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Israel: The Left in Peril

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrators calling for a ceasefire at a protest demanding the return of the hostages held in Gaza, Tel Aviv, Israel, October 28, 2023

After October 7, when Hamas committed the worst terror attack in Israel’s history, the country’s left wing braced for fury from its right. The left hasn’t been in power here for almost twenty-three years, but mainstream Israeli commentators rarely miss an opportunity to blame it for the country’s ills. After the initial shock set in, influential right-wing figures such as the correspondent and columnist Kalman Liebskind began arguing that the root causes of Hamas’s attack were policies Israelis associate with the left—among them all the country’s land withdrawals, from the Oslo accords of the 1990s to Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005 (when it dismantled settlements but retained powerful forms of control over life in the Strip from the perimeters).

Though the two-state solution has never been implemented, Yishai Fleisher, the spokesperson for the Jewish settlers of Hebron, wrote on X that “the Great Gaza Givaway (the Disengagement) was fruit of the Two State way of thinking. Gaza was evacuated from Jews (judenrein) given over to the PA, soon it was taken over by Hamas, and now the Oct 7th massacre.” The Israeli right-wing legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich wrote, “Imagine would [sic] they could have done with statehood…. We’d have 100x more dead.” An opinion piece in the far-right media outlet Channel 7 held that the left’s determination to end the occupation had brought Israel a “horror show.” As Israel lurched from mourning to war, the very idea that Palestinians could be trusted or treated as equals became, for many, intolerable.

Israelis on the left have over the years grown accustomed to the resentment or outright hostility of the right; there is a sort of defiant pride among left-wing communities in forging on. But the pro-peace, anti-occupation left in Israel had already dwindled before October 7 to a small sliver of the country’s population. What happened that day seems poised to either snuff out the last remnants of the left or, counterintuitively, give new urgency to its values.

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In Israeli politics, “the left” refers first and foremost to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Jewish-Arab relations. Any residual social or economic associations, or even liberal and progressive causes, are secondary. To Israeli ears, “left” stands for the idea that Palestinians and Israelis can split their differences and their land, live more peacefully if not perfectly, perhaps one day even reconcile. I have held these views for my entire adult life, and have spent my career working with political parties, civil society groups, and media outlets advocating them—which can sometimes lead to despair.  

In the past month Israelis committed to this vision have, like the rest of the country, been reeling from the losses of October 7. Many of the kibbutzim in the south hardest hit by Hamas’s attack leaned left, and some were home to peace activists. Ziv Stahl, the director of Yesh Din, a legal advocacy group challenging occupation policies that violate Palestinian human rights, hid with her family in Kfar Aza while Hamas ransacked the kibbutz and killed residents, including some of her family members and lifelong friends. Amir Tibon, a correspondent at Haaretz, survived what he later called “blood curdling” hours cowering with his family in Kibbutz Nahal Oz while his father, a retired general, raced down south of his own initiative, eventually joining IDF squads to battle Hamas attackers and liberate his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. A young Arab paramedic who insisted on staying at the music festival to treat the wounded; an activist with Breaking the Silence, the military officers who testify about the ills of occupation; a political scientist involved in the peace movement; and Vivian Silver, an indomitable seventy-four-year-old peace activist, a beloved figure to nearly everyone involved in such activities: all were killed. Silver was originally presumed to have been kidnapped and taken to Gaza; it took five weeks to identify her remains on Kibbutz Be’eri, where she lived.

Unlike most Israelis, some peace and human rights activists also have friends, partners, and coworkers in Gaza. They feel tormented by the breathtaking scale of ruin—by the collective punishment and specter of mass expulsion. After an initial phase of shock and even paralysis, over the last few weeks some of these left-wing communities have made tentative, searching attempts at renewed activism and political critique. Stahl wrote in Haaretz that she is more convinced now than ever that smashing Gaza will only continue the bloodbath. Tami Yakira, an organizer with the progressive civil society umbrella group Shatil (under the New Israel Fund), told me over the phone that the “anti-occupation” bloc, which began as a limited presence in the protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s antidemocratic judicial overhaul plan earlier this year, had been growing before the war. Yakira’s early-stage conversations after October 7 with peace, anti-occupation, and human rights groups and activists have centered, she said, on “expressing mourning for the violence, the need to work together as Jews and Arabs, to free the hostages, end occupation, that we believe in democracy…and support a ceasefire and diplomatic resolution.”

