American Jews & The Left (Inside or Out)

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Do you join the righteous fray, oppose this form of organization, or look the other way and wait for it to blow over? Placed in a tough and increasingly narrow corner between Israel and anti-Zionism, the left as a whole and the American Jewish left in particular will have to decide. Umbrella groups like BDS and their supporters in academe or groups like so-called Jewish Voice for Peace have already cast their lot. They have done so not against the 1967 occupation, but against the State of Israel. It doesn’t matter if you are Jewish or not, although Jewish leftists are perhaps on the more difficult hot seat. When ideological push comes to physical shove, which side are you on when anti-Zionist groups do more than protest, when the purpose of a protest is to target deliberately and to try to shout down and to shut down Jewish events with a focus on Israel?

The issues have been cast in sharp focus following the recent BDS-JVP protest at the National LGBT Taskforce Creating Change, when a group of activists succeeded in shutting down an event hosted by A Wider Bridge and Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance. You can see what the protest looked like here on this two-part Youtube clip filmed by Windy City.

As quoted here online at the Advocate, “The Jerusalem-based leaders in attendance were slated to ‘share their important work in a challenging environment — transcending political, ethnic, and religious boundaries to build and unite a community in pursuit of the common goal of tolerance and mutual support.’” Crowding the hall and rushing the event, the protest was enough to shut down the event. From accounts in the press and this video here, it would seem that the very loud and very physical protest was at the tipping point between raucous and violent. The Advocate reports that hotel staff was forced to call the cops in response to what turned into a dangerous public safety hazard threatened to shut down the entire Creating Change conference.

So yes, there’s no reason to think the incident was not that serious. If there’s any good news coming out of this it is that the National LGBT Taskforce is very unhappy about the protest. A movement dedicated to protest, its leaders say they’ve never seen anything quite like this.

The Advocate quotes Taskforce director, Rea Carey, “We’re now at 4,000 people. That’s a different kind of space. And there are that many more people bringing their perspectives, their lives, their challenges, and we all need to look at how we can keep the core and the intention of what Creating Change has always been — which is a place to come together and strategize together and learn how to deal with difference.”

So what’s at stake for American Jews and the left, the left and American Jews? The American left will have to come to terms with the fact that radical supporters of Palestine are in no mood for “dialogue” and “mutual recognition” when it comes to Israel, and that large parts of its logic are eliminationist. Under the banner “From the River to the Sea,” a hard core of aggressive activists with a single issue want to dominate the left by eliminating liberal Jewish voices and liberal Zionism from the mainstream progressive left or college campuses. For its part, at a moment when the American liberal Jews are being asked to lean in on Israel against the occupation, the very future of the American Jewish left is going to depend upon how these questions, especially the most concrete ones, get answered.

It doesn’t matter here if you are against the 1967 occupation and in favor of a two state solution. It doesn’t matter if you are in favor of a bi-national or Palestinian state “from the river to the sea” or if you oppose the very idea of Zionism and stand in opposition to the very existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish majority country, or if you are against the very idea of the state and the exercise of state power anywhere.

What’s not at issue here is the idea that a powerful Jewish lobby has created “an exception about Palestine” meant to silence advocates for Palestine. What’s at issue is not even about shutting out anti-Zionist groups like JVP or even more vanilla voices critical of Israeli policy and Zionism from organized Jewish life. It’s certainly not about criticism of Israel, or even the demonization of Israel, which happens all the time. Let’s even agree for the sake of argument that what at stake for the left is not about anti-Semitism, even though it often is, when anti-Zionism slips sometimes easily, almost naturally, into hatred for Jews, who, after all, by and large support their fellow Jews in Israel, who support the stubborn and sometime awful right to Jewish political self-determination.

What the collision at the National LGBT Task Force Creating Change makes clear is that the struggle over free speech and protest, and Israel and Palestine are not abstract questions that can be settled on the left by weasel words like “pinkwashing” and “intersectionality.” As a debating tactic, arguments about anti-Semitism are almost pointless, never ending debate and almost always impossible to prove except in its most overt instances. What is easier to argue is that protests like this, at the very least, constitute an extreme form of verbal and moral abuse and physical harassment. Most seriously, these kinds of protest signal serious infringements upon the right of Jews to the right to free speech guaranteed by the first amendment of the United States constitution.

For the left and American Jews, there are general questions about identity and organization to consider:

Organizationally, the American left is free to go in whole hog for Palestine. Organizations have the right to control who’s in and who’s out. Its leadership and membership can even create litmus tests, in this case creating a privileged class of “good Jews, while forcing others to declare in public against their people. But that’s a decision to decide. Do supporters of Israel (let’s call them Zionists) or supporters of a two-state solution in Israel, supporters of self-determination and mutual recognition in Israel and Palestine (let’s call them liberal or center-left Zionists) have a place on the American left? Do they have a right to organize and speak under its rubric, not without critical pushback, but without moral and physical abuse?

