The Return of the Indecent Left
How the war between Israel and Hamas resuscitated an ignoble tradition.
More than twenty years ago, the philosopher Michael Walzer famously asked whether or not there could be a “decent left.” After seeing the left’s reaction to the heinous October 7 terrorist atrocities in Israel, the answer is clearly no, there is no decent left—and we shouldn’t expect one to come into being any time soon.
It seemed that this indecent left had gone into remission with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Outside a subset of inveterate anti-American ideologues, it was left to self-proclaimed realists to make the case for letting Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine stand—or, failing that, negotiate a settlement that would reward the Kremlin with chunks of Ukrainian territory. Indeed, a number of individuals affiliated with the so-called “restraint” school of foreign policy disassociated themselves from their erstwhile comrades while Democratic political leaders brutally smacked down half-baked calls from progressives to negotiate away Ukrainian sovereignty on terms favorable to Vladimir Putin.
But the indecent left roared back to life with a vengeance almost immediately after October 7, excusing and “contextualizing”—and sometimes outright denying—deliberate mass murder, rape, and kidnapping of ordinary Israeli civilians and foreigners. Outright anti-Semitism permeated the indecent left’s reaction to the Hamas terror attacks from the start, with a number of left-wing activists, academics, and intellectuals alike either celebrating or apologizing for the pogrom as soon as it occurred. At best, the left issued impotent calls for an immediate ceasefire that amounted to demands that Israel do nothing after 1,200 of its citizens were brutally massacred and another 240 or so taken hostage by Hamas and its allies.
If anything, the pathologies Walzer described two decades ago have only gotten worse. This is not a political movement that wants to think seriously or coherently about the war between Israel and Hamas or foreign policy and armed conflict more generally; as Walzer wrote twenty years ago, “ideologically primed leftists were likely to think that they already understood whatever needed to be understood.” An epidemic of denial has characterized the indecent left’s response to October 7, one marked by three great refusals.
A refusal to deal with the problem at hand: what to do about Hamas?
Many ceasefire calls mean well: ordinary people are understandably appalled by the death and destruction and quite reasonably just want it to stop. While this humanitarian sentiment is commendable, it fails to address the question at the heart of the current conflict: what to do about Hamas in the wake of October 7? Other much-touted ceasefire calls from politicians like Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) essentially amount to terms of surrender for Hamas—immediate release of all hostages, giving up arms, and relinquishing control over Gaza. Likewise, the hostage release deal the Biden administration and Middle East partners brokered between Israel and Hamas only temporarily pauses the fighting.
Most immediate ceasefire calls coming from the indecent left essentially call for Israel to do nothing in response to October 7. Occasionally they come with provisions requiring Hamas release the hostages it took during its attack, but typically they amount to demands for a unilateral Israeli ceasefire without any explicit reciprocity from Hamas to, say, stop firing rockets into Israeli cities. Worse, they fail to take into account repeated threats by Hamas leaders to carry out October 7-style pogroms over and over again, much less the terrorist group’s long-standing, recently restated objective of destroying Israel itself. Since October 7, it’s obvious that many on the indecent left would have no problem with that outcome.
When asked what Israel—or America and the world at large—should do about Hamas after the cruelty of October 7, the indecent left’s repeated calls for an immediate ceasefire make clear that its answer is, at best, “nothing.” There may not be any good answers to this question, but “nothing” remains a grossly inadequate response.
A neo-Orientalist refusal to take either Palestinians or Israelis seriously
By and large, the indecent left has also demonstrated a remarkable lack of curiosity about either Palestinian or Israeli society and politics. It’s part and parcel of what TLP’s Brian Katulis dubbed neo-Orientalism: the use of nations and people overseas as props in America’s own domestic political debates. In particular, the indecent left spouts simplistic slogans while it professes “great concern and sympathy for the people of the region, while remaining largely indifferent to the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives within particular countries and societies.” That’s especially acute when it comes to discussions of Israel and the Palestinians, where the indecent left attempts to force the conflict into its own parochial ideological frameworks of “decolonization,” “white supremacy,” and “systemic racism.”
In other words, the indecent left thinks it already knows everything it needs to know about any given conflict—and especially any conflict that involves Israel. While “decolonization” provides the indecent left with a marginally coherent ideological framework, it amounts to little more than a “historically nonsensical” but nonetheless toxic stew of Soviet-era propaganda, half-baked academic theories, and contemporary identity politics. That includes the vogue to blame anything and everything on a mystical, all-pervasive white supremacy of which Israeli Jews somehow bizarrely partake. Why should the indecent left engage with the particularities of Palestinian politics or even give so much as a second glance to Israeli society when its ideology already gives it all the answers it needs?
As a result, the indecent left engages very little with actual Palestinian politics and society. It refuses to grant Palestinians any real agency and therefore refuses to acknowledge any real politics among Palestinians themselves, much less the fact that Hamas has repeatedly put forward an openly genocidal program or that it violently suppresses dissent among the Palestinians under its authority. Instead, many on the left fantasize about a single binational state in what was once the British Mandate of Palestine—something few Palestinians actually favor. Other leftists endorse slogans calling for a single Palestinian Arab state, but either way few of them actually delve into the complex power dynamics within Palestinian society—including those factions that don’t respect the basic rights and freedoms of a wide range of people.
