Opinion

'Good Jew' or 'Bad Jew'? How U.S. Progressive Activists Police Jewish Participation

For many of my fellow justice advocates, the message to Jews boils down to a binary: either anti-Zionism or the door. That's exclusionary at best - and Jew-hatred at worst

The shadow of a paramilitary Basij member is cast on the image of the Israeli flag during the Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Tehran, Iran. June 23, 2017
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

I’ve spent the better part of my rabbinate - stretching almost 20 years between New York, Oakland, and now Massachusetts - dedicated to social justice work.  I owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who’ve taught and mentored me, wise and thoughtful activists who have pushed me to recognize and challenge my own privilege, especially as a white, cisgender male rabbi. The anti-oppression principles and practices they’ve taught me are deep and varied.

For instance, I’ve learned that it’s insulting to generalize feelings, thoughts, and behaviors to a whole group. I’ve learned that, to challenge oppression, it’s essential to center the voices of marginalized peoples. I’ve learned that challenging systems of oppression requires us to measure "impact versus intent", that words informed by racism and sexism can create psychic pain even when the speaker doesn’t intend them that way. I’ve learned that those in privileged positions need to honor the lived experiences of marginalized people, rather than challenging or invalidating those experiences. I’ve learned that being part of the solution means receiving difficult feedback as a gift.

But a funny thing happened on the way to our collective liberation. We seem to have left out the Jews.

A good number of my non-Jewish activist friends and teachers actively confront anti-Jewish bias. But there’s a troubling tendency among progressive activists to forget their own powerful teachings when it comes to Jews. 

For instance, anti-oppression principles teach us not to generalize the behaviors of one person to a whole group. But I have stepped off of more than one stage - speaking against the harassment of immigrants or the extrajudicial killings of people of color - only to be confronted by a stranger demanding to know "my thoughts on Palestine." As if every Jews bears the guilt of any and all Israeli injustices against Palestine.

And, instead of centering the voices of Jews as a marginalized people, too many progressives neglect to make space for Jews to discuss their experience of anti-Jewish oppression. Moreover, Jews are almost never invited to identify or discuss their relationship to the term "Zionism," let alone articulate their own personal visions of Jewish nationalism. 

Unjust actions of the State of Israel, like any state, require scrutiny and, when appropriate, condemnation. I have joined voices, both Jewish and non-Jewish, that have criticized Israeli treatment of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. But for many of my fellow justice advocates, the message to Jews boils down to a binary: either anti-Zionism or the door.

A Jewish pride flag, such as that banned at the LGBTQ march organized by the Chicago Dyke March Collective on June 24, 2017.
Wikimedia Commons

And when the lived experience of millions of Jews is a personal affinity for Israel, to set anti-Zionism as a litmus test for participating in anti-oppression movements is exclusionary at best — and Jew-hatred at worst.

And finally, instead of receiving difficult feedback from like-minded Jews about messaging and language with open hearts, too many progressives discount them as irrelevant, or dismiss them as efforts to silence criticism of Israel.

The most notorious recent example is the Chicago Dyke March’s inadvertent use of a Neo-Nazi slur, "Zios", to defend their exclusion of Jewish symbols and chants that they deemed inappropriate. When called out on the violent history of the term, the response was a tweet that opened with a breezy, "Sorry y’all!"  But "Zio" is a term that does not direct its verbal violence against "y’all" — it targets only Jews. There was no indication that the group has committed itself to the hard work of rooting out the anti-Jewish bias that could allow such hate speech to be used.

This lack of curiosity, this refusal to learn about the insidious history of Jew-hatred, this refusal to integrate critical voices: From what I have learned in deep conversation with colleagues and teachers, all of these are hallmarks of privilege.

If white people don’t get to tell people of color the right way to fight for liberation, if cis and straight people don’t get to tell queer folks which expressions of gender and sexuality are "appropriate," then it follows that non-Jews don’t get to tell Jews what symbols and messages are in bounds and which are out of bounds.

Which raises the question: why are there litmus tests and special rules of entry for Jews into anti-oppression movements - requirements for Jews to be accepted in intersectional campaigns and a policing of what constitutes an acceptable Jewish identity - and not for any other group?

IfNotNow protesters demonstrating against Donald Trump's appointment of Steve Bannon at the General Services Administration in Washington D.C., November 17, 2016.
Twitter screenshot

Some have made a compelling case in favor of special scrutiny of Jews because of U.S. aid to Israel. Yet Egypt and the Palestinian Authority are also recipients of substantial U.S. aid, and Arab activists are not held to account for injustices in those lands by progressive activists. Anti-oppression activists are often first to point out the Islamophobia inherent in right-wing demands that U.S. Arabs and Muslims condemn totalitarianism in Arab states. And rightly so.

Don’t Jews deserve the same respect and consideration?

In the mean time, there are Jewish activists who have taken a different lesson. Last month, Jewish Voice for Peace unveiled a campaign and hashtag, #deadlyexchange, rightly questioning the ethics of U.S.-Israel security exchanges. But the video accompanying the campaign claims that the driving force behind U.S. policing practices are Jews, a shocking blood libel placing the blame for police violence in black and brown communities not on centuries of American white supremacy, but squarely at the feet of Jews.

It is not surprising that progressives who would censure expressions of Jewish ideology and symbolism would flirt with actual expressions of blatant Jew-hatred. 

This would all be troubling in a normal political climate. But, as we know, this marginalization of Jews is playing out against the backdrop of repressive regimes both in the United States and Israel. At a time of creeping American fascism, is dividing Jews into the useful and the non-useful, allies and enemies, really the best way forward?

Demonstrators wear pink ‘pussy’ hats during the "March for Truth" protest at the Washington Monument. June 3, 2017
Zach Gibson/Bloomberg

Rather, doesn’t it cripple the very alliances that need to be strengthened amongst progressives?

And at a time when the Netanyahu government is showing less and less willingness to move toward anything that looks like justice - when Gazans have electricity for just two hours a day, and non-Orthodox Judaism has equality in Israeli culture for no hours a day - is creating a progressive purity squad really the best way forward?

Rather, doesn’t singling out Jews for special scrutiny play right into Netanyahu’s hands? Doesn’t it reinforce the cynical claim that everyone hates the Jews anyway, so "nothing we do for the Palestinians will ever be enough?"

Justice for marginalized people in both the U.S. and Israel/Palestine is long overdue. I pray that I am contributing in some small way to that struggle. I pray, too, that my progressive allies learn the lessons that they’ve taught me, and honor the Jews standing next to them in that struggle.

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum serves Congregation Beth Elohim, in Acton, Massachusetts. He lives with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell, in Concord. Twitter: @rav_mike