An Identity Crisis for Israeli Liberals

Protesters gathered in Tel Aviv calling to end the war for a hostage deal and fresh elections

Protesters gathered in Tel Aviv calling to end the war for a hostage deal and fresh elections

© picture alliance / | Eyal Warshavsky

It is not easy being an Israeli liberal today.

Since Netanyahu’s religious nationalist government came to power at the end of 2022, the foundations of Israeli democracy have been under attack. In response, a growing liberal camp united and joined forces to defend the Supreme Court as a bastion of Israeli liberal democracy, taking to the streets of major cities across Israel. Since the Israel-Gaza war started, this camp has called for the government to resign, since it failed to prevent the 7th of October attack, and due to its disastrous conduct since.

We – and I feel comfortable speaking on behalf of Israel’s liberal camp - thought we had earned our place as part of the international liberal family. But as the war rages on, the place of Israeli liberals within the global liberal family seems less secure. Many of us feel that we are forced to make an uncomfortable choice and are pressured to either be a spokesperson for a government we oppose, or to alternatively denounce Israel as evil. Let me be clear: We choose neither. We refuse to accept the notion that we have to choose between two conflicting identities: Israeli or liberal.

This identity split, which is being forced on us, is a symptom of a growing divide within the international liberal community. Counterintuitively, the divide is not between Israeli liberals and other western liberals. It is a split between liberal individualism and illiberal collectivism. This ideological divide is not new, it just became more evident since the 7th of October. A possible reason for this is because the 7th of October attack does not easily fit the established identity narrative.

International community and identity politics

Identity politics focuses on historically oppressed groups within society, and their struggle against oppression. Unlike liberalism, that divides society into individuals, identity politics divides society into groups of oppressed and oppressors. Identity politics assumes one’s identity, interests and even morality are defined by which group one is a member of. This is reminiscent of classic Marxist theories, where the proletariat class is oppressed by the bourgeoisie class.

When analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of identity politics, the complex reality becomes simplified into a clash between an oppressed Palestinian people and an Israeli oppressor. This new simple version has clear heroes and villains, it has a simple solution, and it makes it easier to know which side you should support.

But it also has one major flaw – it assumes that all Palestinians are innocent victims, and that all Israelis are brutal oppressors. This insistence to judge one only by group affiliation avoids assigning individual guilt to specific oppressors, while seeking to collectively punish entire “oppressor” groups. Worse yet, the identity politics perspective completely exonerates any wrongdoing committed by any oppressed individual.

This sort of collective immunity and blame seems to go against the most basic of liberal values – individual responsibility. If we as liberals see people as individuals, we should strive to judge every Israeli, as well as every Palestinian, individually, not for who they are, but for what they themselves say or do.

On the 7th of October these two somewhat conflicting social theories clashed. As Hamas launched its terrorist attack on the south of Israel, they shared with the world images of their massacre. While liberals around the world quickly condemned these acts done by Hamas, some identity politics “liberals” found it difficult to do the same.

For many in Israel and outside Israel, the unwillingness to condemn Hamas, specifically by organizations and individuals who champion human rights issues, was condemned as being motivated by anti-Semitism. An example of this is the “#MeToo, unless you’re a Jew” campaign, that criticized UN Women and other feminist organizations for looking the other way when Israeli women were raped on the 7th of October. The anti-Semitism argument gives up on trying to understand why so many supposed liberals refuse to condemn Hamas, and instead also plays into identity politics, striving to prove that Israel is in fact the oppressed party.

But there is another explanation for why so many are hesitant to condemn Hamas. According to identity politics, since the Palestinians are the oppressed group, their actions against their oppressors are always justified. Hamas, being a Palestinian organization, shares this all-encompassing justification. Even if that means using mental gymnastics to write off beheading, rape and kidnapping of men, women and children, as legitimate acts of resistance.

While liberalism would define such atrocities as inherently wrong, identity politics would ask that you take the perpetrator’s and the victim’s identity into consideration instead. This flexible new definition of morality could offer an explanation to many recent statements that were deemed anti-Semitic. This does not mean that they are not anti-Semitic per se, but rather, that their statements reveal a moral double standard fueled by identity politics.

Why is this distinction in motive important? Because only by properly defining the “Oppressed & Oppressor” logic, can we understand its dangerous nature and combat it effectively. It is definitely tempting to treat the aforementioned double standard as purely anti-Semitic, and enjoy a moral high ground when arguing which side is the bigger victim. But, this strategy does not challenge identity politics’ most dangerous premise – that the oppressed are not criminally accountable. This subjective lack of accountability undermines the concept of equality before the law, by replacing due process with blatant favoritism.

This group based double standard is not exclusive to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to Jews and Muslims. But the Israeli-Palestinian case is special because it marks a clear line between those who believe in equality before the law and individual criminal accountability, and those who justify any atrocity committed by the oppressed. The sheer scale of the documented violence and brutality of the 7th of October made it impossible to tolerate its justification, and presented us with a unique opportunity to unmask the inherently illiberal nature of “Oppressed & Oppressor” identity politics.

The challenge for Israeli liberals

For Israeli liberals the distinction between liberalism and identity politics became easier in the last few months. We have seen a growing number of Jews attacked around the world, and Jewish students barred from entering universities by protestors, even if they have no connection to Israel. Clearly, these “oppressed” attackers do not see Israelis, or any Jew for that matter, as individuals that deserve equal treatment, but rather as part of an inherently guilty group that deserves persecution. In a way, since the war began, many Israelis have been oppressed in the name of fighting oppression.

Fighting for freedom indeed means standing up against oppression. But we must also be cautious when we define what that means. If we allow the utilizing of liberal rhetoric to be used as a justification for indiscriminant violence and collective punishment against individuals, we risk emptying it of meaning. If we are to stand for equality before the law or universal human rights, then we cannot condone “justified discrimination” in any way. It is our duty as liberals to clearly define our ideological red lines, and to unapologetically stand up for the individual. If we are to have any hope of resisting this elusive new form of social oppression, we must liberate ourselves from the illiberal dichotomy of identity politics.