These are the practical and abstract questions to consider:

What do you do and where do you stand when a group of queer Jews unjustly maligned as “pinkwashing” Israel have an event shut down at a national conference? What do you do and where do you stand when demonstrators shout down or try to shout down a university lecture or invited speaker? What do you do and where do you stand when Israeli universities and academics are boycotted by university professors, departments, and academic associations? What do you in the face of a climate perceived as hostile by not a few Jews? What do you do if Jewish students set up a table promoting the Birthright program on campus and it is blocked by protesters who want to prevent access to the table? What do you do when political protests are held on Jewish high holidays, or about murals and posters in public perceived as provocative, and hostile, aligning Israel with fascism and apartheid, or when a Jewish professor is publically harassed for organizing a student trip to Israel and the West Bank?  Do you say that these aren’t “Jews,” that these are “Zionists’, i.e. that these Jews are being targeted not because they are Jewish but because they are Zionists? Do you write them off as “whining,” “overreacting,” “oversensitive,” OR “politically manipulative”? Do you say, it’s not really a big deal, it’s not “anti-Semitism”? (But who gets to define what’s anti-Semitic and what’s not? Who gets to define what’s racism or misogyny?) Do you point to those token Jews like JVP who support these kinds of action, the kinds of protest that repeatedly slip into abuse? Isn’t that itself a form of “jewwashing”? Or do you take the problem seriously as an abridgement of free speech? Do you insist on the right to free speech for everyone, for difference and pluralism in the American left?

And this is the very practical question:

The video from the Creating Change conference makes clear that the decision is concrete, not abstract or theoretical. It’s very simple question. If you were at the conference at that hotel in Chicago, on which side of the line were you going to stand? Where were you going to place yourself physically? Were you going to be inside with queer Jews from Israel and their American Jewish friends, or outside with the crush of demonstrators trying to intimidate attendees, trying to break in to shut down the event? The left and the Jewish left have always been proud to stand with the bullied against the bullies. So what about now? Are you outside in the mob with Jewish Voice for Peace or inside the room with the “fucking Zionists”?

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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11 Responses to American Jews & The Left (Inside or Out)

  1. Mike Del Sol says:

    “The left and the Jewish left have always been proud to stand with the bullied against the bullies.”
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slánský_trial
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctors%27_plot

  2. dms1999 says:

    Jews should all have guns.

  3. milx says:

    I intend this question as a provocation but also in the spirit of good faith that it may have answers: When has the Jewish left ever made a difference in protecting Jews against antisemitism? Which is not to say Marx’s answer that Jews should merely assimilate and be spared this ugliness. When has the Jewish left, so notable for the ways they’ve stood up for other minorities, ever done the same for their own people? How can a group awash in criticism for the traditional Jewish community become its champion?

    • zjb says:

      Depends which Jewish left. Historically, I’d point to the center left of Abe Cahan at the Forward and the entire Zionist left, and also the Bund. I’d include today J Street, Peace Now, Americans for Peace Now, groups like Teruah and more. In historical persepective, JVP represents an aberration. When Jews wanted to turn against the Jewish community they generally left specifically Jewish frameworks to become Communists, or Trotskyites, and the like. The always turned on the Jewish-Jewish left for not being leftwing enough.

    • Joshua says:

      And when did you stop beating your wife? I think my leftist Jewish grandfather, who had to stand up for himself and others against a kind of anti-Semitism today’s coddled faux-hawk suburban American Jews cannot fathom, might take issue with your statement, and it might not be pretty.

  4. Joseph Sokal says:

    Thanks Zak. This is a great post that asks all the right questions with clear linkage to an event that perfectly exemplifies the issues at hand. As I was thinking about this today I concluded that it is, as you point out, an effort to purify the ranks of the left by purging anyone who doesn’t line up and condemn Israel as a racist and colonialist state that simply needs to be ended. Any claim BDS or JVP might have to the moral high ground is surrendered by the tactics they self servingly rationalize as a necessary response to inequalities of power in the middle east and here in the states. Today I read the response of the BDS chapter at Oberlin to a letter penned by concerned jewish alumni. BDS Oberlin categorically rejects any charge of antisemitism and sees the letter as an effort to silence their right to associate and to free speech. I was happy to see they support these values and hope they might be persuaded that they themselves assault these values when they shout people down and prevent them from freely associating. As others have noted I too am skeptical that the far left has ever been receptive to jews who see their jewishness as meaningful, a foundation of identity, an abiding link to others and the source of an ongoing commitment to remain jewish in whatever form that might take. The logic seems simple- ethnic affiliation is an atavism that distracts from class inequality. That jews have been commonly associated with banking, money making and economic power just releases the hounds.

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