US and World Politics

From Ukraine to Palestine: Poisons of Denialism

By David Finkel

“Israel pursuing similar goals to Russia” —Sergay Lavrov

RT News, Thursday, December 28, 2023: “The fight against Nazism is what historically unites Russia and the Middle Eastern country, the foreign minister said. The declared goals of Israel in its ongoing operation against Hamas militants in Gaza seem nearly identical to Moscow’s in its campaign against the Ukrainian government, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said in an interview with RIA Novosti on Thursday.”

Sergay Lavrov is on to something: the doctrine that the strong and powerful of the world “do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” (Thucydides). Call it the solidarity of the oppressors and ethnic cleansers or, if you like, the Henry Kissingers of all the great powers.

Since October 7, 2023, world events have swirled around the deadly Hamas raid in southern Israel and the Israeli military’s massive bombing and ground assault on Gaza that has rapidly escalated to genocidal proportions and continues with no end point or coherent “day after plan” in sight. Over 27,000 Gaza Palestinian are dead (an undercount,) starvation and disease are spreading, the infrastructure of the society is shattered, and much of the region is a tinderbox.

This catastrophe of course is widely covered and debated in its many dimensions, including the hemorrhaging of the Biden administration’s support internally and internationally as well as the swelling Israeli political crisis. My topic here, however, is one that bedevils much of the progressive movement: how the question of the right of self-determination—and the poisonous denial of that democratic right—pertains to both Palestine and Ukraine.

For many if not most Americans, the connection between these two brutal conflicts may seem limited to a toxic Congressional deadlock, entangling U.S. aid to Ukraine and $14 billion in new military subsidy to Israel with imposing brutal new border measures against desperate migrants seeking asylum in the United States. For a casual TV news watcher, the continuing war in Ukraine might be an occasional reminder or afterthought.

But long before October 7, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s escalating violence and ethnic cleansing in Palestine were already two centers of a deepening global crisis. For the international left, the Ukraine war and Palestine catastrophe, both on their own and together, pose very big tests of theory and more importantly, of politics.

A question has bedeviled the left: Is it possible to support both the Ukrainian and Palestinian struggles, and oppose imperialism, at the same time? Actually, the question should be reversed: How is it possible for a genuinely internationalist left not to support both of these struggles for self-determination and national survival?

The situations are very distinct of course, but also with important parallels and connections. On the face of it, the biggest difference lies in the stance of the United States and its allies—providing massive military support to Ukraine’s war of defense and applying economic sanctions against Russia, while at the same time, for more than five decades now, enabling the Israeli state’s drive to crush the Palestinian people’s aspirations for survival and self-determination.

For some of the left, sadly, global struggle revolves only around the crimes of U.S. imperialism and its allies—to the point that not only the role of other imperial oppressors, but the agency of real people and oppressed peoples fighting for their own freedom, fades to irrelevance. From what’s sometimes called the “campist” point of view, to simultaneously support both Ukraine and the Palestinian struggle seems like a hopeless contradiction.

The hypocrisy of Western rhetoric about the “rules-based international order” and “democracy against authoritarianism” is, of course, overwhelming. If such rules meant anything, there would have been no 56 years of Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, nor the U.S. invasion of Iraq, nor many other examples. But this is neither new nor surprising in the light of centuries of colonial and imperial history.

For those of us striving to be consistent anti-imperialists, the starting point isn’t which imperial camp happens to be stronger or “the main enemy” in some global schema, but rather the rights of nations and peoples and their legitimate struggles.

That’s a vital parallel between the Ukrainian and Palestinian struggles—the denial of Ukrainian nationhood by Vladimir Putin, calling it an artificial creation of the godless Bolsheviks, and the denial of Palestinian nationhood by all the Israeli and Zionist movement ideologues who maintain “there was no such thing as Palestinians” (Golda Meir) and “there was never a Palestinian state.”

Ideologies of denial

Are we equating Ukraine and Palestine? Certainly not—the issue here is denialism. In each case we’re talking about denial of the right of self-determination. This kind of twisted ideology has consequences, up to and including de-humanization that paves the road to mass murder.