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Nascent activities like these have met with formidable hostility. Adam Shinar, a professor of constitutional law at Reichman University in Israel, wrote on X that freedom of speech is being seriously harmed. “The situation is particularly grave,” he noted, “because the damage is broadly directed at one side: the left and the Arab community.” Ran Goldstein, director of the Hub for the Protection of Civic Space, a project to protect civil society from far-right extremists, told me that “the persecution of left-wing Jews and Arabs at present is nothing like any previous war that I recall, Cast Lead, Protective Edge, et cetera.”

Extreme right-wingers have threatened and harassed activists on the left, particularly Palestinian citizens—those who publicly criticize the war or sympathize with Gaza’s victims. Right-wing trolls pore over their old social media posts, and some Arabs in Israel have been investigated, arrested, or fired from their their jobs for expressing antiwar sentiments. Activists have established a database documenting hundreds of incidents of harassment of various types against Arabs in Israel by citizens, police, and the army. Goldstein told me that the police recently investigated an Arab teacher for having been photographed wearing a “Palestine scarf” five years earlier. They have taken no such action, he observed, against anyone calling to flatten Gaza, advocating the mass population transfer of Palestinians, or insisting that there are no innocents in the Strip.

Israeli Jews have faced intimidation as well. On October 13 the well-known left-wing Haredi journalist Israel Frey posted a video to social media in which he prayed for victims of the war, including civilians in Gaza. The next night, thugs demonstrated outside his home, setting off flares that blasted a neighbor’s window. He fled his home with a police escort around 2:30 in the morning. Another popular community activist whose parents were murdered by Hamas gave a podcast interview in which he called for long-term peace to end the cycle of bloodbaths and mourning. The media company that recorded the interview quickly received phone threats, followed by a break-in and extensive damage to their offices. A Jewish history teacher was fired and arrested for antiwar social media posts—most of them from before the current war.

Right-wing Israelis have been doxxing left-wing activists to threaten and intimidate them. Haaretz reported that a left-wing filmmaker’s personal details were shared on a public Telegram channel after he expressed sorrow over the civilian deaths in Gaza, even as he pled for the release of the Israeli hostages. A visit to the same channel exhibits both vulgarity and precision: one entry shows posts from a Jewish Israeli man opposed to the occupation and the war, one of them an old post from 2021; the next shows a photograph of his home (possibly from Google streetview), its location on Google Maps, his name, ID number, birthdate, phone number, and details about his workplace. In another post on the channel someone writes, “suggest terror supporters for us to find”; in yet another someone writes, “give me Arabs to fuck.”

“There’s a witch hunt against anyone who doesn’t fall into line with the consensus,” Goldstein told me. The Israeli chief of police warned that demonstrations in solidarity with Gaza would not be tolerated, quipping in a briefing that he would “put [such protesters] on buses” to Gaza. The police broke up an antiwar demonstration supporting the people of Gaza in Haifa in mid-October and recently refused to grant permission for demonstrations in the Arab towns of Umm el-Fahm and Sakhnin. Critics of the decision filed petitions against it, but the High Court rejected them—although the police have now committed to considering requests on a case-by-case basis. The government has also sought measures relaxing the rules of live fire on demonstrations, sowing further fear among potential protesters.

All of this has discouraged the kind of people who have demonstrated openly against Israel’s previous wars or would be inclined to call for a ceasefire now. Meanwhile, the left has suffered other less visible but possibly more consequential blows. The right-wing group NGO Monitor, which has long organized campaigns to slash foreign funding from left-wing groups, recently boasted of pressuring the Swiss government into suspending all of its funding for critical human rights organizations, including Gisha, the Israeli organization working primarily on human rights in Gaza.

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In times of trouble, Israelis generally turn right. The left’s basic positions—political and territorial compromise, mutuality of national rights, and a commitment to peace—have for the past two decades fallen out of favor with the majority of the Israeli public. The Oslo process of the mid-1990s, which supporters of those agreements hoped would lead to peace, instead descended into violence, including the terror attack by Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli Jew, on Palestinians at prayer and a series of gruesome Hamas suicide bombings. In 1995 a far-right extremist assassinated Itzhak Rabin, the prime minister who had led the process. The next year Israelis voted out Rabin’s political heir and voted in Netanyahu.

