Gaza Has Scrambled Moral Compass of Progressive Western Politics

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 26, 2024
US President Joe Biden with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

The world is currently witnessing the grotesque spectacle of major political parties in the Western world engaging in domestic point-scoring and tactical positioning on Israel’s nearly three-month war on Gaza.

Palestinian Christian pastor Reverend Munther Isaac used his Christmas day service in Bethlehem, entitled Christ in the Rubble: A Liturgy of Lament , to underline the point. “Leaders of the so-called ‘free world’ lined up one after the other to give the green light for this genocide against a captive population,” he said. “They gave the cover.”

The sermon was a searing, shaming reminder of a hideous reality. With the death toll in Gaza now well over 20,000 mark — about 70% of the casualties are thought to be women and children — Western politicians, mostly on the progressive left, debate whether to call for a “sustainable ceasefire” or an “urgent and sustainable cessation of hostilities.” Discussions often focus on little more than the delivery of more humanitarian aid, presumably to be administered somehow while the bombing continues. It is, as Isaac said, an exercise in “complicity.”

Some of these leaders are in government, others are governments-in-waiting. No matter. No exercise in dull semantics can be a substitute for the moral clarity demanded by the scale of ongoing death and devastation in Gaza.

Voters of the Democrats in the US, Labour in the UK, and Australia’s Labor party know the difference. What they want is for the moral compass to point clear and unwavering in the only direction that can be right: stop the state slaughter of innocent Gazans and the harrying of a whole people.

Consider this. Only in December was Democratic American President Joe Biden finally so bold as to warn Israel was losing international support because of its “indiscriminate bombing.” A Pew Research Center poll was telling. It showed that many Americans broadly distinguished between Hamas’s brutal October 7 attacks and the sense that Israel’s current military operation is going too far. And a slew of successive surveys showed that important sections of Biden’s electoral base — young voters and Muslim Americans — were outraged by his seemingly unconditional support for Israel and were threatening to register their disaffection in this year’s presidential election. Controversial numbers cited by the online Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll show that a majority of Gen Z-ers expressed sympathy for Hamas and consider Israelis an “oppressor” class.

With Biden’s America trying to shift away from unqualified support for Israel’s punishing assault on Gaza, Britain’s main opposition Labour Party has also hardened its position. Its leader, Keir Starmer, mimicked the Conservative government in belatedly and tentatively calling for a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza. And shadow foreign secretary David Lammy penned an article in the Guardian in which he called the death and destruction in Gaza “intolerable.” Lammy also attacked the Israeli authorities for “turning a blind eye” to increasing violence against Palestinians by settlers in the West Bank since October 7. It is a moot point whether this repositioning will impress British Muslims. According to polling by data research company Savanta, a sizable 65% of British Muslims supported Labour in the 2019 election and roughly half of them now view the party more negatively because of its approach to the Gaza conflict. And huge anti-war demonstrations have become mainstream in London, with diverse groups of people representing a true mainstream strain of public opinion.

In Australia, prime minister Anthony Albanese’s Labor Party has been visibly split over the government’s steadfast support for Israel, even as foreign minister Penny Wong acknowledged “the terrible suffering of innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip.” Just weeks after Israel started to pound Gaza, two Muslim government frontbenchers — and — broke ranks and accused Israel of “ collective punishment ,” a war crime under international law. But it was not until mid-December that Albanese’s government added more nuance (and compassion) to Australia’s official position on Israeli actions. At an emergency session of the United Nations general assembly on December 12, Australia joined 152 other countries in voting for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza and the immediate and unconditional release of all Israeli hostages. The US and nine other nations voted against the motion. But polling by Australia’s leading tracking agency, Essential , showed that the damage had already been done. In October, 42% of Australians said Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks was proportionate; by November, just 35% agreed.

The shameful thread that runs through supposedly progressive Western politicians and parties’ stance on Gaza is clear: all along, they have seen it as a political issue when it is, in fact, a moral one.

The Americans, Brits, and Australians calling out the horror of Israel’s actions are not united by religion or ethnicity but by disappointment in their leaders’ callousness. Australia, which has a relatively small population of Arabs and Muslims — just 0.8% and 3% respectively — is a good example. Unease with the Albanese government’s approach on Gaza goes beyond these sections. As Randa Kattan of the community group Arab Council Australia, has said, “We’re all Palestinians at a time like this.” This is something that Albanese — once the co-founder of Australia’s Parliamentary Friends of Palestine — might be expected to understand.

So too UK Labour’s prime minister-in-waiting, Keir Starmer. A human rights lawyer, Starmer was able to secure a reprieve from death row for a pet Alsatian called Dino more than 20 years ago. Labour, which he has led since 2020, exalts Starmer as a man whose “entire career has been about securing justice for those that need it.” And yet, he has solidly backed Israel’s fierce military campaign and flagrant disregard for international law, dragging his reluctant party behind him.

Finally, there is Biden, who routinely describes himself as the most experienced foreign policy US president in history and once promised to reclaim America’s global leadership as “a trusted partner for peace, progress and security, democracy, and human rights.” Biden’s administration has portrayed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a colonial war of aggression but has deliberately played down parallels in Gaza. As Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former US ambassador to NATO noted, “Israel was attacked, and it has a right to self-defence. But it is doing so in a territory it occupies, and which the entire world thinks is occupied territory. On the one hand, we’re trying to get other countries to oppose what Russia is doing in Ukraine, while on the other hand we’re trying to have them support what Israel is doing in Gaza.”

This obvious hypocrisy may come to matter right where it hurts progressive politicians the most — at the ballot box.

Originally published at on December 30, 2023.

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