In the case of Palestine, denialism facilitates a myth—absurd on its face and long discredited, but still widely circulated—that the native Palestinian population was mostly comprised of recent arrivals drawn by the prosperity generated by Zionist settlement. Although factually vacuous, it serves as a convenient ideological backstop for the continuing confiscation of Palestinian land and property for the sake of “rebuilding the Jewish homeland.”

This narrative stretches across time and politics from the Labor Zionist Golda Meir to the present Israeli Finance Minister, the extreme religious-nationalist Bezalel Smotrich: “There’s is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. There is no Palestinian history. There is no Palestinian language.”

Rightwing U.S. Christian nationalists pick up the theme: “There’s really no such thing as the Palestinians,” says former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

This attempted erasure of the Palestinian people’s reality reached its climax, at least in U.S. circles, with the publication of a screed by Joan Peters (or ghostwritten for her,) From Time Immemorial (1984). It was debunked in toto by Norman Finkelstein, and discredited by scholars including Israeli historian Yehoshua Porath who called it a “sheer forgery,” but as a useful Zionist narrative it has continued to circulate.

Peters’ thesis took a new lease on life when its falsehoods were lifted, without attribution, by Alan Dershowitz for his 2003 book The Case for Israel. (Norman Finkelstein returned to the exposure of both Peters and Dershowitz in his 2008 book Beyond Chutzpah. Dershowitz denied attempting to pressure University of California Press not to publish Finkelstein’s book. Among other things, in retrospect the affair illustrates some aspects of Dershowitz’s character that ultimately drew him to Donald Trump.)

For many liberal (Jewish and other) friends of Israel, the brutality of the Occupation when it’s impossible to ignore becomes a cause of alarm and handwringing, but the idea that Palestinians are something less than a “real” nation serves as a partial anesthetic. They can rationalize the “violence on both sides” as the result of Palestinians’ unreasonable “rejectionism” (i.e., refusal to accept the theft of 80 percent of their homeland.)

It also has debilitating consequences for Israeli politics, as we’ll see below.

In the Ukraine war, Putin’s claim that Ukraine is naturally part of “the Russian heartland” is historically ridiculous, but since it’s promoted by powerful state propaganda it doesn’t need to be backed up by facts. The myth puts a gloss on Moscow’s annexationist claims on the provinces of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson, as well as Crimea.

In his July 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin wrote regarding the “time bomb” planted in the Soviet Union at its founding:

“The right for the republics to freely secede from the Union was included in the text of the Declaration on the Creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and, subsequently, in the 1924 USSR Constitution. By doing so, the authors planted in the foundation of our statehood the most dangerous time bomb, which exploded the moment the safety mechanism provided by the leading role of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]was gone, the party itself collapsing from within.”

Back in April 2008 at a NATO summit in Bucharest, Putin reportedly claimed: “Ukraine is not even a state! What is Ukraine? A part of its territory is [in] Eastern Europe, but part, a considerable part, was a gift from us!”

The noted scholar of European history, Donald J. Trump, was reported to have exclaimed in an August 2017 briefing that Ukraine “wasn’t a ‘real country,’ that it had always been part of Russia.” (Washington Post, November 2, 2019, “A presidential loathing for Ukraine is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.”)

Denial of Ukraine’s nationhood helps enable the most ignorant and dishonest sectors of the global left to label Ukrainian nationalism as led by “Nazis” worthy of extermination, while more pacifist-oriented elements regard Ukraine’s territory as bargaining chips to be negotiated in order to stop the carnage.

If Ukraine is regarded as an artificial construct—regardless of what Ukrainians may think—how much then should it really matter if Donetsk is part of Ukraine, or Russia, or semi-independent? Thus, we see, for example, how CodePink and allied groups calling for “peace” systematically refuse to answer the simple question, “Is Ukraine a ‘real country’ and does it have the right to defend itself?”

This refusal makes it more comfortable for pacifists who sympathize with Ukrainians’ suffering, but don’t understand the popular depth of Ukraine’s resistance, to plead for “peace negotiations” that would amount to Ukraine’s territorial amputation. They also seem blind to the reality that such a “peace” would lead to massive re-arming on all sides for a next, bloodier round.