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Ehud Barak was the last leader that most Israelis considered left-wing. He took power in July 1999. A year later his peace negotiations with Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), collapsed, sparking the second major Palestinian uprising, the al-Aqsa intifada, and a wave of suicide bombings against civilian targets within Israel. Barak lost the next year’s elections by a tremendous twenty-five-point gap. About half of left-identified Israelis shifted to the center in my surveys after that, and the right began to gain support. By the 2010s about half of Israeli Jews considered themselves right-wing; now that number ranges from 64 to 68 percent. Surveys over roughly the last five years showed that only about 11 to 15 percent of Jewish Israeli citizens considered themselves on the left, and the attacks of October 7 seem poised to shrink those numbers still further. A survey conducted in late October by A-Chord, a social psychology research center affiliated with Hebrew University, showed that the rate had fallen to 10 percent; soon it could soon enter single digits.

A majority of these Jewish Israeli leftists describe themselves as “moderate left” in survey research, consider themselves to be Zionists, and hope that a two-state solution will preserve a Jewish majority in Israel but end the occupation. (Centrist parties, for their part, never use the term “two-state solution” in their political campaigns anymore, and even left-wing parties hardly campaign on the issue.) Those who call themselves “left” or “firm left,” who make up just a few percentage points of the country’s total population, prioritize human rights and democracy over Jewish national identity and oppose the occupation, but this group hardly rallies for a specific political solution. Most would accept a two-state solution if pressed, but some prefer a single, democratic state of all its citizens. That idea, however, has never gained serious traction in the region, and it’s hard to find even hardcore left-wingers who actively promote it now—let alone anyone who would listen.

Alternate forms of a two-state model, such as a federation or a confederation, have, in contrast, gained significant support on the left. The group A Land for All (where I serve on the board) envisions a confederation arrangement between two states in which citizens of each state would have freedom of movement and the right to live as law-abiding residents of the other, Jerusalem would be maintained as a shared city rather than divided, and the two states would cooperate on security, economy, natural resources, and other spheres as they see fit. In the last survey I conducted on this question, in December 2022 for the Palestine-Israel Pulse project, fully two thirds of left-wing Jewish Israelis supported the idea of a confederation between an Israeli and a Palestinian state.

And yet such alternate models are still muted in public discourse. In recent election cycles, many leftists have despaired of peace and prioritized ousting Netanyahu by supporting large, mainstream centrist parties. Last November one of the two left-wing Zionist parties, Meretz, failed to cross the electoral threshold for the first time in its thirty-year history. The country’s nationalist and populist political leaders, meanwhile, have socialized a generation of Israelis to view leftists as hypocrites or traitors. Much of this rage has been over the left’s partnership with international actors critical of the occupation, all of whom, from Roger Waters to the UN General Assembly, most Israelis consign to a single anti-Israel basket. Even mainstream Israelis have come to fume at their compatriots who turn to “the world” to besmirch their own country—an accusation that successive governments have used since 2009 to justify aggressive policies and legislation aimed at delegitimizing and undercutting international support for human rights groups.

Against this background, lifelong anti-occupation activists in Israel felt all the more shattered when some of their liberal allies abroad incomprehensibly downplayed the Hamas attack, neglected to condemn it, excised mention of the civilian hostages, or justified the atrocities as some sort of legitimate military maneuver. A Haaretz columnist wrote that he is less angry at Hamas than at people he believed were on his side: “The anger stems from the fact that you suddenly realize that your milieu—or what you had imagined was your milieu—is in fact turning against you.” Many on the Israeli left feel deeply alone; maybe they will give up and migrate to the right.

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The left’s downfall might seem inevitable, if not for a few political and social forces, tenuous and fragile as they are, that could give its ideas a chance at revival. One of them is the nagging prospect that the left may have been right all along. Military strategies, including the numerous “rounds” of fighting Israel has undertaken with Hamas since 2008, didn’t work. Managing or “shrinking” the conflict—an approach that dominated Israeli policy for at least a decade—has been a deadly failure for which its proponents need to take responsibility. No one in good faith can promise that a comprehensive political resolution will save every life. But such a resolution has never been reached or implemented, and it’s the only path left to try.

There are historical precedents—moments in which traumatic violence against Israel has prompted concessions or a pathway toward peace. Since October 7, advocates of a diplomatic breakthrough have recalled that the 1973 Yom Kippur War laid the political groundwork for peace with Egypt in 1979, just as the first Palestinian intifada in 1987 gave way to the Oslo Accords, which began six years later. (Some also argue that the violence of the second intifada prompted Israel to dismantle the settlements in Gaza, but Israel’s disengagement in 2005 was hardly intended to advance a comprehensive peaceful resolution to the conflict.)

