Israel, Gaza, and the Fracturing of the Intellectual Left

Photo-Illustration: New York Magazine; Photos: Jewish Currents, Dissent, N+1

Joshua Leifer, a graduate student at Yale, is a soft-spoken leftist whose thoughts unspool in long, eloquent paragraphs. In this respect, he is like his peers in the small bowl of soup that is the world of leftist magazines, a group of writers and editors who know one another, sit together on editorial boards, and attend the same issue-launch parties. But it is their differences that have been most pronounced ever since Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, their gentle voices belying the vehemence of their disagreements. “A segment of the left’s moral compass seems to have broken,” Leifer told me over the phone from New Haven.

The argument playing out in a handful of New York–based journals — most notably n+1, Dissent, and Jewish Currents — may seem like the intramural squabbling of underpaid scribblers on the margins. As Mark Krotov, the co-editor and publisher of n+1, told me as we entered the magazine’s airy office loft in Greenpoint, “We like to joke that we are never more relevant than when the world is being convulsed by historic events.” But in truth, this debate has shaped the rhetoric and agenda of the broader left, which in the past ten years has become an influential bulwark composed of an array of groups and figures including self-described communists, the Democratic Socialists of America, and popular Democratic Party officials like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This debate has also revealed fissures that remain raw and open and, some fear, may be long-lasting. “I believe the Jewish left will never be the same,” said Celeste Marcus, managing editor of the journal Liberties.

Torn Up and Apart

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The initial point of contention was how to respond to the events of October 7, which the New York Times, among others, described as the single worst attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust. In a widely read essay in Dissent, Leifer denounced members of the left who celebrated the attack or refused to sanction it, including an n+1 contributor who had scorned the “smarmy moralizing about civilian deaths.” This prompted an impassioned rebuttal, also in Dissent, by Gabriel Winant, a professor at the University of Chicago, who said the focus on Jewish victimhood fed into “a machine for the conversion of grief into power” and further oppression of the Palestinians. The argument has since grown to encompass a constellation of questions surrounding the leftist project: whether it is too extreme to appeal to people to its right, whether it has exposed latent Stalinist tendencies, and whether it can even keep its own movement together.

The crisis has perhaps been most acutely felt at Jewish Currents, a magazine that brings together in its pages the aspirations of the Jewish left and the Palestinian liberation movement. Editor-in-chief Arielle Angel, who wrote a plaintive essay that strove desperately to bridge the divides between these two groups, sees this as an “existential moment” for their alliance, which has to reach people outside the coalition who may be willing political partners. “What we are watching is a full reactionary moment among many Jews, even some left-wing Jews, because they feel there was no space on the left for their grief,” she said, “which I think is a fair assessment.”

“There are leftist Jews who believed that their community was the Jewish Currents world that offered them the opportunity to condemn Israel for the crimes that it commits within a space that really cares about Jewish life,” said Marcus. “And they’ve realized that they’ve been turned out of the home that they helped build.”

The opposing school of thought holds that the discussion of Jewish grief is largely a distraction from the Ur-injustice of the conflict. “Israeli society and its supporters in the Diaspora really seemed to think they could compartmentalize the Palestinian issue forever and that wouldn’t come back to bite them,” said David Klion, who has written about the conflict for n+1 and The Nation. “And I think that the debate on the left has largely revolved around ‘Do we dive straight into that point, or do we linger on the horror of what Hamas did in a vacuum?’” In that moment, there was also a dread of the devastating vengeance the Israeli military was bound to inflict. “I felt that what was happening was absolutely ghastly,” said Krotov, “but also had the very clear knowledge of what was to come.”

This side — what we could call the Winant faction, in contrast to the Leifer bloc — has been doggedly resistant to gestures that make any common cause with those on the center and the right who have emphasized the murders and kidnappings of civilians in Israel to justify a military campaign against Gaza that has been defined by likely war crimes and a far higher civilian-casualty count than that of the initial attack by Hamas. “There are moments in politics when polarization has to happen,” said Winant. He rejected the notion of a “middle ground” in this conflict, saying it was “ethically mistaken in the same way that it’s mistaken to say ‘All lives matter.’ It’s not that all lives don’t matter; it’s just that we all know what it means to say that.”

I was reminded by several people that the mere fact that we are having this discussion fortifies Israeli narratives about the conflict. Kaleem Hawa, an organizer with the Palestinian Youth Movement who has written for Jewish Currents and other publications, told me, “Everyone who rushed to condemn and mourn and hand-wring without also addressing the context of structural violence and colonialism, their language was metabolized in service of further western carte blanche for Israel.” Winant said, “I just think it also unfortunately makes you complicit.”

