organized; academic intellectuals advocate excluding Israelis from academic organizations and institutions. The International Solidarity Movement (solidarity with the Palestinians) supports the Palestinians’ "legitimate armed struggle." Tom Paulin, the well-known English poet and teacher at Oxford University, writes about "the Zionist SS" and reveals that he never believed in Israel's right to exist. He also encourages the shooting of Jewish settlers on occupied territories.
While these groups are in a state of intense moral indignation about Israeli atrocities, their condemnation of Arab-Islamic acts of terror is either non-existent or muted and perfunctory. Acts of terror against Israeli people (what Martin Peretz called "the utter routinization of the savage killing of innocents") attract little moral attention or energy, since they are reflexively attributed to the misbehavior of Israel (or the U.S.) or to the famous root causes which amount to Israeli (or American) culpability.
The key to these skewed perceptions and moral judgements is to be found in a deeply internalized victim-victimizer scenario. Even since its victory in 1967 in the Six Day War, Israel and its Jewish population ceased being seen as victims (or potential victims) by many liberal Western intellectuals -- and no further events would dislodge this perception. There is a certain parallel here with the comparative perceptions of the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War when the latter stubbornly retained an underdog status despite is enormous military power and conquests and later became the moral equivalent of the United States.
A similar moral equivalence is widespread today in comparisons of unrestrained Palestinian violence against Israel and the often harsh Israeli countermeasures seeking to deflect it. It is overlooked that Israel kills civilians inadvertently in the pursuit of terrorists, while the terrorists deliberately target civilians in ways to maximize casualties and rejoice when these goals are accomplished.
The fervent support for the Palestinians cannot be understood in isolation from grasping why Israel is detested, just as past (or persisting) sympathy for communist systems could only be understood when seen as an integral part of the profound hostility to Western, capitalist democracies.
In all probability, the current denigration of Israel is part of a similar, broad rejection of all things Western. Israel in the eyes of leftist radicals (and arguably even in those of less radical leftists), is identified with everything they abhor in the West: capitalism, consumerism, individualism, scientific rationalism and other Western intellectual and philosophical traditions.
Especially delegitimating for Israel is its close political-military ties to the United States. By the same token, idealization of the Palestinians may well be a substitute for the kinds of projections and longings, which in the past found their target in communist systems or movements. With the collapse (or transformation) of most communist systems there are no admirable alternatives left to the perceived evils and corruption of the West with the questionable exception of Cuba. Hence the new and admittedly smaller generation of political pilgrims goes to Palestine.
Palestinians are embraced not merely because they are adversaries and apparent victims of Israel; they also came to personify and revitalize idealized conceptions of the third world and its inhabitants -- which flourished in the 1960s and 70s. They are the new noble savages leading virtuously simple and deprived lives (some of the latter can be ascribed to Israeli policies). The young men and children throwing stones at Israeli tanks have become symbols of what is seen as the heroic struggle of powerless, authentic, non-technological fighters against the powerful, technologically advanced, impersonal monster encased in tanks and armored personnel carriers – images similar to those of the lean, small Vietcong fighters battling manfully with minimal equipment the impersonal machines of the U.S. in the air or on the ground. In both cases there was more involved than sympathy for the underdog: the struggle also represented a confrontation of all the virtues of a pre or non-industrial era and its authentic actors, with the vices of the dehumanized military-industrial-scientific complex embodied in the United States. As Susan Sontag observed at the time, there was no existential agony or alienation among the North Vietnamese.
There is another possible explanation for the increased appeal of the Palestinian cause during the last few years while the intifada and suicide bombings unfolded. It may well be that Palestinian violence is not merely accepted as a justifiable response to Israeli policies, but is actually applauded. Once more there are probable parallels with the appeal of communist movements and insurgencies of the past and their violence.
Many Western intellectuals had a longstanding and barely (if at all) suppressed admiration for what they saw as the morally superior, passionate, invigorating, authentic use of violence in a wholesome, liberating cause. From Sartre to Carlo Fuentes, Regis Debray, C.Wright Mills and Norman Mailer (and many less illustrious figures) numerous sedentary and verbose intellectuals believed in the redeeming effect of authentic violence in overcoming unadventurous ways of life, trapped and paralyzed as they felt between theory and practice and in a comfortable middle class lifestyle. Political (and sometimes non-political) violence came to be seen as the magic device with which to bridge the gap between theory and practice, rumination and action, good intentions and genuine commitment.
Palestinian guerrillas and especially the fearless suicide bombers embody such authenticity and unwavering commitment. They put their lives on the line and joyously, serenely destroy themselves (and many more others) for the good of the cause. Here is a profusion of self-transcendence unparalleled in recent times. Professor Gayatri Spivak of Columbia University explained (or tried to) why this was the case:
"Suicide bombing -- and the planes of 9/11 were living bombs -- is a purposive self-annihilation, a confrontation between oneself and oneself, the extreme end of autoeroticism; killing oneself as other, in the process of killing others... the destruction of others is indistinguishable from the destruction of the self...Suicidal resistance is a message inscribed in the body when no other means will get through. It is both execution and mourning, for both self and other. For you die with me for the same cause, no matter which side are you on. Because no matter who you are, there are no designated killees [sic] in suicide bombing....there is no dishonor in such shared and innocent death." [Quoted in The New Republic, July 29, 2002, p.9]
While left-liberal intellectuals in the West have some reservations about religious fanaticism, (especially if associated with Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices), Islamic religious fanaticism is quite another matter since it is a product of the Third World and the cultural diversity it represents and as such deserving of respect.
Even when such religious fanaticism and the violence it inspires is hard to take, one can always fall back on the root causes: the suicide bombers are poor and oppressed, they are desperately attempting to call attention to their condition. Little is said about the hefty awards given to their families or about the fact that many of the most violent activists and their organizers are neither poor, nor uneducated.
The Palestinians, real and imaginary, are neither the first nor the last personification of righteous rage against the evils alienated Westerners feel surrounded by in their own societies.
Paul Hollander is the author, among other books, of Anti-Americanism: Irrational and Rational and editor of the volume Understanding Anti-Americanism, to be published next year.