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Denounce! The self-purification practice of the Left

By Ofri Ilani | Published originally on Eretz Haemori, translated from Hebrew by Dimi Reider

Q: When did you renounce opposition opinions, before or after Zinoviev sent his last letter of remorse to the party?

A: My recognition of the opposition’s mistakes was gradual, but Zinoviev’s last letter certainly made the call.


Q: Under which circumstances did you come together with Kutuzov?

A: Kutuzov informed me there was an article by Trotsky about the Russian-British Council. I took a look…

Q: What can you say now about your second letter of remorse, in which you claimed you had no organisational connections to the opposition?

A: I was never a member of the faction, and I was not present at Kutuzov’s ball… I never heard about the printing house and knew nothing about the distribution of opposition leaflets.

(A Bolshevik interrogation, quoted from “Stalinist purges” by Yigal Halfin)

I would like to address here a practice common in leftist circles, which I shall refer to as “the denunciation practice.” It seems to me that recently the use of denunciation has reached an apogee of sorts, threatening to bury any other kind of discourse. Every other Facebook status update, every third comment in mine and other blogs uses the following structure:

“W unmasked herself. The true Left should distance itself from this kind of people.”

“X? He was never on the Left. Only in Israel can people like him consider themselves left-wing.”

“How dare you do Y and call yourself a socialist?”

“Someone taking part in Z is, to my mind, unworthy of being seen as a left-winger. He and I don’t seem to be waging the same struggle at all.”

This practice is, in fact, so commonplace and so familiar to anyone who’s tried being on the left that it sometimes feels as superfluous to talk about it as about “The risk of hurting your knee when taking a fall.” After about a decade in this particular environment, I would say that this mechanism of denunciation and purging is practically hardwired into my brain.

And it is  precisely because this practice has become part of my way of thinking that I feel a pressing need to write about it. I will note that the campaign against the invitation to a blogger conference of Haaretz literary editor Benny Ziffer, who last year defended his Haaretz colleague Itzhak Laor  against accusations of rape by employing analogies with E.M. Forester’s Passage to India and implying the complainants made up the allegations against Laor out of unfulfilled passion for the man, played a part in my decision to write this post. I was supposed to have also spoken at the conference, which was eventually called off in its entirety because of the campaign; and it transpired suddenly that for the first time in my life I’ve actually been silenced at an event, and the silencing was done from “within the camp,” from within the movement. A little earlier, I myself fell victim to denunciations of the “you’ve unmasked yourself” variety – because of a medieval illustration I’ve posted on this blog!

But to tell the truth, I’ve been thinking of writing about this matter for a while, because of a certain denunciation act I carried out myself. It almost goes without saying that Eretz Haemori in general and my posts in particular have carried their fair share of denunciations. As I will strive to make clear further down, the denunciation practice has become a veritable disease that leaves very few unscathed. You’re welcome to confront me with my hypocrisy and attack with compromising quotes, but it will do little to help – the denunciation practice will still be out there. Moreover: I myself can’t commit at this point I will completely abstain from denunciation in the future. But we’ll get to the future further down in the post.

Going back to the actual act of denunciation, I’d like to draw your attention to the arguments rigid and unchanging structure. The question is never: “Are you a piece of shit?” but forever “Can a piece of shit like you be allowed to consider himself a Left-winger / feminist / socialist / queer?” I will disclose now that all you need to become immune from the threat of denunciation is to declare, a-priori, that you’re not a member of the Left. From this perspective, a left-winger today is like a member of the Communist parties during the purges; someone without presumption of being on the left is no longer on the reference group, and therefore runs a considerably smaller risk (he may even be liked, like Stalin liked the reactionary Dostoyevsky and probably Bulgakov). The main difference is that in present-day Israel you don’t even get any tangible benefits from being a member of the Left – quite the opposite, really.

There are a few others interesting patterns emerging when you take a removed glance at the denunciation phenomenon as a whole. One of my favourite ones is the “denouncer gets denounced” principle; it was made clear when I got close to some the great denouncers of the camp. Only when we became friends did I learn they were even more terrified of being denounced than I was.