The issue here isn’t what terms the Ukrainian people might decide to negotiate—which is their right, and theirs alone—but the political and moral bankruptcy of “peace” advocates lecturing them about the need to surrender.

Whether or not western imperialist powers, which we know are infinitely treacherous, will ultimately move to impose some “solution” in the name of “realism,” remains an open question. For the left, that shouldn’t affect a principled defense of Ukrainians’ right to determine their own future.

The main differences

The parallel denials of Palestinian and Ukrainian nationhood and rights to self-determination don’t mean that these struggles themselves are identical. Obviously, Ukraine is not Palestine—and much less is it Israel, as Ukraine’s president Zelensky claimed when he was hoping to get more support from that quarter:

“In 2020, Zelensky took Ukraine out of the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and, in a speech to the Knesset, he linked the existential right of the Ukrainian nation to that of the Israeli nation, both fighting an enemy bent on the ‘total destruction of the people, state, culture.’ In a passionate response, the Palestinian university of Haifa professor Asad Ghanem accused Zelensky of reversing the role of occupier and occupied. While expressing Palestinian support for the Ukrainian people’s resistance to the brutal Russian invasion, he said that Zelensky’s words were a ‘disgrace when it comes to global struggles for freedom and liberation.’” (Liz Fekete, “Civilizational racism, ethnonationalism and the clash of imperialisms in Ukraine,” Race and Class.

Geopolitical pundits can explain all the differences between the war in Ukraine and the so-called Palestine-Israeli “conflict.” At their core, however, the differences between these modern states and nations are clear enough. Please note we say “modern” states and nations, because we are not speaking here of wars of European kingdoms and state borders from past centuries, let alone the medieval Kievan Rus [Kievan Rus was a state and later an amalgam of principalities in Eastern and Northern Europe from the late ninth to the mid-13th century] or the myth-encrusted Biblical history of ancient Israel. All these are of interest but belong to separate discussions.

The main difference between Ukraine and Israel is that the modern Ukrainian state was not founded on the dispossession and the land of another people, whom it expelled en masse and proceeded to impose a brutal occupation regime with colonial and apartheid-like features.

On the other hand, the big difference between Ukraine and Palestine is that Ukraine is a nation-state with a well-demonstrated capacity to defend its territory against an imperial invader. Being in the middle of Europe has also enabled it to get necessary military assistance, although its continuation is now in question. Palestinians do not have state institutions, or an army, or any strategic military option to win their freedom.

More than that, Palestinians have no great-power friends, and U.S. policy, in particular, is entirely indifferent to their fate as long as things stay relatively “quiet” (i.e., invisible.) Just ten days before October 7, State Department officials were complacently pronouncing that the Middle East was satisfactorily “stable” with Israeli-Saudi Arabian “normalized relations” on the front burner.

The Palestinian people attract a great deal of important global popular solidarity, but no support from “geopolitical” actors in the region or anywhere else. They are an essentially unarmed population confronting, on their own, the enormous power of the Israeli colonial state.

For its own reasons, of course, U.S. policy assists Ukraine’s war while simultaneously enabling Israel’s crushing of Palestine. That’s an illustration of cynical great-power policy, but no reason for the left to simply turn that policy inside out. The widely acclaimed heroism of the Ukrainian people, and the generally unrecognized heroism of the Palestinian people, are equally deserving of solidarity from those of us who oppose all imperialism and colonialism. That’s all the more important now.

Reactionary feedback

A further parallel is that the invasion of Ukraine and the disaster in Palestine cannot be separated from the internal political crises in Russia and Israel respectively. In each case, the regimes’ efforts to crush another nation feed directly back into their own societies.

Too many liberal “friends of Israel” can’t grasp the reality that the Jewish-supremacist amalgam of rightwing nationalism and religious extremism in the new Israeli governing coalition represents the authentic destination toward which political Zionism has been heading for a very long time. One can have a long and complex discussion over whether a different destination was possible—if the post-1967 Occupation had been quickly ended—but that possibility is long dead, along with the zombie “two-state solution.”

While Israeli military and settler murders are a daily reality in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, an unprecedented confrontation before October 7 had exploded in Israeli politics over the government’s peremptory move to seize control over the nomination and powers of the country’s judiciary.