There are times when trying to talk about the conflict can feel like entering a minefield crossed with a house of mirrors. It’s difficult even to perceive the nature of reality when we are deep within the “imperial core,” as Hawa described the United States, which for decades has contributed to the making of Israel’s ethno-nationalist project. “In high school, I went on a trip to Cuba that was sponsored by the Jewish Community Center in Atlanta,” Krotov told me. “I didn’t get the bar mitzvah, but I got to go to Cuba and preach the virtues of, I don’t know, Jewish solidarity or something. We had these T-shirts they gave us; they had the American flag and the Cuban flag next to each other, overlaid with the Star of David. That’s what we wore around Cuba. That’s a crazy thing to do. I feel like I’m a perfect example of an ideological subject.” One of the roles of the left and the leftist magazine, in his view, is to shatter that all-encompassing paradigm and let a new world of possibility in.

At the same time, there is something very familiar about this sentiment, this throwing off of the shackles of the mind and body, and there is suspicion that the left’s eschatological bent is a product of darker historical impulses. Adam Kirsch, writing in The Wall Street Journal, said the left’s adoption of the term settler colonialism — the idea that Israel is at root a colonial power that must be overthrown — was reminiscent of the totalitarian ideology of the Soviet Union, in which certain hated oppressors could be placed “outside the realm of moral concern, and they could be killed for any reason or none.”

When I put the question to Marcus, she said the settler-colonialist view of the creation of Israel was simplistic and rife with antisemitism. She likened its proponents to the extremists of the racist right, affirming that the past few weeks had shown her “there is bloodlust on the left as there is on the right for Jewish blood.”

Leifer was more amenable to the settler-colonialist premise, acknowledging that the way the Israeli state was established did in fact “mirror some historical forms of colonialism in terms of land acquisition and state formation.” But the crude end point of that logic, he said, is a cul-de-sac: “If the analysis of settler colonialism leads you to a political solution that involves the removal of 7 million Jewish Israelis from the place where they were born, then you’ve adopted a terrible and unjust position that justifies ethnic cleansing.”

As for Kirsch’s notion that the left has been revealing its ultraviolent predilections, Winant said that “this has been said about every movement for racial equality and national liberation. People who said the abolition of slavery will lead to the slaughter of masters, people who said the end of apartheid will lead to the slaughter of white people in Africa.” And Hawa noted that the American left is not behind the violence occurring in Gaza and Israel — that it’s the reigning, respectable ideology in the U.S. that is “sending money to Israel” to grind civilians into dust.

The American left in this century, epitomized by the galvanic presidential runs of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020, had successfully distanced itself from Stalinism, Maoism, and other catastrophic leftist movements of the past century — work that could be undone by the reassociation of the left with mass violence. “I wouldn’t use Kirsch’s formulation. It’s too simplistic,” said Leifer, “but if we want to be serious about the future of the left in this century, we can’t just pretend that the things done in socialism’s name didn’t happen. That’s part of our historical patrimony on the left, and it’s our obligation to learn from how previous left-wing generations failed.”

Ironically, the figure who has done the most in this country to frame socialism as a movement of universal health care and workers’ rights and taxing billionaires has suffered the most serious fallout from the conflict for not speaking strongly enough against the violence. Everyone I talked to was disappointed by Sanders’s refusal to call for a cease-fire. Angel acknowledged that Sanders, at 82, is “working with a longer memory of Jewish power” — that is, of when Jewish people had none — but said Sanders’s argument that the IDF had a right to “go after Hamas” crossed a “line in the sand. They’ve killed thousands of people, and there’s no water. I just don’t understand.” Winant shrugged off what the turn against Sanders may mean for his cohort. “Outgrowing him was something we had to do anyway.”

In early November, n+1 published an open letter by Jewish writers, artists, and activists disavowing “the widespread narrative that any criticism of Israel is inherently antisemitic” while condemning attacks on Israeli and Palestinian civilians alike. It inaugurated a period of relative unity as attention has turned to the Israeli military’s onslaught, leaving it an open question whether the divisions on the left will be fleeting or leave a permanent scar. “It exposed a real ideological misalignment that is now being temporarily put on hold for pragmatic reasons: stopping Israeli war crimes and the bombardment of Gaza,” said Leifer, who nevertheless did not see himself following “this script for the repentant leftist — my principles haven’t changed — who becomes the neocon mugged by reality,” as Irving Kristol famously put it after the postwar left fractured over Stalin. Whether this left has room for dissenters like Leifer is another matter.

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