Charlottesville Teach-In (Syracuse University)

teach-InFrom the Jewish right there has been a lot of noise, and from some liberals genuine concern of late. Are American Jews being pushed out of movements for social and racial justice? Relying on anecdotal evidence culled from news reports and cherry picked statements from a handful of movement leaders, there is the perception that Zionism (anti-Zionism) is now a firm litmus test for Jewish participation on the left and now on the anti-Trump resistance. Is it indeed a true statement of fact that one cannot support racial justice in America and Zionism in Israel? Based on an interpretation of intersectional analysis, which seeks to identify vectors of oppression, there have been attempts on the left to draw a direct line between anti-Zionism and anti-racism, equating Zionism with white supremacy. But to what effect?

Does this impression reflect the complete and more complex reality on the ground? Consider, for instance, the recent March for Racial Justice that took place on Yom Kippur. When the date was first announced, there was a lot of critical pushback from sympathetic voices in the Jewish community excluded from participating in this important event. Very much in the spirit of the fast, the organizers of the march expressed unhesitatingly what many on the Jewish liberal left understood to be a sincere and heartfelt statement of apology for what the organizers admitted was a horrible oversight. Many took this to be a learning experience, highlighting the need for more, not less Jewish participation in social and racial justice movements, for more, not less cooperation between Jewish and black activists.

On a much smaller scale, the same thing could have happened at Syracuse University where I teach modern Jewish thought and culture in the Department of Religion, and where I direct a small, proactive Jewish Studies Program. On a listserv of leftist and activist colleagues a call went up at the beginning of the semester about the possibility of organizing a teach-in responding to the race hatred and violence this summer in Charlottesville, Virginia. While my own political proclivities are more liberal than radical, I immediately volunteered to present remarks about anti-Semitism and white ethno-nationalism. I was delighted when the organizer immediately included me on the panel. She did so without a single question about Zionism or anti-Zionism.

That is when something almost went wrong. Jews and non-Jews alike, a great many of us on the faculty listserv were dismayed to learn some two weeks before the event that the teach-in was scheduled for Rosh Ha’shana. I was truly terrified that someone might make this  little story a national or viral online news item, one more event made to confirm the fearful impression that Jews are getting pushed out off the left, one more piece of confirmation bias supporting the argument that “the left” does not recognize anti-Semitism as a problem. After a sharp little ripple of tension on the listserv followed by few discrete and supportive personal emails, the main organizer of the event moved heaven and earth at practically the last minute to reschedule the event and to secure an alternate venue, I think to everyone’s relief and mutual satisfaction.

The teach-in included five faculty members –from the Departments of English and Textual Studies, History, Religion, and from  the school of Visual and Peforming Arts. Included together were perspectives from African American Studies and Jewish Studies. My own remarks revolved around defining (and recognizing) anti-Semitism, tracing its history in Europe and America, and understanding the new American Anti-Semitism that revealed itself with such force at Charlottesville. Other presentations at the teach-in reflected on the history of white supremacy, growing up white and Jewish in the segregated south, the refusal to “compromise” on American racism, the American religion of white supremacy, and the urgency of creating activist networks getting people out on the street at this particular moment standing up to fascism. Everyone kept to our ten minute allotment. I made it a point not to mention either Zionism or anti-Zionism, and neither did anyone else.

During question and answer, a pointed statement from a faculty colleague against equating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism preceded her drawing on the alleged intersection connecting Zionism, American support for Israel, and militarism in this country. My own sense was that the statement received little to no traction from the audience; the microphone went straight to me, and I was the only panelist to respond to the statement. In response, I mentioned the complexity of the problem while pointing out that neo-Nazis do not distinguish between Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews, and I challenged the audience to reject such litmus testing. My own sense was that these remarks received a quiet, but thoughtful hearing. The other question directed to me was from an undergraduate who asked about navigating white Jewish privilege. Responding to him, I did not try to equate the experience of American anti-Semitism to anti-black racism in this country. I mentioned Jews of Color before addressing unapologetically the vulnerable middleman position of Ashkenazi (and Mizrachi) Jews in relation to structures of power as a historical component of anti-Judaism and racial anti-Semitism and the way that social and class position combines with animating religious hostility and Christian paranoia about Jewish power.

My concluding remarks at the teach-in concerned the possibility of renewing a frayed Black-Jewish alliance and creating new alliances between American Jews and American Muslims. I spoke to the common threat to all of us posed by white ethno-nationalism and the racist alt-right, by the new-not-so-new alliance between the swastika and the Confederate Flag, and by the overt appeals to racism by President Trump and the stoking of white rage and resentment.

A takeaway from this one isolated event is that careful listening and maintaining perspective can offset the strategic animus drummed up against “the left” by the Jewish right, whose sole interest lies in protecting the settlement project and the occupation of the West Bank. These can just as well block anti-Zionist animus from those parts of the left whose primary interest lies in isolating Israel and supporters of Israel into one single basket with rightwing Zionism. The ease with which all this happened at Syracuse provides a hopeful answer to the genuine handwringing on the part of Jewish liberals worried about the future of blacks, Jews, and movements for social and racial justice.

While the urgent issue at hand at the teach-in about Charlottesville had nothing to do with Israel, where I dropped the ball is not having the presence of mind in the moment to respond more correctly to my faculty colleague who raised what is the urgent question about Zionism and anti-Zionism. I wish I had thought to say that there  is no necessary reason why liberal and leftist American Jews cannot work with Arabs and Muslims, and with Palestinians to support racial justice and immigration/refugee rights in America while working to secure an agreed upon settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on principles of self-determination and mutual recognition.

Would this even have been the right venue to start what could have been dragged out as a long drawn out argument about Israel and Palestine and the one-state or two state solution, or BDS when BDS was barely in the room that evening? Perhaps it was all a fluke, a matter of circumstance, that a liberal Zionist was on the panel and not an anti-Zionist. I would nevertheless wonder if any of my co-panelists that evening would have appreciated the digression caused by any attempt to piggyback the discussion about America and racial justice and resistance to neo-fascism onto the Middle East? Perhaps the point could have been raised before moving the conversation back to the interest at hand. What I can say is that it was easier to navigate these shoals from inside the panel as opposed to being situated on a less helpful and more helpless position off the panel, from being in the conversation from the ground up instead of checked out from the start and then having to react in a bitter, defensive crouch from the outside.

One last note, when I saw the flyer I have to admit that I was somewhat alarmed by seeing my name included alphabetically at the top of the list, as if I was going to be the first speaker and as if I was going to make the whole even all about anti-Semitism. As it was, I was given to speak after Professors Yates-Richard and Thompson, placing the problem of anti-Semitism in America in its proper, in-the-middle position in relation to white supremacy and anti-black racism.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Charlottesville Teach-In (Syracuse University)

  1. dmf says:

    Dem Senator Schumer hated the Iran deal made by President Obama, but now that I am involved, he is OK with it. Tell that to Israel, Chuck!

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