Opinion |

The Left Feels Palestinian Pain. It Must Also Recognize Jewish Fears

Too often, the progressive left has failed to see Jews as a marginalized community, one that does face violence and adversity.

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Shi'ite Muslim supporters of the Imamia Student Organization march in solidarity with the Palestinians and to protest Israel in Karachi, Pakistan, this month.Credit: AKHTAR SOOMRO/ REUTERS

The most recent sequence of events coming out of Israel, from the evictions in Sheik Jarrah and culminating in the aggressive bombing campaign on Gaza that has left hundreds dead, marks a turning point in the international response to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Around the world, mass marches erupted as millions poured into the streets, not only demanding a cease fire, but saying that enough is enough with the decade’s long occupation. In the U.S., most major cities were marked by these protests, angry demonstrators demanding an end to what is being roundly called apartheid and war crimes.

But this righteous anger was also exploited by antisemites, who have used these incidents as a cover to target Jews. Last week, a 29-year-old Jewish man was reportedly assaulted in New York, where assailants yelled “dirty Jew” as they hit him. Over in Borough Park, several Orthodox men were harassed and threatened at their synagogue, yelling “kill all the Jews.” There have been dozens of these sorts of attacks as tracked by groups like the Anti-Defamation League, leading five Jewish organizations to send a letter to President Biden demanding action.

Incidents of this kind have been roundly condemned by Palestinian solidarity organizations across the world, yet they are not new. Each violent assault on Gaza has been marked by antisemitic attacks on visibly Jewish targets in large Jewish communities in Europe and the U.S. While we are collectively sharing our grief and revulsion at the treatment of Palestinians, we are now being met with images of Jewish victimization, one that only builds on the crisis of fear and oppression most of us are currently wrestling with.

Antisemitism is unique as a form of oppression in that it takes the impulse to liberate and turns it back onto a marginalized community: Jews. Antisemitic conspiracy theories often try to mobilize righteous anger, such as against an income inequality or military actions, and spin it into a theory about secret Jewish cabals and away from those actually in power. When it comes to movements against Israel’s violence, some have shifted the target of their outrage from Israel as an independent political entity to Jews as some assumed responsible collectivity.

At the same time, disingenuous opportunists have for decades tried to enter the Palestine solidarity movement – not out of care for Palestinian suffering, but as an outlet for their own antisemitism. In Boca Raton, Florida, a van full of white nationalists pulled in front of a pro-Israel demonstration with a Palestinian flag hanging from the window and “Hitler Was Right” written on the side of the vehicle. All of this has created a climate of fear for Jews, none of which is useful to the Palestinian cause and all of which only helps to confuse our ability to build social movements with the ability to create a more just world.

For Jews, the fear is palpable. The targets for many of these most recent antisemitic attacks, and those that historically line up with Israeli assaults, are not against things that are visibly Israeli, but visibly Jewish. Men wearing a kippah, Chasidic Jews, and others with Jewish religious iconography are often singled out, and attacks on synagogues and yeshivas trigger historical trauma about anti-Jewish pogroms and riots. Antisemitism is often expressed through explosive acts of violence, and the recent spate of attacks creates a climate of justified anxiety: we don’t know what could come next.

For the Palestinian solidarity movement, nothing could be worse than these seemingly impulsive acts of anti-Jewish violence. The Palestinian solidarity movement, including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, hinges its success on building broad coalitions that put pressure on Israel to halt its bombings and end the occupation. This relies on the ability to connect with diverse communities, particularly Jews, who are often wrongly assumed to be uniformly in support of Israel. But these kinds of attacks, even when instigated by people far outside the movement, hurt the ability to bring together a multitude of supporters. It further pushes Jews out of the solidarity movement and provides right-wing, pro-Israel groups with more ammunition as they continue to argue that the Palestinian movement is inherently antisemitic and that the occupation is necessary for Jewish safety. All of this makes the alliances necessary for change become tenuous.

These antisemitic acts are not caused by the Palestinian solidarity movement, and we should reject attempts to smear activists because of the behavior of renegade racists. But it is still crucial that movements on the left speak out against these sorts of attacks and take measures to push antisemitism out of any social movement space. Movements for liberation have always had those who distort the message on their fringes: such as anti-immigrant ideas in the labor movement or environmental movement.

These diverse social movements are not defined by the bigotry of those who would try to hijack them, but activists still have a unique ability to push those interlopers out and to set standards. Fighting antisemitism cannot be an afterthought for this movement, it has to be intentionally dealt with and clarity brought to what constitutes acceptable criticism of Israel and Zionism and what falls into antisemitic stereotypes and action. To do this, we have to see Jews as a marginalized community, one that does face violence and adversity, and that is something rarely addressed on the left. The movement to stop the dispossession of Palestinians is based on a desire to see a more just and equal world, and so confronting antisemitism both inside and out only helps us to see through that mission more effectively.

Shane Burley is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of "Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It" (AK Press, 2017) and "Why We Fight" (AK Press, 2021). His work has been featured in NBC News, Jacobin, Al Jazeera, The Baffler, Truthout, In These Times and Full-Stop. Twitter: @shane_burley1

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