Does Your Progressivism Include Jews?

Denouncing literal Nazis is the easy part.

In the wake of Charlottesville and the literal Nazis chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” there’s been an outpouring of sympathy and solidarity from non-Jews in the wake of Charlottesville. 

Along with the (very welcome) renewed discussion about anti-Semitism on the right, some of us are also taking this opportunity to push forward conversations about anti-Semitism on the left. It’s real, and it’s a problem, and we need to do something about it.

Friends on the left, this is your reminder that denouncing literal Nazis is the easy part. Being an ally to your Jewish friends also requires the uncomfortable work of fighting anti-Semitism in progressive spaces and recognizing how rhetoric and attitudes on the left contribute to hatred and violence against Jews.

And as we all know, anti-Semitism on the left usually takes the form of indiscriminate anti-Zionism that attacks all Jews under the pretense of opposition to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories. #NotAllAntiZionists are anti-Semites, but some certainly are. This thinly-veiled anti-Semitism dehumanizes Jews and plays into centuries-old blood libel being justified as “anti-Zionism.” From kicking Jews out of events for displaying the star of David to literally telling us we deserve to be attacked by Nazis because of the Israeli occupation, “anti-Zionism” is being used as an excuse for the kind of overt hate speech that is completely intolerable anywhere, and especially within progressive movements.

But using “Zionists” as code for “Jews” is actually a tactic the right invented. On Saturday in Charlottesville, for example, KKK wizard David Duke told the crowd:

“The truth is, the American media, and the American political system, and the American Federal Reserve, is dominated by a tiny minority: the Jewish Zionist cause.”

And as Chloé Valdary writes in the Forward: “The process of the dehumanization of Zionists — which in this context (and most contexts) is interchangeable with Jew — has been a long one in our current culture. It has existed as an idea within the ranks of the KKK since its early days and continues today in various corners of the political spectrum. It’s what happens when both Jews and Israelis are not viewed as human beings but political abstractions whose very existence is socially unacceptable and deserving of contempt. To counter such thinking, we have to not only be vocal in counter-protests but make sure that Zionism does not become socially taboo in our political and social discourses. To allow this is to be an enabler of the vile acts we witnessed this weekend.”

But as soon as we say this, the immediate response is: “But you can’t silence criticism of Israel!” Followed by the question:

“How can I criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic?”

Of course, Jews on the left have thought a lot — I mean a LOT — about how to demarcate the line between legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and anti-Semitism. Because the time has never been better than now to embrace coalitions between Jews and other marginalized groups, I’m going to try and give some serious answers to that serious question.

First, let’s get one thing clear. I have never said — nor would I ever say — thatall criticism of Israel is off limits. Of course you can object to the various objectionable policies of the Netanyahu government with regard to the Palestinians. I do it all the time myself. Most likely, so do most of the Jews you know. But it shades into anti-Semitism when criticism of Israel is used as an excuse to exclude or attack Jews.

There is nothing complicated about avoiding anti-Semitism in discourse about Israel. We know how to, for example, criticize ISIS without demonizing Muslims, and the left mostly does a very good job of policing that boundary. Jews are simply asking for the same consideration when it comes to discussion of Israel.

The most important thing is to approach anti-Semitism in the same way your would view bias or discrimination against any other group.

As we all know, generalizations about everyone in a group are bad and betray anti-group bias (e.g. “all Jews are …” “Jews never …”). And yes, that’s true even if the generalization is a positive, just like assuming that all Black people have rhythm or all Asian people are good at math.

Demands that individual group members answer for others are bad. You can’t ask random Black people why there is so much “Black on Black crime,” and you can’t demand that random Muslims denounce ISIS. For the same reason, demanding that individual diaspora Jews explain/answer for/denounce Israeli policies is anti-Semitic. Doubly so if off-topic (e.g. anti-Israel protests at Hillel bake sales).

Listen to Jews when they tell you about anti-Semitism. Don’t talk over Jews trying to point out that something is anti-Semitic. Dismissing claims of anti-Semitism as “not that bad” or refusing to classify Jews as a discriminated-against minority is unacceptable. Especially if the reasoning is that Jews “have so much power” or in lefty-speak “are so privileged.” Don’t even think of accusing Jews of using anti-Semitism as a false flag to undermine efforts to oppose Israeli policy, or of “playing the anti-Semitism card.”

Now. How do you criticize Israel without being an accidental anti-Semite?

  • Confine your criticism to policies and actions, not group character or high rhetoric about the nature of the nation-state. You want to protest curfews for Palestinians in Hebron or the expansion of settlements? Absolutely go for it. But once you start veering into “Zionism is fascism” and “Israelis are baby killers,” you’re being anti-Semitic.

  • It’s never ok to conflate Jews with Israelis. That means “but Israel” is never an acceptable response to an argument by non-Israeli Jews about something else, e.g. anti-Semitism in America.

  • If you wouldn’t say it about another country or ethnic group, it’s not an acceptable thing to say about Israel. (I’m thinking particularly about condemning all citizens equally for the actions of a government they may actually oppose, claiming that a murky military past justifies the destruction of the country, etc.)

  • In the same vein, think carefully about whether your outrage about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is out of proportion to your outrage about other human rights abuses. Wherever Israel is the only international human rights item on the agenda, that’s a big red flag.

  • Be very, very wary of allegations that Israel is responsible for problems elsewhere. That’s Jewish banking conspiracy/Elders of Zion territory and should be avoided at all costs.

  • Don’t compare Israel to Nazi Germany. Like, ever. If you’re tempted to do that, just imagine for ten seconds what that feels like to your friends who are children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Just don’t.

  • Don’t use Israel as a stand-in for white/European colonialism, or a vehicle to assuage white guilt about same. Putting aside the question of whether Jews are white (the term is “conditional whiteness,” and we can talk about that another time), establishing a country as refugees fleeing genocide is not the same thing as sending the East India Company to create a colony for profit. Not to mention that is a massive erasure of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, Black Jews, and other Jews of color.

After this weekend in particular, consider also the following American Jewish perspective:

As we saw in Charlottesville, anti-Semitism of the sort our grandparents fled Europe to escape is very much alive and well, and our President made a spectacular display of failing to protect us. When dictators and totalitarians come to power, they almost always go after the Jews, and no Jew ever forgets that. So in the current political moment, our fear as Americans about the direction our country is heading is layered with another fear that, as Jews, America is going to stop being a safe place for us to live.

We don’t want to leave, and many of us would choose to go elsewhere before we would make aliyah. But the existence of Israel — the one country in the world guaranteed to protect us if the rest of the world decides to rid itself of the Jewish problem again — is a serious source of comfort. Yes, even to Jews who disagree with most of Israel’s policies and dislike Bibi Netanyahu as much as we dislike Trump.

So when non-Jews get all fired up about destroying Israel, it’s important for them to keep in mind what they are proposing to take away from their American Jewish neighbors.

We’re not asking for special treatment or an exemption from criticism. We just want to be treated like any other marginalized group — with dignity and kindness, and with the real promise to stand in solidarity with us even when that requires hard work.