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Crucifying Israel

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Progressives may not show up on Sunday mornings anymore, but we can’t seem to kick the need to scapegoat the world’s problems onto an empty vessel that happens to be Jewish.

There is something irrational about "progressives" for Palestine.

The political left is made up overwhelmingly by atheists, agnostics and people who subscribe to liberal strains of Christianity.

God knows, we don't need religion to be good people! Yet by throwing out religion, we certainly lose some things. Rituals, for example, around lifecycle events like marriage and death are important touchstones at moments in our lives and those of us who do not subscribe to any religion can sometimes find ourselves adrift at these moments.

On the flip side, are there subconscious components of religion and its trappings that we fail to leave behind when we reject faith?

A lot of leftists seem to have replaced religiosity with a particularly evangelical sort of politics. This is evident in a number of areas, but perhaps it is most obvious in the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is not surprising that a conflict in the birthplace of at least three world religions should elicit outsized moral reactions among people. Yet even among professed atheists or agnostics, something seems ... supernatural about the way politics plays out when it comes to Israel and Palestine.

Consider the concept of substitutionary atonement, which is at the absolute centre of Christianity. This is the transference of our guilt or sin onto a vessel that is then sacrificed, carrying with it the sins that were placed upon it. (The term “scapegoating” comes from the tradition of assigning sins to a goat and then slaying it.) Christian substitutionary atonement takes the form of Jesus having died for the sins of those who believe in him.

Now, the Palestinian movement is populated overwhelmingly by political progressives, many of whom are atheists or agnostics. Among those in the movement who adhere to a faith - primarily Methodists, Unitarian-Universalists, United Churchers in Canada and other Protestants - debates exist around the divinity of Jesus and other traditional aspects of faith. In other words, they're open to non-binary, open-minded approaches to theological issues.

Yet when it comes to Israel-Palestine, expect no such open-mindedness among "liberal" Christians, or even atheists and agnostics. On this subject, ideology resembles theology. Nuance turns to fundamentalism quickly and the warm fuzzies of an empathetic, inclusive, welcoming narrative with which these churches define themselves flies out the stained-glass window when it comes to Israel-Palestine. Palestinians are saints and Israel is the embodiment of evil. (This is particularly on the nose when haters employ the ever-so-clever term "IsraHELL.")

Among Christians in the Palestinian movement, but notably in the secular wing too, it is hard to ignore the appearance of something remarkably like substitutionary atonement in their approach toward Israel.

While a new generation of activists may reject theological falderal, the existential need to obviate our own guilt may help explain our approach to this topic. The fervour with which we pile the worst imaginable sins of humankind on Israel and then demand its destruction has a familiar scent of fire and brimstone.

Could it be tied up with the progressive guilt we feel as privileged citizens of the West? To some degree or other, progressives hate ourselves, it's probably safe to say, for our privilege, our wealth, our whiteness, our good fortune at being born into the comfortable societies we inhabit. We look at Israel and Palestine and we project our individual and collective guilt.

As our parents and grandparents may have projected their sins onto Jesus – a Jew on a cross – we expiate ourselves at rallies, in union halls and party plenaries by accusing Israel – the Jew in national form – of every sin under the sun. And then we demand its destruction.

The comparison may seem ridiculous. If so, that is not because it requires a stretch of the imagination, but on the contrary: because it is so obvious it makes us out for fools for not recognizing the ancient ritual we are so transparently re-enacting.

Our guilt over our society’s treatment of aboriginal peoples (which would be costly, difficult and inconvenient for us to insufficiently redress here at home) can be alleviated at no cost to our own comfort by defending the rights of “indigenous” Palestinians against the Zionist “settlers.”

The cycle of economic exploitation of which each of us is a part through the gamut of exploitive benefits we reap as middle-class Developed World people can be balanced (again, at no cost to ourselves) through our activism on behalf of Palestinians who are economically disadvantaged.

Our grotesque overconsumption – the volume of food we eat, the resources we use, the pollution we create, the waste that typifies our existence – all these sins can be atoned for if we condemn Israel for its conspicuous material success in a region typified by destitution.

All of the shame we experience for being, by accident of birth, among the world’s most privileged people, can be heaped on Israel.

Then our sins, having been transposed onto the Jewish state, can be washed away through a ritualistic and ecstatic anti-Zionist crucifixion.

Are we transubstantiating Israel into the scapegoat for our own sins? Rational, progressive minds will recoil at the irrationality. Yet there can be no reasonable explanation for the single-minded obsession that progressive Canadians have around this issue. No good explanation exists to justify how self-proclaimed “progressives” have made common cause with some of the most appallingly racist, anti-woman, anti-gay forces in the world, exhausting all our progressive energies with this one comparatively minor conflict while ignoring exponentially worse examples of human rights abuses and injustices almost anywhere one cares to look in the world.

And observe the language employed against Israel. It is biblical, eschatological and mythical. The narrative is reduced to simplistic tales of pure good and absolute evil. Israel is repeatedly depicted as the very incarnation of malevolence. Jews are depicted demonically. The narrative routinely depicts a biblical David-versus-Goliath motif and the cartoonists can't resist pencilling Palestinians as Jesus, either as a completely innocent babe in manger or crucified on a cross. There is a transference going on here.

Yes, but ... the facts, say the perpetrators. Israel truly is evil.

Simply: no. There is plenty of evil in the world. In parts of Africa and Asia, even right next door to Israel, in Syria, there is evil. What Israel is engaged in is a conflict founded on the refusal of its neighbours to live in peaceful coexistence with Jews. To respond to events there in the unhinged, irrational manner the world does cannot be explained by the facts of the situation.

There is something irrational and unexplainable happening.

Progressives may not show up on Sunday mornings anymore, but we can’t seem to overcome the apparently transcendent need to pile the world’s sins onto a scapegoat ... that happens to be Jewish.


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