And so, since all of us are in danger of being denounced and the threat of a  trial by our peers is ever hovering our heads, denunciation becomes a kind of a defence mechanism. Did you have a fight with somebody? Hold a few weeks until they make some political error and then denounce them and finish them off. You thought you’re going to denounce me? You started dropping hints that I was “problematic”? Fuck you! I’m going to denounce you before you even finish typing that Facebook update. You’re dead, sugar! You won’t even be able to show your face at pickets outside the Defence Ministry without people glaring at you and whispering behind your back.

You start suspecting at some point that the hidden logic of the denunciation practice is a metaphysical belief that on Judgement Day those who survived all the purges and remained among the chosen and the pure will be saved, and will live forever in the heavenly Garden Of No Contradictions At All.

-Comrade I, you’ve been observed conversing with two members from the Peace Now block in the protest on Cinematheque Square two weeks ago.

-Yes, these people are politically weak, but they voted for progressive block City For All in the last municipal elections.

-Comrade I, this is a highly questionable reply. City For All are a thoroughly defeatist clique.

-Comrade I, have you read Laor’s journal Mit’am after February 15, 2010?

-Yes.. I mean no.. I mean I have a subscription, but I haven’t thought about renewing it. Yes! I pledge not to renew!

– Comrade I, the full extent of your crime is now coming to light. We were only told you were seen leafing through an issue of Mit’am at Bookworm.

– Comrade I, on Sunday March 21 you were heard humming the occupation anthem “Jerusalem of Gold” by the record store.

– You are mistaken. I would never even consider humming Jerusalem of Gold. I was singing the Basque folk song Pello Joxepe, from which Zio-fascist Naomi Shemer usurped the lyrics. Besides, I wasn’t even singing it, I was performing it as part of a subversive drag act.

-Trustworthy sources tell us, Comrade I, that you’ve been reading Amos Oz books in the restroom.

-No! Never! Not since To Know a Woman! I mean, in 1969 I read “My Michael,” and even there I skipped the part with Khalil and Aziz!

Obviously, the practices of denunciation and purging are not entirely pointless, and did not grow out of sheer viciousness alone. They make sense, if only because in Israel of the last few decades the culture of peace and liberalism served as ideology for the strongest classes; or because the struggle for justice and equality has covered for sexist and machoist practices within the Left itself. In such a situation, marking the limits becomes critically important.

Moreover, since the Left’s real power is very small (electorally, economically, militarily and so forth,) denunciation and boycott are of the few practices it has left. What’s ironic here is that these practices are at their most effective when they are turned inwards, which is to say, towards these very few people who are interested in taking part in the Left project to begin with. Itamar Taharalev once referred on Eretz Haemori to the Left as an air freshener; perhaps the Left is better described as an air conditioner, sucking the air out of the room and cooling it time and time again.

At a time in which McCarthyism is evoked by all and sundry, we need to admit to ourselves that the Left has refined denunciation and boycott into an art, and that we need to consider what effect this actually achieves. Not on those whom we call to boycott – which is to say, nearly everyone – but on the boycotters. In my view, the accumulative effect and implications are pretty devastating. It should be clear that many people are very seriously hurt by this kind of intimidation – hurt just as much as people are hurt by some of the crimes and violence the Left is struggling against.

The funny thing is that the purging dynamic is often used for protective purposes. For example, some people find it hard to speak out with straights, carnivores or military veterans in the room, so groups excluding the above are set up; the exclusion is sometimes declared openly, and sometimes it goes without saying. The result is amplified exclusivity, radical purism and rejection of “foreign elements.” The more extreme an ideology is in its demand for acceptance of the other, the more exclusive it actually becomes, up to and including the existence of well known one—member groups.

I will allow myself to say that if the Left was a little less exclusive and spent less time on all kinds of self-purification, it could have been considerably larger. Many, many people identify with the need for peace and social justice, but simply can’t be bothered to deal with all that fear of denunciation crap, and rightly so.

In fact, I’m not entirely clear on what good does it do to chase people out of the camp – after all, they’ll stay outside but retain the same opinions and continue doing the same stuff, but develop a growing embitterment toward the Left.

So now for the question: What is it I propose we do?

