Last week a Belgian Muslim named Zakia Belkhiri posted a cheeky selfie that nearly broke the social justice internet. Belkhiri, an attractive young hijab-wearing woman, took a picture of herself flashing a peace sign in front of a wall of anti-Muslim protesters. Her sly smile in the face of overwhelming hate caught the attention of millions and the picture went viral. Her message was powerful — the antidote to hate was not more hate, but laughter.
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I was one of thousands who shared Belkhiri's snap on various social media platforms. I'm a part of the Jon Stewart generation. When confronted with the fact-resistant, primal pleasures of hatred (so notably practiced by Fox News) the obvious answer is righteous laughter.
Belkhiri's photo wasn't just funny in the way it cut anti-Islamic protesters down to size. There was something moving about the image. The French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas wrote that it is the face-to-face encounter that makes us responsible to each other — "the face is what forbids us to kill." Belkhiri’s selfie hinted at a vulnerability in tension with the frivolity inherent in the selfie, something that might make each side see each other as human, rather than monolithic. It was a deeply hopeful moment of distinctly contemporary resistance.
Only a few beats in the news cycle later came the disappointment. The inevitably incriminating social media was dug up, complicating the nervy woman in the selfie. Numerous tweets and Facebook posts showed Belkhiri might be against Islamophobia, but also unashamedly dabbling in anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Her most devastating tweet being "Hitler didn't kill all the Jews, he left some. So we know why he was killing them. #fuckrs." As the news filtered out about Belkhiri, I was disappointed, but not surprised.
The Belkhiri story illustrates the failure of intersectionality, perhaps the most important critical tool of the New Left.
Intersectional analysis understands oppression as multi-dimensional and privilege as contingent. A white Jewish woman in America may experience white privilege, but she still has to fight against sexism and global anti-Semitism.
Yet, over and over, Jews and Jewish oppression get left out of that intersectional analysis. Jewishness is conflated with whiteness, with the bizarre results of seeing the Holocaust described (and dismissed) in certain circles, as "white on white" crime.
Belkhiri’s stumble wasn’t an exception in the contemporary social justice narrative, it was another example of how the global Left systematically fails to include the Jewish struggle for self-determination both cultural and political within its framework of national and personal liberations.
After World War II, particularly in America, anti-Semitism was often seen as no more than a distasteful kind of bourgeois country club exclusion, a result of Jews’ perceived operationalizing of postwar economic mobility and white privilege. It was not taken seriously as a real threat to individuals, their bodies and livelihoods, or as a threat to a minority group’s right to practice its religious, cultural or national expression.
The New Left has always had its 'Jewish problem', something we’re seeing in the latest flap within the British Labour Party. Today it’s often boiled down to the question of whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. But the problem isn’t anti-Zionism, it’s the obsessive focus on the Jewish state to the exclusion of much else. The New Left never found a way to incorporate the State of Israel into a framework of post-colonial liberation, in the same way it embraced Cuba, or Zimbabwe to Algeria, or any number of other states. That is to say, it’s not the critique, but the context of the critique. And that context (speaking strictly about the Left) is one where, among all other nations, the struggle for Jewish self-determination and the right to national particularity is given special scrutiny (and treated with special disdain.)
It’s this rarely questioned obsession with Jews and the Jewish state which alienates many Jews from the left, and from the alliances necessary for social change. Even when being self-critical, the Left struggles to understand how this pernicious kind of exceptionalism that targets only Jews, taints the discourse.
I once attended an open meeting at Bluestockings, the legendary New York downtown radical bookstore. The meeting was called "Fighting Anti-Semitism on the Left." When it was my turn to speak, I pointed out the importance of not shrinking from Jewish distinctiveness when doing activism. I noted the negative reaction I got for saying how important it was for me to marry a Jew, with friends telling me I was racist or tribalist. At which point, an audience member shouted out, “You are.”
Would we dare tell Zakia Belkhiri she was racist because she wanted to marry a Muslim? Of course not. Yet, the discomfort with Jewish distinctiveness persists. Why? Are Jews on the Left too tired, or too lacking in confidence, to insist that they too deserve solidarity? Or have they internalized an ahistorical narrative of privilege and shame?
A second anecdote: A number of years ago, through my job at the time, I came to know Kathleen Cleaver, the ex-Black Panther turned Yale Law Professor. And through Kathleen I got the opportunity to volunteer at the Black Panther Film Festival. The festival was unique and I’m still grateful for an experience that took me far outside my usual circle of Jewish lefty organizing. And I am thankful to Kathleen for inviting me. And yet, what I can’t forget is her response when I told her about people handing out anti-Semitic literature in the lobby: “Is this something about Israel?” She told me to ignore them and moved on. The message was clear: anti-Semitism wasn’t real oppression, and certainly not important enough to slow the flow of real activism.
But being an ally within a progressive movement has to mean more than just insisting on the totalizing wrongness of Islamophobia, or fighting the injustice of the Occupation, for example — it also has to mean Jews on the Left insisting on their right to distinctiveness and the right of Jews to self-determination, whether that means endogamy or Jewish nationalism. This means acknowledging that Zionism is like any movement for national liberation — messy, complicated and more or less sharing the faults of pretty much every other ethno-national state.
Jews and the left should recognize the ramifications of the Belkhiri story. Rather than fueling pessimism or passivity — “look at yet another demoralizing example of how Muslims and Jews can’t see eye to eye” — it could be flagged as a warning about how necessary it is for the left’s politics of identity towards Jews to change, or at least nudged toward a course correction.
No matter how it started, it’s still possible that Zakia Belkhiri’s selfie, and the conversation it started, can be a moment for face-to-face rapprochement that even Lévinas would appreciate. If we don't turn away from the face(s) in front of us.
Rokhl Kafrissen is the author of A Brokhe/A Blessing, a Yiddish English gangster ghost romance in three acts. Her writing on Yiddish and contemporary Jewish life has appeared in publications around the world.