Jeremy Corbyn supporter Owen Jones took to the pages of the Guardian on Friday to argue that the UK is complicit in the killing of Palestinian civilians by the IDF by virtue of the country’s arms sales to Israel and, in so doing, provided a good example of the convoluted moral logic used by the radical left to obfuscate Hamas’s role in perpetuating the conflict.
Though most of his op-ed focuses on UK ties to Riyadh in light of a recent Saudi-led coalition airstrike that hit a bus in Yemen’s Houthi rebel-held north, killing 29 children, he weaves in Israel by the fifth paragraph:
Consider another horror unfolding with direct western involvement. On Wednesday night a pregnant woman and her 18-month-old daughter were killed in Gaza by an Israeli airstrike. It is being framed as a conflict between Hamas and Israel, as though an equivalence can be drawn between an open-air prison camp and a regional military superpower. Every death – Palestinian or Israeli – is a tragedy, every attack on a civilian by either Hamas or Israel indefensible. Yet, the human rights NGO B’Tselem reports, 9,456 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces – with western complicity – in the past 18 years, compared with 1,237 Israeli security force personnel and civilians killed by Palestinians. Of the Palestinian fatalities, 2,025 were children. Other estimates put the Palestinian death toll over the same period at up to 9,730. It is perverse to suggest this “conflict” is anything other than overwhelmingly one-sided. And yet as the slaughter continues, British arms sales to Israel are at a record high.
First, Jones erases the context of the attack which resulted in the deaths of two Palestinians by failing to note the Hamas rockets fired at Israeli communities that precipitated the latest round of violence. He also omits the inconvenient fact that thousands of such attacks occurred after Israel withdrew every last Jew from the coastal enclave – terror visited upon Israeli communities in the Gaza envelope which necessitated Israel’s (legal) blockade of weaponry to the proscribed extremist movement.
Moreover, Jones’ immediate rush to judgment regarding the deaths of the Palestinian mother and her child mirrors similar accusations he made regarding Israeli “massacres of children” before all the facts were in. In 2012, on BBC’s Question Time, he leveled such a charge in relation to the death in Gaza of 11-month old Omar Mishrawi, son of a BBC journalist, and never apologised when a UN report concluded that a Hamas rocket was likely to blame for the boy’s death.
However, what’s especially worth exploring is the peculiar moral logic Jones uses in suggesting that the mere fact that more Palestinians than Israelis have been killed in the conflict suggests that the former are more deserving of our sympathy than the latter. Such reasoning could of course just as easily be used to root for the Taliban due to the disproportionate death toll during the course of the US-led war in Afghanistan. Such facile thinking also obscures the fact that the failure of Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups to kill more Israelis certainty isn’t due to a lack of will. Hamas’s desire to annihilate Israel and murder as many Jews as possible is made clear in their founding antisemitic charter (which has never been revoked) and in the words of their leaders, and is only stymied by the efforts of the IDF to prevent such an outcome.
But, there’s also subtext in Jones’ reasoning that evokes the argument increasingly popular within far-left circles, suggesting that we only need to concern ourselves with the bigotry expressed by those in positions of power over others – a definition of racism as “prejudice plus power”.
Jones has endorsed this view previously.
Jamie Kirchick, John-Paul Pagano, Charles Dunst and Ron Kampeas have all persuasively argued that such a definition can end up erasing even the most extreme manifestations of antisemitism, insofar as Jews are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as in possession of wealth, power and privilege. “If Jews have power”, Pagano wrote, “then punching up at Jews” is seen as “a form of speaking truth to power — a form of speech of which the left is currently enamored”.
Certainly, this power dynamic exists in the context of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which may shed some light on why Jones’ choice for prime minister – who similarly understands racism purely through the prism of power – praised the release of Hamas terrorists, championed the cause of a Palestinian who promoted a medieval antisemitic blood libel and reportedly even paid tribute to the terrorists responsible for the Munich Massacre. Palestinian terrorists, the Labour Party leader appears to believe, are deserving of our support because they “punch up” at power.
This comparative power-relations view may also help explain why, during his 2012 appearance on BBC’s Question Time, following the eight-day war between Israel and Hamas, Jones savagely attacked Israeli ‘war crimes’ whilst passionately defending Hamas against ‘accusations’ that they were responsible for the violence. It also sheds light on his 2014 Guardian op-ed during the summer war, where he charged Israelis with feeling sadistic joy over their powerful military’s destruction of the besieged, “occupied” “open-air prison camp”, whilst all but ignoring Hamas’s role in the war, their intentional targeting of Israeli civilians and widespread use of Palestinian human shields.
In another Guardian column that summer, Jones criticised a BBC headline that read “Israel under renewed Hamas attack”, which he complained was as “perverse as Mike Tyson punching a toddler, followed by a headline claiming that the child spat at him”.
His toddler analogy is actually quite telling, as it illustrates how rendering moral judgments based largely on the power relationship between two parties infantilizes, and denies agency to, the side deemed ‘powerless’. Such moral calculus not only serves to obfuscate Hamas’s genocidal antisemitic ideology, but also renders those predisposed to such thinking incapable of acknowledging that Gaza’s misery is a consequence of Hamas’s decision to prioritize destroying Israel over alleviating pressing economic and social problems. As historian Efraim Karsh observed, “it is not Gaza’s economic malaise that has precipitated Palestinian violence; rather, it is the endemic violence that has caused the Strip’s humanitarian crisis.” Israel’s blockade is the result of Hamas violence, not its cause.
However, as long as they’re held hostage to the theory that powerlessness grants a degree of impunity against universal moral standards, such an intuitive causal relationship between Hamas’s actions and Gaza’s economic and political outcomes will continue to allude Owens and his fellow travelers within the Corbyn-left.