Opinion |

No, America's Activist Left Is Not Inherently anti-Semitic. It's Our Home

Our commitment to racial or gender equality can't be derailed by one Palestine-related bullet point, or one celebrity's insensitive gaffes. Our community's safety depends on working with our historical allies - not retreating to the ghetto of 'what's good for the Jews first'

Joshua Leifer
Joshua Leifer
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Participants listen to speakers outside City Hall during the Women's March in a -22 Celsius (8 Fahrenheit) wind chill snow storm in Toronto, Ontario, Canada January 19, 2019
Participants listen to speakers outside City Hall during the Women's March in a -22 Celsius wind chill snow storm in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. January 19, 2019Credit: \ CHRIS HELGREN/ REUTERS
Joshua Leifer
Joshua Leifer

It has never been easy to be a Jewish progressive, but now is an especially difficult time. It is a time of fear and confusion, marked by the unprecedented visibility of Jewish power - embodied by Jared Kushner, Stephen Miller, Steven Mnuchin, not to mention Benjamin Netanyahu - and by the unprecedented vulnerability of Jewish bodies, following the deadliest anti-Semitic hate crime in U.S. history.

The current presidential administration is simultaneously the most ardently pro-Israel in recent memory and the most openly tolerant of white nationalism. As many American Jews find themselves, perhaps for the first time in a generation, marching alongside other historically marginalized people, we also find ourselves newly unsure of our own position in American society: are we privileged, or are we victims? What does it mean, in practice, that we can be both?

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Answering these questions requires cooperation and dialogue with our fellow citizens - be they black, Latinx, Arab, Muslim, female, queer - under attack in Trump’s America. It requires learning through action, through the slow and often messy work of coalition building. It requires patient listening, capacious solidarity, and confidence in our own ability to deal with discomfort.

It requires, in other words, the complete opposite of withdrawal and defensiveness, of retreating to Jews-first spaces and narrow Jewish self-interest - the opposite of what Sara Hirschhorn, a historian whose work I value, suggests in a recent op-ed, "How Jews Became ‘Too White, Too Powerful,’ for U.S. Progressive Activism."

A demonstrator holds a sign against anti-Semitism as she joins the Women's March in Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019Credit: Damian Dovarganes,AP

Dr Hirschhorn, understandably frustrated by the Women’s March Inc. leaders’ handling of anti-Semitism accusations, wrongly takes them as more generally representative of the diverse and dynamic grassroots resurgence of progressive activism in the United States.

While one can undoubtedly encounter anti-Semitic expressions in social justice spaces, as one can practically anywhere, particularly on the contemporary U.S. right, characterizing these spaces as somehow inherently or irreparably anti-Semitic reflects an unfamiliarity with how the activist left actually looks on the ground.

Across the United States, Jewish progressives play active and even central roles in countless groups and organizations working on a wide range of issues: from mass incarceration to immigration, environmental justice to women’s reproductive freedom, labor, civil liberties, and beyond.

Jews are not only accepted but even welcomed into these movements, and many young American Jews increasingly find themselves more at home among likeminded activists than they do in the ossified Jewish establishment institutions, which have been largely unwilling to accept the full spectrum of Jewish identity and political expression in the twenty-first century.

Furthermore, Dr Hirschhorn’s mistaken extrapolation leads her to recommend that American Jews prioritize the question of "What's good for the Jews" and consider abandoning existing social justice spaces to "seek tikkun olam" elsewhere and "build partnerships on our own terms."

Particularism, if not separatism, of this kind sends the wrong message to our non-Jewish partners, especially those belonging to structurally oppressed communities. What does it say, for instance, about one’s commitment to racial or gender equality, if that commitment is in practice contingent on one bullet point in an extensive policy vision, or on the gaffes of an individual celebrity figure?

Co-president of the 2019 Women's March, Tamika Mallory joins other demonstrators on Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women's March in Washington. Jan. 19, 2019Credit: Jose Luis Magana,AP

Coalition-building, if it is to have a fighting chance of changing anything, demands flexibility on details but steadfastness on principles. True partnership is achieved not by rigidly presenting "our terms," take it or leave it, but by working together despite disagreements to achieve shared goals.

There is something absurd about the notion of seeking tikkun olam within a framework the terms of which are set firstly by American Jews, rather than through attentive cooperation with the people for whom the world is most desperately in need of repair.

The myopic "Is it good for the Jews first" mode of thinking that Hirschhorn suggests has also been the default for the American Jewish establishment since the middle of the last century. Today, it is clear this approach is failing: It is failing to protect American Jews’ rights and lives, and it is isolating us from our historical political allies, especially as Jewish establishment organizations conflate "what’s good for the Jews" with "what’s good for the State of Israel."

It is this approach that has led the Anti-Defamation League, nominally a civil rights group, to join AIPAC in pushing anti-BDS bills that trample American citizens’, and therefore American Jews’, First Amendment rights. And it is what led major Jewish philanthropies to funnel large sums of money to extremist right-wing, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim organizations and to fund Canary Mission, the secretive online blacklist of student activists and professors.

Helmeted members of a far right wing group (L) clash with Antifa members during the 2019 Women's March at Boston Common in Boston, Massachusetts, January 19, 2019Credit: AFP

Sadly, and to the tremendous disservice of American Jews, our self-appointed communal leadership has in many ways found common cause with the surging far-right instead of unequivocally fighting it. Little wonder some progressives no longer think of American Jews as natural partners.

To be sure, the "Is it good for the Jews first" approach has won American Jews no small measure of stability and prosperity. But these gains will always be precarious in a society marred by structural racism, violence, and inequality - and when they depend on having a sympathetic ruler in power. Donald Trump, and the license he continues to give to open white nationalism, has reminded us just how precarious our stability and prosperity can be.

The lesson of the present is that organizing around "what’s good for the Jews," instead of "what’s good for the society in which Jews live," can never guarantee enduring Jewish safety. Pursuing narrow Jewish interests over and at the expense of broad solidarity with other historically marginalized people is akin to securing the most comfortable room in a burning house.

A man holds sign for women as thousands gather at Pershing Square during the Women's March in Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019Credit: Damian Dovarganes,AP

Jewish progressives today face several serious challenges. We must be patient enough to work through, and when necessary correct, our partners’ misconceptions or misunderstandings, without allowing the difficulty of that work to shake our dedication to the causes we care about and or our commitment to the organizations to which we have devoted countless hours.

We must continue to combat anti-Semitism in progressive spaces, whenever it rears its head, while refusing to allow the cynical conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism to drive a wedge between us and our activist partners.

We must become comfortable with being uncomfortable, for we have been thrust into a deeply uncomfortable position - spoken for by unelected institutional leaders who often don’t have our best interests at heart.

None of this will be easy, but the stakes are far too high to give up.

Joshua Leifer is an editor at Dissent. Previously, he was an editor and writer at +972 Magazine, based in Jerusalem. Twitter: @joshualeifer

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