There are obviously many answers and many ways of coping. Retaining such violent practices by the Left is not, it would seem, necessarily set in stone. But I myself am considerably less optimistic, so I’d rather take a different approach, one at which I hinted earlier on. As of this moment, I would prefer to simply not see myself as part of the Left; which is to say, to actively stop being a left-winger. My personal freedom will not be taken away from me, not even by the Left.

Obviously, I’m only applying this approach to me personally; until further notice, kindly consider me a reactionary. Just as obviously, my positions on Zionism, the military, the empire, capitalism, heteronormative society and so on remain unchaged, and so do the actions I take, whether in writing or on the ground. But I would simply prefer not to see myself as a member of any camp – despite nearly all of my friends belonging to a very specific one.

Under the circumstances, there’s something liberating about not being on the Left. In some ways, it is only then that you are being listened to (we try listening to what the leader of the Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salach, has to say; much more than to, say, Labor MK Daniel Ben Simon). In some ways, there’s a degree of courage in Shelly Yachimovich’s declaration that Labor is not a left-wing party. What would that party gain, exactly, from declaring itself “left wing”? Will it make the legislation it advances any better or worse?

And I would allow myself to ask whether the category of “The Left” is even all that useful these days in trying to change the situation in Israel-Palestine, and what would happen if we put that definition aside, if only for experiment’s sake.

I’ll conclude this piece with a confession. About two years ago, I went into Teva Market, the organic food chain store. To my horror, among dozens of other yogurts, I found there a plastic bottle labeled “Gvaot Olam,” World Hills. World Hills, as it is well-known, is the ranch of Avri Ran – the militia leader specializing in pogroms against Palestinians and left-wing activists. I was amazed that an organic food store in the heart of Tel Aviv would sell yogurt made on the farm run by particularly violent outlaws. As I was working for Haaretz at the time, I bought the yogurt thinking I’ll look into it and maybe write up a story for the paper.

When I got home I roamed about the internet and found the story has already been written by someone else, so I forgot about it.

The next morning, I opened the fridge and looked for something to eat. The yogurt, dripping with leftist and Palestinian blood, was waiting me there, seductive and cool. In a moment of weakness, of distracted drowsiness, I reached for the yogurt and I drank it.

And you know what? I liked it. I really, really liked it.

Ofri Ilany is an Israeli journalist and a PhD student at Tel Aviv University. He co-edits Eretz Haemori together with Gal Katz.

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    1. Ben Israel

      Very interesting piece.

      One thing that I wondered about was the statement that the “Left has little power”. While it is true that they have little if any representation in the Knesset, there is still a feeling that the “mainline” Zionist Left has always had a love-hate relationship with the radical Left. On the one hand, in the old days, MAPAI activists would beat up Communists, but on the other hand, they would view them as being “pure” and representing values the MAPAI-MAPAM socialists should aspire to. Even today, old-timers like Shimon Peres seem to feel more comfortable around the radical Left than they do around mainstream Israelis such as the National Religious or development town Sefardim. Don’t forget that at his grandiose 80’th birthday party celebration in Mann Auditorium that many world leaders attended, he had a joint Jewish-Palestinian youth choir led by none other than Bill Clinton singing John Lennon’s song “Imagine” which talks about a world without religions (e.g. Judaism) and without nations (e.g. Israel). If this truly reflecs Peres’ thinking, he is a lot closer to your friends on the radical Left than he is to the Zionist consensus in Israel.

      Secondly, I frequently get the feeling that radicals of the Left and other causes (e.g. animal rights, vegetarians, anti-smoker) are motivated more by hate than by love. For example, it seems that Lenin spent far more emontional energy on hating rich capitalists than he did on loving the proletariate. He found much more satisfaction purging rivals than in helping the poor.
      I read an article in the New York Times some years ago about an anti-smoking activist. The journalist asked him what his goal was, assuming he would say something like “improving the health of the American people”. Instead he responded that his dream was something to the effect that wanted to put all the tobacco company heads against the wall and shoot them.
      Thus, I believe that a non-negligible amount of the pro-Palestinian emotion we see comes more from from hatred of Jews and Israel than it does from “love of the downtrodden”. All that matters to these types is to push Israel out of the West Bank…what happens after is irrelevant, even if it ends up destroying the Palestinians in the process. I see this particularly among the apologists for HAMAS.

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