If indecent leftists generally fail to engage with Palestinian politics and society in any meaningful way, they actively avoid any sort of real engagement with—or even understanding—of Israeli society and politics. At best, the indecent left ignores Israeli society and politics; at worst, it views Israeli society as somehow counterfeit. Other segments of the indecent left, especially in academia, actively discourage any engagement with Israelis and Israeli institutions. With zero understanding of Israeli society and politics, it cannot understand Israeli fears or motivations in any real way. The indecent left doesn’t know anything about Israeli society, and it doesn’t want to know anything about it.
A refusal to make elementary—if difficult—moral and ethical distinctions
In its rhetoric and analysis of the war between Israel and Hamas, the indecent left frequently equates the deliberate and premeditated murder, rape, and kidnapping of ordinary civilians with the inadvertent and unintentional deaths of civilians in what appear to be otherwise legitimate and legal military operations. Here as elsewhere, the left refuses to make what Walzer calls “one of the most basic and best understood moral distinctions: between premeditated murder and unintended killing.” At some fundamental level, many on the indecent left understand this distinction—as seen by the strenuous effort to portray just about any and every Israeli military action as unlawful and illegitimate by definition.
It may well be the case that the Israeli military has played fast and loose with the laws of war or committed war crimes in its war against Hamas. The sheer amount of ordnance dropped on Gaza between October 7 and the start of the Israeli ground offensive roughly three weeks later remains stunning—but it’s not necessarily illegal. It’s entirely legitimate and very much appropriate to question how well or how seriously the Israeli military takes its obligations to protect civilians, but as Walzer points out it’s impossible for any military to fight a war without putting civilians at risk. The Israeli military can and should probably do a better job protecting civilians, but it’s unrealistic to expect any war to end with zero civilian casualties.
By contrast, the indecent left remains either silent or in denial about blatant Hamas war crimes. It’s been an open secret for well over a decade that Hamas uses hospitals, schools, mosques, and other protected civilian buildings and facilities as command centers and bases for operations against Israel; sources ranging from the New York Times and PBS to non-governmental organizations typically unsympathetic to Israel like Amnesty International and even UNRWA attest to this fact. It’s not surprising to see the maze of tunnels uncovered beneath the Shifa hospital complex, nor is it shocking to see that Hamas brought hostages seized on October 7 to this medical facility. These Hamas abuses don’t even cover the deliberate and premeditated targeting of civilians for murder and rape on October 7 itself.
Then there’s the moral equivalence many on the indecent left have drawn between Israeli hostages held by Hamas and Palestinians jailed by Israel. There are many flaws and abuses in the way Israel treats detained Palestinians (particularly in East Jerusalem and the West Bank), but it’s hard to know what drives people to try and establish a moral equivalence between a four-year-old abducted by Hamas after terrorists killed her parents and a failed car bomber. However, that’s typical of an indecent left that tears down posters of hostages held by Hamas after October 7.
In its failure to make difficult but necessary moral distinctions, the indecent left contributes in its own way to the erosion of both the laws of war and the idea of crimes against humanity. It diminishes the force of both while giving the perpetrators of actual war crimes and atrocities effective political and moral cover. If there are no relevant distinctions between legal and legitimate actions in war and illegal and illegitimate ones—much less between legal and legitimate military operations and deliberate atrocities like October 7—it simply makes war even more brutal and appalling crimes against humanity more likely.
The pathologies of the indecent left burst out into the open once again after October 7, but they’ve been present in large swathes of the left for decades now. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that these pathologies are inherent to and embedded in the left, and that no amount of argumentation or persuasion will eliminate or mitigate them. There are many decent leftists, but there is no decent left.
What should liberals and decent leftists do, then?
First, recognize that the indecent left is not your friend in any way, shape, or form. Indeed, the indecent left sees liberals and decent leftists—not conservatives or right-wing populists—as its primary adversaries. Even when there are ostensible areas of agreement, the underlying analysis and motivations and goals of the indecent left stand at odds with those of the broader center-left. It may not seem like much, but it’s important for mainstream liberals and decent leftists to understand this basic fact.
As a corollary, it’s important to note that the indecent left remains a small faction in American politics—it’s a paper tiger that garners excessive attention through activity on social media platforms and destructive political tactics. Different polls use different definitions and give different results, but the “progressive left” amounted to just six percent of the population in a 2021 Pew poll and eight percent in the 2018 Hidden Tribes poll.
Next, quarantine the indecent left. Much as mainstream liberals and decent leftists did in the late 1940s, today’s liberals and decent leftists must establish intellectual and political firewalls against the indecent left. That’s easier said than done, especially given the structure of contemporary center-left politics; unions and political parties that once filtered out bad-faith actors and indecent politics have weakened enormously in the intervening decades. Many of the same problems that plague domestic politics—an overreliance on college-educated professionals from foundation-funded non-profit institutions to staff government offices and agencies, for instance—likewise make it more difficult to combat indecent leftists on foreign policy.
Finally, liberals and the decent left need to articulate their own vision of foreign policy. The Biden administration and others on the mainstream center-left have been slowly groping their way toward this vision, particularly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But liberals and the decent left need to accelerate their own efforts to establish a foreign policy that stands in opposition not only to the indecent left but the isolationist America First right and the technocratic approach of the post-Cold War era. It’s an urgent task that can no longer be postponed.
Liberals and decent leftists did it once before, albeit under vastly different circumstances. But that should give us hope that we can do it again today.