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Entebbe and the Dueling Legacies of the New Left

Thirty-five years ago this week, German leftists Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann hijacked Air France Flight 139 along with their comrades Fayez Abdul-Rahim Jaber and Jayel Naji al-Arjam. They demanded the release of Palestinian and Baader-Meinhof terrorists, flew the plane to Entebbe in Uganda, separated the Jews from the non-Jews, and prepared to execute them.

How did a young, idealistic, anti-Nazi, a member of the far-left Revolutionary Cells (RZ) come to his end acting like a Nazi, selecting Jews for death? (Böse was shot in the heroic IDF rescue operation that freed all but one hostage and during which commando Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was killed.) After all, Böse was not a marginal figure but an admired leader of the Frankfurt left and a friend of the future German foreign minister, then still a violent revolutionary, Joschka Fischer.

The answer lies in modern left-wing “anti-Zionism.” But to understand that phenomenon, we must go deeper still, to the worldview cultivated in the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s.

In the decidedly non-calloused hands of this largely student, spectacularly arrogant, but largely know-nothing New Left, an already-authoritarian Marxism became completely unmoored from the working class, the West, and democracy and moored instead to ideologies of the noble savage, fantasies of “Third World Revolution” and an irrational belief in the redemptive power of violence. The New Left saw the world in a very peculiar way. A third world “periphery” was pitted against the metropolitan “center” and “good” oppressed nations were at war with “bad” oppressor nations. “Camp” replaced “class” as the track along which a great deal of left-wing thought would now run.

Much of what is said and done by today’s left—including its “anti-Zionism”—is unintelligible without grasping that when “anti-imperialist struggle” displaced “class struggle” as the organizing category of thought and the basis of political identity, the result was a hybrid political phenomenon that the Germans call linksfaschismus, or left-fascism. When a Jewish passenger showed him his Auschwitz tattoo, Böse shouted back, “I’m no Nazi! ... I am an idealist.” As Paul Berman observes, “out of some horrible dialectic of history, a substantial number of German leftists had ended up imitating instead of opposing the Nazis.”

Increasingly, after 1967, this upside-down left had taken as the ultimate expression of “anti-imperialist struggle” the armed Palestinian, while Israel became the ultimate expression of “imperialism.” Drawing on some older traditions of left-wing anti-Semitism, and influenced by more recent but well-funded Soviet and Arab antisemitic propaganda campaigns, it became left-wing common sense that supporting Israel’s enemies—whatever these enemies actually stood for, however they actually behaved—was an “anti-imperialist” duty. (There was a fig-leaf: support to fascistic-but-anti-imperialist forces was to be “critical.” In time the leaf, along with the criticism, dropped away.)

This campist or “anti-imperialist” mind-set did not go away with the discovery that it had produced a Wilfried Böse. It only took a step back, the better to bleed into the surrounding culture in a diluted and nonviolent form through the (aging) New Left’s influence in the universities, arts, and media. When Judith Butler—a US academic and a culture hero on campuses across America—calls Hamas “part of the global left,” she is in thrall to the “anti-imperialist” framework that produced Böse.

Diluted versions of ideas developed by the “anti-imperialist” New Left of the 1960s and 1970s remain influential today, especially on campuses. For example, that we live in an evil, fascistic “one-dimensional society” in which the masses have been sedated with consumerism and TV. That the vital spark of violence, and the resulting whip of repression, might finally put an end to “false consciousness.” That revolutionaries are to be “projectiles for the people” (consider today the left-fascistic theory of revolution of the hugely influential author Slavoj Zizek).

And, of course, the idea that Zionism is racism. For although today’s left-wing “anti-Zionists” are not about to repeat Böse’s hijacking, they do share his campist view. And because inside their heads the abstract symbol of evil “Israel” confronts the equally abstract symbol of good “Palestine” they can’t quite bring themselves to condemn Hamas, who must be “anti-imperialists” even as rockets are fired at Jewish school children. And they hold aloft placards reading “We are all Hezbollah” even as that organization acts as a proxy for an Iranian regime that seeks to wipe Israel off the map. Their campist mind-set shapes everything. They can’t quite accept the killing of OBL, or distinguish between the Taliban and the Coalition in Afghanistan, or admit the success of the surge in Iraq, or acknowledge the existence of Salam Fayyad and the promise of Fayyadism, lest they commit the ultimate sin and “give succor to imperialism.”

But Böse was not the Left and the Left was not Böse. Hearing about the selection of the Jews at Entebbe by his comrade, an astonished Joschka Fischer began his own long journey back from madness. (Paul Berman has written that “Fischer never seems to have gotten over the shock of Entebbe.”) Open self-recrimination and painful rethinking led him to develop a decent, antitotalitarian, and social democratic leftism. Later, as German foreign secretary, he was comfortable standing up for a Palestinian state while angrily confronting Yasir Arafat in person about the bombing of a Tel Aviv disco. This is the other legacy of the ’68ers—the spread of a human rights culture, a refusal to accept the exclusion of minorities, liberal interventionism in the face of enormity, mutual recognition and two states for two traumatized peoples in Israel and Palestine, and the search for a global covenant in a world of staggering inequalities.

Böse or Fischer? That’s the choice posed to us by Entebbe.

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