Israeli state president Isaac Herzog’s warning of “civil war” showed the extent of the crisis. After fading in the wake of October 7, the crisis has re-emerged over the Netanyahu government’s incredible “intelligence” failures, corruption, and cynical indifference to the fate of the hostages held in Gaza.

Protesters also see the fight as a life-and-death struggle to save Israel’s democracy. With capital fleeing the country, Amjad Iraqi of the Israeli online +972 magazine calls the spreading revolt, ironically, “one of the most impressive BDS campaigns ever witnessed.”

Democracy does exist, for Israel’s Jewish citizens; to a much more limited degree for the country’s Arab citizens; and not at all for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories who live under military-apartheid conditions. A movement for Israeli democracy is inevitably strangled so long as the denial of Palestinian nationhood remains in place either openly or by default.

Palestinian and progressive critics have accurately pointed out that the fight to “save Israel’s democracy” is essentially over maintaining a status quo that’s already lethally anti-democratic for Palestinians.

For many years now, most of the Israeli-Jewish public has been conditioned to ignore the facts of the Occupation, even when they’re freely available. Meanwhile in Russia, state media and police repression keep the war’s brutality hidden. The degree of freedom inside Israel makes possible a civic arousal, while inside Russia the invasion of Ukraine has been accompanied by the disappearance of the remaining vestiges of democracy.

The Putin regime for its part is now the global mothership of white Christian Nationalism, for which it is so admired by much of the MAGA faction of the U.S. Republican Party. As is widely discussed, Russia is moving increasingly toward some form of fascism, a trend which is only likely to accelerate unless its invasion is defeated. (See the discussion of this trend in Zakhar Popopvych’s recent article “Russia’s Road Toward Fascism?”1)

As for the impasse of Russian society itself, it’s deepened by the catastrophe of Putin’s war of choice. As sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky wrote last year:

“The year that has passed since the beginning of the war has clearly shown that the political system needs a radical change. An alternative to reforms can only be the growing disintegration of state institutions and the degradation of an already sick economy, which does not suit anyone. But the only way to change course is to remove Vladimir Putin from power.” (On the First Anniversary of the War.)


Indeed, any prospects of a democratic future for Russia are inseparably connected to the outcome of the war—in particular, they depend on the defeat of its imperialist, annexationist ambitions in Ukraine. Ukrainian democracy is equally dependent on the war’s results—but in its case, on the victory of its resistance to the invasion. And the outcomes of these events will have ripple effects for all of us.

While Ukrainian labor and left forces are fully engaged in the war, they are also forced to resist the Zelensky government’s anti-worker policies. A Ukrainian victory would open the possibility (there are no guarantees) of permanently overcoming the cycle of oligarchic factional politics that dominated the country following its 1991 post-Soviet independence. On the other hand, a tragic defeat or amputation of Ukraine is more likely to shatter its emergent national unity—and bring on a resurgence of far-right forces.

For Israel, as under any other ethno-religious regime, Jewish supremacy and democracy will not peacefully coexist. The violent settlers who carried out pogroms in Huwara and other Palestinian West Bank towns, demand the settler-recolonization of Gaza, and commit daily atrocities that rarely make U.S. headlines, understand this perfectly as they rush to join the “national guard” that Netanyahu has gifted to the extreme racist cabinet member Itamar Bem-Gvir.

The question for Israeli society is whether it can confront the consequences of the Zionist movement’s denial, from its very inception, of the Palestinian nation. That struggle requires assistance from the outside, through the BDS (Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions) and above all the demand for immediate permanent ceasefire in Gaza. At the same time, Russian denialism of Ukrainian nationhood can only be defeated on the battlefield, and that requires international solidarity, including weapons, with Ukraine’s war for survival.

Contrary to Biden’s shambling rhetoric, the issues in this war aren’t about global states standing for “democracy versus authoritarianism.” That’s a struggle that exists within every society, including (especially) our own. Let alone is it about the pious fraud of a “rules-based international order,” where the United States makes the rules and gives the orders.

The left must not be diverted: First and foremost, in Ukraine and Palestine, the struggle is about the rights of peoples and nations, and the poisonous consequences when those rights are denied.

CounterPunch, February 9, 2024