If the sheer horror of October 7 and the subsequent bloodletting do prompt a shift in Israel toward a political resolution of the conflict, who will be making the case? At present the somber remnants of the left are the only ones doing so. Despite police intimidation and people’s trepidation over demonstrating such opinions in public, small clusters of activists holding signs opposing the war have held gatherings in Tel Aviv. Dana Mills, a left-wing activist, writer, and former executive director of Peace Now in Israel, told me that the first such showing in late October was so small it could hardly be called a demonstration; it was more like testing the waters. Fearing angry thugs or police crackdowns, participants avoided provocative messages and, according to Mills, held gentle signs such as CEASEFIRE NOW or AN EYE FOR AN EYE MAKES THE WHOLE WORLD BLIND. In early November more activists went out; their signs called for a ceasefire, a hostage deal, or a diplomatic resolution of the conflict. One woman’s sign read A MASSACRE DOESN’T JUSTIFY A MASSACRE. If not for the left, no one would be voicing these positions.

There may also be a distinct opportunity to capitalize on sweeping public anger at Netanyahu’s fanatical, ultranationalist government, which Israelis of all stripes have come to revile for its failures on October 7, a finding reinforced by numerous polls published since the attacks. This rage is the culmination of an unprecedented civic movement that racked Israel for nearly forty weeks in response to Netanyahu’s plans to eviscerate the judiciary. Israelis have already been asking fundamental questions about the vulnerabilities of democracy in their country. Perhaps October 7 will cause more of them to question the right’s approach to conflict, too, including its obsession with territorial expansion and permanent, authoritarian military rule over the Palestinian nation. This is unlikely to happen on a grand scale, if at all, but for the left even small shifts matter.

The left in Israel has one more advantage most other Israelis do not: true Jewish-Arab-Palestinian partnership. West Bank settlers often brag that they know “Arabs” better than do peace activists from Tel Aviv, but these are mostly relations of enmity, or at best friendly relations of subservience: settlers know the mechanics who fix their cars and the contractors who build their settlement homes. Left-wingers know academic colleagues, writing partners, the shared experience of being unpopular among your national community. These are friendships of equals between people who have demonstrated together and wept over tear gas together. They have embraced over the last month (virtually, when needed) in order to cope with the violence done in their names and supported one another in their suffering. Arab political leaders committed to partnership, such as Ayman Odeh and Mansour Abbas, issued immediate, heartfelt condemnations of Hamas even as they mourned for the innocent civilians Israel has killed in Gaza.

From the first day of the war, it was Jewish and Arab “shared society” activists who scrambled to coordinate efforts at preventing a resurgence of violence in Israel’s mixed towns. Other than one dangerous incident, when hundreds of Jewish Israelis hounded Arab students out of their dormitories at a college in Netanya, those efforts have so far succeeded. By late October a grassroots Jewish-Arab activist group called Standing Together had begun a series of solidarity events in response to such persecution of Arabs in Israel. In Tel Aviv three hundred people attended, then organizers reported eight hundred in Haifa. Images of the gatherings on social media have generated the first signs of enthusiasm among left-wingers since October 7.

These partnerships have been the only light at a moment of unrelenting darkness. In my unscientific experience, they have been less plagued by bitter breaks between allies than have progressive communities on the American left: Israeli and Palestinian activists in the peace camp have disagreements, but I have not seen Palestinian partners in peace activism justifying Hamas’s indefensible actions, nor have I found Jewish Israelis in these tight-knit communities celebrating Israel’s assault on Gaza. The left in Israel and Palestine seems to know that the region is divided not just by ethno-nationalist distinctions but between those who prefer violence, abuse, and military force and those who insist on the universal sanctity of human life, moral values, international law, and containing conflict politically rather than with military action.

Most likely the Israeli left will not see political reincarnation in the near future, and if it wants to influence the mainstream it will need to keep making common cause with other citizens over specific shared concerns. All year, as Israel convulsed over attacks on the judiciary, the anti-occupation groups bolstered centrist democracy protesters who initially resisted including anti-occupation messages in the ultrapatriotic protests. Now activists on the left will need to forge new partnerships, for example with the increasingly vocal communities demanding that the government strike a deal to release the hostages, or the democracy protest groups currently leading the mobilization of donations to get supplies to the Israelis who have been evacuated from the country’s south and north. The left won’t win elections soon. But in the meantime it needs to recommit to its deepest values and advocate whatever paths to peace might one day exist, in what is otherwise a terrifying vacuum of ideas.


This article was updated after news reports confirmed the death of Vivian Silver.

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